The recent US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan opinion strikes down a Michigan statue and authorizes out-of-state retailers to sell and ship wine directly to Michigan consumers. Lebamoff Enterprises v. Snyder, E.D. Mich. Case No. 17-10191 (Sept. 28, 2018). More fundamentally, the Lebamoff decision underscores the stakes in the upcoming (as of September 27) Supreme Court review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Byrd v. Tenn. Wine and Spirits Retailers Ass’n.

The Lebamoff case involves 2016 legislation that amended Michigan law to: (1) make it easier for in-state retailers to ship directly to consumers by employing third-party carriers and (2) prohibit completely the sale and shipment of alcohol beverages to Michigan consumers by out-of-state retailers. The plaintiffs include an Indiana retail chain, its owner and several Michigan wine consumers.

The Lebamoff opinion first recaps the familiar dormant Commerce Clause analysis that: (a) asks whether the challenged law discriminates against interstate commerce or favors in-state interests over out-of-state interests; and (b) examines the state’s justifications for the law to see if they advance a legitimate local purpose that reasonable alternatives cannot adequately advance. Not surprisingly, the district court had little trouble concluding that the challenged law—which facially discriminates between in-state and out-of-state retailers—favors in-state interests and discriminates against interstate commerce. Continue Reading Recent Retailer Direct Shipping Opinion Illustrates Stakes in Upcoming Supreme Court Review

The “final word” may be in sight in a long-running dispute over state residency requirements imposed on applicants for retail alcohol beverage licenses as well as more fundamental questions about state powers under the 21st Amendment.

As anticipated last July in the Alcohol Law Advisor blog, a single sentence order of the US Supreme Court issued on September 27 granted a petition for a writ of certiorari filed by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association (Tennessee Retailers) requesting the high court to review lower court decisions that invalidated Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement for retail license applicants.

Earlier this year, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reviewed the Tennessee law at issue and held that, “a three-tier system can still function” without the two-year durational residency restriction imposed by Tennessee. The 6th Circuit quoted a 1984 Supreme Court decision: “The central purpose of the [Twenty-first Amendment] was not to empower States to favor local liquor industries by erecting barriers to competition.” The court went on to analyze the Tennessee restrictions and found that they violate the dormant commerce clause, a legal concept designed to prevent states from engaging in economic protectionism. Continue Reading US Supreme Court to Review State Residency Requirements

Last week, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a TTB Procedure governing the transfer in bond of beer between breweries of different ownership. See TTB Procedure 2018-1 (July 17, 2018). In bond transfers between breweries of different ownership were authorized by the 2017 tax reform act and like many provisions of that act, the transfer provision is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2019.

Some highlights:

  1. The beer transfers can include both packaged and bulk beer.
  2. Transferred beer can be re-consigned while in transit or returned to the shipping brewery.
  3. Most recordkeeping and recording rules are the same as the current regulations governing transfers between breweries of the same ownership.
  4. Because the 2017 tax reform act’s lower tax rates apply to beer “produced” by the removing brewery, beer transferred in bulk does not benefit from the lower rates if the receiving brewer makes no changes or only de minimis changes to the transferred beer.
  5. For excise tax purposes, a beer is “produced” by a brewer if it is “brewed by fermentation or produced by the addition of water or other liquids during any state of production.” Blending alone does not qualify as “production.”
  6. Packaged beer that was transferred does not receive any lower rate of tax and will be taxed at the $18/barrel rate upon removal.
  7. Absent evidence of theft or diversion, in-transit losses of up to 2 percent are permitted without the need to file a report or a claim with TTB.
  8. Bulk containers used to transfer beer between breweries are subject to certain marking requirements.

The latest development in a lengthy legal challenge to advertising restrictions in Missouri’s tied house laws and regulations raises practical economic issues for the alcohol beverage industry and significant legal and policy issues for legislators and regulators at all levels of government. On June 28, Judge Douglas Harpool of the US District Court for the Western District of Missouri filed a decision in Missouri Broadcasters Association vs. Dorothy Taylor. The Missouri Broadcasters Association (MBA) is a trade association representing media outlets. Two licensed Missouri retailers were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Ms. Dorothy Taylor is the Supervisor of the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (DATC).

The basic issue in the case is whether several Missouri alcohol beverage advertising restrictions violate the plaintiffs’ commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

The June District Court decision follows a bench trial held in February 2018. The trial occurred as the result of prior legal proceedings culminating in a 2017 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the MBA’s amended complaint “plausibly demonstrates that the challenged provisions [of Missouri’s tied house law] do not directly advance the government’s asserted substantial interest, are more extensive than necessary and unconstitutionally compel speech and association.”

Perhaps the most important Missouri law challenged in this litigation is an exception in the tied house laws that authorizes a manufacturer to pay for advertising that lists “two or more affiliated retail businesses selling its products” subject to four conditions:

(a) The advertisement shall not contain the retail price of the product;

(b) The listing of the retail businesses shall be the only reference to such retail businesses in the advertisement;

(c) The listing of the retail businesses shall be relatively inconspicuous in relation to the advertisement as a whole; and

(d) The advertisement shall not refer only to one retail business or only to a retail business controlled directly or indirectly by the same retail business.

This language may be familiar to many practitioners and regulators as a nearly identical provision appears in the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) tied house regulations. Laws and regulations of several states include similar express exceptions and TTB regulations are incorporated by reference in the trade practices regulations of other states. Innumerable TTB and state tied house laws and regulations restrict advertising in similar ways and may be invalidated if the analysis in Missouri Broadcasters is applied by other courts and ultimately upheld by federal appellate courts.

Other Missouri laws and regulations that were successfully challenged by MBA in the trial court prohibit (a) media advertising of price discounts, (b) beer and wine coupons, (c) outdoor advertising of discounts by retailers and (d) below cost advertising.

Unlike many cases based solely on theoretical legal arguments and the text of laws and regulations, the trial in the Missouri case resulted in a wide-ranging inquiry that included expert witnesses on advertising and the level of effort invested by the Missouri DATC in enforcing the challenged laws and regulations. The court’s decision suggests that the state struggled to provide any credible evidence that the challenged laws “directly reduce[] overconsumption of alcohol and underage drinking.”

The court found that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony provided substantial evidence “that there is in fact no demonstrative relationship between media advertising of alcohol and overall consumption rates of underage drinking…The State failed to present any evidence contradicting the testimony, empirical studies, and statistical analysis relied on by the Plaintiffs’ expert.”

The court agreed with the plaintiffs and cited language from the 8th Circuit decision that “the multiple inconsistencies within the regulations poke obvious holes in any potential advancement” of the state’s interest, “to the point the regulations do not advance the interest at all.” This finding is a threat to dozens of federal and state alcohol beverage laws that are riddled with exceptions that allow alcohol beverage advertising in one context and expressly prohibit the same advertising in another context (e.g., prohibiting exterior signs and permitting indoor signs).

Because the challenged Missouri laws restrict commercial speech rights protected by the First Amendment, the court also awarded legal fees to MBA and the retailer plaintiffs.

Advertising can be removed from the “marble cake” of state and federal tied house restrictions without dire consequences for regulators. If the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters survives, the most significant effects will occur in intra-industry negotiations where parties will determine how advertising costs and activities are apportioned across the three-tier system.

Before proclaiming the death of the three-tier system, hundreds of state licensing and tied house laws have nothing to do with advertising. Prohibitions on ownership interests in more than one tier of the alcohol beverage industry are not affected by the recent decision along with substantial restrictions on industry trade practices other than advertising.

Finally, the reasoning in Missouri Broadcasters may have to survive another appeal and must be adopted by other courts to broadly affect house restrictions on advertising throughout the United States. Perhaps a state (or more likely a state with support from interested industry members) will develop credible evidence to support similar laws in other jurisdictions. For example, California aggressively defended analogous laws and regulations, which were ultimately upheld last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

As a craft distiller, getting your products into the hands of consumers is, of course, critical to your business. As a general matter, state alcohol laws separate the alcohol beverage industry into three tiers (i.e., the three-tier system): the supplier tier, the wholesaler tier, and the retailer tier. To get its product to market, a supplier typically must sell to a wholesaler, which then must sell to a retailer.

Of course, state laws today contain a number of expectations to the three-tier system – for example, many states now license pub distilleries, which may produce spirits on-site (typically a function of a retailer). But generally speaking, a distiller must sell its products through wholesalers. This article will explore the terms that govern the relationship between a distiller and its wholesaler.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit, Summer 2018.

Two recent developments reinforce my expectation that the Supreme Court will need to clarify the scope of its 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision within the next few years.

Granholm struck down state restrictions on the interstate sale and shipment of wine by wineries, where the state permitted in-state wineries to engage in such direct-to-consumer sales activities but withheld that privilege from out-of-state wineries. According to that decision, such facially-discriminatory laws are virtually per se unconstitutional under the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause, and are not saved by the additional power that states have over alcohol sales under the 21st Amendment. The Granholm court also referred to the three-tier system as “unquestionably legitimate.”

In the years since Granholm, lower federal courts have wrestled with the question of whether or not the Commerce Clause’s non-discrimination principle is limited to state laws imposing different rules on in-state versus out-of-state producers and products. Decisions by several Circuit Courts of Appeal, including the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Arnold’s Wines, 2009) and the Eighth Circuit (Southern Wine, 2013), have concluded that only those state laws discriminating against out-of-state producers or products face the high level of scrutiny mandated by Granholm. Others, including the Fifth Circuit (Cooper II, 2016) and the Sixth Circuit (Byrd, 2018), have concluded that state laws regulating the wholesale- and retail-tiers remain subject to vigorous Commerce Clause scrutiny. Notably, however, the Fifth and Sixth Circuit opinions also suggest that the outcome of a challenge to a state law regulating the wholesale- or retail-tier may depend on the type of law challenged, and both involved residency requirements for licensees, not laws directly regulating the sale and shipment of alcohol. Continue Reading Son of Granholm Inches Closer

On May 16, 2018, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued Industry Circular 2018-3, allowing proprietors of distilled spirits plants (DSPs), bonded wine cellars (BWCs) and breweries to submit a request for a variance to the typical method for storing tax-determined and non-tax-determined products. Under TTB regulations, a proprietor designates areas of the premises as bonded and non-bonded. With few exceptions, tax-determined products can only be stored on non-bonded areas of the premises and non-tax-determined products can only be stored in bonded areas.

Under Industry Circular 2018-3, proprietors may request a variance to the bonded/non-bonded designations established in existing regulations. This variance would allow an “alternation” of a specific area or multiple areas between a bonded and non-bonded designation. An “alternation” allows two practices (e.g., brewing and winemaking) statutorily prohibited from occurring at the same premise to occur through the creation of a legal fiction. The premise “alternates” between one type of premise to accomplish one task and reverts to another type of premise to accomplish another task. Continue Reading TTB to Allow Proprietors to Request Alternating Premise Variances for Storage of Tax- and Non-Tax-Determined Commodities

In an article published by The New Brewer, Marc Sorini discusses five issues most likely to have a meaningful impact on craft brewers in the coming years, including:

  1. The Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act’s (CBMTRA) new tiered excise tax rate structure, its extending benefits to foreign producers, and its authorization for brewers to transfer beer in bond between breweries of different ownership.
  2. The Sixth Circuit’s published opinion in Byrd v. Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association, affirming a decision finding that the “durational-residency” requirements imposed by Tennessee law for alcohol beverage retail licensees are unconstitutional under the “dormant” Commerce Clause.
  3. The TTB’s creation of a new unit within its Trade Investigations Division to focus on trade practice enforcement.
  4. The opinion in Mission Beverage Co. v. Pabst Brewing Co. from the California Court of Appeals, which found that “an existing distributor’s receipt of the ‘fair market value of the affected distribution rights’ under [the California statute] does not necessarily make that distributor whole.”
  5. The US District Court for the Northern District of California’s decision in a putative class action alleging that the labeling and marketing of a successful California-based craft brewery was false and deceptive.

Access the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, May/June 2018.

This month, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued an opinion in Arena Restaurant and Lounge, Inc. v. Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, No. 17-CV-03805-LHK. The Arena case, also called Nguyen after its original named Plaintiff, seeks to certify a class action against Southern Glazer’s for a wide range of allegedly fraudulent, deceptive, and otherwise illegal acts related to the sale and distribution of wine and spirits in California. The court’s recent order, issued on April 9 and amended on April 16, 2018, dismisses all claims brought by the Plaintiffs in their Second Amendment Complaint (SAC). Significantly, however, the court will allow the Plaintiffs to file an amended complaint within 30 days in an attempt to cure defects in many of the SAC’s claims.

At the center of the Arena case are allegations that Southern Glazer’s engaged in practices such as selling to unlicensed persons and hiding such sales by recording them as sales to licensed retailers like the Plaintiffs. These “phantom” sales, in turn, allegedly created tax problems for the Plaintiff retailers. The SAC also alleges price discrimination between different retailers, selling to retailers without delivering the inventory in order to meet sales quotas, engaging in giveaways of free product to retailers, engaging in illegal “tie-in sales” practices, and a host of other alleged wrongs. The SAC packages these wide-ranging allegations into no fewer than eleven claims for relief.

Continue Reading District Court Dismisses Pending Trade Practice Case, With Leave to Amend

As most members of the alcohol and beverage industry are aware, Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) acquired the global holdings of SABMiller in a more than $100 billion merger in October 2016. The Department of Justice (DOJ) required ABI to divest SABMiller’s United States business, including its ownership interest in MillerCoors. Since November 2016, the parties have engaged in ongoing briefing seeking approval of a Proposed Final Judgment (PFJ) in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

Continue Reading ABI/SAB Miller Deal: DOJ Clarifies Best Efforts Clause in Proposed Final Judgment