jeudi 16 avril 2015

L'importance de la nature d'une relation contractuelle dans l'interprétation des obligations implicites des parties

par Karim Renno
Renno Vathilakis Inc.

La Cour d'appel vient de rendre un jugement très attendu en matière de franchisage dans l'affaire Dunkin' Brands Canada Ltd. c. Bertico inc. (2015 QCCA 624). La décision est bien sûr trop volumineuse pour que je lui rende justice dans un billet ou deux, mais nous traiterons quand même de quelques points intéressants de la décision cet après-midi et demain. Pour le présent billet, nous intéressent particulièrement les commentaires de la Cour sur les obligations implicites qui découlent d'un contrat et l'impact de la nature du contrat sur celles-ci. 

Je vous épargne un énoncé complet de la trame factuelle. Disons simplement pour nos fins que les Intimés avaient intenté des procédures en dommages contre l'Appelante alléguant que cette dernière - à titre de franchiseur - ne leur avait pas donné le support nécessaire pour faire face efficacement à la concurrence de Tim Hortons.
 
Le jugement de première instance a donné raison aux Intimés et condamné l'Appelante a payer des dommages au montant de plus de 16 000 000$.
 
En appel, l'Appelante fait valoir un grand nombre de moyens. Celui qui nous intéresse aujourd'hui est celui relatif à l'interprétation par le juge de première instance des obligations implicites de l'Appelante envers les Intimés. En effet, en vertu de l'article 1434 C.c.Q., le juge de première instance en est venu à la conclusion que l'Appelante avait des devoirs plus étendus que ceux strictement énoncés dans le contrat de franchise.
 
Au nom d'une formation unanime, l'Honorable juge Nicholas Kasirer rejette la prétention de l'Appelante. Il souligne à cet égard que c'est à bon droit que le juge de première instance a pris en considération la nature de la relation juridique - i.e. une relation franchiseur-franchisé - pour déterminer quelles sont les obligations implicites des parties contractantes: 
[59]        It was by no means unusual for the Franchisor to understate its duties in standard-form franchise agreements, and generally it has not prevented courts from recognizing implicit obligations on a franchisor to complete the contract. Here, the judge cited article 1434 C.C.Q. to explain that the obligations owed by the Franchisor were not only those explicitly stated in the agreements but also implicit obligations that flowed from the nature of the franchise arrangement (para. [50]). He made no mistake in holding that the Franchisor’s obligations rested not just on the texts of the agreements, but also on duties that it had implicitly assumed in respect of the whole network of franchisees. Indeed, it is only when one recognizes the incomplete account of the parties’ rights and obligations given by the explicit terms of the contracts that the true nature of the arrangement – an innominate contract of franchise based on a relationship of long-term collaboration between independent businesses – becomes apparent. 
[60]        By arguing that it had virtually no obligation to support the brand much beyond a narrow duty of technical assistance, the appellant paints an inaccurate picture of the nature of its agreements with the Franchisees. At the hearing on appeal, the Franchisor paid only lip service to its implicit duties, resisting questions from members of the bench who sought to understand their substantive content that fitted with a multi-year franchise agreement in which the Franchisor had given itself an active role in overseeing the network of all franchisees. Respectfully stated, in minimizing its implicit obligations to the network of franchisees, the Franchisor has given a disingenuous account of the nature of this long-term collaborative arrangement.  
[61]         What then is the “nature” of these particular franchise agreements that justifies the inferences made by the judge under article 1434 C.C.Q.? 
[62]        The contracts established a relationship of cooperation and collaboration between the Franchisor and its franchisees, reflecting both common and divergent interests, over a long period of time. Unlike in other arrangements where a franchisor might merely provides a licence and some modest start-up advice, the Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees were by no means left to their own devices after their launch in this quick-service restaurant business. Protecting the brand was no doubt too important to the Franchisor not to take an active hand in the arrangement over the course of its term. Sustaining the “system” as a flourishing restaurant chain required, as the terms of the agreement made plain, an on-going interaction between the Franchisor and each of its franchisees. The Franchisor took on a role in choosing appropriate franchisees and approving new acquirers of existing franchises, of advising franchisees at the start of the venture, of offering assistance to them along the way to be sure that each franchisee respected the system upon which the reputation of the brand rested. The franchisee relied on the Franchisor assuming this role to justify his or her investment. Not only would each franchisee receive assistance and benefit from the collaboration of the Franchisor but the franchisees were entitled to count on the Franchisor to see that the system would be supervised and that the weaker links in the chain of franchisees be corrected or excised. This would continue over the life of the agreement. In this sense, the agreement was a “relational” one which, as is often the case in such long-term arrangements, did not spell out all of its terms. 
[63]        These implicit obligations formed part of a long-term collaborative relationship, between the Franchisor and each individual franchisee, within an established network in which service and quality of experience were imagined as nearly identical from restaurant to restaurant. The judge might well have explained more fully what was the nature of these particular agreements that justified the inference of substantial obligations that were not spelled out in the contracts. That said, I take as important his recognition that the character of this specific franchise arrangement was an “on-going” one in respect of a “system” that the parties agreed to sustain as critical to the success of the brand. As a result, the judge found that the obligations the Franchisor has in respect of the brand were necessarily “continuing” and “’successive’” (para. [59]). The collaborative nature of these quick-service restaurant franchising agreements that extended upwards of 20 years is central to explaining why article 1434 C.C.Q. served to import the obligations it did. 
[64]        Given the role the Franchisor assigned to itself in overseeing the on-going operation of the network and the uniform system of standards, it is fair to characterize the obligation of means to protect and enhance the brand as a “complément nécessaire” of the contracts due to their nature. It was thus appropriate, in my view, for the judge to infer that the Franchisor had implicitly agreed to undertake reasonable measures to help the franchisees, over the life of the arrangement, to support the brand. This included a duty to assist them in staving off competition in order to promote the on-going prosperity of the network as an inherent feature of the relational franchise contract. 
[65]        Moreover, this necessary complement to the express terms rests on the presumed intention of the parties to these particular agreements. The judge inferred the Franchisor’s obligations flowing from the nature of the agreements not from a body of suppletive or public order rules, but from his sense of the unstated intention of the parties, consonant with articles 1425 and 1426 C.C.Q. As scholars who have studied the theory of implied obligations have demonstrated, this is a principal justification for obligations inferred from the nature of the agreement under article 1434 C.C.Q. In other words, in characterizing the essential obligation of the Franchisor as a duty to protect and enhance the brand, the judge did not assign a new and unintended obligation on the Franchisor, but he drew on the explicit terms, supplemented by implicit obligations flowing from the nature of the agreement that, in both cases, reflected the intention of the parties. The “élargissement du cercle contractuel” in this case, to use a helpful expression, is based on the judge’s finding of fact as to parties’ intent. I hasten to note that the Franchisor pointed to no express term that would have ousted the implied obligations that came with the nature of this long-term agreement.
Référence : [2015] ABD 152

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