Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a $2.6 million fine against beer wholesaler Craft Brewers Guild (a Sheehan family-owned company) for violating anti-price discrimination statutes and commercial bribery regulations. In the same decision, the Court overturned a fine lodged against a bar that received such kickback payments, holding that Massachusetts retailers do not violate commercial bribery regulations by accepting kickback payments.

Beginning in 2013, Craft Beer Guild, LLC d/b/a Craft Brewers Guild (CBG), a licensed wholesaler, implemented a “pay-to-play” scheme involving alcohol beverage suppliers, retailers, and various management and marketing companies associated with licensed retailers. CBG paid “rebates” to these third-party companies in exchange for their associated retailers agreeing to sell CBG products at their bars and restaurants. To hide these unlawful payments to retailers, the third-party companies billed CBG for various unperformed services such as “marketing support” and “promotional services.”

CBG did not offer these rebates to all retailers, and rebate amounts differed among the retailers involved. Rebel Restaurants, Inc. d/b/a Jerry Remy’s (Rebel), a licensed retailer, received a $20 rebate for each keg sold in exchange for carrying CBG-distributed brands. Rebel received the payments through its associated third-party company, Rebel Marketing. Rebel Marketing was not a licensed retailer.

Continue Reading Massachusetts’ Highest Court Upholds Record Fine Against Beer Distributor for Pay-To-Play Scheme But Overturns Fine for Bar that Accepted Kickbacks

Last week, in Connecticut Fine Wine and Spirits LLC v. Seagull, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Total Wine & More challenging parts of Connecticut’s Liquor Control Act and related regulations. Though the decision represents a victory for state alcohol regulatory regimes, the Second Circuit’s ruling was decided on the basis of established antitrust law and did not raise or rely on state regulatory authority under the 21st Amendment. Nonetheless, state alcoholic beverages regulators will embrace the court’s ruling.

In Connecticut Fine Wine, Total Wine challenged three sets of provisions in Connecticut’s alcohol laws. First, Total Wine challenged “post-and-hold” provisions. Under the post-and-hold provisions, state-licensed wholesalers are required to post a “bottle price” and “case price” each month with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. Those prices are then made available to industry participants. During the four days after prices are posted, wholesalers may “amend” their posted prices to match—but not drop below—lower prices offered by competitors. Wholesalers are then obligated to “hold” their prices for a month.

Second, Total Wine challenged the state’s minimum-retail-price provisions. The minimum-retail-price provisions require retailers to sell alcohol beverages to customers at or above a statutorily defined “cost,” which is determined by adding the posted bottle price and a markup for shipping and delivery. Combined with the post-and-hold provisions, the minimum-retail-price provisions bind retailer prices to wholesaler prices.

Third, Total Wine challenged the state’s price discrimination and volume discount provisions. The price discrimination/volume discount provisions preclude wholesalers from offering a given product to different retailers at different prices and from offering discounts to retailers who are high-volume purchasers. Continue Reading Second Circuit Rejects Total Wine Challenge of Connecticut Pricing Laws

Rapid growth in the number of small and independent breweries that rely on taproom sales has received a lot of attention—not all of it positive—across the beer industry. Until this unprecedented growth, taproom sales went largely unnoticed. Competing retailers, beer wholesalers, and even well-established craft brewers were pleased with steadily growing craft beer sales and consumer demand. As demand has leveled out and competition has increased, taprooms are receiving increased scrutiny.

In an article published by The New Brewer, Art DeCelle addresses this disruptive change in a mature market and the unique combination of laws and policies that can oftentimes create confusion. Since each state licensing law authorizing brewery taprooms and brewpubs operations is different, he recommends that brewery owners are best served by gaining a full understanding of their state’s licensing requirements. He notes that some states follow the federal model, treating brewers as manufacturers and authorizing retail sales on the brewery premises. Several states have complex exceptions that permit brewers to operate wholly-owned retail establishments at locations other than the licensed brewery.

Access the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, January/February 2019.

As you likely have read in the trade press already, on Wednesday, November 28, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion in Lebamoff v. Rauner. The opinion adds three judges of the Seventh Circuit to the collection of legal minds rejecting the notion that the dormant Commerce Clause non-discrimination principles applied by the Supreme Court in Bacchus (1984) and Granholm (2005) should be limited to laws discriminating against producers and products.

Like other cases brought by Lebamoff and its legal team, this case involves a challenge to state laws that prohibit direct-to-consumer wine shipments by out-of-state retailers. Illinois, like many states, permits in-state retailers to deliver wine directly to Illinois consumers located anywhere in the state. The law, however, denies that same privilege to out-of-state retailers. This distinction, according to the plaintiffs, amounts to discrimination against out-of-state economic interests in violation of the Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause.

The Seventh Circuit opinion rejects the reading of Granholm, embraced by the Second and Eighth Circuits, that the Supreme Court drew an implicit distinction between laws discriminating against producers and products (not permitted) and laws affecting the wholesale- or retail-tiers (immune from Commerce Clause scrutiny). Reading Granholm in its totality, the Seventh Circuit finds such an implied bright-line rule unlikely. Moreover, drawing on the Brown-Forman (1986) and Healy (1989) cases, the Seventh Circuit notes that prior Supreme Court opinions have applied dormant Commerce Clause principles to laws that did not regulate producers or products.

The Seventh Circuit, of course, recognized that its opinion could be substantially affected by the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Ass’n v. Byrd case now pending before the Supreme Court. Moreover, the Seventh Circuit’s discussion of issues upon remand suggests a number of potential distinguishing facts that could alter the outcome of the case. Nevertheless, should the Supreme Court affirm the Sixth Circuit’s Byrd decision, the state of Illinois will have a hard time defending the discriminatory treatment challenged in Lebamoff.

During the International Wine Association’s 2018 Conference, Marc Sorini presented on the latest law developments, including the Commerce Clause and First Amendment.

The topic was made particularly timely by the Supreme Court’s September 27 decision to grant certiorari review of the Byrd v. Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association decision.

View the full presentation.

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 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.

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

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.