Judge Rules Again on DFA’s Protective Order Relating to Document Requests in Food Lion Suit

A Middle District of North Carolina judge partially denied and partially granted a document production protective order in a milk antitrust lawsuit filed by Food Lion and Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association (MDVA) against Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. (DFA) on Tuesday. Judge Joe L. Webster ordered the defendant, which requested the protective order, to respond to the plaintiffs’ requests for documents. 

A protective order approved by the judge in August provided protocol to “prevent the inappropriate dissemination of documents and information produced in the course of discovery.” The plaintiffs have alleged that DFA participated in antitrust activity when it purchased multiple milk processing plants in the area previously owned by Dean Foods and claimed its conduct will lead to a “monopolization of the dairy supply chain.” Food Lion is a grocery company and MDVA is a cooperative with over 900 member farms. 

The defendant listed 16 requests for production that it wanted a protective order from, claiming that the requests were “overbroad, unduly burdensome, lacking in relevance, and/or disproportionate to the needs of this case. In denying the order, the court said it would balance the plaintiffs’ interest in obtaining the information against the interest of the defendant in keeping the information confidential. 

The court said that documents or reports relating to the sale or purchase of raw milk since 2014 “are certainly relevant” because of the plaintiffs’ allegation that 2014 is relevant because it is the year Dean Foods reportedly told MDVA it would replace some milk volume with DFA’s. However, the court granted one of these requests for a protective order saying that the request was overbroad because it is “effectively a request for all materials” because DFA’s entire business is related to the supply or purchase of milk. The court denied the protective order for other requests regarding documents since 2014 that were more specific about the topics, including one asking for documents related to analyses of the market in the area and another asking for communications between DFA, Dean Foods, and Cobblestone Milk Cooperative relating to MDVA. 

The order also granted a protective order relating to a request for documents since 2013 concerning DFA’s relationship with MDVA with respect to one of the former Dean Foods processing facilities, agreeing with the defendant that it is outside the relevant area and before the alleged misconduct, and another regarding a request for documents reflecting DFA’s efforts to recruit MDVA farmers since 2014. The protective order was also granted in aspects relating to documents about Appalachian Dairy Farmers Cooperative, Piedmont Milk Sales, LLC, and Cobblestone Milk Cooperative, which were ruled not relevant.  

A few other requests were also determined to be overbroad by the court. Overall, Judge Joe L. Webster granted the defendant’s protective order for eight requests and denied it for six requests. 

DFA is represented by Womble Bond Dickinson, Baker and Miller, and Latham and Watkins. MDVA is represented by Troutman Sanders. Food Lion is represented by Hunton Andrews Kurth.