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Letter: Northeast antitrust lawsuit plaintiff urges settlement

Published on 24 March 2016

A revised settlement agreement in a six-year-old northeast U.S. milk marketing class-action antitrust lawsuit was sent to dairy farmers in March. Vermont dairy farmer Alice Allen was one of the plaintiffs filing the original lawsuit. The open letter she wrote to fellow producers regarding the settlement agreement follows.

Editor’s note:

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A revised settlement agreement in a six-year-old northeast U.S. milk marketing class-action antitrust lawsuit (Allen v. Dairy Farmers of America, Inc.) was sent to dairy farmers in March.

Read Northeast milk marketing antitrust lawsuit settlement agreement revised

Farmers have until April 29 to submit written comments on the settlement agreement, and a “fairness hearing” will be held on May 13, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont.

Vermont dairy farmer Alice Allen was one of the plaintiffs filing the original lawsuit. The following is a letter she wrote to fellow producers regarding the settlement agreement.

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Dairy farmers are now receiving information in the U.S. Mail regarding the proposed Northeast Dairy Farmer settlement with Dairy Farmers of America/Dairy Marketing Services (DFA/DMS). This material can also be accessed here.

It is very important that farmers make the time to read this information and take notice of the dates and deadlines. It is also very important that farmers respond in writing to the court whether they support or oppose this settlement.

Make no mistake, this settlement is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for upper level DFA/DMS management, but rather a wakeup call for DFA/DMS management to pay closer attention to the legitimacy of farmers concerns. Up until this settlement there was no real avenue for farmers to have their complaints heard and acted upon. As many farmers commented it was like: “...complaining about the boss to the boss...” if a farmer had concerns. Now, through this settlement, there is a real and effective method in place to have your concerns addressed.

Below is a partial list of new requirements for DFA and DMS if this settlement is approved:

  • Not enter into full supply agreements with plants (unless limited conditions apply), all in order to open up markets to farmers.
  • Use specific protocols for milk testing and sampling at the farm and at the plant to ensure accuracy and protect dairy farmers.
  • Create and pay for a DFA Advisory Council Member, appointed by the Dairy Farmer Subclasses, with the responsibility to enhance producer pay prices and with access to DFA/DMS management and financial records.
  • Create and pay for a Farmer Ombudsperson, appointed by Dairy Farmer Subclasses, charged with advocating for farmers and mediating disputes.
  • Allow DFA/DMS farmers to terminate their relationship with DFA/DMS on 90 days notice, and on the other side, provide DFA/DMS farmers with specified notice before any termination of their relationship by DFA/DMS.
  • Not oppose a request to release the most critical and telling internal DFA and DMS information and documents from the lawsuit, all to provide transparency to farmers.

All the details of this settlement are included in the “Notice” within the packet in the recent mailing. Again, please read all the information carefully.

My personal involvement in this case began many decades before this case was ultimately filed in 2009. Dating back to the early 1980s a group of dairy farmers with whom I was associated began a “milk marketing study group” to help all of us learn not only how our milk was being sold, but also the regulations surrounding legitimate cooperatives and other marketing entities. The seriousness of my involvement in milk marketing education for farmers led to my being selected as the lead named plaintiff in this case. By no means am I an expert, but I do have significant background, as well as perspective in the marketing of milk. In addition, I had the good fortune to be mentored by some of the most influential marketing experts in the dairy business during the decades from the late 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century.

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Throughout this entire litigation, all of the named plaintiffs for both the DFA/DMS subclass and the non-DFA/DMS subclass have dedicated ourselves to obtaining the very best results for all dairy farmers, not just a favored few. As would be expected, we named plaintiffs did not always agree on the best methods to achieve these goals, or even what the goals should be. These disagreements are understandable. One only needs to listen or watch a few minutes of media coverage of candidates during this election year to realize there is dissension on just about every subject.

The attorneys for both subclasses are all well respected antitrust attorneys from well-known national firms. We, as named plaintiffs, had a stiff learning curve to understand what can be legally and effectively addressed through a class action antitrust case. As for the role of the attorneys, they had to accept the fact that this group of named plaintiffs was determined to participate in every detail. After all, our own homes, livelihoods and farms were at stake in this litigation. These attorneys spent countless hours on the case itself, as well as countless hours educating the named plaintiffs on what was and was not needed and expected from us, despite the fact that we may have believed we had more information that would be germane to this case.

The question in this settlement is not simply who is right and who is wrong, but rather what is the best and most achievable outcome relative to this case which is a class action antitrust case that will benefit dairy farmers in the most comprehensive way, without extending this litigation on into the future through trial and beyond, where there is no certainty whatsoever that we could ever attain the many benefits available now through this settlement before the court.

Two-thirds of the named plaintiffs support this settlement. One-third opposes it. That fact alone means the court will not immediately approve the settlement. The court needs to hear from as many of the 7,000-plus farmers within both subclasses on whether or not they support the settlement.

While those named plaintiffs opposed to the settlement believe that farmers are entitled to and need their “day in court,” it brings to mind the saying: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” To have DFA become a publicly traded company rather than a cooperative, thus denying DFA the immunity of Capper-Volstead, as those plaintiffs have lobbied for, is an unrealistic goal. 

I strongly urge all dairy farmers to read and understand the benefits contained in this settlement. Looking for the best possible outcome for all dairy farmers, I urge farmers to support this settlement, and make the time to write your letter of support to the court before April 29, 2016. If you wish, ask to speak in support at the fairness hearing on May 13, 2016.

On the other hand, if you do not support this settlement, you have the right to “opt out” (with instructions for that included in the “Notice” you received in the mail) and pursue a case against DFA/DMS on your own.

Please take the time to read all the information being sent to you. Given the facts, make your decision whether to oppose or support based on your best judgment. I believe that when the facts are read and understood, and the settlement taken as a giant step in the right direction for farmers to achieve more control of their milk market, that the majority of Northeast dairy farmers will wholeheartedly support this settlement and send that letter of support to the court by the April 29 deadline.

Sincerely,

Alice H. Allen

E. Ryegate

Vermont 05042

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