Thursday, April 14, 2011

Supplier is barred from creating obligations not specified within the four corners of an integrated distribution agreement to prove just cause under Law 75

Plaintiff, a Puerto Rico distributor, sued in federal court a stateside supplier of Florida’s Natural orange juice for termination under Law 75. Plaintiff alleged that it complied with its obligations in the one and only written distribution agreement, including with each of the annual purchase requirements. Defendant unilaterally terminated the agreement and appointed a new distributor. As an affirmative defense, Defendant alleged that Law 75 did not apply as the agreement had expired, though there were e-mails in which Defendant acknowledged that the agreement continued in effect on the same terms and conditions. Defendant also alleged that Plaintiff’s delay in submitting requests for reimbursement of marketing expenses was a ground for just cause. Plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment for the court to declare that the agreement continued in effect as an integrated agreement and the Civil Code precluded extrinsic evidence of alleged side agreements or obligations to prove just cause.

In Méndez & Co. Inc. v. Citrus World Inc., 2011 WL 1362468 (D.P.R. March 24, 2011)(Fusté, J.), the federal court sided with Plaintiff and granted its motion for partial summary judgment. The court held that Plaintiff qualified for protection as a Law 75 dealer, and found that the agreement was clear and unambiguous. The court held that, with or without the integration clause, under the Civil Code Defendant was barred from introducing any evidence to prove that Plaintiff had an obligation not specified in the contract to “submit annual marketing plans and budgets…to receive reimbursements of marketing expenses.” This had the effect of precluding an argument at trial that Plaintiff’s alleged failure to submit the required documentation to receive reimbursements (even if the party prejudiced by that failure would have been the distributor) could be grounds for just cause. The parties agreed to mediation. The case is scheduled for trial on May 9, 2011.

Note: the author’s law firm represents Plaintiff in the case.