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Altria, Juul to Face Suit Over $13 Billion Deal, Judge Says (1)

April 22, 2021, 3:17 PMUpdated: April 22, 2021, 4:02 PM

Altria Group Inc. and Juul Labs Inc. will likely have to face a proposed antitrust class action seeking to unwind a $12.8 billion deal that gave the legacy tobacco company a 35% stake in the vaping giant, a federal judge in San Francisco said in a “tentative” ruling.

Judge William H. Orrick indicated Wednesday that he’s inclined to let most of the lawsuit move forward in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where it was consolidated after dozens of antitrust plaintiffs sued over deal clauses calling for Altria’s exit from the vaping market.

“Plaintiffs plausibly allege facts in support of an illegal agreement to restrain trade and conspiracy to do the same,” the judge wrote in a two-page order he issued after a hearing held over Zoom.

Orrick said he’ll narrow the allegations against two individual Juul board members and compel arbitration of claims brought by one group of plaintiffs, “direct purchasers.”

The direct purchasers can refile their case with lead plaintiffs who opened Juul accounts before the company began requiring customers to agree to arbitration in mid-2018, the judge said.

He also signaled he’ll give a green light to the part of the case seeking to roll back the transaction under Section 7 of the Clayton Act. The tentative ruling comes two months after a federal appeals court for the first time agreed to unwind a merger in response to a challenge by a rival rather than a regulator.

The Federal Trade Commission has also sued over the Altria-Juul transaction.

Joseph Saveri Law Firm Inc. is interim lead counsel for the direct purchasers.

Zwerling, Schachter & Zwerling LLP is interim lead counsel for the indirect purchasers, which are also represented by Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer LLP, Cera LLP, Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, Meyers Law Group PC, Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC, Reinhardt Wendorf & Blanchfield, and Yadegar, Minoofar & Soleymani LLP.

Altria is represented by Wilkinson Stekloff LLP. Juul is represented by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. Its board members are represented by Kellogg Hansen Todd Figel & Frederick PLLC.

The case is In re Juul Labs Inc. Antitrust Litig., N.D. Cal., No. 20-cv-2345, 4/21/21.

(New paragraphs eight through eleven added to provide counsel and case cite information.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Leonard in Washington at mleonard@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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