Monday, December 5, 2011

Declaratory judgment is appropriate vehicle to obtain declaration of just cause for termination of agreement in Law 75 case

In General Motors v. Royal Motors Corp., 769 F. Supp. 2d 73 (D.P.R. Feb. 1, 2011)(Gelpí, J.), GM filed a preemptive suit against one of its dealers seeking a declaration under 28 U.S.C. §2201 that it had just cause for termination of the motor vehicle dealer agreement with one of its dealers. GM alleged that the dealer submitted false or fraudulent claims related to warranty repairs of vehicles which constituted a material breach of the agreement. GM pleaded complete diversity of citizenship and the amount in controversy exceeded the requisite jurisdictional amount.

The dealer moved to dismiss the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. It alleged that the complaint did not satisfy the jurisdictional minimum and did not present a justiciable controversy. The court held that the amount in controversy “is measured by the value of the object in the litigation.” Because the “value of the dealer agreement” exceeds the jurisdictional minimum, the court denied the motion to dismiss on that basis.

As to the justiciability of the claim, the court found that the federal Declaratory Judgment Act “is designed to enable litigants to clarify legal rights and obligations before acting on them.” “GM’s right to terminate its contractual relationship is the exact type of dispute considered ripe for declaratory judgment”, held the court. The court also found that GM showed the hardship it would suffer absent a judicial determination of its rights and denied the motion to dismiss.

Note: CAB represents General Motors in the litigation.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Plaintiff wins a remand to local court but loses a tortious interference claim in federal court: was it a pyrrhic victory?

In Alpha Biomedical v. Phillips Medical, 2011 WL 5837374 (D.P.R., Nov. 21, 2011)(Besosa, J.), Plaintiff, a distributor of medical equipment, filed an action in local court asserting claims under Law 75, tortious interference, and defamation against various Phillips corporations for breach and interference with an alleged verbal distribution contract. Defendants removed the case alleging that certain non-diverse defendants had been fraudulently joined to defeat diversity. Plaintiff moved to remand. A U.S. Magistrate recommended that the action should be remanded, which the Court adopted. The Magistrate (Silvia Carreno, J.) found that the standard of fraudulent joinder was unsettled in the First Circuit and adopted a prong of a Fifth Circuit test whether Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted against the non-diverse defendants. She determined that the complaint properly pleaded a claim for defamation and there could not be a finding of fraudulent joinder.

Things then get tricky. While the Magistrate’s determination on the existence of a valid defamation claim sufficed to require granting the motion to remand for lack of jurisdiction, the Magistrate went further and concluded that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for tortious interference, which the Court agreed. Was there subject matter jurisdiction to make such a recommendation? The issue was not addressed in the opinion. Over Plaintiff’s objection, the Court held that Puerto Rico law would not recognize a valid claim for tortious interference with a verbal contract having an indefinite term and is terminable at will. Law 75 contracts without a fixed term could become indefinite in the sense there can be no lawful termination without just cause. However, Plaintiff’s allegations were defective in that it failed to allege the duration of the alleged verbal agreement or that it was in effect at the time of the alleged interference. The Court adopted both the recommendation to remand the case for lack of jurisdiction and the decision not to award attorney’s fees as the removal was objectively reasonable, citing Martin v. Franklin, 546 U.S. 132, 141 (2005).

Would the Court’s adoption of the Magistrate’s recommendation that no valid tortious interference claim exists be res judicata upon remand of the case to local court? It is questionable whether the court’s de facto dismissal of the tortious interference claim is reviewable on appeal when a remand order is not. The court’s determination that a valid defamation claim exists was enough to remand the case for lack of jurisdiction. It remains to be seen if the local court will pass judgment independently on the Court’s reasoning or conclude that the determination to dismiss the tort claim is res judicata. Did Plaintiff really win at all with remanding the case?