Feesers filed its complaint against Michael Foods and Sodexho on March 17, 2004, alleging price discrimination in violation of the Robinson-Patman Act. A three-week bench trial took place in early 2008 before Judge Sylvia Rambo in the federal district court in Harrisburg, which resulted in the April 27, 2009 decision.This law blog quotes attorneys for the two sides, who disagree (no surprise) as to the importance of the decision:
At trial, Michael Foods and Sodexho argued that Feesers and Sodexho were not in "actual competition" for purposes of the Robinson-Patman Act because Sodexho provides food management services to its customers, whereas Feesers is a food distributor. The court found, however, that both Feesers and Sodexho procure and distribute food for the same institutional customers and, thus, are in actual competition for the same food dollar.
Although the injunctions issued by the district court are binding only as to Michael Foods and Sodexho, it is now clear that price discrimination by food suppliers against distributors such as Feesers and in favor of large-volume food management companies and GPOs such as Sodexho will not be tolerated by the courts.
Kessler [Feeser's attorney] told us Wednesday that the decision could have a major impact on the food distribution industry. In recent years, he explained, food management companies like Sodexo--which provide procurement and management services for cafeterias at schools, hospitals, and prisons--have used their large client base as leverage to extract better pricing deals from suppliers. That's hurt distributors like Feesers. "Sodexho [said to its clients], 'We don't compete with distributors so you can give huge discounts,' " Kessler told us.The decision is here.
Peggy Zwisler of Latham & Watkins, who represented Michael Foods at trial, disputed Kessler's view of Judge Rambo's opinon. She told us it's "very fact specific" and does not have broad implications. She also said that Michael Foods has "strong grounds for appeal" and it intends to do so.
I am not an attorney, so take my opinions with several grains of salt, but it seems to me that the most significant point in the decision is that no proof of competitive harm is required, that harm can be assumed from the size of the price differential. My understanding is that this interpretation, if upheld, would make such suits easier to win in the future.
“Competitive injury” is established prima facie by proof of “a substantial price discrimination between competing purchasers over time.” In order to establish a prima facie violation of section 2(a), Feesers does not need to prove that Michael Foods’ price discrimination actually harmed competition, i.e., that the discriminatory pricing caused Feesers to lose customers to Sodexho. Rather, Feesers need only prove that (a) it competed with Sodexho to sell food and (b) there was price discrimination over time by Michael Foods. This evidence gives rise to a rebuttable inference of “competitive injury” under § 2(a). The inference, if it is found to exist, would then have to be rebutted by defendants’ proof that the price differential was not the reason that Feesers lost sales or profits.