Sunday, July 31, 2011

In a case of first impression, a commercial arbitration panel of the AAA validates provisions for the computation of damages in a distribution agreement governed by Law 75

In a watershed ruling, a commercial arbitration panel of the American Arbitration Association has decided that sophisticated corporations may pre-determine the methodology for computing actual damages in the event of a future termination of the business relationship without violating Law 75.

There, a renowned worldwide producer of liquor entered into a distribution agreement with a Puerto Rico distributor. The brands and products that were subject to the agreement were famous, had an established goodwill in the Puerto Rico market, and produced significant annual revenues to the previous distributor, an entity affiliated to the producer. The agreement did not require the new distributor to pay a franchise fee, make any capital investments, or provide any consideration in exchange for the exclusive distribution rights.

The parties negotiated at arms-length with the advice of counsel and agreed on the formula to compute damages in the event of a termination without just cause. Essentially, the agreement established the annual distribution value of the exclusive distribution rights owned by the producer that would be conditionally granted to the distributor. The distribution value was based on actual historical data of revenues generated by sales of the products in the Puerto Rico market and an estimate of the new distributor’s direct costs. If the measure of actual damages under Law 75 was less than the distribution value, the distributor would recover zero damages in the event of an unjustified termination. Under the agreement, the distributor could only recover the excess profits generated by its efforts to the extent that those exceeded the distribution value.

The distributor argued that the damages provisions infringed Law 75 as a waiver of rights, but a majority of the panel disagreed. The Panel recognized that the Puerto Rico distributor cannot recover for the franchisor’s goodwill and value of its trademarks. Further, the measure for computing damages did not violate Law 75 because there is no prohibition from valuing the manufacturer’s goodwill (which the distributor did not create or contribute) and setting off that value from the measure of actual damages under Law 75. Damages under Law 75 are not automatic or mandatory, ruled the panel in favor of the producer.

This decision may have a significant impact in the way that distribution agreements are negotiated and executed, especially for famous brands that have an established clientele and goodwill in the Puerto Rico market.

Author’s note: The undersigned is lead counsel for the producer in the arbitration proceedings, with Rosalie Irizarry participating as trial counsel and Natalia Morales for research and motion practice.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

First Circuit vacates final judgment for a supplier in a Law 75 case after consolidation of a preliminary injunction hearing with a bench trial on the merits did not provide adequate prior notice.

In Lamex Foods v. Audeliz Lebron, No. 10-1677 (1st Cir. June 27, 2011), the First Circuit vacated the District Court’s (Fusté, J.) Judgment holding that consolidation of a preliminary injunction hearing with a bench trial on the merits without providing adequate and clear prior notice violated the constitutional right to a jury trial.

Plaintiff Lamex is a Minnesota corporation that facilitates the sale of food from manufacturers to suppliers and vendors worldwide. Plaintiff entered into a “business relationship” where it purchased frozen chicken for resale to Defendant ALC, a Puerto Rico corporation, that supplies product to supermarkets and retailers in Puerto Rico. In 2009, after failed collection attempts, ALC fell behind in its payments for poultry sold and delivered totaling $1.2 million. Lamex, among other actions, canceled ALC’s account and cashed in on a letter of credit tendered as security.

ALC sued Lamex first in local court alleging violations of Law 75. Before Lamex was served, it sued ALC in federal court naming ALC and its President as defendants. Lamex sought to recover payment of unpaid monies due and to pierce the corporate veil to hold the President personally liable. Lamex also sought a declaration that it was not a principal under Law 75, and even if it was, it had just cause to terminate the relationship.

There were mixed or contradictory signals on the record whether the court had in fact consolidated the case. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court found for Plaintiff in all respects on its complaint except that it disallowed the request to pierce the corporate veil.

Defendant appealed and argued that the court erred in consolidating the preliminary injunction hearing with a bench trial on the merits. The First Circuit accepted, without deciding, an argument for the present case that Law 75 actions are essentially legal to which the Seventh Amendment attaches. Despite Defendant’s counsel’s failure to object to consolidation, the First Circuit held that the court’s failure to give unequivocal and adequate prior notice did not comply with the heavy burden to show a waiver of the constitutional right to a jury trial.

Thus, the court vacated the judgment with respect to the claims for declaratory relief and to pierce the corporate veil and remanded the action for further proceedings. Significantly, because Defendant conceded the amount and existence of the debt owed to Plaintiff, it affirmed the court’s monetary judgment in Plaintiff’s favor. As to the appeal from a discovery sanction, the court affirmed the court’s imposition of sanctions against Defendant for its President’s evasive and non-responsive answers during his deposition.