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.

Federal Court refuses to compel arbitration of claim ostensibly brought under Law 21

This is yet another case underscoring the risks and liabilities to a principal of doing business with an expired contract.

In a case with an unusual set of facts, in Gonzalez v. Hurley International Inc., 2011 WL 445833 (D.P.R. Feb. 9, 2011)(Casellas, J.), Plaintiff, a sales representative, successfully defeated a motion to compel arbitration convincing the court that her written agreement had expired, was not renewed in writing, and there was no written obligation to arbitrate.

Plaintiff filed suit under Law 21 claiming that she was an exclusive sales representative and Defendant had terminated the agreement without just cause. Plaintiff also alleged that, from a course of dealings, a new and exclusive sales representative agreement arose after expiration of the old contract. The expired agreement had a choice of law clause providing for California law and arbitration in California.

Defendant moved to compel arbitration and responded that the parties continued doing business under the same terms and conditions of the expired agreement. If the agreement continued in effect at the time the claim arose in December 2009, noted the court, Plaintiff would not have an actionable claim under Law 21 because the agreement was expressly non-exclusive and Law 21 requires exclusivity as an element of the claim.

The court held that the agreement was extended once in writing but was not thereafter renewed. Thus, the court concluded that there was no obligation to arbitrate as the agreement expired, and distinguished Gemco v. Seiko, 623 F. Supp. 912 (D.P.R. 1985)(holding that Law 75 extends an agreement indefinitely and denying motion to stay arbitration), on grounds that the agreement at issue was never within the scope of Law 21 as the relationship was non-exclusive.

The court denied the motion to compel but set the tone for a possible motion to dismiss for failure to state an actionable Law 21 claim: “[a]lthough a business relationship between the parties apparently continued, the complaint fails to set forth sufficient facts to determine whether Plaintiff became Hurley’s exclusive sales representative.”

Note: One would have thought that the court had ample grounds to order cause as to why the complaint should not be dismissed for lack of a plausible Law 21 claim and require proof that there was an extinctive novation to create a new exclusive relationship after expiration of the agreement. While Plaintiff may be better off without arbitration, at the end, unless there is extinctive novation, her Law 21 claim may be doomed under Iqbal and Twombly Supreme Court precedent.