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Walmart, Energizer must face lawsuits over battery prices

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Walmart and Energizer were ordered by a U.S. judge to face lawsuits by consumers and retailers accusing them of violating antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of disposable batteries.

In a decision on Friday, U.S. District Judge P. Casey Pitts said plaintiffs in the three proposed class actions plausibly alleged that in exchange for preferred treatment at its stores, Walmart pressured Energizer to inflate wholesale battery prices and keep other retailers from undercutting it on price.

The plaintiffs said the alleged conspiracy began in 2018, and left other retailers at risk of being cut off by Energizer, the largest U.S. disposable battery maker, if they charged less than Walmart, the world's largest retailer.

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They said it also led to higher prices at checkout from Energizer and Berkshire Hathaway-owned Duracell, which account for 85% of U.S. battery sales.

According to the complaints, 24-packs of Energizer Max Alkaline AAA batteries sold at Walmart for an average $16.24 in the summer of 2019, about one-third higher than a year earlier.

Pitts, based in San Jose, California, said the accusations appeared "more consistent" with an agreement to fix prices than with independent decision-making by Energizer, which one might expect to prefer lower retail prices to maximize sales.

The judge quoted an Energizer sales representative telling the chief executive of the plaintiff retailer Portable Power that Energizer's pricing policies were "1000% about Walmart."

Energizer declined to comment, saying the St. Louis-based company does not discuss pending litigation. Walmart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Duracell is not a defendant.

In seeking a dismissal, the defendants called Energizer's decisions to contract exclusively with Walmart and set minimum retail prices to frustrate discounters "entirely consistent with rational, unilateral business conduct."

Todd Schneider, a lawyer for the plaintiff retailers and some of the plaintiff consumers, said: "We look forward to bringing this matter to trial."

The lawsuits seek compensatory and triple damages for violations of federal and state antitrust laws and state consumer protection laws.

The cases in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, are: Copeland et al v Energizer Holdings Inc et al, No. 23-02087; Portable Power Inc v Energizer Holdings Inc et al, No. 23-02091, and Schuman et al v Energizer Holdings Inc et al, No. 23-02093.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, Editing by Franklin Paul)