(UPDATED COVERAGE, 3:05 p.m., Dec. 15) The Capper-Volstead Act does not protect United Potato Growers of America from charges it illegally reduced the supply of potatoes in order to raise prices, according to an Idaho judge’s ruling in an ongoing case.
But United Potato’s president said that, despite reactions to the contrary, the ruling “is not a negative.” And a lawyer who counsels the co-op is optimistic the judge’s mind can be changed on the issue before the end of the trial.
In a Dec. 2 ruling, U.S. District Court of Idaho judge Lynn Winmill rejected Salt Lake City-based United Potato’s motion to dismiss a suit brought against it by Jamestown, N.Y.-based Brigiotta’s Farmland Produce and Garden Center Inc.
The court did, however, dismiss charges against several individual grower-shippers who were co-defendants in the case.
Tom Galbato, Brigiotta’s co-owner, would not comment on the ruling.
In its complaint, filed in 2010, Brigiotta’s accused United Potato of “classic cartel behavior” to control potato supplies and fix prices at artificially high levels.
In its motion for dismissal, United Potato argued that its practice of limiting U.S. potato acreage in order to strengthen markets is protected under the Capper-Volstead Act, which provides agricultural cooperatives limited exemption from federal antitrust laws.
Winmill ruled United Potato had no basis to make that claim.
“There are no cases where a court has concluded that Capper-Volstead immunizes cooperatives and their members who seek to collectively implement production controls in order to raise prices,” Winmill wrote in the ruling. “The individual freedom to produce more in times of high prices is a quintessential safeguard against Capper-Volstead abuse.”
Jerry Wright, United Potato’s president and chief executive officer, declined to comment on the specifics of the ruling until he had a chance to explain it to board members and state-level United Potato co-ops.
But he did say that initial negative reactions to the ruling were misplaced.
“Even though there are a lot of people out there viewing this as ‘The sky is falling,’ it’s not,” Wright said.
Winmill’s ruling came on the same day Wright took over the top jobs at United Potato. Wright replaced Lee Frankel, who parted ways with the co-op the week of Nov. 28. Wright said there was no connection between Winmill’s ruling and Frankel’s departure.