860 N.E.2d 741 (Ohio 2007), 2005-2134, Preferred Capital, Inc. v. Power Engineering Group, Inc.

Docket Nº:2005-2134.
Citation:860 N.E.2d 741, 112 Ohio St.3d 429, 2007-Ohio-257
Opinion Judge:MOYER, C.J.
Party Name:PREFERRED CAPITAL, INC., Appellee, v. POWER ENGINEERING GROUP, INC; PAC Heating, Inc., et al., Appellants.
Attorney:Roderick Linton, L.L.P., Tamara A. O'Brien, T. Anthony Mazzola, and Jason E. Hickman, Akron, for appellee. Mark S. Shearer, Broadview Heights, for appellants PAC Heating, Inc., Hambergs Dr. BM Tru-Site Optical Co., and Donn C. Lamon, d.b.a. Lamon Associates. Sutter, O'Connell & Farchione, Matthew...
Judge Panel:Boggins, O'Connor and O'Donnell, JJ., concur. Lundberg Stratton and Lanzinger, JJ., dissent.
Case Date:February 07, 2007
Court:Supreme Court of Ohio
 
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Page 741

860 N.E.2d 741 (Ohio 2007)

112 Ohio St.3d 429, 2007-Ohio-257

PREFERRED CAPITAL, INC., Appellee,

v.

POWER ENGINEERING GROUP, INC; PAC Heating, Inc., et al., Appellants.

No. 2005-2134.

Supreme Court of Ohio

February 7, 2007

Submitted September 20, 2006.

Appeal from the Court of Appeals for Summit County, Nos. 22475, 22476, 22477, 22478, 22485, 22486, 22487, 22488, 22489, 22497, 22499, 22506, and 22513, 163 Ohio App.3d 522, 2005-Ohio-5113.

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[112 Ohio St.3d 430] SYLLABUS OF THE COURT

1. In a contract between two commercial entities, a forum-selection clause with no reference to a specific jurisdiction or jurisdictions is valid absent a finding of fraud or overreaching or a finding that enforcement of the clause would be unreasonable and unjust. (Kennecorp Mtge. Brokers, Inc. v. Country Club Convalescent Hosp., Inc. (1993), 66 Ohio St.3d 173, 610 N.E.2d 987, syllabus, followed.)

2. A forum-selection clause may be held to be unreasonable if it would be against public policy to enforce it.

Roderick Linton, L.L.P., Tamara A. O'Brien, T. Anthony Mazzola, and Jason E. Hickman, Akron, for appellee.

Mark S. Shearer, Broadview Heights, for appellants PAC Heating, Inc., Hambergs Dr. BM Tru-Site Optical Co., and Donn C. Lamon, d.b.a. Lamon Associates.

Sutter, O'Connell & Farchione, Matthew C. O'Connell, and Victoria Barto, Cleveland, for appellants Houston Chapter Association General Contractors of America, Inc., and Tiny's Tire Center, Inc.

Julius P. Amourgis for appellant Pro Temps, Inc.

Gary Brown, Greenville, for appellant Doug Johnson & Associates, Inc.

Oldham & Dowling and Hamilton DeSaussure Jr., for appellants Rick Hore and Location Real Estate.

Gregory Glick, L.L.C., and Gregory Glick, Cleveland, for appellants Plyley Enterprises, Inc., and Custom Data Solutions, Inc.

Roetzel & Andress, Bradley A. Wright, and Jerome G. Wyss, Akron, for appellant Home Furnishings of Clarkston, Inc.

Dykema Gossett, P.L.L.C., Edward A. Groobert, Washington, DC, and Jill M. Wheaton, Ann Arbor, MI, for amicus curiae Equipment Leasing Association of America, Inc., in support of appellee.

Coley & Associates Co., L.P.A., and William P. Coley II, West Chester, for amicus curiae National City Commercial Capital Corporation, in support of appellee.

Tom Reilly, Attorney General of Massachusetts, and Scott D. Schafer and Geoffrey G. Why, Assistant Attorneys General, for amici curiae Attorneys General for the states of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New York, Ohio,

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Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, in support of appellants.

Fiehrer & Lane, L.P.A., and Stephen C. Lane, for amici curiae A & B Express USA, Inc., et al., in support of appellants.

OPINION

Moyer, C.J.

{¶ 1} In this appeal, we are asked to determine whether a forum-selection clause that does not name a specific jurisdiction is valid and enforceable.

{¶ 2} Appellants are 12 out-of-state commercial entities that entered into lease agreements for telecommunications equipment with NorVergence, Inc., a New Jersey corporation. The lease agreements signed by appellants were virtually identical. The leases required appellants to make payments for 60 months and included a forum-selection clause stating: "This agreement shall be governed by * * * the laws of the State in which Rentor's principal offices are located or, if this Lease is assigned by Rentor, the State in which the assignees' principal offices are located * * * and all legal actions relating to this Lease shall be venued exclusively in a state or federal court located within that State * * *." At the time the leases were entered into, NorVergence's principal office was located in New Jersey.

{¶ 3} On September 30, 2003, Before appellants signed the leases, NorVergence executed a Master Program Agreement with appellee, Preferred Capital, Inc. This agreement allowed NorVergence, "from time to time" to assign its interest in these lease agreements to Preferred Capital. Preferred Capital's principal offices are in Ohio.

[112 Ohio St.3d 431] {¶ 4} NorVergence assigned its interest in the appellants' lease payments to Preferred Capital--in most cases the day after the leases were executed. Averring that NorVergence had failed to provide the savings promised, the appellants stopped making their lease payments. NorVergence subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection and was later found to have violated the Federal Trade Commission Act. Fed. Trade Comm. v. NorVergence, Inc. (July 22, 2005), N.J. No. 04-5414, 2005 WL 3754864.

{¶ 5} Preferred Capital sued each of the appellants separately in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas. The trial court sustained appellants' individually filed Civ.R. 12(B)(2) motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. On appeal, the court of appeals consolidated the cases and reversed the judgments, holding that the forum-selection clauses were valid and enforceable; we accepted appellants' discretionary appeal.

{¶ 6} We begin our analysis by reiterating our previous holding that "the requirement that a court have personal jurisdiction over a party is a waivable right and there are a variety of legal arrangements whereby litigants may consent to the personal jurisdiction of a particular court system. Moreover, in the light of present-day commercial realities, it has been stated that a forum selection clause in a commercial contract should control, absent a strong showing that it should be set aside." Kennecorp Mtge. Brokers, Inc. v. Country Club Convalescent Hosp., Inc. (1993), 66 Ohio St.3d 173, 175, 610 N.E.2d 987, citing The Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co. (1972), 407 U.S. 1, 92 S.Ct. 1907, 32 L.Ed.2d 513.

{¶ 7} In Kennecorp, we adopted a three-pronged test, similar to the test in Bremen to determine the validity of a forum-selection clause: (1) Are both parties to the contract commercial entities? (2) Is there evidence of fraud or overreaching? (3) Would enforcement of the clause be unreasonable and unjust? Kennecorp, 66 Ohio St.3d 173, 610 N.E.2d 987,

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syllabus. In Kennecorp, a specific forum, Ohio, was specified in the clause. Here, the facts are slightly different. Rather than a specific named forum, such as Ohio or New Jersey, the clause allows for the forum to change depending on the state in which the headquarters of the entity that holds the interest in the lease payments are located. This type of forum-selection clause has been called a "floating forum clause." While this distinction is important in the application of the test, we conclude that the rule set forth in Kennecorp still applies. We next apply the test to the facts of this case.

Commercial Nature of the Contract

{¶ 8} "Commercial forum-selection clauses between for-profit business entities are prima facie valid. * * * By contrast, in Ohio, forum-selection clauses are less readily enforceable against consumers." Information. Leasing Corp. v. Jaskot, 151 Ohio App.3d 546, 2003-Ohio-566, 784 N.E.2d 1192, ¶ 13. Appellants argue [112 Ohio St.3d 432] that they are "mom and pop" or small businesses and should not be considered sophisticated commercial entities. We reject that argument. First, there is nothing in the record to suggest that all appellants are indeed small businesses; moreover, appellants' suggestion that they are small businesses or sole proprietorships is not material. The contracts are commercial in nature between two for-profit entities. "Unlike a consumer who enters into a contract with a commercial entity, [a sole proprietor] is presumed to have some experience in contractual and business matters." Id. at 14. As we articulated in Kennecorp, forum-selection clauses should be distinguished between commercial and noncommercial parties. If both parties are for-profit, commercial entities, the relative size or sophistication of the parties is not a material factor.

Fraud or Overreaching

{¶ 9} There is no evidence of fraud or overreaching in this case. While appellants do allege that NorVergence intended to defraud them, there is no evidence that appellants agreed to the forum-selection clause as a result of fraud. The clause was clearly and legibly printed on the second page of a two-page contract. No effort was made to conceal or hide the clause. In fact, printed in large type and in all capitals directly above the signature line of the guaranty on the front page is the sentence "You agree to jurisdiction and venue as stated in the paragraph titled Applicable Law of the rental [agreement]." Additionally, there is a valid business reason for including a floating forum clause in a contract. Appellee and its amici point out...

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