Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Puerto Rico distributors: beware of ICC arbitration clauses in distribution agreements

International arbitrations are a common ADR procedure to resolve commercial disputes, including Law 75 actions. There are many reasons to choose arbitration: no jury trial…the blessing of Supreme Court precedent and FAA preemption, a panel of experienced professionals, and presumably a quicker and more cost effective mechanism etc. It is no secret, however, that arbitration can be expensive, and often more so than court cases, but rarely do the parties foresee, at the time of contracting, the substantial costs and fees that must be advanced by the claimant to initiate an international arbitration.

For arbitrations under the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), for example, the initiating party, which may be the aggrieved distributor, must advance up front the administrative fees to cover the expenses of the ICC and the arbitrator(s). When those fees approach 10% of the face amount of the distributor’s claim, well if you do the math, those fees can be substantial just to get “your day in court”.

So far, at least in commercial disputes, courts have been reluctant to invalidate ICC arbitration clauses as substantively unconscionable because of the substantial costs to arbitrate the dispute. Kam-Ko Bio-Pharm v. Mayne Pharma, 560 F. 3d 935 (9th Cir. 2009), citing, Green Tree Fin. V. Randolph, 531 U.S. 79 (2000).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Would Puerto Rico Law 75 override a Delaware choice of law clause?

A series of published federal cases hold that Puerto Rico Law 75 displaces contractual choice of law clauses of certain common law jurisdictions in distribution agreements, notably New York (among others). Many of those cases have applied the Restatement of Conflict of Laws to conclude that Law 75 is vested with public policy and Puerto Rico has a significantly greater interest in applying its laws over the transaction. Would the result be the same in all common law jurisdictions?

When drafting distribution agreements one should consider the possibility that not all States would necessarily enforce Law 75 and override a freely-executed choice of law clause. There are States which hold themselves out as having a body of fair and efficient substantive commercial laws that offer uniformity and predictability to business actors. The State of Delaware is one of those jurisdictions with a choice of law enactment that values the parties’ freedom of contract. 6 Del. C. Sec. 2708 (a)(2005) provides that: “[t]he parties to any contract, agreement or other undertaking, contingent or otherwise, may agree in writing that the contract, agreement or other undertaking shall be governed by or construed under the laws of this State, without regard to principles of conflict of laws, or that the laws of this State shall govern, in whole or in part, any or all of their rights, remedies, liabilities, powers and duties if the parties, either as provided by law or in the manner specified in such writing are, (i) subject to the jurisdiction of the courts of, or arbitration in, Delaware and, (ii) may be served with legal process. The foregoing shall conclusively be presumed to be a significant, material and reasonable relationship with this State and shall be enforced whether or not there are other relationships with this State.”

While Section 2708 has not been interpreted in the context of either Law 75 or franchise or distribution agreements, it applies to contracts of $100,000 or more as a matter of public policy where Delaware law has a material relationship to the transaction. As Delaware’s Court of Chancery noted in Abry Partners v. F&W Acquisition LLC, 891 A. 2d 1032, 1050 (Del. Ch. 2006), when enforcing a Delaware choice of law provision in a stock purchase agreement, “[t]o enter into a contract under Delaware law and then tell the other contracting party that the contract is unenforceable due to the public policy of another state is neither a position that tugs at the heartstrings of equity nor is it commercially reasonable.”

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.