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Alboyacian, et al v. Bp Products North America

November 22, 2011

ALBOYACIAN, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BP PRODUCTS NORTH AMERICA, INC.,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. William J. Martini

OPINION

WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.:

This matter come before the Court on Defendant's Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant the motion in part and dismiss Counts Two, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, and Ten of the Complaint. And the Court will dismiss the remaining Counts for lack of ripeness.

I.Factual and Procedural Background

Defendant BP Products North America, Inc. ("BP") is a refiner and marketer of gasoline and other petroleum products. The Plaintiffs operate BP service stations throughout New Jersey pursuant to the Commissioner Marketer Agreement ("CMA"). This Court has previously recognized that the CMA creates a legal franchise under the New Jersey Franchise Practices Act, N.J.S.A. § 56:10-1, et seq., ("NJFPA"), between BP and the signatory, see, e.g., Sarwari v. BP Products North America, Inc., 2007 WL 1118344 (D.N.J. Apr. 9, 2007), and the parties do not contest that issue. Under the CMA, a franchisee does not purchase the BP fuel they dispense; rather, BP provides the fuel and the franchisee earns a commission on each gallon sold. In the present cases, the Plaintiffs also leased their respective service stations from BP pursuant to certain lease agreements. The CMA at issue in this case explicitly provides that the agreement lasts for a term of four years, and also explicitly provides that the franchisee shall have the option of renewing the agreement for two additional terms of four years each. At various points after September 2006, the Plaintiffs and BP executed various CMA renewal agreements that extended the franchises for four years (collectively with the CMA and the lease agreements, the "Franchise Agreements").

In August 2009, BP informed the Plaintiffs that it intended to withdraw from the CMAs at the expiration of the term of each individual agreement. As an alternative, BP offered all of the Plaintiffs the opportunity to purchase their service stations and act as dealers who purchased fuel products directly from BP and then sold them to customers -- an arrangement BP refers to as Dealer Owned Dealer Operated stations. BP also offered the alternative of becoming Company Owned Dealer Operated stations, where BP would still own the service station property. Under either alternative, a franchise relationship likely would no longer exist under the NJFPA. See Sarwari v. BP Products North America, Inc., No. 06-2976, 2007 WL 1118344, at * (D.N.J. filed Sept. 15, 2006) (preliminarily enjoining BP from changing nature of business arrangement with New Jersey franchisees).

On August 18, 2009, BP filed a complaint against Hillside Service, Inc., Mike Yigitkuri, and Vinod Oberoi seeking a declaration from this Court that it has no obligation to continue business with the defendants, that it is not obligated to renew the underlying CMAs, and that it is not responsible for any claimed lost value of the defendants' businesses (the "Hillside Action"). On October 7, 2009, Ara Alboyacian, Mike Agolia, Ared Anac, Hagop Baga, Edward Balloutine, David Chong, Sevan Curukcu, Alfred Deppe, Joseph Klein, Raffi Korogluyan, Paul Lopes, Mary Lou Lopes, Abraham Manjikian, Imad Saleh, Walter Steele, Jayed Suddal, Aret Tokatlioglu, Richard Walter, Gregory Yigitkurt, Mike Yigitkurt, and Sahin Yigitkurt, (collectively, the "Franchisees") filed the present action against BP seeking, among other relief, a declaration that BP's failure to renew the underlying CMAs would constitute a violation of the NJFPA (the "Alboyacian Action"). The Alboyacian Action also stated nine other causes of action.The parties subsequently moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the terminations would violate the NJFPA in both cases, and BP also filed a motion to dismiss in the Alboyacian Action seeking to dismiss that complaint in its entirety. After an attempt at mediation failed, this Court found that the terminations would violate the NJFPA, and the Court granted summary judgment against BP in both cases, thereby dismissing the Hillside Action in its entirety. BP Products North America , Inc. v. Hillside Service, Inc., Nos. 9-4210, 9-5143, 2011 WL 4343452 (D.N.J. Sept. 14, 2011).

The Court now construes BP's motion to dismiss in this, the Alboyacian Action, as to the nine remaining counts of the Franchisees' complaint.

II.Legal Analysis

A. Ripeness

This Court has an obligation to determine its own subject-matter jurisdiction sua sponte. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388-89 (3d Cir. 2002). This includes an obligation to address Article III standing issues, including ripeness, where such issues exist. Peachlum v. City of York, Pennsylvania, 333 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 2003). The purpose of the ripeness doctrine is to determine whether a party has brought an action prematurely, and it counsels abstention until such time as a dispute is sufficiently concrete to satisfy the constitutional and prudential requirements of the doctrine. Id. A dispute is not ripe for judicial determination if it rests upon contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated or may not occur at all. Wyatt, Virgin Islands, Inc., 385 F.3d 801, 806.

To the extent that the ripeness of any of the Franchisees' claims is contingent upon BP actually terminating any of the Franchises, those claims are unripe because no terminations have yet occurred, and, indeed the terminations may not occur at all. This is especially true in light of this Court's prior opinion resolving the motions for summary judgment.

Counts Three, Four, and Nine rely on the termination occurring in order for them to be ripe, and so the Court must dismiss them. Count Three alleges BP fraudulently induced the Franchisees into renewing their CMA agreements by making oral and written representations signaling its intent to renew the franchises beyond the renewal periods specifically provided in the franchise agreements. Count Four alleges a claim against BP for negligent misrepresentation based on the same conduct, and Count Nine alleges a claim for equitable estoppel based on the same conduct. With regards to each Count, this Court sees no basis for harm unless the intended termination occurs. As alleged, the harm arises because the Franchisees invested in their franchises assuming the franchise-relationship would continue. If it continues, the Franchisees' will be in the exact same position they had believed they were ...


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