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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