Manufacturers, Distributors and Reps Must Be Familiar with California’s Sales Rep Act

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Independent sales representatives are a vital part of many industries, from beauty products and electronics to simple plumbing materials like tankless water heater valves.  Independent sales reps often develop considerable expertise in both the customer base in their territories and their manufacturers’ or distributors’ products, while saving resources that the principal can better use toward product development and customer service after the sale.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have extensive experience on behalf of both representatives and manufacturers/distributors/importers in strengthening those agency-principal relationships, and resolving commission, territorial or termination disputes when they arise.

In California, there is a relatively little-known statute that governs certain contractual requirements and responsibilities in a principal-sales representative relationship, called the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act (the “Sales Rep Act”) (California Civil Code § 1738.10).  The Sales Rep Act can be a powerful tool for sales reps, particularly because it offers the possibility of treble damages and attorney fees awards when the representative prevails.  For example, CK&E was counsel for a sales rep who was cheated out of his earned commissions by a principal who denied that it had ever agreed to pay those commissions.  After a jury trial, the sales rep received a jury award of $2.1 million that was then trebled to $6.2 million, plus attorney fees, after CK&E showed that the Sales Rep Act was properly applied in the situation at hand.  When the judgment was affirmed on appeal, that case became one of the most important published California court decisions about the correct application of the Sales Rep Act.   (Reilly v. Inquest Technology, 218 Cal. App. 4th 536 (2013)).

But like many powerful tools, the Sales Rep Act can be hazardous to either side when it is misapplied.  For sales representatives, distributors, manufacturers and importers alike, it is critically important to understand the requirements and potential effects of various factors to both the application and key exceptions to the Sales Rep Act.  For example, in a recent matter, CK&E attorneys Eric S. Engel and Evan Pitchford represented a Southern California importer-distributor of plumbing materials that was sued by a terminated sales rep who sought treble damages for commissions claimed owed, plus attorney fees, under the Sales Rep Act.  CK&E was able to demonstrate in a pretrial motion that the sales rep had in fact engaged in a prohibited sale of “tankless water heater valves” to an “ultimate consumer.”  That disqualified the sales rep from claiming the benefits of the Sales Rep Act, and limited the sales rep to just ordinary contract damages at most.  After the Court agreed that the claim under the Sales Rep Act was not available for this sales rep, the lawsuit was quickly settled.

These two examples demonstrate that intimate knowledge of how the Sales Rep Act operates is crucial for both sides of disputes between sales representatives and importers, manufacturers and distributors.  If you are an independent sales representative, distributor, or manufacturer that is facing commission, territorial or termination disputes, you would be well served to consult with counsel who is familiar with the very precise requirements of the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act (California Civil Code § 1738.10).

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Hot Yoga and Cold Law: Employment Retaliation Claims Can Arise Anywhere

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Most people would agree that working in a government office that supervises lawyers is quite different than working in a 104 degree “hot yoga” studio. But recent matters involving these two very different work environments show that employment retaliation claims can be asserted against any employer – whether you’re a yoga master or the master of all lawyers in California.

The California State Bar has the staid mission of regulating the admission of attorneys and investigating assertions of attorney misconduct. Yet in November 2015, the State Bar found itself charged with wrongful employment retaliation after it fired one of its top managers, John Noonen. Noonen asserted that the termination was retaliatory because, just a few weeks earlier, he submitted a 40-page internal complaint against the State Bar’s top attorney for allegedly failing to properly investigate complaints against the president of the State Bar. The State Bar has denied Noonen’s retaliation allegations and has said that Noonen’s position was eliminated as part of a cost-saving effort.

Less than two months later, the same types of claims led to a sizeable jury verdict against a completely different business run by famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury made his fortune teaching yoga instructors his techniques and allowing graduates to operate yoga studios that feature a specific yoga sequence performed in a 104-degree room. In January 2016, a Los Angeles jury found that Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal advisor and wrongfully fired her for investigating others’ claims of sexual discrimination and assault against him. Choudhury asserted he had good cause to fire his legal advisor because she was not licensed to practice law in California. The jury first ordered Choudhury and his yoga business to pay $924,000 in compensatory damages, and the next day the jury upped the ante with a further award of $6.4 million in punitive damages.

In each of these recent cases, employees alleged that their bosses improperly “retaliated” against them for investigating workplace misconduct. Most employers and employees know that laws exist to protect employees from wrongful discrimination and harassment. The same laws also provide that employers cannot punish or “retaliate” against employees for making complaints about other potentially wrongful employment conduct, such as discrimination or harassment, or for participating in workplace investigations about such potential wrongful employment conduct.

“Retaliation” is prohibited by the same federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability and gender. “Retaliation” can take many forms, including termination, demotion, suspension or other employment discipline against the employee for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting perceived employer discrimination or other misconduct. Owing to its broad scope, retaliation is a claim commonly raised by disgruntled or terminated employees. In fact, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), retaliation is the most common basis of discrimination claims in EEOC cases.

These cases illustrate some of the many circumstances in which employment issues can lead to litigation against a wide variety of employers. Conkle, Kremer & Engel regularly advises employer and individuals on workplace issues and the ramifications of retaliation and harassment claims so that all involved can take steps to resolve conflicts in a meaningful, efficient way. When circumstances do not do not allow a non-litigated solution, CK&E attorneys litigate and arbitrate employment disputes including retaliation claims, whether the claims are asserted individually or as a class action.

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National Article Profiles the Conkle Firm’s $6.2 million Judgment for Unpaid Sales Commissions

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s $6.2 million judgment against an electronics manufacturer is the subject of a feature article in the monthly publication of Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The article, Fallout From an Oral Contract, appears in the January 2014 issue of Agency Sales Magazine.

The article profiles Plaintiff Peter Reilly, a sales representative who was denied his commissions.  Author Jack Foster chronicles how CK&E lawyers Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim marshaled the facts and developed the law of the California’s Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act to win a treble damages judgment for Mr. Reilly.

The Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act is a little-known statute that requires a signed written contract containing specific terms in some commission agreements between manufacturers and sales representatives.  A willful failure to have a written contract that complies with the Act, or to account for and pay commissions as required by the written contract, can result in an award to the sales rep of three times the amount proved at trial, in addition to attorney fees.  In the Reilly v. Inquest case, the jury awarded the sales representative $2.1 million for unpaid commissions, which was trebled by the Court to more than $6.2 million.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the award in full.  The Reilly v. Inquest Technology decision was unprecedented, because it is the first published decision to endorse the full scope of remedies available under the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act.

The Agency Sales Magazine article follows an article about Reilly v Inquest that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

CK&E’s lawyers are well versed in issues affecting manufacturers and sales representatives.  CK&E lawyers litigate and resolve disputes over sales commissions and terminations, and use that knowledge to help manufacturers and sales representatives draft more effective contracts.  CK&E is a member of MANA and the Electronics Representatives Association (ERA).

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CK&E Attorneys Speak at ERA Owners Forum

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CK&E attorneys Eric Engel and Kim Sim were pleased to be invited to speak at ERA So Cal’s January 28, 2014 Owners Forum.  ERA is the international association of professional sales representatives and electronics industry manufacturers who use independent sales reps.  ERA’s member rep firms sell more than $40 billion annually in electronics products for thousands of manufacturers.

The ERA roundtable forum included lively and thoughtful questions and comments by business owners and managers, directed toward improving their ability to collect commissions owed for their sales representatives’ work promoting sales for manufacturers.  In addition to outlining important terms that should be included in written contracts, much of the discussion concerned the application of the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act, California Civil Code §§ 1738.10 et seq.  Under the Act, a manufacturer must have a signed written contract with the sales rep containing particular terms required by the Act, and the manufacturer must provide a written accounting with every payment of commissions.  When a manufacturer willfully fails to comply with the requirements of the Act, the sales rep is entitled to three times his or her unpaid commissions and other damages, plus attorney fees.

Eric Engel and Kim Sim were the trial attorneys in Reilly v. Inquest Technology, the first precedent in California that enforced the full remedy of treble damages under the Act.  In Reilly, application of the Act led to a $2.1 million jury verdict becoming a judgment for $6.2 million, plus attorney fees and interest.  ERA and its partner organization, Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA), were important sponsors of the Act and similar legislation enacted in about 36 other states to protect the rights of independent wholesale sales representatives.  CK&E is proud to be able to help sales representatives create contracts that protect their rights to be paid for their services, and to help them enforce their rights when disputes arise.

 

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CKE’s L.A. Daily Journal Article: Treble Damages for Breach of Oral Contract

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The article “Breach of Oral Contract, Treble Damages,” was published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on August 13, 2013.  The article discusses the importance for manufacturers, distributors and sales representatives of the published decision of Reilly v. Inquest Technology, Inc., 2013 DJDAR 10164 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. July 31, 2013).  The Reilly decision is the first precedent in California to uphold a jury verdict and judgment of treble damages and attorney fees against a manufacturer who failed to pay all sales commissions owed to an independent sales representative.  Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim represented Peter Reilly, the sales representative, at trial in Orange County Superior Court.  They obtained a unanimous jury verdict awarding Reilly $2.1 million in unpaid commissions.  Using the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act, CK&E then obtained an order from Judge Frederick Horn multiplying the jury’s award by a factor of three, for a judgment of $6.2 million plus attorney’s fees and interest.  That judgment was fully upheld by the California Court of Appeal in its July 31, 2013 decision.  The decision provides a template for future cases seeking treble damages for breach of commission contracts made with independent sales representatives, and can serve as a guide to manufacturers and distributors who want to avoid exposure to such liability.

Click here for the full text of the article, “Breach of oral contract, treble damages”:  Reilly v Inquest Daily Journal Article

Click here for the full copy of the California Court of Appeal decision:  Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

 

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CK&E’s Judgment of $6.2 million for Unpaid Sales Commissions Upheld on Appeal

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The California Court of Appeal has unanimously upheld the $6.2 million judgment that Conkle, Kremer & Engel won at trial for a sales representative who had been deprived of $2 million in commissions he had earned.

Peter Reilly was a retired electronics industry executive who agreed to use his extensive contacts in the industry to bring new business to a growing manufacturing company, Inquest Technology, Inc.  After Reilly was not paid commissions for the contacts that he brought to Inquest, he asked Conkle, Kremer & Engel for help.

Reilly-Inquest_Team

Reilly v. Inquest – Plaintiff’s Trial and Appeal Team

CK&E’s Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim were the trial lawyers who devised the case strategy.  Key to the strategy was establishing by discovery and summary judgment motion the intricate requirements to impose liability against Inquest under a rarely-used law called the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act of 1990, California Civil Code section 1738.10 (“the Act”).  The main attraction of the Act is that jury awards for willful violations are trebled by the court and attorneys’ fees are awarded to a successful plaintiff.  Few laws in commercial litigation impose a penalty of three-times actual damages – that is a greater multiplier than most permissible punitive damages awards.

CK&E was able to prove that the sales representative relationship that Reilly had with Inquest met the particular requirements of the Act.  At trial, a unanimous jury found that Reilly procured sales for which he should have been paid $2,065,702 in commissions, based on the testimony of Reilly’s damages expert Thomas Neches.  The trial court then applied the Act’s penalty of treble damages to award Reilly a $6.2 million judgment, plus attorneys’ fees and interest, to enter the Judgment for Peter Reilly against Inquest Technology on Jury Verdict.

Of course, the Defendants appealed the judgment.  On July 31, 2013, the Reilly v. Inquest Technology case led to the first published decision of a California Court of Appeal to uphold a judgment trebling damages and awarding attorneys’ fees under the Act.  Anthony Kornarens was the appellate lawyer for Reilly, with assistance by CK&E.  In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeal determined that Reilly’s judgment of $6.2 million was well supported by the evidence presented at trial, and that Reilly’s claims for unpaid sales commissions were within the special protections of the Act.

Click here for the full copy of the California Court of Appeal decision:  Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

Watch for our future posts about the Act, including how CK&E proved that Inquest’s owners were also liable for the full amount of the $6.2 million judgment even though they were not subject to the Act.

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