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Bethany (Beth) K. Hatef advises clients on a wide variety of regulatory and distribution issues in the alcohol beverage industry. Beth regularly counsels alcohol industry clients on federal and state requirements relating to the production, marketing, distribution and sale of beer, wine and spirits. Read Beth Hatef's full bio.

Earlier this month, a Massachusetts state trial court judge issued a decision in the matter of Craft Beer Guild LLC d/b/a Craft Brewers Guild v. Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. The court upheld a decision by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) finding violations of Massachusetts’ trade practice laws by a large beer distributor. The case originated in the Fall of 2014, when a craft brewer alleged on Twitter that a Boston retailer had removed the brewer’s brands from the tap because suppliers and distributors were paying retailers in exchange for those retailers carrying their brands. The ABCC launched an investigation that culminated in administrative charges against Craft Beer Guild LLC d/b/a Craft Brewers Guild (CBG) for violations of Massachusetts’ anti-price discrimination statute (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 138, § 25A(a)) (the Statute) and an ABCC regulation prohibiting inducements by licensees (204 Code Mass. Regs. § 2.08) (the Regulation).

After a hearing, the ABCC found that CBG violated the Statute and the Regulation based on its alleged implementation of schemes with multiple retailers and third-party management companies working on behalf of the retailers to provide payments in exchange for the retailers committing tap lines to CBG’s brands. The payments allegedly involved fictitious invoices issued by the third-party companies to CBG, as well as CBG’s payment of at least $120,000 to the retailers and/or third-party companies.

In lieu of a suspension, CBG paid a record-setting fine of more than $2.6 million to settle the violations. CBG then appealed the ABCC’s decision in March 2016. In June 2017, CBG filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The Massachusetts trial court held a hearing in September 2017, and then a few weeks later issued the order denying the motion, dismissing CBG’s complaint and affirming the ABCC’s decision against CBG. Continue Reading Massachusetts Court Upholds Record $2.6M Fine against Beer Distributor

On July 20, 2017, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announced a joint operation it conducted with the Florida Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (DABT) to investigate potential trade practice violations in the Miami, Florida area. According to a very brief press release issued by TTB, the investigation focused on alleged “pay-to-play” schemes. “Pay-to-play” is an industry term generally used to mean the provision of payments or other “things of value” by an upper-tier industry member (i.e., supplier or wholesaler) to a retailer to secure placement for the industry member’s products in the retailer’s premises.

Although neither TTB nor the DABT has released any specific details of the investigation or the parties involved, the investigation suggests that TTB is acting on prior announcements that it would seek to aggressively enforce its trade practice regulations. TTB’s 2017 budget included a $5 million earmark to enhance trade practice enforcement. As part of this effort, TTB transitioned 11 of its existing investigators to new roles focusing exclusively on trade practice enforcement.

The joint investigation also comes on the heels of other recent enforcement of trade practice laws and regulations—specifically involving allegations of pay-to-play activities—by state alcohol regulators. In just the last few months, the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission initiated an enforcement action against an Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI)-owned distributor in connection with an alleged pay-to-play scheme. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control also recently settled an enforcement action against ABI wholesalers for alleged trade practice violations. Also, in June, a New Jersey beer wholesaler agreed to pay a nearly $2 million fine to settle trade practice allegations brought by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of alcohol beverages have been a hot topic in the alcohol industry for the last two decades. The wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past 15 or so years, most dramatically by the US Supreme Court’s decision in Granholm v. Heald. Today nearly evert state—plus the District of Columbia—allows wineries to ship wine across state lines directly to in-state consumers. The same cannot be said for spirits.

There are, however, a few avenues distillers may consider to get their products delivered to consumers around the country. Further, an initiative is underway to pursue litigation to secure DTC rights for spirits. Although it is far too early to speculate about the outcome of any such litigation, the current effort suggests the potential for interstate distiller-to-consumer sales in the coming years. Of course, lingering ambivalence toward spirits (as opposed to wine) by the public, lawmakers, and alcohol regulators makes the prospect for any legal change uncertain.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit, July 2017.

Late last month, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling in Cadena Comercial USA Corp. d/b/a OXXO v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, finding in favor of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and weighing in for the first time on the application of Texas’ tied house law. In a 6-2 decision, the court upheld the TABC’s denial of a retail permit to a foreign corporation whose parent company also holds a 20 percent ownership interest in a foreign brewer.

Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V. (FEMSA) holds both a 20 percent interest in the stock of two Heineken entities, as well as–through intermediate holding companies–100 percent of the ownership of Cadena Comercial USA Corp. (Cadena), a company that operates convenience stores. In 2011, Cadena sought licensing as a beer and wine retailer in Texas.  During the license application process, the TABC discovered FEMSA’s ownership of Cadena and interest in Heineken and rejected Cadena’s permit application on tied house grounds. Texas’ alcohol beverage laws define “tied house” as prohibiting any overlapping cross-tier ownership interest.

Upon the denial of its permit application, Cadena requested and received an administrative hearing before a county judge. At the hearing, the TABC’s director of licensing testified that that the TABC would consider even one overlapping share of stock across tiers to violate Texas’ tied house laws. (This principle is referred to as the “One Share Rule.”) The judge denied Cadena’s retail permit application, finding that because of Cadena’s interests in a brewer/manufacturer, issuance of the permit would violate the tied house laws. On appeal, both the district court and the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the permit.

Continue Reading Texas Supreme Court Weighs In on Tied House

To follow up on our prediction last month that the Trump Administration may take a more aggressive stance toward the legalization of marijuana, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated during the February 23 daily briefing that he anticipates greater federal enforcement of marijuana laws.  Spicer emphasized the distinction between medical marijuana (the legalization of which President Trump does not oppose) and recreational marijuana.  In discussing the latter, Spicer invoked the country’s opioid addiction crisis, suggesting a link between recreational marijuana use and such other drugs.

Spicer hinted that the Justice Department’s enforcement of federal drug laws would extend to the nine jurisdictions that have legalized recreational marijuana, potentially putting at risk the schemes many of these states have created–or are in the process of creating–to regulate marijuana.  As of today, the recreational use of marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.  (Note:  Congress has blocked the DC government from using funds to actually implement a system to regulate recreational marijuana, so although technically legal, there is currently no “market” for recreational marijuana in DC.)

If President Trump’s Justice Department does begin to pursue more active enforcement of marijuana laws in states that have legalized marijuana, it may meet pushback from Congress.  Just last week, four congressmen announced the formation of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus (the Caucus), a bipartisan organization seeking to change the federal government’s attitude toward legalized marijuana and, notably, to leave the legalization question to the states.  In support of this mission, earlier this month Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a member of the Caucus, introduced a bill (HR 975) in the House that would prevent federal enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (the Act) in states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Likely by design, the bill’s introduction occurred just a day before the confirmation of Jeff Sessions, a vocal opponent of marijuana legalization, as Attorney General.  The bill would add a new section to the Act expressly stating that the Act’s provisions concerning marijuana do not apply to persons acting in compliance with state law regarding the possession or sale of marijuana.  The bill, titled the “Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2017,” has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

Of course, whether the bill will gain enough support to pass in Congress and survive a potential Trump veto remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, the timing of the bill’s introduction, the bipartisan support it has garnered to date (half of its current cosponsors are Republicans), and the announcement of the Caucus indicate a growing tension between Congress–including some members of President Trump’s own party–and the Administration with respect to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws.

The Supreme Court of the United States’ 2005 decision in Granholm v. Heald, which required states allowing their own wineries to direct-ship to consumers to also grant such privileges to out-of-state wineries, marked the beginning of a new era of wine direct-shipping. With the relaxation of wine shipping laws around the country following Granholm—nearly every state now allows wineries to ship wine directly to in-state consumers—the wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past decade. Indeed, wine shipments in 2016 saw double-digit growth in both volume and sales.

At the same time, growth in recent years in the online shopping industry has led to new innovations in the wine retail space: the existence of a multitude of internet wine retailers, wine-of-the-month clubs and mobile wine delivery apps offers consumers greater access to wine. Many states—and courts—though, are now grappling with the legalities surrounding direct shipping of wine by retailers, as well as the role of unlicensed third parties in such transactions. Some states prohibit retailers from directly shipping wine to consumers altogether, while many others give in-state retailers the right to ship wine directly to consumers while withholding the privilege from out-of-state retailers.

Most recently, in January 2017 Michigan enacted legislation allowing in-state retailers to ship wine to in-state consumers, but prohibiting out-of-state retailers from making such shipments. The new legislation, which amends Michigan’s existing statute addressing wine shipments, authorizes a retailer located in Michigan to obtain a “specially designated merchant license” in order to ship wine to in-state consumers. The specially designated merchant license is only available to in-state retailers, so retailers located outside Michigan remain prohibited from directly shipping wine to consumers in the state.

Unsurprisingly, given the requirements of Granholm (which, incidentally, concerned in part a Michigan law), the new legislation retains the right of both in-state and out-of-state wineries to ship wine directly to Michigan consumers upon obtaining a direct shipper license. In fact, the new statute even reduces the burden on wineries shipping to consumers; under the new law wineries will no longer be required to include their direct shipper license number and the order number on each shipping container, or the brand registration approval number for each shipped wine on the accompanying invoice (although label registration requirements will still apply).

The legislation does not go into effect until March 29, 2017, but already litigation involving the new law has commenced. In late January 2017, an Indiana retailer and several Michigan consumers sued Michigan’s governor and attorney general and the head of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in federal court, alleging the statute violates the US Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Privileges and Immunities Clause. Similar lawsuits are pending in Illinois and Missouri.

Some courts have already interpreted the constitutionality of similar laws that treat in-state and out-of-state wine retailers differently. While the US Courts of Appeals for the Second and Eighth Circuits have interpreted Granholm to apply only to differential treatment of producers and products (and not to wholesalers and retailers), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down as unconstitutional Texas residency requirements burdening out-of-state wholesalers and retailers. The Texas Package Stores Association appealed to the Supreme Court based on the apparent “circuit split” created by the Fifth Circuit’s decision. Although the Supreme Court denied certiorari in November 2016, differing outcomes in the currently pending suits could ultimately bring the issue of wine direct-shipping back to the Supreme Court, providing an opportunity for much-needed clarification of Granholm’s scope.

Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit weighed in on the legality of restrictions on alcohol advertising under the First Amendment, issuing an opinion in Missouri Broadcasters Association v. Lacy that could eventually broaden free speech protections for alcohol beverage advertisements. After the lower court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and plaintiffs appealed, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal, finding that plaintiffs’ claim alleging the unconstitutionality of a Missouri statute and two regulations should be heard.

The case concerned three Missouri provisions – two regulations and a statute – that restrict the advertising of alcohol beverages:

  1. a regulation prohibiting retailers from advertising price discounts outside of the licensed premises (but allowing the advertising of discounts by using generic descriptions (e.g., “Happy Hour”), as well as the advertising of specific discounts within the licensed premises);
  2. a regulation prohibiting retailers from advertising prices below cost; and
  3. a statute requiring manufacturers and wholesalers choosing to a list a retailer in an advertisement to exclude the retail price of the product from the advertisement, list multiple unaffiliated retailers and make the listing relatively inconspicuous.

Plaintiffs – a broadcasting industry group, radio station operator, winery and retailer – sued Missouri’s supervisor of liquor control and attorney general, alleging that the three provisions are facially invalid under the First Amendment in that they prohibit truthful, non-misleading commercial speech, are inconsistently enforced by the state and the challenged statute unconstitutionally compels speech.

To state a claim that a statute is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment, Supreme Court precedent instructs that plaintiffs must show that there are no set of circumstances under which the challenged provision would be valid, or that a substantial number of the provision’s applications are unconstitutional. Alcohol beverage advertisements involve commercial speech, which receives less protection under the First Amendment than other constitutionally protected forms of expression. In Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), the Supreme Court articulated a four-part test for determining the constitutionality of laws restricting commercial speech:  whether (1) the speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the governmental interest justifying the regulation is substantial; (3) the regulation directly advances the governmental interest; and (4) the regulation is no broader than necessary to further the governmental interest.

Applying the third and fourth factors of the Central Hudson test (plaintiffs and defendants agreed on the first two factors of the test), the court found that the facts plaintiffs alleged were “more than sufficient” to state a plausible claim. First, the court opined, plaintiffs made sufficient allegations that the challenged provisions do not directly advance Missouri’s substantial interest in promoting responsible drinking. Although defendants argued that a link exists between advertising promotions and increased demand for alcohol beverages, the court noted that “multiple” inconsistencies in the regulations demonstrate that the regulations do not advance Missouri’s interest in promoting responsible drinking. Likewise, the court determined, plaintiffs pled sufficient facts to support a finding that the statute does not directly advance Missouri’s asserted interests: the court noted that because the statute is an exception to Missouri’s general tied-house law, it “actually weakens,” rather than furthers, “the impact of the overall statutory scheme.”

Second, the Eighth Circuit found that plaintiffs alleged “more than sufficient information” to show that the challenged provisions are more extensive than necessary to further the state’s interests, noting that there are alternatives to the provisions that would be less intrusive to plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment. Finally, the court determined that the challenged statute compels speech and association in that it requires manufacturers and wholesalers to both associate with more than one retailer and to list more than one retailer, if they choose to list any in advertisements.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision is timely: last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held an en banc hearing in Retail Digital Network, LLC v. Appelsmith, a case involving a First Amendment challenge to California’s restrictions on alcohol advertising, which we discussed in more detail last year.  One key issue in Retail Digital Network – but only glossed over in a footnote in the Missouri Broadcasters case – involves the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc., which called for a “heightened” level of judicial scrutiny when determining the constitutionality of restrictions on commercial speech.

In early December 2016, the Council of the District of Columbia (the Council) unanimously passed the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2016 (the Act). The Act amends a number of provisions of DC’s alcohol beverage laws, several of which particularly affect DC manufacturers, brew pubs, wine pubs and distillery pubs.

Continue Reading DC Council Passes Amendments to Alcohol Beverage Code

Late last week, a district judge in Texas declared unconstitutional under the Texas Constitution a provision of the state’s Beer Industry Fair Dealing Law (i.e., the beer “franchise” law) that expressly prohibits a brewer from accepting a payment in exchange for a grant of territorial distribution rights.  Section 102.75(a)(7) of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, enacted in 2013, applies generally to “manufacturers,” including both in-state brewers and out-of-state brewers holding nonresident manufacturer’s licenses in Texas.  In 2014, three small Texas brewers – Live Oak Brewing Company, Revolver Brewing and Peticolas Brewing Company – sued the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and its executive director, Sherry Cook, arguing that Section 102.75(a)(7) violates the Texas Constitution.

In a short summary order, the district court judge agreed.  The court found that Section 102.75(a)(7) violates the Texas Constitution’s “Due Course of Law” provision, Texas’ analog to the US Constitution’s Due Process Clause, which states that a Texas citizen may not “be deprived of life, liberty, property, privileges or immunities, or in any manner disfranchised, except by the due course of the law of the land.”  Tex. Const. Art. I, § 19.

The court granted the plaintiff breweries’ motion for summary judgment on their Due Course of Law argument and enjoined the TABC and Ms. Cook (and their respective employees, agents and successors) from enforcing Section 102.75(a)(7) against the plaintiffs and any other brewers.  The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim that Section 102.75(a)(7) amounted to a taking of private property in violation of the Texas Constitution, though, and also dismissed the plaintiffs’ request for attorney’s fees.

Although the judge’s order did not contain any detail regarding her reasoning, the case restores an important opportunity for brewers distributing – or interested in distributing – beer in Texas.  Further, although the TABC may appeal, the decision should remind state legislatures that state restrictions on the conduct of private parties in the alcohol industry in the name of protecting the three-tier system must still pass muster under federal and state constitutional principles.

In December 2015, President Obama signed into law the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 (PATH Act).  The PATH Act amends several provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (IRC) administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).  Those amendments relate to alcohol excise tax due dates and bond requirements, the definition of wine eligible for treatment as “hard cider” for tax purposes, and cover over of rum excise taxes imported from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.  In January 2016, TTB issued an announcement concerning the IRC amendments.

Starting with the first calendar quarter of 2017, taxpayers who anticipate being liable for no more than $1,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for sales of distilled spirits, beer and wine) for the calendar year, and who were not liable for more than $1,000 in such excise taxes the prior year, may make excise tax payments annually (rather than the current quarterly payment requirement).  Further, beginning the first calendar quarter of 2017, taxpayers eligible to pay taxes annually under the new provisions, as well as taxpayers currently eligible for quarterly payments of alcohol excise taxes (i.e., taxpayers anticipating being liable for no more than $50,000 in alcohol excise taxes, and who were not liable for more than $50,000 in such excise taxes the prior year), need not file a bond.

The PATH Act also modifies the definition of wine eligible for the tax rate applicable to “hard cider” by (1) increasing the allowable alcohol content from 0.5 percent to less than 7 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) to 0.5 percent to less than 8.5 percent ABV; (2) increasing the allowable carbonation level from 0.392 grams of carbon dioxide per 100 milliliters of wine to 0.64 grams; and (3) expanding the definition by allowing the use of pears, pear juice concentrate and pear products and flavorings in hard cider.  These changes apply to hard cider removed after December 31, 2016.  The hard cider definition changes do not affect other requirements applicable to ciders above 7 percent ABV under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act, including requirements relating to labeling, advertising and permits.

Another section of the PATH Act extends the temporary increase in the limit on cover over of rum excise taxes to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands from January 1, 2015 to January 1, 2017.  This amendment applies to distilled spirits brought into the US after December 31, 2014.