Saturday, May 7, 2011

Some pitfalls that suppliers should avoid when doing business with distributors or representatives in Puerto Rico

Having counseled suppliers and distributors in Puerto Rico for over two decades has given me an insight of the most common pitfalls in distribution practice. The list below is by no means exhaustive and there are many variations or nuances.

First and foremost, doing business without a contract (or verbally) when combined with failing to procure timely legal advice from local counsel, is a time bomb waiting to go off. This by itself creates a host of problems to a supplier and often will land you into litigation and then at the mercy of a jury of the distributor’s peers. Having no contract exposes the supplier to claims of indefinite or exclusive contracts with open ended or ambiguous terms, among other risks.

Second, there is an assumption that many agents are not distributors when they could qualify for protection under Law 75. In Puerto Rico a number of representatives throughout the distribution chain could serve as distributors though one would not think so from their corporate form alone. For instance, some retailers could qualify as Law 75 dealers if they meet the legal standards.

Would you think that an independent retail store selling or servicing your branded products in Plaza Las Americas could claim protection as a Law 75 dealer, or an exclusive representative promoting your branded medications on a commission basis to doctors and hospitals? Would the transfer of title of products outside PR by itself exempt you from Law 75's reach? Think again.

Third, there is a misconception that PR is unique in protecting dealers when that is not necessarily so. By my last count 18 states have laws similar to PR. This misconception acts as a deterrent to many companies from doing business in PR. Opportunities are lost when all they need is the right lawyer and the right contract.

Fourth, and this is not unique to PR, time and again we see a failure to document performance issues during the course of the relationship. You may have the right contract but if the obligations are not monitored and enforced properly it is an empty piece of paper.

Fifth, mergers and acquisitions are a minefield for all parties concerned and replete with Law 75 issues which are often discovered after the fact when the successor assumes the obligations directly or appoints a new distributor to take over the distribution.

Sixth, and this relates to my first point, do not assume that if you think you have the “right contract” that it will be automatically enforced under Puerto Rico law. The most common situation is with stateside choice of law clauses in common law jurisdictions that allow termination at will of indefinite contracts. Business decisions have been made to terminate Puerto Rico distributors under the assumption that there is no obligation to renew the contract at its expiration or that no cause is required for termination. Your client may be in for a surprise. Generally, a stateside or foreign choice of law clause in a distribution agreement governed by Law 75 is unenforceable as a matter of public policy. Again, you may think you have the “right” contract and act on it when you should not.