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 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 parts 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 engaged in prohibited sales of certain parts to a purchaser who did not qualify under the Sales Rep Act.  Those sales precluded 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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Conkle Firm Article Explains Special Protections for Sales Representatives

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The Conkle firm published an article in the June 30, 2015 edition of the Electronics Representatives Association Southern California’s member newsletter to explain to ERASoCal members the special protections that California law provides for independent wholesale sales representatives.  Among other points, the article describes the requirements for a signed written contract, the types of information that manufacturers and distributors are required to provide to their independent sales reps, and the potential for treble damages (three times the actual damages) plus attorney’s fees for violations.

The article was written by Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Eric S. Engel and CK&E’s summer law clerk Ryan Fisher, a student at University of California, Irvine Law School.  CK&E is proud to be a member of ERASoCal, which is a trade association of independent manufacturers sales representative firms in Southern California’s vibrant electronics industry.  Eric has significant experience in sales commission claims, and he was lead trial counsel in the case that resulted in the first published decision in California applying the special protections of Civil Code Section 1738.10 et seq., including treble damages and attorney fees for unpaid sales commissions: Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

 

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Prove It! Conkle Firm Attorney Publishes National Article

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Eric S. Engel has extensive experience in matters affecting manufacturers, distributors and sales representatives.  From drafting and negotiating contracts between principals and agents to litigating disputes over such matters as commissions and trade secrets, Eric brings deep knowledge of the dynamics of the independent commissioned sales relationships to the benefit of clients across a wide range of industries.  Among his achievements is leading the trial team to a jury trial verdict and judgment of $6.2 million in treble damages against a manufacturer who cheated a commissioned sales representative.  The judgment was fully upheld on appeal in the precedent-setting decision of Reilly v. Inquest Technology, Inc., 218 Cal. App. 4th 536 (2013).

Eric has been recognized as a “Rep Savvy Attorney” by the Manufacturers & Agents National Association (MANA).  Rep Savvy Attorneys are acknowledged for their acumen in handling disputes involving principals and agents concerning independent commissioned sales relationships.  In that role, Eric is pleased to offer his legal insight through legal articles published in MANA’s monthly magazine, Agency Sales, which receives national distribution.  Most recently, Eric wrote an article on preserving evidence to support your claims and defenses when a dispute arises:  Prove It!  Why Reps and Principals Need to Keep the Evidence, Agency Sales Magazine, May 2015

The Prove It! article focuses on the need to document the significant events that arise in parties’ commercial relationships, starting with a signed written contract that correctly states the terms of the parties’ agreement in a straightforward manner.  Then, events during performance, such as exceptions to the contractual terms and issues in obtaining performance by the other party, should be documented in plain and clear English by email or even by good old letters or faxes.  Documents that were created during the relationship should be carefully saved – a document that once existed but cannot be located can be as bad or worse than a document that never existed in the first place, as it raises the potential for spoliation of evidence penalties that can be very serious.  The Prove It! article is written for agents and principals, but the information contained in the article can be applied to almost any commercial situation.

CK&E attorneys are well versed in commercial disputes of all types and are ready to help you document your position and maintain good records of what you documented, so that you can position yourself as strongly as possible if a dispute arises.

 

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The Conkle Firm Participates in MANA Attorney Forum in Chicago

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Kim Sim participated in the annual Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA) Attorney Forum in Chicago in September 2014.  The MANA Attorney Forum is an annual event for “rep-savvy” attorneys from across the country to meet and discuss legal issues and developments in the law that uniquely affect independent manufacturer’s representatives.

This year’s Attorney Forum covered a wide range of topics including conflicts of interest for sales representatives who represent competing lines, aspects of international law that impact sales representative relationships, successor companies and liability, valuation of rep firms, differences in manufacturers’ representative laws among states, ownership of customer lists and the recent amendment to the Minnesota Commission Protection Act.

CK&E regularly represents manufacturers’ representatives with respect to disputes relating to commissions, including a 2011 victory on behalf of its sales representative client that resulted in the published decision Reilly v. Inquest Technology, in which the Court of Appeal affirmed a $6.2 million judgment in favor of the sales representative under special California laws protecting sales representatives.  CK&E is proud to be a member of MANA and is honored to be recognized by the leading association of manufacturers and agents as specialists in the area of rep law.

Published in MANA’s Agency Sales Magazine:
MANA Attorney Forum 2014

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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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