Pesticide antitrust cases consolidated in North Carolina federal court

By Mike Scarcella

Feb 7 (Reuters) - Ten lawsuits alleging two major pesticide makers engaged in a scheme to artificially inflate farmers' costs prices have been consolidated before the same North Carolina federal judge overseeing a related case filed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission last year, according to a U.S. court order on Monday.

The lawsuits filed in Indiana and North Carolina in recent months alleged customer "loyalty programs" implemented by pesticide manufacturers Syngenta Corp and Corteva Inc stymied competition for generic versions of certain products, causing farmers to pay higher prices.

The 10 private complaints and another 10 "tag along" cases with common facts followed an action that the FTC, joined by 10 states, filed in North Carolina in September against Chinese-owned Syngenta and U.S.-based Corteva that accused them of "paying off distributors to block generic producers from the market."

The lawsuits focus on insecticides and fungicides, in addition to herbicides that are used on corn, soybeans, potatoes and other crops. The private suits seek unspecified damages for farmers' costs.

The companies have denied the allegations and moved to dismiss the suit.

Monday's transfer order from the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation said Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder in Winston-Salem federal court, assigned to the FTC case, had the most familiarity with the issues in the disputes and his experience would "steer this matter on a prudent course."

Syngenta’s lawyers at Davis Polk & Wardwell and Corteva's attorneys at Cravath, Swaine & Moore had argued for the North Carolina forum. Syngenta Crop Protection LLC, a defendant, is based in North Carolina.

Various plaintiff farms that paid for and used crop protection products wanted cases to be heard in the Southern District of Indiana, where Corteva is based and where the first private lawsuit was filed.

A representative from Syngenta did not respond immediately to a message seeking comment. Corteva said in a statement it "will continue to vigorously defend these cases."

Plaintiffs' lawyers at firms including Hausfeld and Lowey Dannenberg also did not immediately respond to similar messages.

The loyalty programs at issue "offer customers lower prices if they choose to purchase more products," attorneys for the defendants said in December. "The programs do not require customers to buy any products from any particular manufacturer."

The order from the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which referees whether and where to consolidate disputes that often involve many cases, said Schroeder's court in the Middle District of North Carolina "will serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses."

The case is In re: Crop Protection Products Loyalty Program Antitrust Litigation, U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, MDL No. 3062.

For plaintiffs: Hilary Scherrer of Hausfeld; Christian Levis of Lowey Dannenberg; Joseph Guglielmo of Scott+Scott; Natasha Fernandez-Silber of Radice Law Firm; and others

For Syngenta: Paul Mishkin of Davis Polk & Wardwell

For Corteva: David Marriott of Cravath, Swaine & Moore

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