Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dealers beware: is acceptance of commissions for direct sales by supplier in contravention of exclusive distributorship agreement by itself a waiver of a breach of contract claim under Law 75?

The issue often arises when a dealer claims that payment of commissions by its principal for direct sales made by another distributor (or retailer) to its customers in the exclusive territory is proof of an exclusive distributorship. Case law in Puerto Rico is mixed on the issue. One First Circuit case holds that payment of commissions does not legally modify the terms of a clearly non-exclusive distributor agreement. Problems arise (for the supplier) when a clearly non-exclusive distributorship agreement has expired or there is no written agreement at all. In those circumstances, as in a reported federal district court case, the payment of commissions may create a genuine triable issue of fact on the existence of exclusivity. In their commercial dealings parties may contractually agree that payment of commissions is the quid pro quo or consideration for exclusive distribution rights. But, absent a contract, it is by no means settled that payment of commissions is per se proof of exclusivity.

Picking up where I left off in my prior blog that common law authorities may be persuasive when interpreting Law 75, at least in the State of Ohio, an appellate court (but reversed on other grounds) held that payment of commissions is a waiver of a breach of contract claim. In Miller v. Wikel Manufacturing Company, 545 N.E. 2d 76 (Ohio 1989), a jury found that a principal had impaired and terminated an exclusive distributorship agreement and awarded damages of $1.5 million for breach of contract.

On the relevant issue, the appellate court reversed the verdict and reasoned:

“It was proven at trial that the Millers [the distributor] had been aware of direct sales by Wikel Mfg. [the principal] in Michigan since 1971 and that the Millers had accepted commissions on these sales. Such sales were in contravention of the exclusive distributorship contract. The court of appeals reasoned that the Millers’ election to continue as Wikel Mfg’s distributor, notwithstanding Wikel Mfg’s actions, constituted a waiver of their rights under the agreement, and thus, that they were estopped from asserting a breach of contract claim on this basis.” See 1998 WL 62980 Ohio App. 1988, citing, Section 683 of Williston on Contracts (“….where a contract is breached in the course of its performance, the injured party has a choice presented to him of continuing the contract or refusing to go on.”), reversed on other grounds, 545 N.E. 2d 76.

These facts depict a scenario of “willful blindness”, “deliberate acquiescence”, or “laches” by a distributor who has knowledge of the breach for years but elects to continue the relationship receiving benefits under the contract in exchange for additional consideration consisting of commissions. Unless the dealer protects itself with contractual language to ensure that the commissions do not novate (or affirmatively ratify) existing exclusive rights, there is a risk of waiver or estoppel from accepting commissions in the face of a clearly exclusive contract.

Right or wrong, this is all dicta as the appellate court’s holding never became law of the case. The Supreme Court of Ohio did not reach the waiver issue on the merits for it reversed the appellate court, reinstated the verdict, and held that waiver and estoppel are affirmative defenses which were waived in the case. Thus, the appellate court erred in raising the issue sua sponte.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The interplay of comparative law and Law 75: is it appropriate for guidance?

“[A] U.S. Court interpreting a federal statute or constitutional provision can look at the reasoning of a foreign or international tribunal on similar issue.” Al-Bihani v. Obama, 619 F.3d 1, 33 n. 18 (D.C. Cir. 2010)(Kavanaugh, J., concurring), citing Ruth Ginsburg, “A decent respect to the Opinions of [Human] kind”; The Value of a Comparative Perspective in Constitutional Adjudication, Address to the International Academy of Comparative Law (July 30, 2010). While foreign decisions do not rank as precedent, they can be informative and just as persuasive as reasoned law review articles or commentators on the subject matter. See, i.d.

When interpreting Law 75 it is advisable to resort to common law and civil law jurisdictions for their persuasive value. Foreign jurisdictions which can be persuasive include Spain, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the last two have statutes similar and preceding ours. But common law jurisdictions have also shaped many of the amendments to the presumptions of lack of just cause in Law 75, including California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and possibly, Wisconsin. See Report of the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico, P. of C. 774, at 3, April 23, 1986; Report of the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico, P. of. C. 774, at 4 May 10, 1998.

Delaware enacted a “Franchise Security Law” on July 8, 1970 protecting certain franchisees with a place of business within the state from unjustified terminations. Damages include lost profits and loss of goodwill. “[Delaware law], within the ambit of legislation in the United States, is closest in its focus to Law 75.” See 97-page Study about Law 75 of 1964, Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico (undated)(translation ours).

In future blogs, I will comment about noteworthy state and foreign decisions which may be helpful to resolve open issues under Law 75.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Law 75 protects dealers who develop the “market” in Puerto Rico. But, does the “market” include federal military installations, cruise ships, or duty free shops?

There are two elements for Law 75 to apply, prima facie, first, the statute protects a Puerto Rico dealer, and who qualifies as a dealer is a highly factual question; second, the business activities of the dealer must be directed to promote the sale or service of the principal’s products or services within the Puerto Rico market. Thus, the statute does not extend coverage to stateside or foreign distributors at least to those that have no sales or distribution offices or operations within Puerto Rico. Nor should Law 75 have an extraterritorial reach for sales made outside of the Puerto Rico territory. Accordingly, the measure of damages in Law 75 should not include any sales made by a Puerto Rico distributor outside the Puerto Rico market. That should be straightforward enough.

But, what is the market within the geographic boundaries of Puerto Rico that is covered by Law 75? Plain language of Law 75 does not help to answer that question. Are sales made to federal military customers within federal military installations in Puerto Rico covered? In Patterson v. Ford Motor, 931 F. Supp. 98, 102 (D.P.R. 1996), the issue was raised but the court did not answer the question ruling instead that Plaintiff, a sales representative, did not qualify as a Law 75 dealer. Would sales made by Puerto Rico distributors to cruise ships that dock within Puerto Rico’s territorial waters be covered by Law 75? Are duty free sales at the LMM international airport covered? Does the answer to these questions turn on constitutional or quasi-political definitions of what is a “territory”? If that’s the right test then arguably sales to U.S military installations within Puerto Rico may not be covered. Or does the answer turn instead on the practical import of who is the ultimate consumer for the products (understanding that many but not all consumers are Puerto Rico residents) and what benefits does the principal derive from sales by Puerto Rican distributors to these outlets (military bases, cruise ships, and duty free shops) all of which have a nexus to Puerto Rico? Either way there is no definitive answer on point in the case law to these questions.