Terms of e-commerce agreement not part of previous franchise agreement

Arbitration provision in later agreement not applicable to previous agreement, where contracts independent, collateral, and not inconsistent with one another.

Defendant AMF, the well-known manufacturer of bowling and billiards equipment, entered into an oral franchise agreement with plaintiff Suburban Leisure Center, whereby Suburban would sell AMF’s products in the St. Louis area. Later, the parties entered into a written “e-commerce” agreement, whereby Suburban agreed to service products in its geographic area that were sold through AMF’s website.

After AMF sought to terminate the oral franchise agreement, Suburban filed suit, claiming, among other things, that AMF had not provided the proper notice of termination under Missouri law. AMF moved to dismiss Suburban’s claim, arguing that under the terms of the e-commerce agreement, the exclusive method of dispute resolution between the parties was through arbitration. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, and AMF sought review. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

AMF had argued that the e-commerce agreement (which contained the arbitration provision) fully set forth the terms of the contract. AMF pointed to a “merger clause” (also known as an “integration clause” or “entire agreement” clause) in the agreement. Because of this clause, AMF contended, the parol evidence rule prohibited considering the terms of the oral franchise agreement, which contained no mention of arbitration.

The court disagreed, however. Applying Virginia law as required by the choice of law provision in the e-commerce agreement, the court examined the “collateral contract doctrine.” It noted that the oral franchise agreement addressed a contractual relationship between the parties that was not covered in any manner by the e-commerce agreement. As a result, the oral franchise agreement was “independent of, collateral to, and not inconsistent with” the e-commerce agreement. Examination of parol evidence, namely, the terms of the oral agreement, was therefore proper.

Because the agreements were independent of each other, the e-commerce agreement’s arbitration language could not be attributed to the oral franchise agreement. After all, the dispute was over the termination of the franchise, not the agreement to service products that had been sold through AMF’s website. The oral franchise agreement did not provide for arbitration. Because a “party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit,” the matter was properly before the court, and the lower court’s denial of the motion to dismiss was proper.

Suburban Leisure Center, Inc. v. AMF Bowling Products, Inc., — F.3d —-, No. 06-1865, 2006 WL 3332965 (8th Cir., November 17, 2006).