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Got Cert? These Northeast Dairy Farmers Don't – Not Yet, Anyway

Posted  December 29, 2011

On December 9, Chief Judge Christina Reiss of the District of Vermont denied the plaintiff dairy farmers’ motion for class certification in Allen v. Dairy Farmers of America, Inc., 2011 WL 6148678 (D. Vt. Dec. 9, 2011).  However, Judge Reiss invited plaintiffs to renew their motion after addressing issues with their expert report.

Plaintiffs are New York and Vermont dairy farmers.  Defendants are Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (DFA) and Dairy Marketing Services LLC (DMS).  (Dean Foods was originally a defendant but it settled in May for $30 million.)  DFA is the largest dairy cooperative in the United States, and it not only produces, but also processes, markets and distributes raw Grade A milk.  DMS is a milk marketing agency allegedly created, owned and controlled by DFA and certain other cooperatives.  Some of the plaintiffs are members of DFA.  All of the plaintiffs have, at some point since 2002, sold their milk to processors through DMS.

Plaintiffs sued DFA and DMS in October 2009 on behalf of all similarly situated dairy farmers in New York, Vermont and ten other Northeast states – an area designated by the USDA as “Federal Milk Market Order 1.”  Order 1 also is the relevant geographic market alleged by plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs claim that defendants have conspired to fix and suppress the prices plaintiffs receive from cooperatives and processors for their raw Grade A milk, in violation of Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act.  As damages, plaintiffs seek the amount they have been underpaid.  As injunctive relief, they seek to enjoin the alleged conduct and require divestiture of defendants’ processing plants.

Judge Reiss evaluated plaintiffs’ motion under In re IPO, 471 F.3d 24 (2d Cir. 2006), which requires a “rigorous analysis” of the Rule 23 requirements and “enough evidence” that each of them has been met.  Where plaintiffs lost the motion was on Rule 23(a)(2)’s commonality requirement, specifically as to impact.  Commonality was satisfied as to “the formation, duration and implementation of the alleged conspiracy.”  However, as to adverse impact, Judge Reiss said there was “a clear failure of proof” with respect to plaintiffs’ expert report:  (1) adherence to opinions that plaintiffs had conceded were incorrect; (2) apparent use of incorrect prices in calculating damages; and (3) failure to consider the existence of either non-conspirator processing plants or class members who benefited or broke even from the alleged conduct.

However, Judge Reiss also said that the expert analysis “may ultimately prove to be an acceptable means of analyzing causation and damages in this case,” though it is not “presently sufficient to perform this task because too many uncertainties remain . . . .”  Her other findings also indicate potential for success: Rule 23(a)(1) numerosity was satisfied, with 9,000 class members dispersed throughout several states.  Rule 23(a)(3) typicality was satisfied to the same extent as commonality, i.e., as to formation, duration and implementation but not adverse impact, for the same reasons as commonality.  And the 23(a)(4) adequacy of the named plaintiffs could be satisfied with subclasses represented by separate counsel, which would overcome the potential conflicts.  Given that prerequisite to certification, Judge Reiss declined to reach 23(a)(4)’s adequacy of class counsel.  She also declined to reach Rule 23(b)’s predominance requirement.

In light of the invitation to renew the class motion, defendants sought to extend their time to serve expert reports from December 16 until whenever plaintiffs serve their new report(s) (if they do).  Judge Reiss denied that motion, finding “no good cause to further delay the provision of expert reports in this ongoing litigation.”  No deadline has been set to renew the class motion.

Tagged in: Antitrust Litigation, Price Fixing,