Dismissing all antitrust claims against the University of Minnesota, Hennepin County District Judge Lloyd Zimmerman ordered a 60-day mediation period for two sides in a lawsuit over marketing rights to the SweeTango apple.

Judge clears university in SweeTango apple case

A group of Minnesota apple growers filed suit last year against the University of Minnesota and against Lake City, Minn.-based Pepin Heights Orchard Inc., claiming that the Minnesota grower/marketer has a near-monopoly on a variety developed using public funding.

The dispute revolves around the SweeTango, a variety developed at the University of Minnesota and exclusively
licensed to Pepin Heights.

In his ruling, Zimmerman said Pepin Heights cannot be liable for entering into an agreement with the University of Minnesota, because antitrust statutes don’t apply to the university.

In his Feb. 4 judgment, Zimmerman ordered the parties in the lawsuit to select a mediator and attempt to resolve outstanding issues within 60 days.

“The Court encourages the parties to mediate their differences (and will so order) to avoid undue expense and discord,” he said, according to court documents.

Lisa Lamm Bachman, attorney for the growers who brought the lawsuit, was not immediately available for comment.

Zimmerman’s ruling on the antitrust issue is important, said Tim Byrne, vice president of sales and marketing for Lake City, Minn.-based Pepin Heights Orchards Inc.

“We’re pleased that the judge dismissed all the antitrust claims, which I think were the heart of their case,” Byrne said.

He said he hoped mediation would settle remaining issues in a way that would be satisfactory to both Pepin Heights Orchards Inc. and the smaller growers who brought the lawsuit.

“We will find out in the next 60 days,” he said Feb. 8.

In any case, Byrne said he was confident that the University of Minnesota’s contract that gave Pepin Heights exclusive rights to market the SweeTango would hold up in court.

“I think going forward, that is unchanged,” he said.

Judge Zimmerman granted a motion for dismissal of counts against Pepin Heights for unreasonable restraint of trade, monopoly and conspiracy to monopolize or restrain trade and other points. He denied a motion for dismissal by Pepin Heights on several other counts, including one regarding interference with prospective business relations.