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U.S. Supreme Court Dumps Pickett v Tyson

The U.S. Supreme Court denied this week an appeal of the Pickett vs. Tyson Fresh Meats lower-court decision, ending what's been hailed as the cattle industry's biggest trial in more than a century. Montgomery, AL, cattleman Henry Lee Pickett launched a lawsuit (originally filed against IBP) nearly a decade ago representing cattle producers who sell their fed cattle to meat-packing plants on the cash market.

The suit, brought under the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA), claimed Tyson used unfair and anticompetitive marketing agreements to deflate cash fed-cattle prices -- and the market as a whole -- in order to reap the benefits of lower prices. Last August, a three-judge panel from Atlanta's 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling in Pickett v. IBP -- an appeal that asked for reinstatement of the case's 2004 district court jury decision. The jury originally found that Tyson's (formerly IBP's) procurement methods damaged nationwide cash cattle prices over an eight-year period.

The jury subsequently ordered Tyson to return $1.28 billion to "a class" of the nation's cattle producers it believed was harmed. The class members included all cattle producers who sold fed cattle directly to IBP from February 1994 through and including April 30, 1999, when the class was certified.

Following the jury verdict, however, U.S. District Court Judge Lyle Strom, on a set of technicalities, granted Tyson's motion for "judgment as a matter of law" and entered final judgment in Tyson's favor. The ruling prompted the appeal to the 11th Circuit Court, which unanimously affirmed Strom's decision. In its 33-page ruling, the Court consistently maintains the PSA exists solely to prevent unfair marketing practices, price fixing, manipulation and monopolization.

The 11th Circuit panel maintains, "The PSA was enacted to ensure the market worked, and markets are notoriously unromantic... While talk about the independence of cattle farmers has emotional appeal, the PSA was not enacted to protect the independence of producers from market forces."

In a statement this week, National Farmer's Union (NFU) president Tom Buis said the NFU is disappointed that the Supreme Court chose not to hear the case.

"Cattle producers across the country are faced with decreased competition for their cattle and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's failure to enforce anti-trust laws," Buis says. "NFU maintains its legislative focus and efforts in ensuring farmers and ranchers do not continue to be victims of anti-competitive practices."

The NFU has endorsed the Competitive and Fair Ag Markets Act of 2006 introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). NFU says the measure will help restore competition and profitability to ag markets by prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices. -- Clint Peck