In Pepper-Tin Spat, Spice Giant McCormick Loses Bid for Seal

WASHINGTON (CN) – Refusing to redact a thing, a federal judge said she will fully unseal an opinion in the class action accusing the spice manufacturer McCormick & Co. Inc. of underfilling pepper tins.

“Because the court finds that the public interest in access to the opinion outweighs the potential risk of embarrassment to McCormick, it will deny McCormick’s motion and unseal the opinion without redactions,” U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle wrote.

Consumers brought the underlying case two years ago in Washington, accusing McCormick of underfilling its recognizable red-and-white black pepper tins by up to 25 percent, without changing the price or disclosing the amount of pepper in the tins.

Huvelle initially dismissed the class’s antitrust claim but granted their motion for reconsideration on March 21 and allowed the class to file an amended complaint.

Because the judge’s ruling included references to material that McCormick had designated as confidential during discovery, however, Huvelle filed her ruling under seal and asked the parties to propose redactions.

Huvelle rejected each McCormick’s requested redactions on June 13, going through each of three types of information being challenged. McCormick wanted to keep a lid on its internal documents that discussed fill reductions; descriptions of McCormick’s contact with retailers about the fill reductions – including several retailer responses; and even statements that the consumer-plaintiffs gave on their theory that competition over pepper levels would have reduced prices.

For Huvelle, however, this information factored heavily into her decision of the motion for reconsideration.

“Without that information, the public cannot understand why the court concluded that plaintiffs’ proposed complaint did not plausibly allege an anticompetitive agreement on fill level, but that plaintiffs should be permitted to file the complaint because they ‘seem[ed] to be intimating that their antitrust claim can be based on an alternative theory that defendants agreed to deceive consumers about the reduction in fill,” she wrote.

Noting that secrecy is usually reserved to protect trade secrets and pricing information, Huvelle found concern about the company’s reputation less compelling.

“The presumption in favor of public access is especially strong for judicial orders and opinions,” Huvelle wrote. “Redacting statements that are critical to a court’s analysis would substantially impede the public right of access to judicial opinions.”

The March 21 opinion on the motion for reconsideration remains sealed for now.

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