OAKLAND, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - Consumers in 15 states and the District of Columbia who have bought milk or other fresh milk products since 2003 have until the end of the month to file a claim to receive their part of a $52 million class action settlement.

Judge Jeffrey White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Oakland Division, preliminarily approved the settlement in an Aug. 25 order.

Defendants National Milk Producers Federation a.k.a. Cooperatives Working Together, Dairy Farmers of America Inc., Land O’Lakes Inc., Dairylea Cooperative Inc. and Agri-Mark Inc. agreed to settle the antitrust class action lawsuit to avoid a trial.

They still claim they have done nothing wrong.

“Defendants have vigorously denied and continue to deny Plaintiffs' allegations, any wrongdoing, and any liability to the Plaintiffs’ claims,” according to the Aug. 11 settlement agreement.

The lawsuit, filed in 2011, accuses them of engaging in conspiracy to fix the prices of certain dairy products, including milk.

According to the suit, dairy cooperatives engaged in the premature slaughtering of dairy cows in their herds. By allegedly reducing their herds, they were able to maintain higher product prices.

Consumers filing a claim must be a resident of the District of Columbia or the following states: Arizona, California, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

To be eligible for benefits from the settlement, a consumer must have purchased the milk products from a grocery store or other retailer, not directly from one of the defendants.

Also, consumers must have purchased the milk for their own consumption or that of their household or organization and not for resale.

Entities charging participants for milk for meals including milk or for general programming with meals and/or drinks including milk are not eligible to recover, according to the settlement website. Government entities also are excluded from the class.

According to the settlement website -- where consumers are encouraged to submit their claims -- the potential per-person payout amount is listed at $10 to $20. Entities, however, may receive between $280 and $560.

The claim period ends Jan. 31.

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is representing the class. According to a proposed order filed in October, the firm is seeking more than 30 percent of the $52 million fund in fees, or $17,333,333, for the “excellent results they achieved” on behalf of the classes to settle the “prolonged and perilous” litigation.

The firm also is seeking $2,273,839.51 for reimbursement of expenses and service awards in the amount of $5,000 for each of the 18 class representatives, both of which, like the fees, would be paid from the common fund.

“The biggest dairy producers in the country, responsible for almost 70 percent of the nation’s milk, conspired together in a classic price-fixing scheme, forcing higher prices for a basic food item onto honest consumers and families,” Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman, said in September. “We’re pleased that this settlement will return some of what consumers lost due to this massive fraud perpetrated for ill-gotten gains.”

A motion for final approval of the settlement was filed in November; a final hearing was held in December.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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