Last week we expanded our litigation series to focus more broadly on the different kinds of litigation in which your canna-business is likely to become embroiled. For ease of reference, here is the series so far:

Cannabis litigation
Cannabis Litigation: The waiting is the hardest part.

Today we will talk about one of the most vexing aspects of litigation: timing. According to Above the Law, the longest legal case in US history lasted 57 years! Fortunately, your typical state court case will usually be set for trial within one or two years of filing (with exceptions for expedited cases), though some federal cases can take much longer. For example, federal patent litigation cases can take about three years before trial.

Clients almost always have a justifiable sense of urgency when it comes to litigation. It feels like the other side is trampling on their rights, and each passing day brings more legal fees and more damage to the business. Litigation can often make clients feel helpless in the face of a legal system designed to slowly and methodically ferret out the truth.

This sense of urgency is particularly acute when the opposing party’s conduct is actively and irreparably harming your business interests. In these cases when patience is not a viable option, your lawyer will likely discuss the possibility of seeking provisional remedies, specifically temporary restraining orders (“TRO”) and preliminary injunctions.

A party seeking provisional remedies is asking the court to halt certain conduct prior to a full determination on the merits. Since it comes before you win your case, this is an extraordinary remedy, and the burden on the movant is high. Additionally, the purpose of provisional remedies is typically to preserve the status quo, for example, to prevent a landlord from wrongfully evicting a tenant.

The law varies by jurisdiction, and for purposes of this post, we will focus on Oregon state law. Under Oregon Rule of Civil Procedure 79 (ORCP 79), a party can obtain provisional remedies in a civil action when it appears the movant is entitled to relief demanded in a complaint and the requested relief involves halting the commission of an act that will cause injury to the movant during the course of the litigation. The movant can ask for a preliminary injunction, or, pursue a TRO if the danger is immediate.

Preliminary Injunctions

A preliminary injunction prohibits the non-movant from taking specific actions that will harm the movant, and the scope of the Court’s authority to craft an appropriate remedy is remarkably broad. A preliminary injunction can even bind non-parties, specifically a party’s “officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys and … those persons in active concert or participation with any of them that receive actual notice of the order by personal service or otherwise.”

When considering a preliminary injunction you should be aware of the cost. A hearing on a preliminary injunction is a mini-trial, with both sides presenting witnesses and evidence, and all of the attorney fees and costs that entails. Additionally, even if you prevail you will need to post a bond in an amount set by the Court, based on the Court’s estimate of the potential damages that the injunction will cause to the other party. If you ultimately lose at trial, then the other party will get the full amount of the bond.

Temporary Restraining Orders

In Oregon, you must give the other party at least five days notice of the preliminary injunction hearing, so that the parties can prepare their evidence. If you absolutely cannot wait five days, then you can file a motion for TRO and order to show cause why a preliminary injunction should not enter. Given the emergency nature of this type of pleading, it is typically submitted ex parte: the movant will personally appear at the court and hand deliver the pleading and supporting documents to the clerks and will likely speak directly to a judge on the same day. The Court will typically decide whether to issue the TRO based on the affidavits and evidence submitted by the movant on the same day. The non-movant may appear but likely won’t have much of an opportunity to submit contradictory evidence.

The TRO can only last about ten days, so if the TRO is granted, then the Court will quickly set an evidentiary hearing to determine if the TRO should be converted to a preliminary injunction, as described above. As with the preliminary injunction, you will need to enter a bond with the court before the TRO will go into effect.

Seeking provisional remedies is an extraordinary and expensive step, but may prove vital towards protecting your cannabis businesses. We have seen it be particularly effective in stopping wayward business managers from stealing company assets and other misconduct. The preliminary injunction procedure can prove to be dispositive, as the result will often drive the parties to settle in one or the other party’s favor.

Next week we will continue this series by discussing another method of quickly resolving litigation disputes: dispositive motions.

Cannabis patent litigation
Noted cannabis patent expert

In previous posts, we’ve discussed how cannabis is patentable, and what these patents might mean for a cannabis business. Today, we peer into the not-so-distant future to imagine what a lawsuit to enforce a cannabis patent might look like. My research has discovered no such lawsuits filed to date.

Keep in mind that all patent infringement cases must be heard in one of the 94 federal courts, with very few exceptions. No non-federal trial or appellate judge has jurisdiction to decide any issue relating to patent infringement.  There are at least four major parts of a potential cannabis patent litigation in which the federal illegality of cannabis raises concerns: pleadings, discovery, proof/evidence, and remedies.

Pleadings: In the initial phase of a lawsuit, each party must detail its allegations in pleadings. A pot patent plaintiff will allege she owns a patent for a cannabis plant and that the defendant has infringed the patent by growing, selling, offering to sell, or importing the patented plant in the United States. Because a patent is merely a right to keep someone else from practicing the patent, the plaintiff needn’t plead anything about her own business, although there are good strategic reasons for her to do so. The defendant must then either admit or deny each and every allegation made by the plaintiff; there is no “no comment” option. In most cases, this means the defendant must plead, in substance: “I grow marijuana.” Pleadings are almost always publicly available, including to federal law enforcement. Though under past practice the Department of Justice has not prioritized cannabis enforcement in states where cannabis has been legalized, each set of pleadings will remain as a public record admission of criminal activity and therefore available to any DOJ attorney who wants to pursue such cases.

Discovery: In this phase of litigation, each party collects evidence to support its claims or defenses. One form of discovery allows a party to force the other party to admit or deny any fact related to the lawsuit, under oath. Here is an actual request I saw recently: “Admit that the products sold at [defendant’s cannabis shop] containing marijuana and/or cannabinoids are illegal under federal law.” It may be possible to plead the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination to avoid answering such requests. But if a defendant can “take five” to avoid admitting many of the facts a plaintiff must prove to show infringement of a patent case, how will cannabis patent plaintiffs enforce their patents as a practical matter?

Proof/evidence: In almost every plant patent trial, the plaintiff must hire an expert to provide an opinion that the patent applies to the plant accused of infringement. In a cannabis patent case, this means the plaintiff (or plaintiff’s counsel) must have the expert botanist or horticulturist analyze the accused cannabis product. That means the lawyer, or the client, or the expert, must possess or transport the cannabis product, which constitutes a federal crime.

What will happen if counsel or a witness tries to bring cannabis to the courtroom to use as evidence? Under some circumstances like drug prosecutions, illegal narcotics are introduced into evidence in federal court under highly restrictive conditions. But it is far from clear whether federal judges will routinely allow parties to a civil suit to bring Schedule 1 narcotics into a courtroom, at least without Congressional approval.

Remedies: The most common remedies in a patent suit are damages, e.g., lost profits or a reasonable royalty, and/or an injunction prohibiting further infringement of the patent. But will a federal judge be willing to order the losing defendant to pay over the profits from its illegal activity to the successful cannabis patent plaintiff? Will the judge enter an injunction relating to the sale of an illegal product?


If cannabis patents are so hard to enforce, we may wonder why the Patent Office grants them. The reason is that the PTO, an agency in the Commerce Department, is empowered to grant patents and cannabis is patentable. The Department of Justice, another department, is empowered to enforce criminal laws passed by Congress, including the CSA. The courts, in another branch of government altogether, hear patent cases, as well as criminal prosecutions. Isn’t federalism fun?

Cannabis patent litigation

 

 

 

 

 

The hard truth is that your canna-business is going to get embroiled in litigation sooner or later. Whether it is a dispute among partners, a dispute with a supplier or a commercial landlord-tenant dispute, the regulatory framework around cannabis will change how your business approaches litigation. With that in mind, we intend to expand our current series on cannabis IP litigation (here, here, and here) into litigation of all kinds. Today we will begin with a bit of general information about dispute resolution in these Litigious States of America.

Litigation is not a pleasant experience. It is expensive, time-consuming and incredibly invasive. Even the smallest dispute can cost tens of thousands of dollars to resolve. Once you are in a lawsuit, your opponent will have the legal right to demand you turn over all documents, emails, text messages, recordings, and records tangentially related to the legal and factual issues in dispute (usually defined as “reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence”). Your lawyer will ask you to dig through your old physical records, computer files, emails, and text messages for anything that could be relevant. This will usually lead to every judge’s least favorite part of litigation: discovery disputes.

Once the lawyers finish sparring over what documents will or will not be turned over, you will experience the unique joy of a deposition. In today’s practice, it is a near certainty you will be required to sit in a room for up to seven hours (and in some states, even longer) while your opponent’s attorney questions you under oath, trying to dig out from you every bit of information you may have and/or to catch you in a lie. You will be asked questions about conversations and documents you haven’t thought about in years, and whatever you say can and will be used against you.

Though most civil disputes end up settling, there is always a chance your case will go all the way to trial. And if you thought your deposition was unpleasant, you will realize that is nothing as compared to the trial. Everyday you will spend hours in a courtroom, only to go back to your lawyer’s office at night to prepare for the next day. And at the end of it all, you will ultimately be subject to the whims of a jury of your peers who can sometimes be more persuaded by emotion than by the facts or the law.

In light of the financial and emotional burden of litigation, it is critical your litigation decisions focus on what is best for your business. Litigants do not benefit by making decisions based on emotion. To help you make those decisions, this series will address some of the common questions and misconceptions our cannabis litigation team sees/hears so often from our own cannabis clients about litigation, and specifically litigation in the cannabis industry.

Check in next week when we discuss one of the biggest areas of potential frustration with litigation: timing.

 

Cannabis business disputesThe cannabis litigation lawyers at my firm have litigated many partnership lawsuits involving cannabis businesses where better planning could have avoided the dispute. Business owners will always disagree with one another, but good partnership agreements, LLC operating agreements, and shareholder agreements figure out ways to get past disputes without going to trial. Litigation is expensive and stressful and doesn’t leave either side feeling great. In a business ownership dispute we are working on now, in addition to legal fees, both sides are hiring their own forensic accountants to come up with a company valuation more favorable to their side, and this is before a complaint has even been filed. Costs add up fast. Partnership disputes have a lot in common with divorces disputes, where logic and reason often give way to emotion, and the parties seek to punish each other more than they try to come to a reasonable settlement. The best time to plan for disputes is before your company has any revenue, any investment, any debt, or any obligations. In this post and subsequent posts in this series, I’ll discuss negotiable provisions in partnership agreements that business owners should make sure to address as early in their business’s life cycle as they can.

Today’s post will talk about individuals getting ownership for services and what happens when a company needs to raise more capital.

Ownership Interest in Exchange for Service

This is a common arrangement, but companies often get themselves into hot water by not thinking through the implications. If an individual is going to receive a significant percentage of equity in a company without putting in a proportional value of cash or property, company owners need to think long and hard about the implications. The question that all too often goes unasked is what happens if the partner receiving the equity in exchange for services stops working for the company or fails to perform those services well? If the partnership group doesn’t put thought into how it structures the grant of ownership in exchange for services, it can find itself having signed away a large chunk of equity in their cannabis business without any recourse if the service-for-equity owner stops working.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One common fix is for the equity interest to vest over time. Every month or quarter or year in which a partner contributes services corresponds to a partial grant of the equity interest. With a vesting schedule of three to five years, the company knows it will either be getting good value for the services or it will be able to terminate the services and cut off any further vesting. But another problem shows up even if the services are terminated — you have a voting owner of the company who likely holds some ill will against the other partners. This is where another clause in the operating agreement can help – company buyout right triggered by termination of the partner’s services. The company will still have to pay out for the equity vested to date by the services provider, but it has a clean way of removing that person from the company, likely avoiding additional clashes.

Additional Financial Contributions

It’s hard to estimate how much capital a company is going to need. Many of our cannabis producer clients found out mid-stream that they were having a tough time selling their dried marijuana flower, so they pivoted and moved into the oil extraction business. But the capital equipment needed for that and the construction costs to set up the lab can be expensive, and when those expenses are not planned for additional capital is needed.

One of the main differences between LLCs and corporations is that default corporate law makes it easier to bring in new capital in exchange for equity than default LLC law does. In corporate law, the board of directors generally has the authority to issue new shares in exchange for capital. And if the current shareholders don’t have a negotiated right of first refusal, the directors are free to look to whomever they want, whether that person is a current shareholder or not. Compare to LLCs, where the default law tends to say that unless the operating agreement says otherwise, the members of the company must unanimously approve of any new members. LLC agreements, then, should have clear clauses on what happens when the company needs more money. If only one member is willing to put that money in, do they get additional interest that dilutes the other members? If the company doesn’t want a dilutive issuance but wants a member to loan money to the company, does that member get priority payback on the loan debt? And if no one in the company is willing to pay money, can they still vote against allowing a new member into the company in exchange for capital? Because if they can refuse to put in more money themselves and can keep the company from raising money from an outsider, they have the power to tank the company. Any negotiated partnership agreement needs to address this issue.

Defendants describe the lawsuit as an “attempt to put some shiny federal lipstick on an otherwise quite beleaguered pig of a state-law nuisance claim.”

We’ve previously discussed a RICO case that is slowly worming its way through federal court in Portland, Oregon. Styled as McCart v. Beddow et al., the case was filed by an attorney who is fed up with two neighboring cannabis grow operations next to her rural home. But rather than focusing solely on the allegedly troublesome cannabis producers, the McCart plaintiffs have filed suit against anyone even tangentially related to the producers’ business, including many dispensaries (“Dispensary Defendants”) that only purchased their product. We counted over 70 named defendants!

In our previous discussion, we suggested that the plaintiffs’ case against the Dispensary Defendants is fairly weak and our opinion hasn’t changed. Since we last checked in, the plaintiffs have filed a substantially expanded amended complaint, and numerous defendants have filed motions to dismiss. Although the Court won’t consider the motions to dismiss until January, it is worth checking in on the parties’ current positions. We are going to continue to focus on the Dispensary Defendants because there could be serious repercussions in the industry if the Dispensary Defendants are found liable even though they apparently didn’t have anything to do with the grow operation.

The Law

RICO law is complex, but as a general matter the RICO statutes allow a plaintiff to recover treble damages in a civil claim if the plaintiff can prove the following:

  • The existence of an “enterprise” affecting interstate or foreign commerce;
  • The specific defendant was employed by or associated with the enterprise;
  • The specific defendant conducted or participated in the conduct of the enterprise’s affairs;
  • The specific defendant’s participation was through a pattern of racketeering activity; and
  • Plaintiff’s business or property was injured by reason of defendant’s conducting or participating in the conduct of the enterprise’s affairs.

Of course, the devil is in the details, as the Dispensary Defendants point out in their motion to dismiss.

The Amended Complaint

The plaintiffs filed their amended complaint on September 1, which added 95 paragraphs onto their hefty original complaint. The amended complaint adds many new defendants, including employees at the farms and it alleges that nearly all of the defendants were exporting product out of Oregon.

In broad terms, the plaintiffs’ claims against the Dispensary Defendants have not changed in that they still allege the following:

  1. The cannabis grow operation (“Marijuana Operation”) is an enterprise affecting interstate commerce, as defined in the RICO statutes;
  2. All of the defendants were associated with and conducted the Marijuana Operation’s affairs through racketeering activity;
  3. Plaintiffs suffered a variety of kinds of harm as a result of the Marijuana Operation:
    1. Physical Injury to Real Property: littering, driveway damage, tire tracks, damage to some trail cameras, and unreasonable use of easements.
    2. Diminution of Property Value: noise pollution, light pollution, vibration, odors, exhaust fumes.
    3. Personal Injuries: harassment and damage to plaintiffs’ use and quiet enjoyment of their property.

The Motions to Dismiss

Eighteen Dispensary Defendants joined together in a single motion asking the Court to throw out plaintiff’s entire case against them. Their motion is well worth the read, not least for its colorful language, such as the lipstick-on-a-pig quote below the pig picture above. The arguments in this motion fit into two general categories:

The Dispensary Defendants are not part of a racketeering enterprise.

To establish an “enterprise” exists for RICO purposes, plaintiffs must show there was an ongoing organization with a common purpose. Both of these elements get to the same idea: a criminal enterprise is a group of people all working together to enrich themselves. Courts have found “ongoing organizations” among disparate businesses when there are legitimate interconnections between the entities, such as similar ownership and overlap in personnel. Similarly, courts have found a common purpose where the alleged members are working to promote a single economic interest, and not where they are simply pursuing individual economic interests. There don’t appear to be any of these kinds of links in this case. The Dispensary Defendants appear to be owned, operated, and staffed by distinct individuals working towards their own individual business purposes. This ties back to our initial read of this case: mere supplier-purchaser relationships like these do not rise to the level of RICO enterprises.

In any event, plaintiffs need to establish that the Dispensary Defendants were associated with and conducted or participated in the enterprise. Yet plaintiffs have not alleged that the Dispensary Defendants had any say over the operation of the farms. Their case against the Dispensary Defendants will likely die here.

Plaintiffs’ alleged harms cannot be recovered as a matter of law.

Even assuming plaintiffs can get over the hurdle of establishing that the Dispensary Defendants directed the farms, plaintiffs still must establish that their specific harms are actionable. The Dispensary Defendants also seem to be on the right side of the law here, arguing that the alleged harms and the speculative claim that the value of plaintiffs’ home has decreased cannot form the basis of a RICO claim against any of the defendants and cannot form the basis of a state-law claim nuisance claim against the Dispensary Defendants, in particular.

The plaintiffs face a number of legal obstacles that seem insurmountable. First and foremost, Oregon has long since decided that it is in the best interests of the state to protect farming uses and it has decided to treat cannabis the same as any other farm crop. Accordingly, Oregon’s Right to Farm Act likely bars plaintiffs’ nuisance and trespass claims for damages based on odors, noise pollution, light pollution, vibrations, and smoke fumes. The Dispensary Defendants rely on ORS 30.936(1), which provides farmers in farming areas with immunity from suit for any trespass or nuisance claims, defined elsewhere as claims “based on noise, vibration, odors, smoke, dust, mist from irrigation, use of pesticides and use of crop production substances.” Since RICO case law suggests that harms to property interests should be determined by state law, plaintiffs’ diminution of value claims are likely dead on arrival.

In any event, plaintiffs’ specific diminution of value claims are likely too speculative. The Dispensary Defendants argue that a RICO plaintiff must plead and prove that plaintiff has suffered a “concrete financial loss” but that plaintiffs’ complaint only contains pure guesswork that the odors, etc. diminished the value of plaintiffs’ property. Even if the plaintiffs could plead a specific dollar amount of diminished value, Oregon law bars claims for diminution of property value if the nuisance can be stopped. In other words, if the harm would disappear if the grow operations shut down, plaintiffs cannot recover damages for loss of value. Instead, plaintiffs should be asking the court to shut down the grow operations, which would have little to no effect on the Dispensary Defendants.

Plaintiffs will also likely fail on their claims for loss of quiet enjoyment and harassment because personal injuries like these are not compensable under RICO.

We will have to wait until next year to find out if the Court agrees with the Dispensary Defendants but we predict vindication for the dispensaries. In fact, we predict the claims against all of the defendants will get tossed, except possibly some small state-law claims. It seems that if you are a good neighbor and you don’t set up your operations next door to property owned by a lawyer, then you’ll likely never be drawn into a mess like this.

Cannabis litigationIn a 1970s TV commercial, the Fram oil filter pitchman observed that it is cheaper to change your filter than to rebuild your engine: “You can pay me a little now. Or you can pay him (expensive engine rebuilder) a lot later!” This auto maintenance rule also applies to your cannabis business in the area of intellectual property (IP) litigation. Today’s post is on avoiding expensive IP  litigation later by doing preventative maintenance on your IP now.

The first step to protect your IP is to know that you have it. You may not realize it, but almost every cannabis business has one or more of these kinds of IP assets: trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, or patents. Even if you’ve never registered your IP, you almost certainly have some combination of the first three IP types, which don’t require registration. But just like your oil filter, you can’t maintain it if you don’t know it is there.

Once you know what you have, the next step is to protect it. Each type of IP is protected differently. Here is an overview that will fit in your glove compartment:

  • Trademarks: Trademarks protect brand names, e.g., “FlyBoy Cannabis,” that signify you as the source of the goods and services you offer. Although trademark rights are established by use of the trademark, not registration, you should still register your trademark with state trademark office(s), and the federal trademark office in some cases. Once you’ve registered your trademark, you should tell the world this is your trademark. Using ® is a good first step, but you should also establish a trademark use policy so that your customers consistently link you with your products. Registering your mark makes it easier to protect your brand in court, and will give notice to infringers that your brand belongs to you.
  • Copyrights: Copyrights protect the expression of a creative idea in a tangible form, not the idea itself. Your copyright applies as soon as your creation goes from your mind into a tangible form, such as writing an article on your computer or creating a CAD drawing of your design. You should take steps, including using the ©, to identify your work as yours. You should also register with the U.S. Copyright office (don’t bother sending your content to yourself in certified mail). As with trademarks, copyright registration gives you increased protection over your rights. Being able to threaten a lawsuit can be a powerful incentive to convince an infringer to stop instead of litigate.
  • Trade secrets: Trade secrets are commercial information, including technical and business information, which give you a competitive edge because they are not publicly known. For example, your confidential process for extraction could be a trade secret, so long as it cannot easily be “reverse engineered.”  The most important step to protect trade secrets is to keep them secret. However, you will likely need to share trade secrets with your own employees, and also with others outside your organization with whom you do business. Thus, nondisclosure agreements are one important feature of a trade secret policy. Depending on your business, you may need to take other steps as well. By the way, you can’t “register” a trade secret.
  • Patents: Although plants are generally patentable, the U.S. Patent Office traditionally refused to patent DEA Schedule I cannabis plants, though this appears to be changing. But many other inventions that can be used with cannabis could be patentable, such as vaporizers, smoking devices, and test equipment. An inventor has no patent rights until he or she files a patent application with the federal patent office (there are no state patents), and these rights won’t be enforceable, if at all, until the patent is granted, usually several years later.

Consider this article a free oil filter for your cannabis business.

 

Cannabis litigationOne of the unfortunate byproducts of cannabis legalization is cannabis litigation. With each passing month of legalization in the states in which our cannabis lawyers operate (California, Oregon and Washington) we see an increase in disputes. The most common cannabis litigation matters are disputes about medical and recreational grows, disputes between former business partners now going their separate ways, disputes between employee and employer, and cases involving cannabis intellectual property. This is the first in a series of posts I will be writing on cannabis litigation.

Today’s topic is criminal law, which to at least some extent, can permeate civil litigation involving any cannabis business. Criminal law is important in civil cannabis cases because conduct that is perfectly legal under state law may well be illegal under federal law. The risk of federal criminal liability means that a cannabis litigator in a civil case should at least consider whether to rely on the 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, which can be asserted in in civil proceedings or in connection with oral testimony, pleadings, or requests to produce documents.

How do evaluate whether to take five, i.e., assert the 5th Amendment? Here is an overview of the three main legal issues to help you analyze whether associating criminal counsel is appropriate in your civil law matter.

1. Prior statements in a civil cannabis case could be admissions of criminal activity in another case: A large part of every civil case is explaining the facts which support your claims, and which contradict your opponent’s. A civil litigant will make statements about facts in her pleadings, in discovery before trial, or in testimony at trial. You should assume that almost anything a litigant or her lawyer says about facts in a civil case will be admissible in a later criminal proceeding, even if the statement is not made under oath. An example might be the opening allegation in a complaint against a business partner in a grow: “Pursuant to an agreement, plaintiff and defendant worked together to cultivate cannabis crops, which they intended to be sold, and did sell, pursuant to this state’s recreational cannabis laws.” Right there you are probably admitting that you violated federal criminal drug laws.

2)         Does testifying to potentially incriminating facts in the civil case waive the privilege? Courts have held that  waiver of the 5th Amendment privilege in a civil case will not waive the privilege in later criminal proceedings. But the practical effect of this principle is limited. Though a defendant who has waived her privilege in a prior civil case could testify in a later criminal case, any prior incriminating statements she made in the civil case can be used against her, even without her testimony.

3)         Risks of asserting the privilege in the civil case: In a criminal case, the fact finder may not infer that a defendant is guilty because she asserted the 5th Amendment. In civil cases, however, a jury may draw negative inferences against a party who declines to testify by relying on the 5th Amendment. So, a lawyer in the civil case might argue to the judge or to the jury: “Plaintiff claimed privilege when asked whether she grew cannabis. Doesn’t this suggest she did grow cannabis?”

Knowing and evaluating the legal issues is only the first step in deciding whether to assert the 5th Amendment. The more difficult next step is forecasting whether a prosecutor—now or in the future—will choose to bring criminal charges for conduct legal under state law.

In part 2 of my series on cannabis litigation I will discuss how early registration of trademarks and copyrights and protection of your trade secrets can help you both avoid litigaiton and prevail should it nonetheless be unavoidable.

California cannabis commercial leaseA contract isn’t worth much without your being able to enforce it, and the same goes for commercial leases. We’ve written about unique problems in cannabis contracts due to the state-vs-federal illegality problem (see here, here, here) and of how courts have navigated that inconsistency in the context of contract enforcement. But when it comes to commercial cannabis leases in California, landlords and cannabis companies alike want to know how likely it is a court will enforce their lease. The short answer: it’s much likelier now than five years ago.

The main challenge with California commercial cannabis leases, as with all cannabis contracts, goes back to the problem of federal illegality. Because cannabis is still federally prohibited under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, it is federally illegal to cultivate, manufacture, or sell cannabis for any purpose. This means cannabis contracts trigger the doctrine of illegality in contract law, which holds that contracts without a lawful object are void and unenforceable as against public policy. Though enforcement of contracts is generally governed by state law, state law includes federal law under the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

Courts have struggled with how to reconcile the different laws, but a consistent theme emerges in California court decisions: commercial cannabis lease agreements will generally be enforced so long as the dispute before the court is purely contractual and so long as the landlord and tenant are in an arms-length transaction for payment of rent. One infamous example of this is the Harborside case, where a U.S. District Court declined to void a commercial lease for a cannabis dispensary on grounds of illegality, where the dispensary was in compliance with California law.

Another more recent example is Mann v. Gullickson, a November 2016 Northern District of California decision involving a dispute between a creditor plaintiff who sold shares in two cannabis businesses to the defendant in exchange for a promissory note. When the creditor sued for nonpayment under the promissory note, the defendant argued federal illegality rendered the contract (the promissory note) unenforceable. Though the court acknowledged it could void a contract if it required a party to violate the CSA by, for example, requiring it to cultivate or sell cannabis, for several reasons, the court declined to do so in this case.

First, the fact that the court could order payment on the note without requiring any cannabis-related actions meant that enforcing the contract would not necessarily further an illegal purpose. Second, even if an illegal purpose were to be furthered, the court found it would be inequitable for the defendant to be unjustly enriched by not having to pay on the promissory note. Third, the court noted that many states, including California, had recently changed their laws to encourage state-legal cannabis business activities, thereby undercutting the defendant’s public policy argument. Fourth, and most interestingly, the court called out the observed effect of changing state laws on federal enforcement: “The federal government’s concern over the CSA’s medical marijuana prohibition has waned in recent years, and the underlying policy purporting to support this prohibition has been undermined.” The court also noted that under the McIntosh case, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment prohibits CSA enforcement against medical marijuana in the Ninth Circuit (the federal appellate circuit that encompasses California).

The lesson to be drawn from these cases for California commercial cannabis leases is that cannabis leases should be written to keep the landlord-tenant relationship as an arms-length transaction. This means no profit-sharing arrangements, no payments in cannabis product, and no equity shares changing hands; just payment of rent. Ultimately, the best way to avoid enforcement problems for your California commercial cannabis lease may be to include a well-drafted arbitration clause that specifies choice of California state law, among other things, as that can to a large extent side-step the issue of court enforcement, at least until you need to get your arbitration award enforced by a court.

To help you better understand what is going on with California cannabis and what MAUCRSA means for your cannabis business, three of our California attorneys will be hosting a free webinar on Tuesday August 8, 2017, from 12 pm to 1 pm PT. Hilary Bricken from our Los Angeles office will moderate two of our San Francisco-based attorneys (Alison Malsbury and Habib Bentelab) in a discussion on the major changes between the MCRSA and MAUCRSA, including on vertical integration and ownership of multiple licenses, revised distributorship standards, and what California cannabis license applicants can expect more generally from California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control as rule-making continues through the remainder of the year. They will also address questions from the audience both during and at the end of the webinar.

To register for this free webinar, please click here. We look forward to your joining us.

Our Oregon lawyers have been fielding many questions regarding a recent civil RICO complaint filed in the federal court in Portland, Oregon styled as McCart v. Beddow et al. This case was filed on the heels of the Safe Streets decision out of Colorado that we discussed recently, and was clearly heavily influenced by that decision. You will recall that in Safe Streets, the Tenth Circuit allowed a private civil RICO action by a neighbor of a cannabis grow operation to survive a motion to dismiss.

As a reminder, RICO is a federal statute that provides for a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization (in addition to criminal penalties). It has become fashionable for meddlesome neighbors to bring these lawsuits against cannabis operators and their business affiliates. Because RICO complaints sound in federal law and implicate supply chain defendants, these cases differ from your ordinary nuisance-and-tresspass actions, which pursue only the marijuana grower itself, and also have been recently brought against Oregon marijuana growers.

Though McCart shares many similarities to the facts in Safe Streets, it is the differences that make things interesting. These differences let us tease out a couple of lessons for other cannabis companies seeking to avoid a similar lawsuit.

Oregon Cannabis First the similarities: Plaintiffs in both suits are bringing RICO claims against neighboring cannabis grow operations and alleging direct injuries to plaintiffs’ properties in the form of noxious odors that allegedly reduce property values. They also allege the mere presence of a “criminal enterprise” next door decreases property values.

But McCart is not Safe Streets. Taking the McCart complaint on its face, the direct operators of the neighboring grow operation are alleged to have gone out of their way to intentionally provoke the Plaintiffs at every turn. This isn’t just a case about noxious odors and neighboring criminal enterprises (although it is that); rather, the Plaintiffs are asserting this case is the culmination of a bitter dispute between neighbors in which cannabis is more of an extra than a star.

Specifically, the McCart Plaintiffs allege that:

  • The defendant cannabis growers menaced Plaintiffs and “made obscene gestures” and “screamed obscenities” at Plaintiffs;
  • The grow operation increased traffic on a shared driveway by an excessive amount;
  • The Defendants caused direct injuries to the property by leaving tire tracks on Plaintiffs’ property;
  • The Defendants revved their car engines when they saw Plaintiffs outside;
  • The Defendants “discharge firearms for extended periods”;
  • The Defendants frequently “blast the air horn of their dump truck”;
  • The Defendants damaged the shared driveway and at times blocked it; and
  • The Defendants littered on Plaintiffs’ property.

Whether these allegations are true will be Plaintiffs’ burden to prove. However, two immediate lessons come to mind:

Lesson 1: To paraphrase Wil Wheaton: don’t be a jerk. Be a good neighbor. If the McCart allegations are true, the behavior of these growers reflects poorly on the entire industry. If you want to be treated like a serious business, act like one. Recognize the precarious legal situation afforded by inane prohibition policies, and strive to be ideal neighbors.

Lesson 2: Control the odors. The Safe Street court found that the cannabis smell released by the Colorado grow op was enough to assert a claim for RICO damages. You should do everything you can to minimize odors on your businesses.

But what about the other McCart defendants?

Like in Safe Streets, the McCart plaintiffs seem to have sued everyone even tangentially related to their hated neighbors, including cannabis dispensaries that just happened to stock the neighbors’ products. These “Dispensary Defendants” are probably in much better shape than the growers.

A civil RICO claim under 18 U.S.C. Section 1962(c) (at issue in both Safe Streets and McCart) requires a plaintiff prove:

  • The existence of an enterprise affecting interstate or foreign commerce;
  • The specific defendant was employed by or associated with the enterprise;
  • The specific defendant conducted or participated in the conduct of the enterprise’s affairs;
  • The specific defendant’s participation was through a pattern of racketeering activity; and
  • Plaintiff’s business or property was injured by reason of defendant’s conducting or participating in the conduct of the enterprise’s affairs.

In Reves v. Ernst & Young, the US Supreme Court held that the language of 1962(c) requires the defendant have “participated in the operation or management of the enterprise itself.” (page 183). There are a few out of jurisdiction cases that have held that mere business relationships and supplier-purchaser relationships are insufficient to establish RICO liability, even with knowledge of the illegal activity. If you are curious, take a look at In re Mastercard Intl. Inc., (page 487) and Arenson v. Whitehall Convalescent & Nursing Home, Inc. It seems unlikely the Dispensary Defendants in this case had anything to do with operating or managing the enterprise. They appear to have merely been customers, in which case they shouldn’t have liability here.

Though there is a dispensary defendant in Safe Streets, the Tenth Circuit appears to have found the conduct requirement was met because the Safe Streets defendants admitted they all “‘agreed to grow marijuana for sale’ at the facility adjacent to the [plaintiffs’] property.” The Safe Streets dispensary defendant was directly involved in operating the specific grow operation at issue. This is not the same thing as an innocent dispensary accepting product from a third-party farm.

We will be watching this case and reporting back if anything of importance breaks, but in the meantime, it never hurts to be a good neighbor, and to take steps to minimize odors.

California cannabis leaseWe’ve written previously on arbitration and why it so often makes sense for cannabis business contracts, primarily because of enforceability issues stemming from cannabis being illegal under federal law. But in the realm of commercial real estate leasing, cannabis uses can present other unique challenges that require thoughtful solutions to disputes, and, more importantly, thoughtful planning to prepare for potential disputes down the road.

Below are some of the issues our California cannabis lawyers typically consider when anticipating how to draft dispute resolution clauses for commercial cannabis leases.

  1. Enforceability of the lease and the arbitration award. Federal illegality of cannabis impacts all cannabis business transactions. Though the Federal Department of Justice has issued cannabis enforcement guidelines in the Cole Memo (and every cannabis-touching lease agreement should include language mandating compliance with these guidelines), this does not guarantee against federal civil asset forfeiture or other federal enforcement actions. Another consequence of federal illegality is that cannabis companies must consider what recourse they will have in enforcing their contracts and account for federal district courts being unwilling to enforce any such contract. For this reason alone, it will nearly almost always be better for you to have your disputes resolved in a California state court that will be far more likely to apply and enforce California state cannabis laws. California state courts can also apply federal law, but because there is often a risk of your case being removed to federal court you should always consider putting an arbitration clause in your cannabis commercial leases, specifying the arbitral body, limiting how the lease and the arbitration award can be enforced (confining it to state courts, perhaps) and limiting potential appeals.
  2. Choice of law. We’ve written about how California commercial cannabis landlords (and tenants) should consider beefing up their lease’s indemnity provisions, allowing for early termination in the event of enforcement actions, disallowing federal illegality as a grounds for invalidating the lease, and generally requiring strict compliance with California state law for the specific proposed cannabis use. For similar reasons, arbitration clauses can include a mandate that the arbitral body apply state law and the California Arbitration Act, and not, for example, the Federal Arbitration Act, which allows an award to be vacated where the arbitrator “manifestly disregards the law.” It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a federal court vacates an arbitral award for an arbitrators having failed to apply the Controlled Substances Act or void the cannabis lease ab initio. California arbitration clauses should, at minimum, specifically outline 1) the method for choosing the arbitrator, 2)  the laws the arbitrator must apply in resolving the dispute, and 3) the standard of review any reviewing court must apply. For many California real estate transactions, the arbitration clause should also include specific statutory notice language.
  3. Carve-outs for Unlawful Detainer, Nonpayment, and other Early Termination Causes. Though arbitration can be a highly useful tool, landlords will also want to maintain their ability to seek remedies for nonpayment of rent and unlawful detainer (eviction) without having to go through the arbitration process. Similarly, if a tenant faces a state or federal enforcement action, the landlord (and even the tenant for that matter) will likely want to maintain its ability to terminate the lease quickly and without arbitration. The parties to a California commercial cannabis lease should always consider carving out exceptions to arbitration to keep options open and to encourage timely performance of the lease.
  4. Arbitrator’s industry expertise. California arbitrators tend to be retired California state court judges and the changes of this sort of arbitrator having deep knowledge about the cannabis industry or cannabis laws are not good. But spelling out the arbitrator selection process in your commercial lease agreement (or even naming the specific arbitrator or arbitrators) can allow you to make certain your arbitrator has sufficient cannabis industry knowledge to understand any eventual dispute.
  5. Consider making mediation the first step. Arbitrations can be expensive and their outcomes uncertain. So instead of drafting a commercial lease agreement that requires you to jump right into that process whenever a dispute arises, consider making private mediation a mandatory first step before a demand for arbitration can be made.

Though every commercial lease dispute is unique (even more so for cannabis commercial leases), there are common themes and one is that private dispute resolution tends to work best for disputes between cannabis businesses.