Friday, March 29, 2013

Ohio Learning Centers, LLC v. Sylvan Learning, Inc. (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed July 24, 2012

Opinion by Judge Richard D. Bennett

Held:  (1) A forfeited corporation may defend against a lawsuit and file counterclaims arising out of the same subject matter as the underlying suit.  (2) Courts employ a totality of the circumstances approach in reviewing a jury trial waiver provision, including factors such as the parties' bargaining power, the conspicuousness of the waiver provision and whether the provision is comprehensible.
Facts:  Plaintiffs and Defendants entered into an asset purchase agreement, a license agreement and two promissory notes pursuant to which Plaintiffs would purchase and operate a  franchise.   The license agreement also contained a non-compete clause.  Shortly thereafter, Plaintiffs were unable to make payments on the promissory notes.  Defendants sent two notices of default and intent to terminate license agreement to the Plaintiffs. 

The Court ordered Plaintiffs to "not use any or all of the trademarks, service marks, or trade names associated" with the Defendants.  The Court also held that the agreements were valid and enforceable and that Plaintiff breached those agreements.  The Court withheld ruling on any damages in order to adjudicate the remaining claims, set forth below. 
Analysis:  Plaintiffs argued that because two of the Defendants had forfeited their charters for failing to file personal property tax returns with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation, the defendants were prohibited from maintaining or defending any lawsuit in the state.  The Court disagreed and stated that “it is well established in Maryland that a forfeited corporation may defend against a lawsuit and file counterclaims arising out of the same subject matter as the underlying suit.”  Finch v. Hughes Aircraft Co., 57 Md. App. 190 (1984) and Price v. Upper Chesapeake Health Ventures, 192 Md. App. 695 (2010) ("an LLC whose rights have been forfeited...may only defend an action in court, not prosecute one"). 

Defendants moved to strike Plaintiffs' demand for a jury trial because the promissory notes and the asset purchase agreement contained a jury trial waiver.  The Court agreed that three of the four agreements at issue contained jury waiver clauses.  But, the Court highlighted that the main contract governing the claims in litigation did not.  The Court employed a totality of the circumstances approach.  It denied the motion after review of the superior bargaining power of the Defendants, the integrations clause in the license agreement and the inconspicuous location of the waiver clause in the promissory notes and the asset purchase agreement.   

Defendants' also moved to dismiss with respect to several fraud claims, including claims involving Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law.  The Court stated "a plaintiff can successfully bring a tort action for fraud that is based on false pre-contract promises by the defendant even if (1) the written contract contains an integration clause and even if (2) the pre-contractual promises that constitute fraud are not mentioned in the written contract."  Next Generation Group, LLC v. Sylvan Learning Ctrs, LLC, No. CCB-110986 (2012).  Because the materiality of any alleged omissions are factual questions inappropriate for determination at the motion to dismiss stage, the Court denied the motion.

The Court briefly reviewed other claims, including tortious breach of good faith, unfair competition, defamation, tortious interference in contractual relations, deceptive trade practices and antitrust conspiracy.

The full opinion is available in pdf

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