Biden Administration Sides With Farmers on Right-to-Repair

by Colter Brown

The Biden administration has sided with farmers in an ongoing right-to-repair antitrust lawsuit filed against John Deere, asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Illinois on Monday to rule against a company motion that could lead to dismissal in the case.

The case alleges John Deere violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and seek damages for farmers who paid for repairs from John Deere dealers beginning on Jan. 12, 2018, to the present.

The cases allege the company has monopolized the repair service market for John Deere brand agricultural equipment with onboard central computers known as engine control units, or ECUs.

In December 2022, the company filed a motion seeking judgement on the pleadings. Deere essentially asked the court to rule on the facts already presented before a trial can be held.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Monday filed a motion asking the court to reject Deere’s arguments and to rule in the farms’ favor.

The DOJ filed what is called a “statement of interest.” In particular, the Biden administration said it was concerned if the court rules in Deere’s favor, it would harm U.S. interests as they pertain to the Sherman Antitrust Act.

John Deere’s motion alleged the farmer plaintiffs lack legal standing to sue, fail to identify a “plausible relevant market” to base their claims, fail to “plausibly allege” Deere has monopoly power in the repair-services market, and fail to “plausibly allege” any “anticompetitive” conduct.

In addition, the company argues the farmer plaintiffs didn’t identify a “co-conspirator” in the complaint.

“Deere argues that its repair restrictions are effectively immune from antitrust scrutiny unless Deere either (1) deceived plaintiffs by hiding the restrictions before plaintiffs bought their tractors; or (2) surprised plaintiffs by imposing the restrictions after plaintiffs’ purchases,” the Biden administration said in its statement to the court.

The DOJ asked the court to reject John Deere’s argument that the company should not face antitrust scrutiny unless it can be proven the company either deceived or surprised plaintiffs with imposing restrictions on how equipment can be repaired.

“Increasingly, product manufacturers have made products harder to fix and maintain,” the DOJ said in its statement to the court.

“For example, manufacturers have (1) hindered access to internal components; (2) monopolized parts, manuals and diagnostic tools; and (3) used software to impede repairs with substantially identical aftermarket parts.”

The Biden administration said repair restrictions can harm consumers by driving independent repair shops out of business, by delaying repairs, and restrictions on repair aftermarkets can raise prices and reduce quality.

“Deere proposes a safe harbor where the law provides none,” the Biden administration said.

“Deere would have the court presume that, in every other circumstance, a competitive foremarket (as Deere argues the tractor market to be) necessarily shields consumers from any possible market power or monopoly power in a single-brand aftermarket (such as the market for Deere repair services). Deere is wrong.”

The Biden administration told the court the issues in the case against John Deere are important to farmers’ ability to conduct business on the farm.

“The repair restrictions at issue here affect Deere agricultural equipment that are important, costly investments to the workings of a farm,” the DOJ said in its statement.

“These various machines, or ‘tractors’ for short, enable American agriculture. When they break or fail to operate and repair markets function poorly, agriculture suffers. Crops waste. Land lies fallow. Even a short delay can result in farmers ‘watching their crops rot.’ Farmers thus place significant value on not only the quality but also the timeliness of repair services. Yet waits for repair can stretch for valuable hours, if not days or weeks.”

The filing is a welcome development in the ongoing fight to provide producers with the right to repair their equipment, Montana Farmers Union President Walter Schweitzer said.

“I am excited to see that Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter and his antitrust division team agree that John Deere is violating our right to repair,” Schweitzer said.

“They acknowledge that farmers and independent repair shops are being denied the tools to simply replace a broken part. Being denied adequate tools to repair means that when a farmer’s equipment breaks or fails to operate, and when repair markets fail to function properly, agriculture suffers,” Schweitzer said.

While right to repair is playing out on the national stage, it is also being tackled at the state level. Currently in Montana, two bills related to right to repair are making their way through the Legislature.



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