anti-price discrimination

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.


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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.
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