The Supreme Court's conservative-liberal divide is well known. Four of the Justices lean conservative: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Scalia and Alito. Four Justices tilt liberal in their rulings: Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayoer and Kagan. Many outcomes hinge on the views of the remaining Justice, Kennedy.
But the recent landmark decision was unanimous!
Despite their wide range of political leanings, all nine Supreme Court Justices agreed.
Franchise Agreements often specify the state, county or city where disputes will be litigated. The case of Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. U.S. District Court concerned such a clause. A construction company, Atlantic Marine, entered into a contract with the Army to build a structure at Fort Hood in Texas, and a subcontract for a management company to work on the project. The subcontract said all disputes would be litigated in Virginia. But when a dispute arose, the management company sued in Texas.
It has been a longtime practice among many lawyers to start lawsuits or arbitrations locally, or in a court of choice, regardless of what the parties' agreement says. Courts and arbitrators applied a variety of legal theories to avoid the contractually agreed location. But in Atlantic Marine, the Supreme Court said an agreement on where disputes will be resolved "represents the parties' agreement as to the most proper forum;" and "enforcement of valid forum-selection clauses, bargained for by the parties, protects their legitimate expectations and furthers vital interests of the justice system."
Therefore, "a valid forum-selection clause should be given controlling weight in all but the most exceptional cases."
The Atlantic Marine decision was announced just seven months ago, in December 2013. Already. It has dramatically affected many franchising cases.
In just the few months since it was decided, published decisions show that Burger King was able to get a franchisee lawsuit moved to Burger King's home court in Florida, and other franchisors such as Country Inn & Suites, Hawthorne Suites and Salad Works were able to defeat franchisee efforts to relocate cases away from franchisor home courts.
A message for franchisors and franchisees is to pay careful attention to the location-for-dispute clauses in franchise agreements and other agreements. As one court stated:
"The decision in Atlantic Marine now provides the analytical framework a court should employ when a valid and enforceable forum selection clause exists between the parties."
This means those clauses in the franchise agreement are typically going to be enforced. Read the U.S. Supreme Court Decision: Atlantic Marine Construction Co., Inc. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.