Saturday, December 11, 2010

The First Circuit applies Iqbal’s plausibility standard to affirm the dismissal of a Law 21 claim and compel arbitration of claims for breach of contract and implied duty of good faith and fair dealing.

In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009) the Court heightened pleading requirements holding that “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”

In IOM Corporation v. Brown Forman, slip op., No. 09-1672 (1st Cir. Dec. 2, 2010), the opportunity presented itself for the First Circuit to review an order granting a motion to dismiss under FRCP 12(b)(6) a claim brought under Law 21. A detailed recital of the facts is appropriate as this noteworthy case presents a host of issues that come up regularly in distribution cases in Puerto Rico involving allegations of exclusivity, parole evidence, and integration clauses.

There, the broker Caribbean alleged that it had entered into oral agreements with Brown Forman’s predecessor to promote Finlandia vodka and Jack Daniels whisky in Puerto Rico. Subsequently, the parties entered into promotion agreements on a commission basis. The promotion agreements had integration and completeness clauses which, in effect, superseded the prior oral agreement with Brown Forman’s predecessor.

What prompted the lawsuit was that Brown Forman decided to restructure its operations in Puerto Rico and offered Caribbean to serve as its exclusive broker, but this arrangement would have permitted Brown Forman to open a sales office in Puerto Rico. Negotiations failed and Caribbean brought suit in local court since removed to federal court. Caribbean asserted claims for breach of an alleged oral exclusive contract, wrongful termination under Law 21, breach of contract and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. After holding a hearing on Caribbean’s application for a preliminary injunction and denying injunctive relief, the federal court (Besosa, J.) dismissed the Law 21 claim and ordered arbitration of the remaining claims.

The First Circuit agreed with the District Court that the Law 21 claim was not plausible on the facts alleged. The court, citing Puerto Rico Supreme Court precedent, noted that the elements of a Law 21 claim require obligations to promote and expand the market in a territory for the principal’s products in exchange for a commission, as well as an appointment of exclusivity.

First, the court concluded that the promotion agreements met none of the elements except the payment of commissions. Caribbean attempted to vary the clear terms of the agreements with extraneous evidence. Though the court recognized that the parole evidence rule had been repealed, in dicta, it suggested that the legal effect would be the same under Article 1233 of the Civil Code whose mandates requires observing the literal terms of a clear and unambiguous agreement. Even considering extrinsic evidence, the court concluded that Caribbean did not have authority to close sales orders on Brown Forman’s behalf, an essential element of a Law 21 claim, and did not allege sufficient facts to prove that the relationship was exclusive.

On the exclusivity element, the court held that it is “generally apparent either from the contract or from the arrangements agreed upon by the parties.” Where Iqbal comes in, is that the court concluded that the allegations of exclusivity were conclusory. There were no facts pleaded as to the scope of exclusivity and no allegation was made that Brown Forman had made any “assurances” that would support the contention that “no other sales representatives were allowed to sell the products in Puerto Rico.” The integration and completeness clauses were material to defeat the argument that extrinsic evidence existed that contradicted the plain terms of the promotion agreements (which were not exclusive on their face). On these facts the court affirmed the dismissal of the Law 21 termination claim of a purportedly oral exclusive agreement.

Turning to the arbitration issue, the court rejected the argument that the breach of contract claim arose from a non-arbitrable oral agreement. With the broad "arising under and related to" arbitration clause in the promotion agreements, all related claims of breach of contract and bad faith were arbitrable under the AAA in Louisville, Kentucky. The court held that all claims arose from the termination of the promotion agreements which have valid and enforceable arbitration clauses. As to the choice of forum, the court found that Caribbean had waived the argument that it was unenforceable under Law 21 for lack of a developed argumentation. As a matter of law, the court enforced the arbitration agreements and dismissed the claims.

Last but not least important, the court affirmed an award of attorney’s fees of $23,456 for temerity against Caribbean. It was significant to affirm the award under plain error review since Caribbean failed to object to the itemized and verified statement of fees. The court affirmed the judgment in its entirety.