Sysco can’t scrap its Pilgrim’s Pride price-fixing settlements

Settlement enforceable despite opposition from Burford
calendar icon 17 June 2024
clock icon 2 minute read

In a setback for litigation finance company Burford Capital, a judge in Chicago ruled on Friday that national food distributor Sysco cannot back out of price-fixing settlements with meat industry giant Pilgrim’s Pride, according to Reuters

US District Judge Thomas Durkin said Sysco’s settlement with Pilgrim’s Pride was enforceable despite opposition from Burford, which had helped bankroll the litigation and argued that the deal was never finalized.

The judge said emails between Sysco and Pilgrim’s confirmed the accord.

The dispute between Sysco and Pilgrim’s Pride has been closely watched by the litigation funding industry, which provides financing to clients in exchange for a part of any settlement or other judgment.

Burford had spent $140 million since 2019 backing Sysco’s antitrust cases, court documents show, and had opposed Sysco's decision to settle for amounts that the funder considered to be too low. Burford and Sysco resolved their dispute, and Sysco last year transferred its antitrust claims to Burford's newly created unit Carina.

Sysco on Friday declined to comment. Pilgrim’s Pride did not immediately respond to request for comment. The amounts of the settlements, which would resolve claims that Pilgrim’s Pride fixed prices for beef, pork and chicken, were not publicly disclosed. Pilgrim’s Pride denied the claims.

In a statement, a Burford spokesperson said it was “concerning that the court has today opted to enforce a supposed agreement that the parties clearly never viewed as binding.”

The Sysco cases were part of a broader wave of price-fixing claims against Pilgrim's Pride and other leading processors. Other plaintiffs, also including consumers, have reached settlements in some of the cases worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In Minnesota, JBS USA this month asked a US judge to enforce the terms of Sysco’s settlement with the company. Burford had disputed Sysco's settlement with JBS. JBS did not respond to a request for comment.

In the Pilgrim's Pride case, Durkin acknowledged Sysco and Burford did not execute a final signed agreement. But the judge said corporate emails from late 2022 “demonstrate an agreement” between the two sides.

“That is sufficient objective evidence of an agreement to enforce it,” Durkin wrote.

Durkin said his order covers Sysco’s settlement with Pilgrim’s in lawsuits in Illinois and Minnesota. He rejected Burford’s argument he had no power to enforce a “global” settlement involving claims in another state.

The case is In re Broiler Chicken Antitrust Litigation, US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, No. 1:16-cv-08637.

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