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.
Local Wholesaler-Retailer Dispute Has Federal Implications
On August 14, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi issued an opinion finding that state regulations bolstered one antitrust claim and hindered another in an ongoing dispute between a northern Mississippi convenience store chain, Major Mart, and an Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI, a/k/a “Red Network”) distributor, Mitchell Distributing Company.
In Mississippi, by statute, like those of many other states, beer manufacturers must designate exclusive sales territories for each brand. Mitchell holds the exclusive right to sell ABI brands to retailers in the counties in which Major Mart operates its 11 convenience stores.
The relationship between Mitchell and Major Mart started to break down in 2010, when Major Mart claimed that it was receiving inaccurate and confusing price information from Mitchell. Major Mart asked Mitchell for compensation of lost profits due to the incorrect pricing information. Mitchell denied the request, and Major Mart decided later to remove ABI displays and signs, lower the prices of competitors’ products, and reduce the cooler space allocated to ABI in some of its stores. According to Major Mart’s complaint, Mitchell retaliated by (1) demanding shelving allocation that represented ABI’s market share of approximately 70 percent, (2) demanding price parity with competing products of ABI, (3) changing its deliveries to Major Mart stores to once a week so as to fill up Major Mart’s coolers and storerooms, leaving no room for competitor products and (4) delivering on Fridays so that Major Mart stores would not have cold beer on the “best selling day of the week.”
After litigation was first initiated, the parties reached a settlement in 2011, agreeing that Mitchell would increase its deliveries to at least twice per week and Major Mart would reconsider shelf space allocation and increase prices on competing brands of beers to the same price as ABI products. This temporary resolution, however, failed when Major Mart did not reallocate its shelf space. In response, Mitchell once again cut deliveries to one day per week and thereafter began to provide sales coupons and promotional giveaways exclusively to Major Mart’s competitors. Major Mart also claimed that Mitchell delivered beer that was close to the end of its shelf-life, replaced fresher beer Major Mart had with older beer and missed deliveries during key dates, including July 4 and just as students were returning to college. Eventually, Major Mart sued.
Major Mart alleged that Mitchell engaged in monopolization and attempted monopolization in violation of the Sherman Act and price discrimination in violation of the Robinson-Patman Act. In response, Mitchell filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the Sherman Act did not apply, as (1) Mitchell’s actions were immunized by the State Action Doctrine—the principle that the Sherman Act does not apply to states acting in their capacities as sovereigns—and (2) Mitchell’s actions, which occurred solely in Mississippi, did not affect interstate commerce—as required for Sherman Act jurisdiction.
Quickly discarding the State Action Doctrine assertion, the court noted that to qualify as a state’s action, conduct must be “undertaken pursuant to [...]