By Sherry Bunting for Farmshine
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice, but researched information based on many people working on the issue. This is a ‘what we know now’ pre-press preview of a rapidly evolving story, check Friday’s Farmshine for more, including information about a potential conference call for dairy farmers in Pennsylvania; other states also mobilizing!
BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Notices of Intended Litigation and Settlement Offers have been received by dairy farmers last week from ASK LLP, a law firm in St. Paul, Minn., seeking payment to the Dean Foods Company Estate under what is known as preference action recovery or trustee avoidance claims covering payments to dairy farmers for raw milk (and co-ops for ingredients) from August 14 to November 12, 2019 — the 90 days prior to Dean’s Nov. 12, 2019 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and sale.
We have confirmed these predatory letters have been received by Dean Dairy Direct producers in numerous states – including Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Kentucky, Tennessee and assuredly others — on the day before and after Thanksgiving. These letters contain a record of payment transactions (on the Federal Order specified dates), list a total claim amount the farmer will be sued for, and a settlement offer at about 15 to 20% of that amount due December 19 or 24, 2020 (depending on the date of the letter).
Under Southern Foods Group LLC, case number 19-36313 in the bankruptcy court of Houston, Texas, with Judge David R. Jones presiding, the Dean Chapter 11 reorganization is headed to an omnibus hearing scheduled for Dec. 11, 2020 and disclosure hearing Jan. 11, 2021. Debtor filed its Plan of Reorganization as file number 3230 today, Nov. 30, on the docket at https://dm.epiq11.com/case/dnf/info
If you are a dairy farmer who received a ‘demand package’ from ASK LLP representing the Dean Foods Company Estate, don’t ignore the letter, but don’t panic, don’t pay anything, don’t sign anything, sit tight for a bit, get prepared, and know many trustworthy, well-situated people are working on this.
The letters and legal packets are an intimidating threat to see what ‘other people’s money’ the law firm can shake loose for the Dean Foods Estate after the fire sale in which the bulk of assets were sold to Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). For its part, DFA as the new owner of the bulk of Dean’s plants issued a statement that it does not control Dean’s decisions on their bankruptcy and did not participate in this decision.
The letters do mention two potential defenses in a separate “additional instructions” piece, urging producers to “make a copy of this letter and all enclosures to send to your attorney should you choose to defend this matter rather than settle and return the payments.”
The instructions go on to state: “Under certain circumstances you may have a defense warranting settlement of this action at less than the settlement offer extended. We will be happy to consider your defense and ‘explore’ settlement.”
Even in that statement the ‘instructions’ intimidate the dairy farmer receiving it to feel they might have some financial obligation to the Dean Estate (absurd).
Please know that as dairy farmers, you have produced milk that was paid for according to federal and state milk marketing laws, that provided nourishment to families and that has enabled the Dean Foods Company to continue to operate until it was sold.
What’s happening and what dairy farmers should know:
First. Know that you are not alone and stay tuned. A range of emotions and reactions are no doubt happening on receipt of these letters.
Second. Don’t panic, don’t pay, don’t sign, and hold off in hiring an attorney. If you already have a trusted attorney advisor, talk to them, but these letters are concerning from a collective perspective. They name individual farms as defendants and demand a refund of a portion of what they were paid for milk they produced and shipped to Dean, that was bottled by Dean and sold by Dean in the 90 days BEFORE Dean filed for bankruptcy protection.
The situation may ultimately require farms to individually hire a bankruptcy attorney to assert a defense and prove qualification for exemption. But, well-situated sources indicate that it is also possible that collective group action could occur. More answers are needed by authorities and interested parties.
Yes, this preference recovery action is a loophole in bankruptcy law with farms caught in the shakedown net cast by the law firm working for the Dean Estate. There are concerning aspects based on how dairy farms are paid via federal and state laws that preclude the normal business activities of “invoicing.”
In Pennsylvania, the Pa. Milk Marketing Board is looking into this, and the State Attorney General’s office is aware of these letters. Dairy farmers selling milk to a dairy processor and being paid per federal/state regulations is ordinary course of business.
Third. Sit tight but use this time to be prepared by gathering milk statements for the past 15 to 18 months. Many trustworthy and reputable people are working on this issue affecting hundreds of independent dairy farms, and entities to which portions of their milk checks were assigned.
Sources indicate regional cooperatives may have received such letters for raw milk sales, though none have confirmed this. USDA has not confirmed nor denied whether market administrators received similar letters regarding producer settlement fund payments in the pre-bankruptcy period.
One regional cooperative executive has confirmed receiving a letter six weeks ago in relation to ingredient sales during the 90-day pre-bankruptcy time-period and indicates other regional co-ops have as well. They have not agreed to nor negotiated any settlement, but they provided their volumes and documentation of these sales to the soliciting law firm through their bankruptcy attorneys — and are monitoring the situation.
Dairy farmers can do the same.
- Absolutely don’t pay or sign anything right now.
- Start gathering deposit records for the 3-month period (Aug 14 – Nov 12, 2019) plus the 15 months before that as stated in the letter’s instructions about potential defense assertions.
- Don’t worry about putting any of this information into the requested spreadsheet or other formats mentioned in the letter, just get these items together for now.
- The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office is aware of these letters. Producers in other states could look at involving the offices of their Secretaries of Agriculture and/or Attorneys General.
- The ordinary course of business affirmative defense means that the vast majority of farmers most likely will owe nothing, and people are working on how to get producers to that point in the most efficient way possible.
Fourth. Know that USDA AMS Dairy Programs has been contacted and is looking into the matter. Know that every one of the Federal Milk Marketing Order websites shows the strict dates and procedures concerning payment for milk. Dean Foods – or Southern Foods Group LLC as it is named covering all holdings in the bankruptcy case #19-36313 – could not have operated nor could it have been sold to yield any funds for the estate had the farmers not been paid for the milk sold.
Fifth. Know that in Pennsylvania, the Pa. Milk Marketing Board (PMMB) became involved immediately. The board and staff started their day Monday morning with a joint meeting on this issue that was brought to their attention over the weekend. Know that they have begun a conversation with Pennsylvania’s State Attorney General who is looking into this and is already familiar with some of the elements having been involved in getting final payments arranged using the mandatory bond insurance Pennsylvania requires all licensed milk dealers to carry. Know that in Pennsylvania, milk plants follow state payment and bonding regulations in addition to federal orders. Know that there are seven Dean Foods plants regulated by PMMB because they receive milk produced on Pennsylvania farms, and four of these plants are located in Pennsylvania.
Know that producers outside of Pennsylvania can band together and through their state dairy organizations or Secretaries of Agriculture – ask their State Attorneys General to look at this.
Sixth. Know that other well-situated people are looking into a way for all affected producers to fight this together instead of each farm going it alone and having the expense of hiring legal counsel with bankruptcy experience to “assert” their defense in writing to the law firm ASK LLP (aka Ebenezer Scrooge).
Seventh. Know that answers to various questions and concerns are being sought. More will be learned in the coming days, and the situation is one that is rapidly evolving.
Eighth. Know that ASK LLP should know better. The Dean estate trustee should already know that these dairy farmer critical vendor payments are not “preferential” payments warranting trustee avoidance claims. Not only should they know the critical vendors of Dean Foods — since the bankruptcy judge issued orders that dairy farmers be paid as critical vendors during the proceedings so Dean could operate and be sold – they should know that Judge David R. Jones in hearings on several occasions stated his big concern that school children would continue to receive their milk and dairy farmers would continue to be paid during the bankruptcy proceedings.
ASK LLP should know that the very charts they included in their ‘demand packages’ — showing all transfers from Dean plants to individual ‘defendant’ dairy farmers — are made on the precise same dates twice a month as is the regulation for milk payments under Federal Orders.
Ninth. Know that Bankruptcy Judge David R. Jones’ office in Houston, Texas has been notified of the ‘demand packages’ sent to dairy farmers for the pre-petition period. Several high-profile members of the U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees have also been notified.
BACKGROUND: The letters descended on dairy farms the day before and after Thanksgiving with due dates of December 19 or December 24. No, these were not Happy Thanksgiving and Merry Christmas John and Jane Q Dairy Farmer, these were thinly veiled attempts at blackmail – demands to pay Dean Foods Company Estate a portion of milk checks from August 14 through November 12, 2019 in order to avoid being sued for much larger sums of money.
Ebenezer Scrooge (ASK LLP) conjured up the ghost of Dean Bankruptcy Past to insinuate that monetary transfers from Dean to dairy farmers — or their assigns — in return for milk they received, processed and sold, were ‘preferential’ resulting in what are called Trustee Avoidance claims by the law firm purported to represent Southern Foods Group LLC the conglomerate name for the bankruptcy and sale of Dean and all of its holdings.
A Trustee Avoidance claim – the legal action that the letters state will occur after the due date for payment of the settlement offer – indicate that such payments to farms could have been ‘preferential’ to avoid the bankruptcy trustee making sure all creditors are treated fairly. In layman’s terms, the claim is that a defendant farmer’s payment for milk pre-bankruptcy could have been a ‘better deal’ than the ‘trustee’ would have divvied out.
Wrong. Federal and state law set forth dates and formulas for milk payments as a requirement for milk companies to operate. That money has already been spent by dairy farmers keeping cows fed and keeping lights on at farms already beleaguered by five years of marginal and below breakeven prices. No windfall there.
Sure, the intimidating packet shows ways a recipient can assert their defense – through hiring a bankruptcy attorney. They can show invoices for those three months – and the 15 months before that – to show “ordinary course of business.” They can assert their defense with milk check statements the scrooge law firm says must be supplied in Excel spreadsheets requiring certain types of entries and documentation. Or they can just pay the settlement offer at a reduced rate to avoid legal action commencing the week after the due date.
Did I mention the due dates are December 19 for some; December 24 for others?
Did I mention farmers have 21 days from the date of the letter to sign and pay the ‘settlement offers’ with checks payable to Dean Foods Company or risk – says the letter – paying amounts 5 to 6 times higher?
Yes. This is what intimidation looks like, a shakedown to see what they can get away with, what money can be extorted, to improve their cut on the deal by threatening hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone dairy farmers with big numbers, big words, and big assumptions.
They know better, and if they don’t, they should.