In re Processed Egg Prods. Antitrust Litig.

Decision Date08 September 2016
Docket NumberNo. 08–md–2002,08–md–2002
Citation206 F.Supp.3d 1033
Parties IN RE: PROCESSED EGG PRODUCTS ANTITRUST LITIGATION. This Document Applies To: All Direct Action Plaintiff Cases All Indirect Purchaser Cases.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM

Gene K. Pratter, United States District Judge

Direct and indirect buyers of eggs accuse the nation's major egg producers of conspiring to control and limit the nation's egg supply and thereby increase egg prices through a number of allegedly interrelated programs. Specifically, the egg producers are accused of violating Section 1 of the Sherman Act by developing and implementing an egg certification program, exporting eggs at a loss, and reducing egg production in periods of oversupply through certain coordinated actions such as reducing chick–hatch, early molting, and hen disposals. The defendants deny that these programs violate the Sherman Act.

Certain defendants have filed two related summary judgment motions against the Indirect Purchaser Plaintiffs (IPPs) and the Direct Action Plaintiffs (DAPs) (collectively "plaintiffs") respectively, challenging the plaintiffs' theories of liability.1 These motions assert three general arguments. First, the defendants argue that neither the DAPs nor the IPPs can, as a matter of law, state a claim for a per se violation of the Sherman Act based upon the defendants' participation in the UEP Certified Program. Second, the defendants argue that the IPPs and DAPs have failed to identify evidence of any agreement among defendants to refrain from new construction of hen facilities. Finally, the moving defendants argue that application of the rule of reason to the plaintiffs' claims regarding the UEP Certified Program requires dismissal of all the plaintiffs' remaining claims. The defendants contend that the plaintiffs have waived pursuit of the UEP claims under the rule of reason and, thus, these claims must be dismissed. Furthermore, they argue that, in the event the Court were to grant summary judgment on the UEP claims, the damages models offered by the plaintiffs would no longer provide a reliable estimate of damages because the models fail to disaggregate the effects of the various alleged restrictions; that is, because the models do not allow for backing out damages attributable to any individual program, the models necessarily fail.

For the reasons outlined below, the Court finds that the UEP Certified Program must be evaluated under the rule of reason. The Court also finds that the plaintiffs have failed to produce evidence indicating a genuine dispute of material fact as to the existence of a "side agreement" among the defendants to refrain from new barn construction. Nevertheless, the Court finds that the plaintiffs are able to proceed under the rule of reason and that, for this reason, the Court need not address the remaining arguments regarding the disaggregation of the damages model.

I. STATEMENT OF FACTS

The factual allegations in this case are extensive and complex, but given the narrowly tailored nature of the arguments presented in the extant motions, the amount of operative facts here is not excessive.

Starting in the early 2000s, the plaintiffs—including the DAPs and IPPs who are respondents to the motions here—allege that the defendants, under the auspices of two industry groups, the United Egg Producers and the United States Egg Marketers, conspired to reduce the domestic supply of shell eggs, and thereby increase their price. The participants in the alleged conspiracy supposedly accomplished this through the implementation of three interrelated programs. The centerpiece of this alleged conspiracy is the UEP Animal Care Certified Program ("Certified Program"). The plaintiffs claim that, under the Certified Program, the UEP issued certifications to producers if those producers complied with certain animal husbandry guidelines adopted by the UEP. According to the plaintiffs, these guidelines depressed egg supply by, among other things, establishing a minimum cage space allowance per bird in the defendants' facilities, which had a knock-on effect of reducing flock size.

Plaintiffs also allege that, in addition to the Certified Program, the defendants engaged in two other programs designed to reduce domestic egg supply. The first was an egg export program. The second consisted of collective short–term production restrictions. Because the pending summary judgment motions only address the UEP Certified Program, the Court will not go into any more detail regarding the alleged egg exports or short term supply reduction agreements.

The UEP Certified Program consists of a series of production standards related to animal husbandry and welfare, which a producer must meet in order to become "Certified." The program is voluntary; producers can choose to join or drop the program at any time, regardless of their membership in the UEP. The guidelines do not address the number of barns, cages, or hens any producer might have; and the guidelines do not prohibit the construction of new cages or new barns.

While the plaintiffs allege that the impetus for the supply controlling aspects of the Certified Program began much earlier, the UEP Certified Program itself was initiated in 1999 with the formation of the UEP's Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC). The members of the SAC were professors, scientists, and veterinarians, with experience in the area of animal welfare and poultry management. The specifics of the defendants' motivation for creating the SAC is hotly disputed, but it is generally agreed that at the time the SAC was formed, egg producers were facing mounting pressure from animal rights groups (and consumers) to modify their egg production practices to address concerns about animal welfare. One of the principle issues raised by these animal rights groups was the amount of cage space per chicken in the defendants' barns.

In September 2000, the SAC issued its formal recommendations for animal welfare guidelines, which suggested implementation of a cage space minimum size of between 67 and 86 inches per caged bird. The guidelines also included recommendations in other areas of production. The UEP Producer Committee on Animal Welfare used the SAC recommendations to develop a working draft for the UEP Animal Welfare Guidelines for Egg Laying Hens. In 2002 the UEP issued guidelines which created the UEP Certified Program. In the subsequent years, these guidelines have been modified several times.

There are several relevant components of the UEP Certified Program. The cornerstone component of the program is the minimum cage space requirement. As of April 2008, the guidelines required 67 inches per white leghorn hen and 76 inches per brown egg layer. The record includes evidence that increasing cage space reduces the stress on the birds and thereby increases their individual productivity and output. According to certain literature highlighted by the defendants, an increase from 48 inches per bird used in 2002 to 67 inches in 2006 would have had the effect of improving hen welfare.

These cage space limits were not imposed overnight, however. The initial version of the guidelines included a ten-year phase-in schedule for the cage space requirements. This phase-in schedule was reviewed by FMI, a grocery store trade group, and was ultimately shortened to a six-year phase-in period. In April 2002, the UEP issued final guidelines that required leghorn chicks born after April 1, 2002 to be housed in a facility providing at least 56 inches per bird. This cage space minimum was then to increase by 3 square inches every 18 months up to the 67 inch minimum requirement after April 1, 2008.

In addition to the cage space requirements, in 2005, the UEP released an updated version of the guidelines, which included new requirements restricting a practice called "backfilling." Backfilling refers to removal of birds from a flock which have either died mid–production cycle or which have otherwise reached the end of their productive (i.e. egg producing) lives. These removed birds are replaced in the flock by younger birds. Prior to adopting the restriction regarding backfilling, the SAC provided a written report expressing "extreme opposition" to the practice. Their 2004 memorandum states in relevant part that: "Science has shown that mixing birds from older flocks with different ages increases the susceptibility to disease. Older hens may harbor disease-causing pathogens that are easily transmitted to younger [chickens] that may have not been fully vaccinated or have had the opportunity to develop full immune-competency. In addition, the introduction of unfamiliar birds to resident birds increases social competition and stress, which can increase mortality and decrease production." SMF ¶ 75.

Finally, the guidelines required that "[a] certified company must implement the Animal Husbandry Guidelines on 100% of the company's production facilities regardless of where or how eggs may be marketed. This 100% commitment is intended to be inclusive of all company entities, affiliates, etc." SMF ¶ 61. The SAC supported this rule because a producer would not be able to demonstrate commitment to treating birds humanely while treating only some of those birds according to the standards. UEP Certified producers, however, were allowed to buy and resell non–Certified eggs to the extent customers wished to purchase them.

In order to confirm that producers were in fact acting in compliance with the guidelines, the UEP also developed an auditing procedure. Such audits were conducted annually by the USDA, as well as other independent companies. FMI and various members supported these audits and grocery retailers requested the results of these audits.

While many producers eventually joined the Certified Program, the record contains evidence indicating that many producers did not. These nonparticipants included Kreider Farms and Daybreak Foods. In...

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