Relationships Between Producers, Wholesalers, and Retailers: Beer Distribution and Franchise Laws in California (Part 2)

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In a recent blog post, we discussed beer self-distribution rules in California.  While the self-distribution laws in California are generally quite accommodating, and self-distribution works for a start-up craft brewery with limited funds, on a practical level it can only serve a relatively small geographical area.  As a brand increases in local popularity and the beer producer wants to expand its footprint and accelerate its competition with brands and beers outside its home region, usually the producer will choose to enter into a distribution agreement with an established third-party wholesaler.  When a beer producer chooses to contract with a distributor, then it is important to be aware of the applicable beer franchise laws (which also vary from state to state).  Beer franchise laws control the relationship between the brewer and the wholesaler and will generally trump contract terms that do not comport with such laws.

Beer franchise laws stem from a decades-old period when relatively few national-level breweries (like Budweiser and Miller) were able to exert significant power over the beer distribution industry, which at the time was chiefly comprised of numerous small mom-and-pop outlets.  As an example, the macrobreweries would impose stringent requirements for their distributors that necessitated significant investment (such as construction and maintenance of a sophisticated refrigerated warehouse), but there was nothing to protect the distributor when the macrobreweries decided to switch to a competitor, leaving the distributors with little recourse to recoup their investment.  To protect the distributors from this predicament, strong state franchise laws were enacted that made it difficult for the breweries to terminate contracts with distributors.

At their most draconian, beer franchise laws can marry a brewer to a distributor even if the brewer only sends a small initial amount of beer to the distributor for resale without any written agreement whatsoever.  In some cases distributors can even have the power to transfer the distribution rights to successors-in-interest without the brewer’s consent.  In many states, a brewer can only cancel a distribution contract for “good cause,” which may not include failure to reach sales quotas.  Further, many states require a brewer, in order to break a distribution contract, to pay the wholesaler Fair Market Value (“FMV”) for the lost business.  Of course, these rules have shifted a significant share of power to the distributors.

As the franchise laws weren’t enacted with the microbrewing phenomenon in mind, they can make distribution difficult for craft brewers that don’t have the clout of a national macrobrew and who don’t impose stringent requirements on their distributors.  In certain situations, a small brand may feel that a distributor is paying attention to other more established brands and that it is not getting the benefit of its bargain with the distributor.  However, many beer franchise laws have been softened over the past several years, allowing for more competition in the wholesale market and giving fledgling breweries more choice and control over the terms of their third-party distribution.  For example, some states exempt breweries that produce less than certain annual volumes from the franchise laws.  Of course, exemptions like this mean that brewers need to be conscious of their plans to grow and potentially exceed those volume limitations, and consider how it will affect their distribution agreements.

California’s beer franchise laws are some of the most accommodating in the country, because California allows the distribution agreement itself to control most of the important terms and dealings between the brewer and the wholesaler.  In California, a brewer must enter into exclusive written territorial agreements with distributors that are filed with the ABC (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.5).  California’s franchise laws do not restrict brewers to only “good cause” terminations (though the distributors themselves may very well fight for some type of good-cause requirement in contract negotiations).  Further, a brewer can terminate a distribution agreement if the wholesaler fails to meet a “commercially reasonable” sales goal or quota (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.7), and many beer distribution agreements call for the distributor itself to come up with an annual business plan that establishes sales goals based on certain data.  Except in certain situations, a brewer does not need to pay FMV to terminate the relationship (though again, a distributor may insist on a termination payment as a contract term).  While a brewer is not automatically bound by contract to a purchaser or transferee of its distributor, the brewer cannot unreasonably withhold consent or deny approval of such a transfer without incurring certain charges (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 25000.9).

In California, the parties must be attuned to several important issues in creating the agreement, such as territory, term, change in ownership and transfer rights, termination rights, terms of sale, commercially reasonable sales goals, post-termination provisions, intellectual property licensing and advertising issues, dispute resolution, and other rights and duties of the parties.  Such contract terms are just as important for a brewer as finding a distribution team that is the right “fit” for a growing brand.

Overall, it is no surprise that the states with the most friendly self-distribution and franchise laws are the states with the most active and diverse beer business communities.  For example, California now has around 900 active breweries, far more than any other state, adding over 500 breweries in the last two years alone.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has experience representing both breweries and distributors.  If you are launching a brewery in California, looking to expand your brand’s sales through self-distribution or with a third-party distributor, or have found yourself in a distribution-related dispute, contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel for assistance with those and other beer industry-related issues.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Often, contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors include post-termination non-competition clauses that can be problematic in several respects.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is often possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former representatives from working with competitors.  Further, reps and principals often work across state lines, and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.  To help reps and principals understand issues that they face, CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The October 2016 article, Limiting the Risks of Restraint of Trade, is the first of two parts addressing the enforceability of restraints of trade in various states, and methods to assure that a favorable venue is available if a dispute arises. Next month’s article will focus on the intersection of restraints of trade and trade secret protection.

 

 

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Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

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On April 27, 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) passed the House of Representatives and went to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.  With that, trade secret misappropriation claims will exist under federal law and can be pursued in federal courts.

The DTSA will provide businesses with more effective new tools to protect their sensitive information from misappropriation.  In the context of trade secrets, misappropriation is generally considered the acquisition of hidden information through some improper means .  The broadly structured language of the DTSA extends its protection to “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information” so long as (1) the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep the information secret and (2) the information derives its value from that secrecy.  The DTSA largely tracks the concepts of trade secrets that have long existed in most states.  But under the DTSA, plaintiffs will be able to bring claims for misappropriation of trade secrets in federal court.

Previously, trade secrets have been an outlier in the world of intellectual property.  Unlike copyright, patent and trademark claims, which receive the wider benefit and protection of federal court jurisdiction, trade secret claims have mostly been litigated in state court.  The problem with this has been that, given the diffuse and global nature of business and commerce, state courts are often not the best venue for intellectual property claims.   If a misappropriation occurs across state or national borders, a federal court is better suited to address such jurisdictional conflicts.

To gain access to the DTSA, and federal court jurisdiction, all that is required is that the “trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  This is generally a very low threshold, as most products and services these days are used or intended for use in at least interstate commerce – only the most localized of businesses would not be able to meet this minimal requirement.

The DTSA will confer on trade secret holders a greater ability to pursue misappropriation beyond the borders of the United States, and can even pursue remedies before the International Trade Commission.  In addition, a secondary benefit gained from access to the federal court system is a potential for more uniform decisions and precedent than the more disparate and varied state courts decisions.

Another interesting development that the DTSA will usher in relates to injunction and damages.  Injunctions are often sought in trade secret cases to prevent the information at issue from being disclosed.  Previously,  under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which almost all states have adopted in some form or another, the injunction would end when the trade secret ceased to exist or after an amount of time necessary to stop any potential commercial advantage being gained from a misappropriation.  The DTSA however contains no such limitation, which presumably will give courts more discretion in applying an extended injunction.  Also, where the UTSA allows for double damages in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation”, the language of the DTSA has upped this to treble damages.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the DTSA tool belt is the ability to seek ex parte civil seizures.  What this means is that a plaintiff can, without giving a defendant notice, seek the seizure of property if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant, or someone working in concert with the defendant, is likely to “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make such matter inaccessible to the court”.  This type of ex parte seizure is a powerful new tool that will likely allow trade secret holders to better combat harm associated with a misappropriation.  And being a powerful tool, it may be subject to misuse among competitors.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay current on developments that may be important to their clients concerned about commercial and intellectual property issues.  If you have questions about the DTSA or other aspects of trade secret or intellectual property protection, we would be glad to hear from you.

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PCPC’s California Lobby Day was a Great Success

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On April 12, 2016, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney John Conkle flew to Sacramento to be part of Personal Care Products Council’s delegation for California Lobby Day. The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) advocates for the personal care products, beauty and cosmetics industry at federal, state and local levels on legislative priorities and regulatory issues.

Conferences held in the Governor’s Council Room featured presentations by Nancy McFadden (Executive Secretary to Governor Edmund G. Brown), Graciela Castillo-Krings (Deputy Legislative Secretary to Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr.), Dr. Meredith Williams (Deputy Director of Safer Products and Workplaces Program Director, Department of Toxics & Substance Control), and Elise Rothschild (Deputy Director of the Hazardous Waste Management Program, Department of Toxics & Substance Control).  John joined teams of PCPC staff and member companies who met with legislative offices to discuss the economic impact of the industry and legislation pending before the California legislature. The day’s events were capped with a reception at which PCPC staff and members were joined by California State Legislators.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel is a proud and active member of the Personal Care Products Council.  CK&E attorneys are glad to lend their legal expertise to the PCPC and its member companies by participating in PCPC conferences and industry advocacy efforts..

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No Fooling! On April 1, Almost All Employers are Subject to New Employment Regulations in California

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Effective April 1, 2016, new regulations of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) impose stringent new anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements on almost all employers having any employees in California.  Unlike in the past, the new amendments to regulations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) apply to any employer having five or more “employees,” any of whom are located in California.  The word “employees” is important, because the new FEHA regulations count toward the minimum of five “employees” unpaid interns, volunteers and persons out on leave from active employment.  Further, it appears that this new FEHA regulation is intended to apply even to employers with headquarters outside of California if any of their employees are located in California.

The FEHA regulatory amendments require all affected employers to have written policies prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment.  The policies must apply to prohibit discrimination and harassment by co-workers, who are made individually liable for their own violations, and by third parties such as vendors in the workplace.  The regulations demand that the written policy list all currently-protected categories protected under FEHA:  Race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.  Prohibited “sex discrimination” includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and related medical conditions.  Interestingly, the regulations also prohibit discrimination against employment applicants holding a special California driver’s license issued to persons without proof of legal presence in the United States.  It is not yet clear how this will work in conjunction with the employer’s existing Federal obligation to confirm eligibility for employment.

The employer’s written policy must specify a confidential complaint process that satisfies a number of criteria.  Workplace retaliation for making good faith complaints of perceived discrimination or harassment is prohibited.  The written policy must be publicized to all employees, with tracking of its receipt by employees.  If 10% of the employer’s work force speaks a language other than English, the written policy must be translated to that language.

Further, the new regulations attempt to resolve a number of uncertainties about who is protected, specifying that both males and females are protected from gender discrimination, and requiring that transgender persons be treated and provided facilities consistent with their gender identity.  There are many other changes, such as a new entitlement to four months for pregnancy leave that is not required to be taken continuously.  If an employer has more than 50 employees, there are additional requirements, such as periodic sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors.

Employers operating in California are well advised to review their policies and practices, and to consult with qualified counsel regarding changes that may be required.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help clients remain compliant with laws, regulations and case developments affecting employers in California.

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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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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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The Conkle Firm Will Attend Cosmoprof Asia November 12-14, 2014

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys John Conkle and Kim Sim will attend the Cosmoprof event for the Asia Pacific region in Hong Kong on Nov. 12-14, 2014.  Cosmoprof Asia will feature more than 2,350 exhibitors in the beauty industry, and expects more than 64,000 visitors from all over the world.  There will be 22 national and group pavilions.  Given the prominence of California’s personal care product industry, CK&E is proud to attend the Hong Kong event in association with the California Pavilion organized by the California Trade Alliance.  CK&E will meet with clients and correspondent counsel to facilitate business between manufacturers, distributors and vendors in the Asia Pacific region and the United States, with particular emphasis on California businesses.  Brand protection and distributor relations are always a major concern when doing business between the U.S. and Asia, and CK&E attorneys are there to help.  If you will be attending Cosmoprof Asia this year, please let us know and we will try to make arrangements for a meeting at the event.

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The Conkle Firm Successfully Defends Employee Wage and Hour Claim

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If you’re a California employer, how well do you keep track of your employees’ meal and rest periods?  California law requires that employees be provided at least a ten-minute rest period every four hours, and a 30-minute meal period after five hours.  Non-exempt employees who work more than eight hours in a day, and more than 40 hours in a week, must be paid overtime.  Employers are required to maintain accurate records of employees’ timesheets and pay.  It sounds simple, but the devil is in the details.  If you have employees, it is important to put policies in place to ensure that all employees are taking their breaks and being paid for any overtime work.

If an employee believes he or she was deprived of meal and rest periods or not paid for overtime hours worked, the employee can file a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.  The Labor Commissioner’s Office, also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), is the forum for adjudication of such claims.  Often, this kind of complaint is filed after an employee is terminated.  Employers should realize that, regardless of the reasons for termination, in a wage and hour claim the deck is stacked against them from the start – it is the employer’s burden to show that the employee took breaks and was properly paid.

CK&E attorneys routinely advise clients about navigating California’s complex employer workplace requirements, and advocate for clients in disputes before the California Labor Commissioner and California state and federal courts.

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