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Tape Recordings Won’t Remain On Ice In Packaged Ice Case

Posted  May 20, 2011

Plaintiffs in the case of In re Packaged Ice Antitrust Litigation have convinced the court that tape recordings of conversations from a criminal investigation into alleged price fixing of packaged ice sold in retail stores and gas stations should not remain on ice.

Judge Paul Borman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has ordered the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) to produce tape recordings and transcripts in response to the direct purchaser plaintiffs’ motion to compel.  The production will be reviewed in camera by the judge to see whether there is any need for protection.

The plaintiffs are purchasers of packaged ice from defendants, including Reddy Ice, Arctic Glacier, and Home City Ice, three major players in the packaged ice industry.

The tape recordings and transcripts at issue allegedly involve former employees of the defendant ice manufacturers and allegedly incriminate a number of potential witnesses in the direct purchaser plaintiffs’ civil antitrust case.

The tapes and transcripts were collected during the DOJ’s criminal antitrust investigation of the defendants.  As part of its investigation, the DOJ collected the tapes and documents at issue by recruiting individuals to record conversations with people integral to the alleged conspiracy – a common practice to investigate conspiratorial activities.  The criminal investigation ultimately led to guilty pleas from Arctic Glacier and Home City, as well as three former Arctic Glacier employees.

Two of the three original defendants to the civil action, Arctic Glacier and Home City, have already settled with the direct purchaser plaintiffs or are seeking settlement confirmation.  Reddy Ice remains an active defendant.

The direct purchaser plaintiffs subpoenaed the DOJ and asked for the tapes and transcripts.  The DOJ objected to the subpoena on the grounds of sovereign immunity and lack of jurisdiction, investigatory files privilege, law enforcement privilege, and work product protection.

Judge Borman found that the court had proper jurisdiction and that sovereign immunity did not bar the court’s review of the dispute.  On the substance, the court held that the privileges and work product protection invoked by the DOJ did not justify shielding discovery by the direct purchaser plaintiffs.  The judge seemed particularly persuaded by the argument that since the defendants’ counsel had access to the tapes and transcripts during the prior criminal investigation, denying the direct purchaser plaintiffs access would “significantly prejudice” plaintiffs’ discovery efforts.

Tagged in: Antitrust Litigation, Price Fixing,