Potential settlement details undisclosed; Case had revealing ‘wins’ over four years, but FMMO 1 map limitations posed problems
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 2, 2020
BURLINGTON, Vt. – In an unexpected twist this week, the civil antitrust case Sitts et. al. vs. Dairy Farmers of America / Dairy Marketing Services was dismissed on the eve of the jury trial that had been set to begin Sept. 30 in the U.S. District Court of Vermont with Judge Christina Reiss presiding.
A Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice was accepted by attorneys for defendant DFA / DMS and the 116 dairy farmer plaintiffs that had opted out of the previously settled Northeast Class Action Antitrust lawsuit to file the civil suit.
The Stipulation of Dismissal with Prejudice docket simply states: “The parties hereby stipulate to the dismissal of the above-captioned action with prejudice,with all rights of appeal waived, and each party to bear their own costs and attorney’s fees.”
A ‘stipulation of dismissal with prejudice’ is a legal term meaning that the case is over and done with and can’t be brought back.
We have learned that the stipulation requires parties to not discuss the terms of the “dismissal”, which means that settlement details will not be disclosed as public information.
Over the four years since the civil antitrust case was filed in October of 2016, some of the 116 plaintiff dairy farmers have since exited dairy farming.
Dairy farmers who looked forward to “a day in court” with a jury hearing evidence about the increasingly concentrated and anti-competitive milk marketing environment they live every day are likely disappointed by this outcome.
But even though this case is over, some ‘wins’ happened over the four years that could accomplish transparency in smaller case filings in the future.
Throughout the four years, information about the alleged antitrust monopsony actions of defendant DFA, and the position of the plaintiffs as dairy farmers, was revealed at intervals during the proceedings.
Judge Reiss’s Opinion and Order exactly a year ago on Sept. 27, 2019 is one example.
Her Opinion and Order on this case in denying in part DFA’s request for summary judgment stated that, “Plaintiffs’ identify evidence that several of Defendants’ agreements violate a 1977 Consent Decree and Defendants’ own Antitrust Policy and Guidelines. A rational jury could find this evidence demonstrates that Defendants’ ‘acquisition of [ monopsony] power’ was through ‘predatory means.’”
In fact, this 58-page Opinion and Order, along with the amicus brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice as a Statement of Interest in July, have provided support for others to move forward in smaller cases seeking vital financial information about the workings of DFA, the cooperative of which they are members. (More on that in the future.)
The DOJ statement filed in the Vermont antitrust case in July stated that the alleged activities fall outside of Capper-Volstead protections and that the allegations in the case “do not appear to have involved efforts to increase farmers’ bargaining power but rather efforts at monopsonization.”
The DOJ’s 15-page statement filed in July 2020 represents the first time the DOJ has really weighed-in on the monopsonization of milk markets to basically say the “heartland protections” of the Capper-Volstead Act do not apply to the activities alleged.
In fact, DOJ stated in the brief that the claims at issue fell outside the Capper-Volstead protection because “they do not involve claims that farmer cooperatives acted anticompetitively against processors and other middlemen, but rather that these were claims that farmer cooperatives through agreements with processors, middlemen and other cooperatives, acted anticompetitively against other farmers.”
Part of the issue for the plaintiffs in the Vermont antitrust case — throughout the procedural elements of four years — was that exhibits, testimony, depositions about activities just outside of the Northeast Milk Marketing Federal Order One lines on an arbitrary map were deemed outside the jurisdiction of the case.
It is interesting to note that even evidentiary exhibits at the case docket about activities in central Pennsylvania was scratched from use in the trial simply because central Pennsylvania is one of several geographies in the Northeast that are technically “unregulated” by FMMO 1 and thus not included in the FMMO 1 “map” — even though central Pennsylvania is surrounded on one side by FMMO 1’s map and on the other side by FMMO 33’s map, and the milk from these farms moves through these FMMO marketing channels, plants and cooperatives.
So many moving parts to assemble and so many challenges to use information subject to exclusion based on FMMO maps, it boggles the mind.
Similarly, ‘collaborations’ of one sort or another — revealed through exhibits, testimony, depositions and the like — that occurred in other FMMOs linked to how milk markets function in FMMO 1, or showing a pattern of behavior, were also deemed outside the jurisdiction of this case.
This, despite defendant DFA / DMS being a national footprint milk cooperative that interestingly draws its own area council maps in ways that blend geographies between FMMOs. This, despite defendant DFA / DMS in testimony before the Pa. Milk Marketing Board or in requests made to FMMO 1 market administrators often positions itself as the all-knowing one on milk flow from its birdseye view of the national, even global, dairy grid.
A basic tenet of the case was plaintiff’s claim that DFA is ’empire-building’ not bargaining on behalf of farmer members. During the four years of process on this case, information has been revealed, but DFA has continued to boldly forge its dairy dominance by aggressively bringing the Northeast regional cooperatives and independents that had been market-managed by DMS into the milk supply membership structure of DFA-proper 2017 through 2019, and then acquiring 44 of Dean Foods’ 57 fluid milk plants across the country in 2020.
DFA was listed by Rabobank last month as the largest dairy processor in the United States and third-largest dairy processor globally behind Nestle and Lactalis.
Through additional partnerships, joint ventures and marketing alliances, DFA has a hand in every pie, and no one, not even its members, really knows how the milk (and revenue) really flows.