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The Supreme Court Rules in Tennessee Retailers: What Does It Really Mean?

July 02, 2019

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas, No. 18-96 (“Tennessee Retailers”). The full opinion can be read here, and our introduction to the case and issues can be found here. To recap, at issue in this case is the interplay between the Dormant Commerce Clause and the 21st Amendment. The Dormant Commerce Clause prohibits states from discriminating against interstate commerce, while the 21st Amendment grants to each state the authority to regulate alcohol within its borders. In Tennessee Retailers, the Court considered to what extent the 21st Amendment allows states to pass laws regulating the alcohol industry that would otherwise be prohibited by the Dormant Commerce Clause.

The Court last addressed this question in 2005, when the Court held in Granholm v. Heald that the 21st Amendment “does not immunize all [state alcohol] laws from Commerce Clause challenge.” In that case, the Court invalidated laws that favored in-state wineries over out-of-state wineries with respect to direct sales and shipments to consumers. Last week’s ruling in Tennessee Retailers confirmed a broad reading of the prior ruling in Granholm, as applied to a Tennessee law requiring applicants for retail liquor store licenses to live in the state for two years before being eligible for the license. The Court held that Tennessee’s discrimination against out-of-state individuals in the granting of retail licenses violates the Dormant Commerce Clause, and is not saved by the 21st Amendment. The Court ruled that the 21st Amendment “allows each State leeway to enact the measures that its citizens believe are appropriate to address the public health and safety effects of alcohol use and to serve other legitimate interests,” but that it does not “license the States to adopt protectionist measures with no demonstrable connection to those interests” in violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause. The Court also clarified that the prior ruling in Granholm was not limited to prohibiting discrimination against out-of-state products and producers, and that states are prohibited from discriminating against any out-of-state interests, including out-of-state individuals or retailers.

Much of the news coverage and discussion of this case has focused on the impact of the case on state laws that allow in-state retailers to ship alcohol directly to consumers, but prohibit out-of-state retailers from doing the same. Some coverage implied that such laws were automatically invalidated by the Court’s ruling, but the retailer direct shipping issue was not in front of the Court. While the ruling in Tennessee Retailers does confirm that the principles in Granholm apply to all out-of-state interests, rather than just out-of-state producers, the ruling does not categorically prohibit all state alcohol laws that do not treat in-state and out-of-state businesses equally. The ruling is instead a continuation of the Granholm conversation. The ruling confirms that states “‘remain free to pursue’ their legitimate interests in the health and safety risks posed by the alcohol trade,” and that the 21st Amendment does confer additional regulatory authority to the states. However, when a discriminatory state law is “purely protectionist” and cannot be “justified as a public health or safety measure” or on some other “legitimate non-protectionist ground,” then the law will be found unconstitutional. Thus, state laws that allow in-state retailers to ship alcohol directly to consumers, but prohibit out-of-state retailers from doing so, are not definitively unconstitutional following the ruling in Tennessee Retailers. These laws are only unconstitutional if the state cannot establish that the laws are necessary to advance a legitimate local purpose, such as protecting public health and safety, and that there are no reasonable nondiscriminatory alternatives that can adequately further that purpose.

So, what does this ruling really mean? First, the ruling is a victory for out-of-state individuals and entities that desire to apply for a retail liquor store license in Tennessee. Second, other states with burdensome retail residency requirements, such as Massachusetts and Maryland, are likely evaluating the legality of their laws in light of the ruling in Tennessee Retailers. Such states may opt to eliminate such requirements, or may decide to leave the residency requirements in place until challenged. Given the language in Tennessee Retailers analyzing the lack of connection between Tennessee’s residency requirements and advancing public health and safety interests, leaving burdensome residency requirements in place may be risky. But, the State of Tennessee did not attempt to defend its laws, and the public health and safety arguments put forth by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association were cursory, and thus other states may believe that they can do a better job defending their laws. If any states decide to leave retail residency requirements in place, it is likely that litigation will follow. Third, states with residency requirements for wholesaler licenses, such as Missouri, are also likely weighing whether to revise such laws or to leave the residency requirements in place until challenged. Missouri’s wholesaler residency requirements were upheld as constitutional by the 8th Circuit in 2013. However, the 8th Circuit ruling was based on a narrow reading of Granholm, and that interpretation was directly refuted by the Court in Tennessee Retailers. Accordingly, it would not be surprising to see litigation on this issue in the very near future, if such states do not remove wholesaler residency requirements. Finally, even less-burdensome residency requirements, such as requirements for licensees to have a resident manager, may be vulnerable to challenge.

While residency requirements will be most directly in the line of fire following Tennessee Retailers, the ruling has the potential to impact many other aspects of state alcohol regulation. Unlike Granholm, the Tennessee Retailers Court declined to describe the three-tier system as “unquestioningly legitimate.” The Court clarified that while the basic three-tier model may be sound, the 21st Amendment does not sanction “every discriminatory feature that a State may incorporate into its three-tiered scheme.” It is unclear to what extent Tennessee Retailers will spur states to act on their own to revise discriminatory aspects of the state’s alcohol regulatory scheme. We may see states make changes independently, but it may be that significant change will only be achieved through litigation. As the Court noted, “each variation [of three-tiered alcohol regulatory schemes] must be judged on its own features.” Because discriminatory alcohol laws are only unconstitutional if they are not reasonably necessary to advance a legitimate local purpose, states may leave discriminatory laws on the books in the hopes that they can justify those laws if challenged. Accordingly, the most direct outcome of Tennessee Retailers will likely be a considerable amount of litigation.

Which laws are the most likely targets of litigation? Any state alcohol laws that discriminate against “out-of-state economic interests” are vulnerable to challenge under Granholm and Tennessee Retailers. So, litigation could focus on laws that authorize only in-state retailers to deliver or ship to consumers, or it could target laws such as physical presence requirements, tied-house exceptions that allow only in-state producers to operate retail locations, laws that require retailers to purchase from in-state sources, laws that authorize only in-state suppliers to self-distribute products to retailers, at-rest laws, or franchise law exemptions that apply only to in-state suppliers. The recent ruling in Tennessee Retailers may also inspire further litigation and move the needle in the related area of alcohol laws that are facially neutral but potentially discriminatory in effect. For example, states such as New Jersey or Ohio with laws that have special privileges for certain “small” producers, where the definition of “small” may be designed to encompass most or all in-state producers while excluding many out-of-state producers.

While we noted above that some news coverage has overstated the immediate impact of Tennessee Retailers on out-of-state retailer direct to consumer shipping or delivery, the ruling will undoubtedly lead to more litigation regarding these laws. Some of that litigation may be successful in invalidating laws that allow in-state retailers to ship or deliver alcohol directly to consumers, but prohibit out-of-state retailers from doing so. However, each case will depend upon the specifics of the state’s regulatory scheme and the state’s public health and safety justifications for that scheme. While the justifications for Tennessee’s residency requirements were weak, states may have stronger public health and safety justifications for laws regulating delivery and direct shipping, such as preventing underage drinking or delivery of alcohol to intoxicated persons. Note, however, that this argument was held in Granholm to be insufficient justification for treating in-state and out-of-state wineries differently with respect to the shipment of wine to consumers. But, the strength of public health and safety justifications will likely be different in states that allow retailer hand delivery but not shipment by common carrier of alcohol, and these justifications may also be different with respect to beer or spirits as opposed to wine. Furthermore, states may have additional public health and safety justifications based on preventing counterfeit alcohol. An out-of-state retailer would not obtain its products from the same distribution system as an in-state retailer, and the state’s public health and safety justifications for its distribution system and requirements for alcohol sourcing may be persuasive. However, a state making this argument would likely also need to assert that there are no reasonable nondiscriminatory alternatives to accomplishing the goal of preventing counterfeit alcohol.

There are at least two cases already pending that challenge state laws with respect to alcohol shipping and delivery. In Missouri, Sarasota Wine Market v. Schmitt is on appeal to the 8th Circuit. The lower court held that Missouri’s laws permitting in-state retailers to ship wine directly to consumers, but prohibiting out-of-state retailers from doing the same, are valid under the 21st Amendment. However, this ruling was based on the 8th Circuit precedent mentioned above, which relied on a narrow interpretation of Granholm that was contradicted by the Court in Tennessee Retailers. Further, Lebamoff Enterprises v. Snyder, challenging Michigan’s wine shipping laws that treat in-state and out-of-state retailers differently, is pending before the 6th Circuit. In that case, the lower court held that Michigan’s laws are unconstitutional, as they impermissibly discriminate against out-of-state interests without sufficient justification in violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause. This ruling and appeal were stayed pending the outcome in Tennessee Retailers. These two cases will likely provide the earliest insight into how courts will apply the recent Supreme Court ruling.

Even if the outcome of these cases is that state laws are found invalid, it will not necessarily mean that these states will allow out-of-state retailer direct shipments. Upon a court ruling that a state’s laws are discriminatory and unconstitutional, the state could decide to rectify the issue by “leveling down” to prohibit all retailer alcohol shipments to consumers, from both in-state and out-of-state retailers. As such, the law would apply equally to all retailers regardless of location, so it would not be discriminatory. “Leveling down” to remove all retailer alcohol shipping privileges would likely be unpopular with consumers, but it may find support from some segments of the alcohol industry. Thus, this outcome remains a possibility even if litigation challenging laws prohibiting out-of-state retailer shipping is successful.

Overall, we will have to wait and see what the ruling in Tennessee Retailers will mean for the alcohol industry. But, if you have any questions regarding this ruling or how current laws affect your alcohol business, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.


TTB Updates its Position on Gluten-Free Label Claims

February 11, 2014

On Tuesday, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”) issued an Announcement regarding its treatment of “gluten-free” claims on alcoholic beverage labels. As we previously blogged here, TTB has been looking into the issue of gluten-free labeling since at least 2012, and TTB Ruling 2012-2 implemented a policy of allowing the term “gluten-free” only on the labels of products that are produced without any ingredients that contain gluten. For products made from gluten-containing materials, the 2012 Ruling implemented several requirements, including: a) a statement that the product is “Processed or Treated or Crafted to remove gluten;” b) a qualifying statement to inform consumers that (i) the product was made from a grain that contains gluten, (ii) there is currently no valid test to verify the gluten content of fermented products, and (iii) the finished product may contain gluten; and, c) a detailed description of the method used to remove gluten from the product.

TTB explains in its most recent announcement that it has finished its review of the FDA’s rule on gluten-free labeling, and has updated its requirements accordingly. TTB will continue to allow the term “gluten-free” only on the labels of products that are produced without any ingredients that contain gluten. However, for products made from gluten-containing materials, TTB has lessened the labeling requirements, and now provides that such products may be labeled with a statement that the product was “processed, “treated” or “crafted” to remove gluten, if that claim “is made together with a qualifying statement that warns the consumer that the gluten content of the product cannot be determined and that the product may contain gluten.” Labels no longer require a detailed description of the method used to remove gluten from the product.

If you have any questions about alcoholic beverage labeling, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.

Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2014 · All Rights Reserved ·


Facebook Eases Restrictions on Promotions Conducted on Commercial Facebook Pages

September 11, 2013

On August 27, 2013, Facebook announced changes to make it easier for businesses to create and administer promotions on the website. This means any business - including alcohol beverage industry members - can now collect entries for sweepstakes or contests using Facebook itself. Prior to these changes, all promotions on Facebook had to be administered through applications. Now, promotions can be administered on Page Timelines or in applications, though they may not be administered on personal Timelines. For example, now it is possible for businesses to:

- Collect entries by having users post on the company’s Page or comment/like a post

- Collect entries via messages users send to the company’s Page

- Have promotions including a voting element based on likes

You can read more about the changes here. If you have any questions about the ins and outs of using social media as part of the business marketing and promotional plans for companies in the alcohol beverage industry, call one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.

Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2013 · All Rights Reserved ·


Recent California Statutory Revisions Clarify the Scope of Permissible Retailer Listings by Supplier

April 29, 2013

Effective January 1, 2013, California AB 2349 amended Business and Professions Code Section 25500.1 and repealed Section 25500.2. The two sections (25500.1 and 25500.2) were duplicative in that both permitted suppliers to list the names of two or more restaurants that carry their products. Section 25500.2 included beer, wine and distilled spirits suppliers, while 25500.1 pertained to suppliers of wine and brandy. The newly amended 25500.1 covers suppliers of beer, wine and distilled spirits. In addition to consolidating the two laws, the newly amended Section 25500.1 removes the requirement that the listed on-sale retailers be restaurants - suppliers can now list bars and clubs that do not serve food. The new Section 25500.1 also clarifies that suppliers can list “other electronic media” with the retailers’ names, addresses and websites, which would include the retailers’ twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and other social media forums.

The revised Section 25500.1 parallels the existing and unchanged Section 25502.1, which pertains to supplier listings of off-sale retailers. Section 25502.1 has not been revised to include “other electronic media” as a means to list the retailers’ information, but we believe it is intended to parallel the on-sale provisions of Section 25500.1. Note that the on-sale and off-sale statutes both include restrictions, e.g., the listings may not include retail prices; the supplier must list at least two unaffiliated retailers; and the retailer may not pay for the listing.

For information about these statutes or any other California trade practices questions, please contact any of the attorneys at Strike and Techel.

Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2013 · All Rights Reserved ·


Beer Suppliers and Distributors May Now Preannounce Retail Visits in Texas

February 11, 2013

On February 7, 2013 the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (“TABC”) issued an advisory, MPA053, entitled Promotional Activity Prearrangement/Preannouncement for Beer, which announces an amendment to 16 Tex. Admin. Code § 45.113, allowing beer manufacturers and distributors to prearrange and preannounce promotions at all on and off premise retail locations. Existing law (Tex. Alco. Bev. Code Ann. § 102.07(g)) permits distilled spirits and wine manufacturers and wholesalers to prearrange and preannounce promotional activities at retail premises (see MPB023), but beer manufacturers and wholesalers were excluded. Bar spending, sampling, appearances by agents, etc., could not be prearranged with the retailer or preannounced to consumers for beer; they had to be spontaneous. With this amendment, beer manufacturers and distributors are put on equal footing with spirits and wine suppliers and will be allowed to preannounce, or advertise, their promotional activities to consumers by means of email, TV, print, and digital media. These announcements may include event details, such as the date, time and location of the event. The amendment will enable beer manufacturers and distributors to more effectively prearrange their promotional activities.

The attorneys at Strike & Techel are available to answer questions about promotions and other industry trade practices.

Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2013 · All Rights Reserved ·


Social Media Litigation: Phonedog v. Kravitz and Lessons for Best Practices

July 16, 2012

Wine and other alcoholic beverage industry members, along with everyone else trying to advertise and sell just about anything online, are constantly being reminded to use social media to market their businesses. While the possible benefits of social media are well known, today’s post is a reminder to use discretion and sound business judgment when launching a social media campaign, just as you would for other aspects of your business. Three recent cases highlight the importance of developing social media policies before problems arise.

In Phonedog v. Kravitz, Northern District of California, Case No. C 11-03474, Phonedog, a website that reviews mobile devices, sued its former employee over issues surrounding the ownership of a Twitter account. Kravitz was a product reviewer for Phonedog, and was tasked with maintaining a company Twitter account. While Kravitz worked for Phonedog, the Twitter account had approximately 17,000 followers. At some time after Kravitz resigned from Phonedog, the company requested that the Twitter account be returned, but Kravitz instead changed the name of the Twitter account to his own name and declined to give Phonedog access to the account (the details of when Phonedog did or did not request access to the Twitter account and related issues are up for debate and are key issues in the ongoing case). Phonedog first brought suit against Kravitz on July 15, 2011, alleging four causes of action related to Kravitz’ unauthorized use of the Twitter account, including: 1) misappropriation of trade secrets, 2) intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, 3) negligent interference of prospective economic advantage, and 4) conversion. Phonedog claimed that it suffered $340,000 in damages as a result of Kravitz’ actions. That damages calculation is based on 17,000 followers, valued at the “industry standard” of $2.50/month per follower, for an 8-month period. The case is still in its early stages, but so far the court has largely rejected Kravitz’ efforts to dismiss the lawsuit, and has allowed the case to go forward over Kravitz’ claim that the case could not meet the required jurisdictional minimum ($75,000) because Phonedog could not prove that it has ownership or the right of possession of the account or its followers. The court determined that those are factual issues not appropriate for early dismissal, paving the way for more fighting over the Twitter account.

Another ongoing federal case, Christou v. Beatport, District of Colorado Case No. 10-cv-02912-RBJ-KMT, is instructive on the issue of the ownership of social media accounts. In Christou, one of several issues is whether a nightclub owner’s Myspace page and the associated friend list can be protectable trade secrets. In this case a former business partner left the business and kept the login information and friends list of the nightclub’s Myspace account, and began using the account for his competing business. Similar to Phonedog, the court has allowed the case to survive a motion to dismiss, meaning that the court has allowed the argument to go forward that social media account information may be considered a protectable trade secret.

Lastly, in Ardis Health, LLC v. Nankivell, Southern District of New York Case No. 11 Civ. 5013, the plaintiff employer sought a preliminary injunction against its former employee, Nankivell, seeking the return of the employer’s login information for its online accounts, including its social media accounts. The court granted the preliminary injunction with respect to the account information, and required Nankivell to return the information, finding that “it is uncontested that [the employer] own[s] the rights to the Access Information.” In its decision, the court referred to the employment agreement Nankivell signed when she was hired, which included language that work created during her employment “shall be the sole and exclusive property of [the employer].”

There are several important legal tenets which will continue to evolve with the resolution of the Phonedog, Christou, and other similar cases, including whether social media customer lists can qualify as trade secrets. But regardless of how those cases get resolved, they are instructive for anyone marketing with social media. Most importantly, companies should consider several issues before launching social media campaigns, including: a) making clear who owns all social media accounts, including customer lists, friends, and followers, etc., b) developing written social media policies, addressing issues such as username and password access, customer information access, and issues related to the authority to post messages online, and c) return and/or use of company information by agents or contractors. We’ll keep you posted as the legal issues surrounding social media continue to evolve.

Imbiblog is published for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Copyright © 2012 · All Rights Reserved ·


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