2018 Changes to the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act

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Each year brings changes to the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, and 2018 is no exception.  Most of the changes for 2018 are quite esoteric, relating only to the provision of licenses in particular counties or venues, or allowing some additional rights to non-profit corporations who use temporary licenses for events.

However, a chief new feature of the ABC Act that will have state-wide impact is the Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) Training Program Act of 2017 (California Business and Professions Code § 25680 et seq.).  The RBS Act provides that the California ABC will develop a best-practices training program by 2020 that all on-premises servers of alcohol (and their managers) throughout the state will need to complete in order to be certified to serve alcohol.  Servers employed prior to July 1, 2021 must complete the program by August 31, 2021, and all servers hired after July 1, 2021 must complete the program within 60 days of being hired.  ABC advisories indicate that food servers, bartenders, cashiers, doormen, and bouncers all may be considered “servers” for purposes of the RBS Act.

The RBS law appears to encompass a wide manner of licensees that operate on premises – bars, restaurants, brewpubs, tasting rooms, clubs.  For non-profit special events/temporary licenses, the licensee is required to designate one certified server who must remain on site for the entire event.  Covered licensees are required to maintain records of their various certifications, and violators are subject to unspecified “disciplinary action.”

The 2018 ABC Act also permits for the first time beer manufacturers to provide free or discounted ground transportation rides for consumers (i.e. from the brewery taproom to local hotels, etc.) for purposes of public safety.  (California Business and Professions Code § 25600.)  This harmonizes the treatment of beer manufacturers with winegrowers and distillers.  The manufacturer cannot, however, make the transportation contingent on the purchase of an alcoholic beverage, and beer wholesalers cannot have any interest in the transportation arrangement.

In instances where small beer manufacturers (License Type 23) and winegrowers have adjacent production facilities, the 2018 revisions also permit a common-licensed area in which consumers can drink both wine and beer.  (California Business and Professions Code § 25607.)  This is a new exception to the general prohibition of anyone possessing alcoholic beverages on a manufacturer’s premises other than the types that manufacturer is licensed to produce.

Staying up to date on laws and regulations affecting the industry is vital to successfully protecting and growing alcoholic beverage businesses.  For assistance navigating beer-industry specific legal issues, contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel.

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The Unintended Industry of Proposition 65: Plaintiffs’ Lawyers

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One of the unfortunate and unintended consequences of California’s extensive regulatory efforts has been to create a small industry of plaintiffs’ law firms and repeat clients apparently determined to extract settlement money from businesses.  Proposition 65 was implemented with the best spirit of consumer protection in mind.  But those regulations have since transmogrified into tools that primarily profit a small group of plaintiffs’ attorneys, to an extent that has become increasingly burdensome for consumer product manufacturers, resellers and property owners.

Proposition 65 provides for private enforcement actions, which enable individuals or groups to enforce the statutes against consumer products companies, property owners and others.  Prop 65 is a “right to know” law intended to help consumers make informed decisions about their purchases. The combination of a growing list of substances, difficulty in determining exposure levels with scientific certainty, sparse judicial and government oversight, and a right to attorneys’ fee awards under the statute, have transformed Prop 65 into a lucrative business model for a handful of law firms and closely-related consumer groups.  Hundreds of Prop 65 actions are settled each year, with about 70% of the settlement money paid being allocated to attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

California’s published statistics from 2013-2017 show an accelerating trend of more Notices of Violations filed each year.  In 2016 alone, for example, 1,576 Notices of Violation were sent to businesses selling products in California, while 2,710 Notices of Violation were sent in 2017.  The attorneys’ fee provisions of Prop 65 undoubtedly have much to do with that trend.  In 2016, 760 judgments or settlements were reached totaling $30,150,111, of which $20,062,247 was paid as attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ lawyers.  In 2017, 688 judgments or settlements were reached totaling $25,767,500, of which $19,486,362 was paid as attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

With that kind of monetary motivation, it is easy to see why some law firms make a practice of filing and serving Prop 65 Notices of Violations.  This effectively creates a small industry of lawyers who pursue Prop 65 claims, often for a small group of repeat-plaintiffs who appear again and again with the same lawyers.  Public records identify at least the following law firms, attorneys and their associated plaintiff clients, who pursue multiple Prop 65 claims:

  • The Chanler Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Anthony Held, Ph.D., P.E.; Whitney R. Leeman, Ph.D; Mark Moorberg; John Moore; Paul Wozniak; and Laurence Vinocur
  • Lexington Law Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Center for Environmental Health
  • Yeroushalmi & Yeroushalmi
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Consumer Advocacy Group, Inc.
  • Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Environmental Research Center; and Center for Advanced Public Awareness, Inc. (“CAPA”)
  • Law Office of Daniel N. Greenbaum
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Shefa LMV, Inc.
  • Klamath
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation
  • Lucas T. Novak
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff APS&EE, LLC
  • Custodio & Dubey
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Ecological Alliance, LLC
  • Sheffer Law Firm
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Susan Davia
  • O’Neil Dennis, Esq.
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Alicia Chin
  • Bush & Henry, Attorneys at Law, P.C.
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Michael DiPirro
  • Brodsky & Smith, LLC
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Gabriel Espinosa; Kingpun Chen; Precila Balabbo; Ema Bell; and Anthony Ferreiro
  • Law Offices of Stephen Ure
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Evelyn Wimberley
  • Lozeau Drury
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Environmental Research Center, Inc.; and Community Science Institute
  • Robert Hancock of Pacific Justice Center
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Erika McCartney
  • Khansari Law Corporation
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff The Chemical Toxin Working Group, Inc.
  • Law Office of Joseph D. Agliozzo
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Sara Hammond
  • Glick Law Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Kim Embry

If you are unfortunate enough to receive a Prop 65 Notice of Violation from one of these lawyers or plaintiffs, or from any others, don’t ignore it.  The problem will probably not go away by ignoring it, and prompt action can help keep the matter from getting far worse.  Handling it yourself is also usually not a great plan.  Remember that the plaintiffs who sent the Notice of Violation are almost always represented by counsel experienced in Prop 65 matters.  You should contact experienced counsel to help you respond promptly and handle the matter with minimum disruption to your business.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have many years of experience advising clients about how to avoid regulatory compliance issues, and we regularly defend clients against Notices of Violations of Proposition 65 and other California regulations. CK&E uses its extensive experience to help clients who are accused of regulatory violations quickly and effectively resolve claims, so clients can focus on growing their business.

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Women Make Their Presence Known at Natural Products Expo West

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Heather Laird and Desiree Ho attended the Natural Products Expo West in March 2018, where they encountered product trends emphasizing simple recognizable ingredient formulations, and business trends emphasizing strong women’s influences in ownership and management.  Demonstrating the growing consumer interest in natural and organic products, attendance at this year’s Expo was reported to be the largest ever, exceeding 85,000 visitors to more than 3,500 exhibitors.  CK&E attorneys visited clients’ exhibit booths and met with entrepreneurs in the beauty, food, and beverage industries to help them strengthen their brands, navigate regulatory and labeling issues, and grow their business.

Exhibitors showed strong cross-cultural influences, with many products and flavors from around the world, all emphasizing the trend toward fewer and more recognizable ingredients in simple formulations.  Businesses clearly demonstrated they are responding and catering to the adventurous interests and palates of health-conscious, worldly, and informed consumers.  Countless product lines were customized for consumers committed to paleo, vegan, and gluten-free diets.  Another popular trend is toward products and businesses that are dedicated to championing charitable causes, so consumers can use their purchases to support causes they are passionate about and can feel loyal to brands that are as committed as they are.

Mirroring recent cultural trends, women-owned and managed businesses were very notable throughout the Expo.  Many entrepreneurs proudly advertised their Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) certifications.  The WBENC certification “validates that the business is 51 percent owned, controlled, operated, and managed by a woman or women.”

In the beauty arena, there were a refreshing number of brands actively encouraging women to maintain an open dialogue with the product manufacturer to address issues they regularly face.  The trend of businesses expending great effort to establish dialogue and long-term relationships with their consumers through social media and direct contacts has become clear.  These overlapping trends resulted in prominent presentation of many products “made for women, by women,” ranging from beautifully packaged feminine hygiene products to natural pre-natal and post-natal products promoted as safe for use by pregnant women and around infants.

CK&E attorneys provide full service to businesses in the beauty, food, and beverage industries.  They regularly attend important trade shows to help their clients stay abreast of trends, new regulations, and developments in the law and the marketplace affecting these industries.

 

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Big Beer, Craft Beer, and Trademark Infringement: Harm to Premium Brands

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As the craft beer market continues to expand in popularity and threaten the market share of older “macrobrewery” giants like Molson Coors and Anheuser Busch, courts have seen increased legal disputes in the beer industry as brands fight for both their independence and the attention of consumers.  Most recently, Molson Coors has been sued in federal court in San Diego by Stone Brewing Co., one of the oldest and largest independent craft brewers in the United States.  In its complaint, Stone Brewing claims that Coors is infringing the “STONE” trademark by rebranding Coors’ sub-premium, low cost “Keystone” brand as “KeySTONE,” with a particular emphasis on the single word “STONE” in packaging and marketing materials.  Because of this, Stone Brewing alleges, Coors is sowing consumer confusion between the two brands.

Keystone Rebranding Comparison from Stone Complaint

Unless there is a swift settlement, one can assume that Stone Brewing will make good on the threat in its complaint that it will move for a preliminary injunction in order to stop the sale of Coors’ “KeySTONE” branded products during the pendency of the lawsuit.  A motion for a preliminary injunction is often a critical juncture in such trademark infringement lawsuits, and Stone Brewing will need to show that it will be “irreparably harmed” if the injunction is not granted.  This showing has in recent years become more difficult, as courts no longer presume irreparable harm when the plaintiff shows that consumers are likely to be confused by trademark infringement, but rather require an additional showing of likely irreparable harm.  “Irreparable harm” (also known as “irreparable injury”) generally means injuries that cannot be readily compensated by money damages, and since money damages are usually available for trademark infringement this standard presents special hurdles for infringement plaintiffs that can be difficult to overcome early in a case.

To show irreparable harm, one argument Stone Brewing will likely make is that its “premium brand” is being tarnished by confusion with Coors’ “value brand.”  This argument is presaged throughout Stone Brewing’s complaint (referring to Keystone’s beers as “watered down” and “fizzy yellow offerings,” as opposed to Stone Brewing’s “bold” and “artisanal” products).  The argument, which has been judicially adopted in relatively few cases, is essentially that the premium or niche brand is irreparably harmed by the association with the value, mass-market brand, which usually is of lesser quality.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel, which has experience in both trademark litigation and issues specific to beer production, distribution, and marketing, has succeeded in making this premium-vs.-value argument in federal courts in California.  For example, in Moroccanoil, Inc. v. Zotos International, Inc. (230 F. Supp. 3d 1161 (USDC C.D. Cal. 2017)), a 2017 trademark infringement case with similarities to the dispute between Coors and Stone Brewing, CK&E represented the manufacturer of Moroccanoil Treatment, a luxury oil-infused hair care product sold in distinctive packaging.  The defendant Zotos, part of a large personal care products conglomerate, had created a low-cost “value” hair oil product called “Majestic Oil” that, in addition to its similar name, used packaging that was a close likeness of Moroccanoil’s trade dress.

CK&E, in its successful motion for preliminary injunction, argued that sales of low-cost “value” Majestic Oil products would erode Moroccanoil’s carefully-built premium image.  The presentation included evidence establishing that once a product is no longer perceived by consumers as “premium,” it is difficult or even impossible for the seller to regain that perception.  The court agreed with CK&E and Moroccanoil, finding a likelihood of irreparable harm and granting a preliminary injunction against further sale of the Majestic Oil products.

Preliminary injunctions can be dramatic turning points in infringement cases.  In Moroccanoil’s case, the court’s preliminary injunction prevented Zotos from any further sales, advertisement or distribution of its infringing products, and required Zotos to recall all of its infringing products already in the market.  As could be predicted, the case settled swiftly thereafter and Zotos made permanent substantial changes to its product name and packaging to avoid infringing Moroccanoil’s intellectual property rights.

Click here to learn more about CK&E’s Moroccanoil v. Zotos matter or contact CK&E attorneys who work on beer industry matters, such as the brand protection that can make or break participants in the crowded craft beer market, including John Conkle, Evan Pitchford and Zachary Page.

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Prop 65 Trouble is Brewing for Coffee Sellers

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A brewing case spells trouble for coffee shops in California.  Coffee sellers including Starbucks, Target and Whole Foods are in the midst of an ongoing lawsuit with the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) over the presence of acrylamide in coffee.

Acrylamide is on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals which California has declared are known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.  While acrylamide is not found in raw foods, the chemical can form in starchy and carbohydrate rich foods, such as potatoes, when cooked at high temperatures.  Acrylamide is a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process, and is formed when the sugars and amino acids of the coffee bean are heated.

CERT (associated with Raphael Metzger of the Metzger Law Group) is a well-known plaintiff in Prop 65 cases of this sort, and this is not the first time CERT has been involved in litigation over acrylamide in food and drink products.  Acrylamide was added to the Proposition 65 list in 1990 based on studies showing it as a potential carcinogen in industrial exposures.  In April 2002, a subsequent study by the Swedish National Food Administration revealed high levels of the chemical in various high carbohydrate foods which are cooked at high temperatures, including french fries, potato chips, crackers, and bread.  CERT filed suit that same year against McDonalds and Burger King over the presence of acrylamide in french fries.  The fast-food retailers eventually settled and agreed to post Prop 65 warnings.

Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has set the No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) for acrylamide at 0.2 µg/day.  NSRL is the level of exposure at which chemicals on the Prop 65 list are deemed to pose no significant risk, and for which a Prop 65 warning is not required.  CERT v. Starbuck Corp., et al was originally filed in 2010 against 90 coffee sellers.  The suit claimed that defendants’ coffee contained 4-100x more acrylamide than the NSRL.  During the first phase of a two-phase bench trial, defendants argued that the level of acrylamide in their coffee products posed no significant risk because a multitude of studies show that coffee consumption does not increase the risk of cancer.  The court rejected this argument because the studies assessed the effects of coffee generally, as opposed to the presence of acrylamide in the coffee.  Defendants’ argument that requiring them to post a Prop 65 warning amounts to unconstitutional forced speech was also rejected.

The second phase of the trial began in September 2017.  During this bench trial, defendants argued that coffee is exempt from the NSRL standard, and rather an “alternative risk level” applies.  Proposition 65 allows for a higher “alternative risk level” to apply to chemicals produced in the process of cooking foods to make them palatable or safe.  Since acrylamide in coffee is naturally produced during the roasting process, Defendants argue that they are subject to this exemption.

A ruling is expected soon, and if CERT succeeds, California coffee sellers will be required to post Proposition 65 warnings.  Several coffee retailers who were initially named in the lawsuit have already posted warnings in their stores.  7-Eleven, who opted to settle the suit, agreed to post warnings and pay a $900,000 fee.  While Starbucks continues to challenge the suit, it has already posted warnings at its stores, presumably to limit damages it may have to pay if CERT succeeds at trial.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys will continue to monitor and report on the outcome of this case.  CK&E has many years of experience advising clients about Proposition 65 and other regulatory compliance issues they face.  Our attorneys help clients stay out of legal hot water by working with them to ensure their products continue to meet all legal requirements, and helping them plan for foreseeable changes in the law.

 

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What’s in Your Packaging? Prop 65 Applies to PVDC

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Can your product wrap subject you to Proposition 65 warning requirements?  You bet.  California has added vinylidene chloride to its long list of chemicals to which Proposition 65 applies, effective on December 29, 2017.  The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has not established a safe harbor level for vinylidene chloride, although that remains under consideration.

Vinylidene chloride is used in the production of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) copolymers. PVDC was developed by Dow Chemical Company, and was at one point used in the production of the popular food wrap product, Saran Wrap. PVDC has characteristics ideal for food packaging because it has low permeabiltiy to water vapor and gasses. While use of PVDC in Saran Wrap was later phased out due to cost and environmental concerns, other copolymers of vinylidene chloride are still commonly used in food packaging, including box overwrap, vertical form fill seal, horizontal form fill seal, and pre-made bags. Vinylidene chloride is also extensively used in a variety of other packing materials, as flame retardant coating for fiber and carpet backing and in piping, coating for steel pipes, and adhesive applications. Other common consumer products that may contain vinylidene chloride include cleaning cloths, filters, screens, tape, shower curtains, garden furniture, artificial turf, doll hair, stuffed animals, fabrics, fishnet, and shoe insoles.

Manufacturers, distributors and retailers are required to provide Prop 65 warnings to workers and consumers who are exposed to vinylidene chloride.  Companies have one year from the listing date to comply with Prop 65.  Companies that have not reformulated their products to remove vinylidene chloride, or that fail to provide a Proposition 65 warning on products containing it, by December 29, 2018 are at risk of receiving a “Notice of Violation” from private enforcers seeking to gain thousands of dollars in penalties and attorneys’ fees.  A Notice of Violation typically precedes a lawsuit for violation of Proposition 65.

The listing of vinylidene chloride as a chemical known to cause cancer by OEHHA is a reminder that not only product contents, but also packaging materials, are included within Prop 65 compliance requirements.  As we previously reported, since December 2014, products sold in California that contain diisononyl phthalate (DINP) have required a Proposition 65 warning.  DINP is found is many soft plastic and vinyl products, and purported violations have been found in seemingly innocuous packaging, such as gift bags for cosmetic products.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has many years of experience advising clients with respect to Proposition 65 and other regulatory compliance issues. CK&E attorneys help clients stay out of legal crosshairs by working with them to ensure their products continue to meet all legal requirements, and helping them plan for foreseeable changes in the law.

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WARNING: Are Your Products and Websites Ready for the New Prop 65 Requirements?

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California’s Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has issued new Proposition 65 Warning Regulations that will go into effect on August 30, 2018. It is important for companies to understand the changed regulations and be proactive in adapting their product labels and even internet marketing to adapt to the new regulations.  The coming changes have introduced a variety of new concepts, imposing additional burdens on businesses selling their products in California, and making it easier for plaintiff Prop 65 attorneys and groups to bring costly private enforcement actions.

The OEHHA has made significant changes to the safe-harbor language requirements that govern the language, text, and format of such warnings. The new regulations introduce the concept of a “warning symbol,” which must be used on consumer products, though not on food products. The “warning symbol” must be printed in a size no smaller than the height of the word “WARNING,” and should be in black and yellow, but can be in black and white if the sign, label, or shelf tag for the product is not printed using the color yellow.

Warnings must now also specifically state at least one listed chemical found in the product and include a link to OEHHA’s new website www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.  These are examples of the new format for more specific warnings:

  • For exposure to carcinogens: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to both carcinogens and reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more listed chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer, and [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”

Certain special categories of products, such as food and alcoholic beverages, have a specialized URL that must be used. For example, warnings on food products must display the URL www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/food.

Recognizing that many consumer products have limited space “on-product” to fit the long-form warnings, the OEHHA has enacted new regulations allowing abbreviated “on-product” warnings. This short warning is permissible only if printed on the immediate container, box or wrapper of the consumer product. An example of the required format for the abbreviated warnings is:

  • WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm – www.P65Warnings.ca.gov

The new regulations also specifically address internet sales for the first time. Warnings must be provided with a clearly marked hyperlink on the product display page, or otherwise prominently displayed to the purchaser before completion of the transaction.  It will not be sufficient if the product sold on the internet bears the required label, but the internet point of purchase listing does not.

The particular requirements for each specific product can vary, so manufacturers and resellers are well-advised to seek qualified counsel to review their situation before committing to potentially costly label and website changes that may not comply with the new requirements.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the changing regulatory landscape in California and elsewhere.

Although the new regulations take effect August 30, 2018, and the new warning labels are required for products manufactured after that date, companies can begin using the changed labels now. It is definitely not advisable to wait until August 2018 to begin making the required changes.

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Relationships Between Producers, Wholesalers, and Retailers: Beer Distribution and Franchise Laws in California (Part 2)

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In a recent blog post, we discussed beer self-distribution rules in California.  While the self-distribution laws in California are generally quite accommodating, and self-distribution works for a start-up craft brewery with limited funds, on a practical level it can only serve a relatively small geographical area.  As a brand increases in local popularity and the beer producer wants to expand its footprint and accelerate its competition with brands and beers outside its home region, usually the producer will choose to enter into a distribution agreement with an established third-party wholesaler.  When a beer producer chooses to contract with a distributor, then it is important to be aware of the applicable beer franchise laws (which also vary from state to state).  Beer franchise laws control the relationship between the brewer and the wholesaler and will generally trump contract terms that do not comport with such laws.

Beer franchise laws stem from a decades-old period when relatively few national-level breweries (like Budweiser and Miller) were able to exert significant power over the beer distribution industry, which at the time was chiefly comprised of numerous small mom-and-pop outlets.  As an example, the macrobreweries would impose stringent requirements for their distributors that necessitated significant investment (such as construction and maintenance of a sophisticated refrigerated warehouse), but there was nothing to protect the distributor when the macrobreweries decided to switch to a competitor, leaving the distributors with little recourse to recoup their investment.  To protect the distributors from this predicament, strong state franchise laws were enacted that made it difficult for the breweries to terminate contracts with distributors.

At their most draconian, beer franchise laws can marry a brewer to a distributor even if the brewer only sends a small initial amount of beer to the distributor for resale without any written agreement whatsoever.  In some cases distributors can even have the power to transfer the distribution rights to successors-in-interest without the brewer’s consent.  In many states, a brewer can only cancel a distribution contract for “good cause,” which may not include failure to reach sales quotas.  Further, many states require a brewer, in order to break a distribution contract, to pay the wholesaler Fair Market Value (“FMV”) for the lost business.  Of course, these rules have shifted a significant share of power to the distributors.

As the franchise laws weren’t enacted with the microbrewing phenomenon in mind, they can make distribution difficult for craft brewers that don’t have the clout of a national macrobrew and who don’t impose stringent requirements on their distributors.  In certain situations, a small brand may feel that a distributor is paying attention to other more established brands and that it is not getting the benefit of its bargain with the distributor.  However, many beer franchise laws have been softened over the past several years, allowing for more competition in the wholesale market and giving fledgling breweries more choice and control over the terms of their third-party distribution.  For example, some states exempt breweries that produce less than certain annual volumes from the franchise laws.  Of course, exemptions like this mean that brewers need to be conscious of their plans to grow and potentially exceed those volume limitations, and consider how it will affect their distribution agreements.

California’s beer franchise laws are some of the most accommodating in the country, because California allows the distribution agreement itself to control most of the important terms and dealings between the brewer and the wholesaler.  In California, a brewer must enter into exclusive written territorial agreements with distributors that are filed with the ABC (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.5).  California’s franchise laws do not restrict brewers to only “good cause” terminations (though the distributors themselves may very well fight for some type of good-cause requirement in contract negotiations).  Further, a brewer can terminate a distribution agreement if the wholesaler fails to meet a “commercially reasonable” sales goal or quota (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.7), and many beer distribution agreements call for the distributor itself to come up with an annual business plan that establishes sales goals based on certain data.  Except in certain situations, a brewer does not need to pay FMV to terminate the relationship (though again, a distributor may insist on a termination payment as a contract term).  While a brewer is not automatically bound by contract to a purchaser or transferee of its distributor, the brewer cannot unreasonably withhold consent or deny approval of such a transfer without incurring certain charges (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.9).

In California, the parties must be attuned to several important issues in creating the agreement, such as territory, term, change in ownership and transfer rights, termination rights, terms of sale, commercially reasonable sales goals, post-termination provisions, intellectual property licensing and advertising issues, dispute resolution, and other rights and duties of the parties.  Such contract terms are just as important for a brewer as finding a distribution team that is the right “fit” for a growing brand.

Overall, it is no surprise that the states with the most friendly self-distribution and franchise laws are the states with the most active and diverse beer business communities.  For example, California now has around 900 active breweries, far more than any other state, adding over 500 breweries in the last two years alone.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has experience representing both breweries and distributors.  If you are launching a brewery in California, looking to expand your brand’s sales through self-distribution or with a third-party distributor, or have found yourself in a distribution-related dispute, contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel for assistance with those and other beer industry-related issues.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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Producer, Wholesaler and Retailer Relationships: Beer Distribution and Franchise Laws in California (Part 1)

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For breweries and beer suppliers of any size, distribution is a significant issue, from the initial determination of whether to self-distribute or obtain third-party distribution to the decision to terminate a wholesaler.  As the beer industry is one of the most highly regulated in the United States and the laws on distribution procedures vary from state to state, there are many details and pitfalls that all parties engaged in beer distribution should be aware of when contemplating and doing business.  Two such sets of laws relate to self-distribution and what are called beer franchise laws (somewhat similar to but generally distinct from laws for franchises like McDonald’s restaurants or 7-Eleven convenience stores).  This blog entry will address the basics of brewery self-distribution in California, while a following entry will address California beer franchise laws.  (Future entries will discuss such issues in other jurisdictions and inter-jurisdictional issues.)

First, any discussion of beer distribution in the United States must begin with the repeal of prohibition and the states’ implementation of the “three-tier” system, which generally requires beer producers to sell to wholesalers who in turn sell to retailers (comprised of both on-sale establishments like pubs and off-sale establishments like bottle shops).  The chief purpose of this layered approach is to limit beer producers’ control over and promotion of the retail sale of their products.  While this structure has its roots in the temperance movement, the three-tier system has had the effect in recent decades of allowing smaller craft breweries to flourish due to its inherent checks on monopolization.  However, as the number of beer brands proliferates, wholesalers and retailers cannot realistically be expected to carry all such brands, and self-distribution for many brands is the only effective way to bring product to market.

Fortunately, within the three-tier system, the states are permitted their own sets of rules.  While many states require the manufacturer, the wholesale, and the retailer to be completely independent of one another with no common ownership (and therefore permit no self-distribution), other states blur the three-tier system by allowing for retailers to buy beer directly from manufacturers, and some states allow for a beer manufacturer to own its own legally-distinct distribution company.  About half of states currently set an upper threshold on self-distribution (i.e. up to a certain annual barrel production level), with a smaller number allowing self-distribution regardless of capacity.

California is currently one of the more generous self-distribution states, allowing licensed California retailers to purchase alcoholic beverages for resale from licensed California beer wholesalers or manufacturers regardless of the production level.  (See, e.g., Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 23357, 23402, 23388.)  The California rules also permit the brewer (with the appropriate licenses and permits) to sell packaged beer from the brewery premises (including growler fills), to operate taprooms and brewpubs (with certain production requirements), and/or to sell at farmers markets (again, with several restrictions).  While these rules have their nuances, they allow breweries in California to establish their brand(s) and get their business off the ground without having to rely on third-party involvement.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have experience representing both breweries and distributors.  If you are launching a brewery in California, looking to expand your brand’s sales through self-distribution or with a third-party distributor, or in a distribution-related dispute, contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel for assistance with those and other beer industry-related issues.

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