On Friday, October 13, 2017, a Texas Court of Appeals handed down the long-awaited decision in Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission v. Mark Anthony Brewing, Inc., No. 03-16-00039-CV.

The case involves Texas’ ban on private-label malt beverage/beer labels, which appear in regulations that are one aspect of the state’s comprehensive tied-house laws. Mark Anthony Brewing sought a declaratory ruling on those Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) regulations after the TABC refused to approve the labels for Mark Anthony’s T.G.I. Friday’s branded flavored malt beverages. T.G.I. Friday’s is also, of course, a well-known retail chain. Mark Anthony produces the T.G.I. Friday’s line under a trademark license from the retailer, as governed by a trademark licensing agreement between the parties.

A Texas trial court ruled in favor of Mark Anthony, holding that the TABC regulations in question violate the First Amendment. The trial court further ruled that Mark Anthony’s sales of the product and the licensing agreement between Mark Anthony and T.G.I. Friday’s either did not violate Texas’ tied-house prohibitions or, in the alternative, those prohibitions were unconstitutional as applied to Mark Anthony’s sales and the parties’ agreement. Continue Reading Texas Court of Appeals Reverses T.G.I. Friday’s Label Decision

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

Last week, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (“TABC”) circulated a draft amendment of Texas’ name and address labeling regulation for “malt beverages” (beer).  A copy of the proposed amended regulation (with a redline of the changes) is can be found here.

Consistent with TTB regulations on name and address labeling for malt beverages, the current regulation requires only the name and address of the importer, with foreign producer information optional.  The revised regulation, in contrast, requires:

  • On labels of containers of imported malt beverages, the name and principal place of business of the foreign manufacturer, bottler or shipper must be stated

The proposed regulation accordingly marks a significant Texas departure from federal labeling rules.  First, it requires foreign producer information on the label.  Second, it requires the label to show the name and principal place of business address of the foreign producer.  This could require substantial changes to the labels of malt beverages sold in Texas.

The TABC is scheduled to hold a hearing in Austin on its proposed new regulation on Friday, March 10, 2017.

A recent Texas Court of Appeals decision, EATX Coffee, LLC v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, provides an important reminder of how principles of administrative law may check the current trend towards “regulation by Internet.” Ct. of App of Texas, 4th Dist., No. 04-16-00213-CV (Dec. 7, 2016). Like TTB and many other state alcohol beverage authorities, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) periodically publishes “Question and Answer” (Q&A) documents purporting to interpret the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.

The EATX opinion arose from a challenge of two particular Q&A’s that, in effect, banned the filling of “crowlers” by Texas beer and wine retailers. A crowler is an aluminum can that a retailer can fill with beer and seal for consumers to take away from the retail premises. While TABC has declared that retailers may fill and sell “growlers” of beer (large bottles filled and sealed by retailers), the TABC’s Q&A’s declared the filling of crowlers to constitute manufacturing – an activity that a retailer cannot engage in without a manufacturing license. (And, of course, under state tied house laws a retailer generally cannot lawfully obtain a manufacturing license).

EATX, having invested in crowler equipment and facing disciplinary action over its filling and sale of crowlers, filed a lawsuit against the TABC seeking a declaration that TABC’s Q&A’s were wrong because the filling of a crowler does not constitute manufacturing. EATX also sought an injunction against enforcement. In response, TABC asserted that the Q&A’s were not a “rule” and therefore the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear a challenge to the Q&A’s, and also asserted that EATX failed to exhaust the administrative remedies it could raise in defense of a TABC disciplinary action against EATX’s retail license.

The Texas Court of Appeals, 4th District, reversed. Reviewing the Q&A’s, the Court of Appeals concluded that: (1) they are of general applicably as they purport to apply to all retail permit holders; (2) they interpret the law and do not simply re-state it; (3) they do not affect only TABC’s internal management or organization. As such, the Q&A’s constitutes a “rule” within the meaning of Texas’ Administrative Procedures Act and the trial court had jurisdiction to hear the case and grant relief. Turning to exhaustion, the Court of Appeals found no authority for the proposition that a litigant aggrieved by the promulgation of a rule must instead wait and raise its arguments in an action brought to cancel, suspend or refuse to renew its license. In short, EATX can have its day in court.

Given the declining use of notice-and-comment rulemaking by TTB and most state alcohol regulatory agencies, the use of Q&A’s, “FAQs,” “advisory bulletins,” “industry memoranda,” and similar informal policy documents has been rising for decades. While such expedients may help move policy forward in a quicker, less resource-intensive (for the agency) manner, the EATX opinion stands as a useful reminder to regulators that this approach has limits.

On April 21, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down its opinion in Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, No. 14-51343.  It provides further guidance, at least within the Fifth Circuit, on the interplay of the “dormant” Commerce Clause and the 21st Amendment following the Supreme Court of the United States’ oft-cited decision in Granholm v. Heald, 544 US 460 (2005).

The case arose when the Texas Package Store Association attempted to revisit the Fifth Circuit’s two-decade old decision in Cooper v. McBeath, 11 F.3d 547 (5th Cir. 1994).  Cooper v. McBeath permanently enjoined the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) from enforcing certain residency requirements imposed on wholesalers and retailers by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.  In that decision, the Fifth Circuit decided that the residency requirement was a protectionist measure and therefore unconstitutional under the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

In 2014, the Texas Package Store Association (TPSA) moved for relief from the Cooper v. McBeath injunction, arguing that Granholm and its progeny undermined the earlier decision’s reasoning.  The district court ruled that the TPSA lacked standing to seek relief, although it also suggested that TPSA’s motion for relief should be denied on the merits.

In last month’s Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission decision, the Fifth Circuit concluded that TPSA had standing to seek relief from the Cooper v. McBeath injunction, but then held that TPSA’s motion should be denied on the merits.  Laying out the standard for relief as whether Granholm and its progeny represent a “significant change in decisional law,” the Fifth Circuit concluded that no significant change had occurred.

The Fifth Circuit begins its analysis by noting that Granholm expressly refused to overrule prior cases holding that the Commerce Clause qualified states’ rights under the 21st Amendment.  TPSA argued that the statement in Granholm labeling the three-tier system “unquestionably legitimate” essentially removed Commerce Clause protections from state laws dealing with the wholesale and retail tiers of the industry.  Characterizing that language in Granholm as “dictum,” the Fifth Circuit rejected TPSA’s argument as “unconvincing.”  Refusing to follow an Eighth Circuit decision that embraced logic similar to the argument advanced by TPSA, the Fifth Circuit instead relied on its own decision in Wine Country Gift Baskets.com v. Steen, 612 F.3d 809 (5th Cir. 2010).  Thus “state regulations of the retailer and wholesaler tiers are not immune from Commerce Clause scrutiny just because they do not discriminate against out-of-state liquor.”  Instead, although the 21st Amendment permits a state to impose a physical-residency requirement that may favor in-state businesses, it may not impose “a durational-residency requirement on the owners of alcoholic beverage retailers and wholesalers.”  (Quoting Cooper v. McBeath, emphasis in original).

The Fifth Circuit accordingly reasoned that nothing in Granholm and its subsequent application represent a significant change in the law.  It therefore reversed the decision of the district court and directed it to enter an order denying on the merits TPSA’s motion for relief.

Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission represents yet another wrinkle in the federal courts’ ongoing struggle to reconcile the holding of Granholm (a state cannot discriminate between the shipping rights of out-of-state versus in-state wineries) with its dictum that the three-tier system is “unquestionably legitimate.”  By drawing a previously unrecognized distinction between “physical-residency” and “durational-residency” requirements and, perhaps, distinctions based on business location versus owner location, the Fifth Circuit also has introduced significantly more complexity and nuance into the Commerce Clause/21st Amendment analysis.

We expect that the Supreme Court will eventually address this subject again to reconcile what is now a clear “circuit split” between the Fifth and Eighth Circuits.  But the Court will likely allow the issue to further “percolate” in the lower courts, as the case law in this area remains quite new.  We also wonder whether litigants seeking to narrow Granholm, who have scored a number of significant “wins” in the Second, Fifth (Steen) and Eighth Circuits in the decade since Granholm, will put those decisions in jeopardy by seeking Supreme Court review of the Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission decision.

On June 11, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) issued a Marketing Practices Advisory (MPA 055) clarifying the volume that a winery can legally ship directly to Texas consumers in a single year.  The limit is 35,000 gallons and the calculation must include the total volume shipped over a calendar year.

The recent TABC Advisory builds on a 2012 TABC Licensing Bulletin (LIC001) that outlined the required permit and process for wineries authorized to make direct shipments.  It also noted that Texas package stores are authorized to deliver wine directly to 15 million Texas residents of legal drinking age.  A stern warning appears at the end of the bulletin that unauthorized shipments would be actionable by the TABC.

A strong record of voluntary compliance will help preserve and expand e-commerce privileges for industry suppliers.