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In re v. Mushroom Direct Purchaser Antitrust Litigation

March 26, 2009

IN RE MUSHROOM DIRECT PURCHASER ANTITRUST LITIGATION


The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'neill, J.

THIS DOCUMENT RELATES TO: All Actions

MEMORANDUM

This is an antitrust case involving the applicability of the Capper-Volstead exemption for agricultural cooperatives. Discovery was phased with Phase One concerning the Capper-Volstead issue. Presently before me are the motions for summary judgment filed by defendant Mushroom Alliance, Inc., defendant Kitchen Pride Mushrooms, defendant M.D. Basciani & Sons, Inc., defendant Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative, Inc. ("EMMC")*fn1 and certain defendants,*fn2 defendant JM Farms and defendant Franklin Farms, plaintiffs' omnibus response, and some defendants' replies thereto;*fn3 the motion for summary judgment filed by consolidated plaintiffs, responses by some defendants and plaintiffs' omnibus reply; and the motion to strike filed by plaintiffs All American Mushroom, Inc., Robert Altman and Associate Grocers, Inc.,*fn4 responses by some defendants and plaintiffs' reply thereto. The parties have submitted voluminous exhibits including witness depositions from the various entities involved in this litigation.

BACKGROUND

The history between the parties to this antitrust lawsuit is lengthy, convoluted and contentious; thus, I will begin by identifying some of the relevant entities at issue in the current motions and the undisputed facts regarding their structure and provide a limited recitation of the relevant procedural history.

I. Factual History

Incorporated in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and headquartered in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the EMMC is a large mushroom cooperative comprised of entities that grow, buy, sell, package and ship mushrooms to retail and food service outlets across the United States. The list of defendants includes mushroom growers, packagers, sellers, distributors and other related entities that were either members or affiliates of members of the EMMC.

It is undisputed that from 2001 to 2005, the EMMC adapted and amended various minimum pricing policies for mushrooms sold to the fresh market. Defendants assert that these policies had exceptions, were not enforced by the EMMC and were routinely not followed by members. It is undisputed that member dues were based on the number of pounds of mushrooms that were sold to the fresh market by the distributor operations and not the amount grown by the growing operations.

According to the undisputed facts, M. Cutone Mushroom Co., Inc., joined the EMMC on January 20, 2001. M. Cutone is one of several mushroom related companies owned by the Cutone family that defendants allege are commonly owned, controlled and operated by Mario Cutone, his wife and their three adult sons. M&V Enterprises is also owned by the Cutone family and grows mushrooms and sells or transfers 100% of the mushrooms it grows to M. Cutone Avondale which transfers them to M. Cutone Chelsea along with other mushrooms it purchases. The address on Cutone's EMMC membership agreement bears the M. Cutone Chelsea address and the letterhead describes M. Cutone as "Receivers and Commission Merchants Fruits, Vegetables and Flowers." M. Cutone does not grow mushrooms. The EMMC minimum pricing applied to M. Cutone's sales to its wholesale and retail customers.

Kaolin Mushroom Farms, Inc. joined the EMMC on January 9, 2001. South Mill Mushroom Sales Inc. is a mushroom marketer, packer and shipper. Both Kaolin and South Mill are jointly owned and operated by John and Michael Pia, each of whom have a 50% interest in each company. John and Michael Pia, through 100% ownership in two companies, Pennsylvania Mushroom Distribution, Inc. and Mushroom Substrate Technologies, Inc., held a 50% ownership interest in four companies that operated mushroom distribution centers in Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta. The remaining 50% ownership interest in the distribution centers was held by Stuart Thomas through his ownership of Thomas Mushroom Distribution Inc. and Dallas South Mill Inc. The Kaolin/South Mill distribution centers were not EMMC members, did not grow mushrooms but sold mushrooms grown by defendant Kaolin. The Kaolin/South Mill distribution centers adhered to EMMC minimums in their mushroom sales. Defendants assert that the distribution centers were contractually obligated to price mushrooms at prices specified by Kaolin/South Mill.

LRP-M Mushrooms LLC joined the EMMC on January 9, 2001. The Articles of Incorporation for LRP-M were filed in January 2001. Dominic Manfredini and his nephew Lucio Pizzini each have a 50% ownership interest in LRP-M. Lucio Pizzini also owns LRP Mushrooms. LRP grows mushrooms on land leased to him by Dominic Manfredini. Both LRPM and LRP sell 100% of their mushrooms to Manfredini Enterprises, Inc., which buys, packages and markets produce including mushrooms. Manfredini Enterprises is owned by the wife of Dominic Manfredini and Dominic Manfredini serves as its president and operator. Manfredini Enterprises does not grow mushrooms. The mushrooms that Manfredini Enterprises acquired from LRP-M account for 20-25% of the mushrooms that Manfredini Enterprises resold to its customers. EMMC minimum pricing applied to sales by Manfredini Enterprises.

Although it will not be addressed in this opinion because the only issue upon which discovery was conducted was the EMMC's Capper-Volstead immunity, as background, plaintiffs assert that defendants allegedly launched a "supply control" campaign by using membership funds collected during 2001 and 2002 to acquire and subsequently dismantle non-EMMC mushroom growing operations in order to support and maintain artificial price increases. Plaintiffs allege that the EMMC repeatedly would purchase a mushroom farm or a parcel of farmland and then sell or exchange that farm or parcel at a loss, attaching a permanent or long-term deed restriction to the land prohibiting the conduct of any business related to the growing of mushrooms. Plaintiffs cite several specific examples of this alleged practice during 2001 and 2002.

Plaintiffs further allege that defendants collectively interfered with non-EMMC growers that sought to sell at prices below those set by the EMMC and pressured independent growers to join the EMMC. The pressure and coercion tactics alleged include threatening and/or implementing a group boycott in which EMMC members would not sell mushrooms to assist independent growers in satisfying their short-term supply needs and/or selling mushrooms to independent growers at inflated prices.

II. Procedural History

On December 16, 2004, the United States Department of Justice filed an antitrust complaint against the EMMC after an eighteen-month investigation of the EMMC's membership activities, qualifications as a cooperative and marketing practices. United States v. E. Mushroom Mktg. Coop., Inc., Civil Action No. 04-CV-5829 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 16, 2004). On September 9, 2005, final judgment was entered, pursuant to which the United States and the EMMC agreed to file documents nullifying deed restrictions placed on six parcels sold or transferred by the EMMC and to impose no similar deed restrictions on other properties for the next ten years.*fn5

On June 26, 2006, plaintiffs, direct purchasers of mushrooms, filed a consolidated amended antitrust class action under federal law against defendants, the EMMC, thirty-seven members, officers and affiliates of members, and unidentified members and/or co-conspirators during the class period (collectively, "defendants"), alleging that defendants engaged in an illegal scheme and conspiracy to cause plaintiffs to pay artificially inflated prices for mushrooms from January 2001 to date of filing. Plaintiffs filed their consolidated amended antitrust class action complaint pursuant to my June 5, 2006 Order consolidating seven class actions and one non-class action previously filed against defendants to promote judicial economy and avoid duplication. The consolidated actions include the Class Action Complaint, the Giant Eagle Amended Complaint and the Publix Amended Complaint.

Specifically, plaintiffs brought this action to recover treble damages, equitable relief, costs of suit and reasonable attorneys' fees pursuant to the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 15(a) and 26 (2007), for defendants' alleged violations of the anti-competitive conspiracy, monopolization and attempted monopolization provisions of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1 and 2, and the unlawful acquisition provision of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 18.

On April 25, 2007, I granted defendants' motions to dismiss Count II of plaintiffs' consolidated amended complaint for monopolization and attempted monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act as to all defendants other than defendant EMMC ...


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