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Camarda v. Snapple Distributors

September 13, 2007

MITCHELL CAMARDA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SNAPPLE DISTRIBUTORS, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brieant, J.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

THIS DOCUMENT APPLIES TO 63 SEPARATE CASES

Before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment on the claims of Plaintiffs in 63 related cases, each of whom alleges price discrimination under the Robinson-Patman Act and breach of contract (Doc. No. 166). The parties have submitted separate memoranda as to the Robinson-Patman Act claims and the breach of contract claims.

Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are presumed true for purposes of this motion only. Plaintiffs are independent Area Route Distributors of Snapple soft drink products in the New York City metropolitan area, who contracted with Snapple Distributors, Inc. ("SDI") (or its predecessor, Mr. Natural, Inc. or Snapple of Long Island), to purchase and resell Snapple products to specific types of retail outlets within a specifically defined geographic territory. Snapple Beverage Corporation ("SBC") is an affiliate of Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages ("CSAB"), which sells Snapple brand beverages throughout the United States. SBC typically sells beverage products to master distributors (or "licensed distributors" or "distributors"), which have exclusive territorial distribution rights.

SDI is one such master distributor with exclusive rights to distribute Snapple products in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County, as well as in 12 "upstate" New York routes, located from Rockland County to Albany County. SDI also distributes to parts of New Jersey. SDI resells the products it purchases from SBC to the Area Route Distributors and directly to other SDI customers. SDI delivers to the upstate customers by use of SDI trucks and SDI employees. See Poli Aff. (DX-4). The majority of SDI's sales in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County, however, are made through independent contractors known as Area Route Distributors. There are currently approximately ninety-four Area Route Distributors in the New York City metropolitan area.

Pursuant to the Area Route Distributor Agreements (the "Agreements" or "Contracts"),

Plaintiffs finance the purchase of their route, delivery truck or trucks and related equipment, and maintain the truck(s) and equipment.*fn1 Each Plaintiff is granted exclusive rights to sell Snapple products to designated types of retail outlets within his or her area route ("territory"). The Agreements provide:

During the term of this Agreement (and subject to the terms and conditions thereof), the Company grants to Route Distributor, the exclusive right, subject to the terms of this agreement, to market, sell and distribute the Products to retail outlets in the Territory which purchase the Products for resale to consumers; including but not limited to "Mom and Pop" accounts, "Pizzeria" accounts, "Restaurant" accounts, "Newstand" accounts, and such provided, however, that except as provided [below], the Route Distributor shall in no event, directly or indirectly, market, sell, or distribute Products to (I) chain stores (including supermarkets), "cash and carry" operations (e.g. Jetro, Inc.), institutional accounts, Beer Class C License accounts, home distributor ("home D") accounts, vending machine operators, or any account deemed to be a national account in conformity with the provisions of this paragraph.

DX-6, ¶1.

The Agreements impose several additional limitations and requirements on the Distributors, such as restricting their distribution work to include only Snapple products and requiring that each Distributor's account be increased by 10% each year. The typical Plaintiff owns or leases one or two trucks and employs one or two employees. Poli Aff. ¶7. Plaintiffs usually maintain separate contracts with the customer retail outlets in their own territory and typically carry between 100 and 400 accounts that they service on a regular basis, and to which they sell primarily 16 ounce loose 24-bottle cases and 16 ounce 12-packs of Snapple products.

As part of the Agreements, SDI or its predecessor reserved the exclusive right to sell directly or indirectly to chain retail outlets, such as grocery stores that exist within an Area Route Distributor's territory, but also provided that SDI may direct Route Distributors to sell or service accounts that are otherwise reserved to SDI, such as supermarkets or other key accounts. See Id. at ¶3.6. Based on the language of the contracts, it cannot reasonably be disputed that Plaintiffs' territories are "exclusive" to them only insofar as they involve retail outlets, and that the distribution rights are "subject to" the other terms and conditions, such as those just noted. See e.g., McGuckin v. Snapple Distributors, Inc., et al., No. 17920/3 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. April 12, 2006), slip op. at 4-5 (DX-8)(holding that the contract language as a whole plainly manifests the intention that defendants have the ability to control which accounts plaintiff may serve and does not preclude SDI from electing to serve any of the accounts directly). SDI generally refers to retail accounts other than supermarkets and chain stores as "All Other Market" accounts ("AOM").

SDI establishes a suggested selling price, a distributor cost and a distributor margin for the Area Route Distributors. The distributor cost is the "front-line" price paid by the Area Route Distributors to SDI. Area Route Distributors may sell at prices above the suggested selling price, and retain the additional profit, and sometimes through various promotions, SDI will fund sales temporarily below the suggested price to a particular customer, by funding the difference between the prices so that the Area Route Distributor receives the same margin on its sales to that customer. Poli Aff. ¶11. In so doing, SDI absorbs any costs of the promotion, and Plaintiffs receive the same profit margin for selling products at promotion prices as they would at frontline prices. Id. ¶10; Caputo Dep. at 50-51. The profit margins of master distributors are similarly protected by SDI or SBC, which will cover the costs of various promotions. Id.

As earlier noted, Plaintiffs' Amended Complaints are essentially identical, with the exception of the names of Plaintiffs and the transshippers named in Paragraph 22 or 23 of each Plaintiff's Complaint. The Complaints allege that from at least 1999, Defendants breached the Area Route Distributors' contracts and that from at least 2001, Defendants violated the Robinson-Patman Act by entering into relationships with transshippers, who purchased Snapple products at a lower price per case and then resold the products within the Plaintiffs' exclusive routes. Plaintiffs claim that Snapple permitted the transshippers to sell Snapple products in any territory or location without restriction and at any price per case. They contend that in addition to selling products to transshippers at a lower price, Snapple also gave transshippers preferential financial treatment by not requiring that they comply with the same restrictions placed on the Area Route Distributors, and that for all these reasons, transshippers have been able to sell Snapple products at cheaper prices, and have done so within Plaintiffs' territories.

For purposes of this case, "transshipping" refers to the sale of Snapple products within each of Plaintiffs' respective territories by someone other than the Plaintiff Area Route Distributor. Transshipped products may be purchased by retailers, among other reasons, because the product may be offered at a lower price than by Area Route Distributors, or because the "transshippers" may deliver additional brands and thereby offer "one-stop shopping," as opposed to Plaintiffs, who are restricted by their contracts to the distribution of only Snapple products.

See, e.g., New York v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 811 F. Supp. 848, 853 n.9 (E.D.N.Y. 1993); see also McLaughlin Report (Ex. 10).

Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' alleged sales to transshippers (or to those who sold to transshippers) violated the Robinson-Patman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 13(a), because the sales were "in the range of $2.00 to $3.00 per case" less than Plaintiffs paid SDI for the products. Through their expert, Plaintiffs suggest that "rather than enforc[ing] its own transshipping policy, Snapple Beverage Group embarked on a price war with SDI." PX-3, Expert Report at 5.

Plaintiffs assert that the transshippers are competitors of Plaintiffs and that lower prices and other preferential treatment given to transshippers has resulted in a lessening of competition, attempts to create a monopoly in the line of commerce, as well as the injury, destruction and prevention of competition between Distributors, transshippers, and their respective customers. Plaintiffs argue that Snapple's relationships with transshippers were unlawful and in direct contravention of the language, spirit and intent of the Area Route Distributors' exclusive agreements. Plaintiffs allege that they have been, and will continue to be harmed by the daily lost sales to potential customers within their territories and the current lost market value of their distributorships and exclusive routes. Plaintiffs aver that they have repeatedly complained to the Snapple Defendants that the transshippers were selling Snapple products within their exclusive area routes and that Snapple has taken no substantive action to stop the conduct, despite Snapple's knowledge of the existence of transshipping and its written policy against transshipping. They argue that Defendants had full and complete knowledge and documentation of the transshipping, including names and locations of transshippers, the original purchasers of the products, the relevant prices, the disruption of territorial integrity and the harmful financial effect of transshipping. Plaintiffs have presented written reports or complaints from Plaintiffs and SDI employees, which show that Snapple products other than those distributed by Plaintiffs were being found and sold in Plaintiffs' territories. See Oppo. at 5; PX-E.

Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have no evidence that any Defendant sold Snapple products to the majority of transshippers in this case and that it therefore could not be proved that they "discriminated in price" by selling products to a favored purchaser, and that the few alleged transshippers who purchased Snapple products through SDI's distribution system did so "almost invariably" at a rate higher than SDI's net prices for Plaintiffs.*fn2 Defendants also argue that Plaintiffs cannot establish the separate element of "actual injury" because no Plaintiff has evidence that alleged price discrimination as opposed to other factors (such as ...


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