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Friday
Jun302017

Will Minimum Wage Hikes Kill Restaurant Jobs?

Franchise LawyerChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

by Barry Kurtz

818-907-3006

 

In 1981 “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first music video MTV broadcast in the United States. The song was actually written a couple of years earlier, appeared on an album entitled The Age of Plastic by the Buggles, and raised questions regarding new technological advances in the music business.

Which brings us to the point:

Restaurant owners may be blindly reaching out to embrace technology, but at a high cost to humans, most notably their employees. Unfortunately, this move to team up with new tech isn’t entirely because of choice.

Robotic Handshake

Rise of Restaurant Machines

On July 1st, employers in Los Angeles and in many other metro areas across the nation are required to raise minimum wages. The mandate is the result of numerous campaigns initiated by labor unions to improve the lives of low-wage workers, by raising hourly rates to $15 per hour.

The restaurant industry is struggling with such a drastic increase, even though the daunting $15 pill is mostly being swallowed in smaller bites – gradual increases over a period of five years in Los Angeles County, for example. So what’s the industry’s survival instinct response?

Many are being forced to cannibalize their work forces, by investing in machines to replace human workers.

Former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi described the situation in a guest column on restaurant tech published in Forbes Magazine last November:

In 2013, when the Fight for $15 was still in its growth stage, I and others warned that union demands for a much higher minimum wage would force businesses with small profit margins to replace full-service employees with costly investments in self-service alternatives. At the time, labor groups accused business owners of crying wolf. It turns out the wolf was real.

Economists at the University of Washington also find the minimum wage increase to be detrimental – they are claiming low-wage earners have actually lost $125 per month because of the city’s minimum wage hike. (Study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research – NBER Working Paper No. 23432.) The economists concluded Seattle’s wage increase of $11 per hour in 2015, and then to $13 per hour eight months later, had a negative impact on hours worked. Employers reduced labor costs by about nine percent.

Restaurant waiter taking customer orderPeer review for the University of Washington study is pending, and another study contradicts the economists’ conclusions.

Nation’s Restaurant News for example, cites the Washington study as well as another research project from the University of California at Berkeley’s Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics. Berkeley researchers found no loss for low-income earners in Seattle as a result of minimum wage increases.

It looks like we’ll have to rely on time to let us know which researchers submitted the more accurate findings. Either way though, we see the handwriting on the digital wall: quick serve and fast casual restaurants are buying or contemplating buying more computers and kiosks, beefing up websites and apps, and generally eliminating the human factor to the furthest extent possible.

But chew on this:  Researchers at Harvard Business School conducted yet another study, this one centered in over 100 cities in the San Francisco Bay area. According to these authors, Bay Area cities saw 21 minimum wage hikes between 2008 and 2016. Which restaurants went bust because of these wage bumps? The lower quality restaurants with lower Yelp ratings seemed to be the ones most likely to close:

"Our point estimates suggest that a one dollar increase in the minimum wage leads to a 14 percent increase in the likelihood of exit for a 3.5-star restaurant (which is the median rating), but has no discernible impact for a 5-star restaurant (on a 1 to 5 star scale)."

Based on this study, it appears restaurant owners may now either choose to close their doors or be forced to close their doors because of the increase in labor costs. Whether that decision to shut down is a result of having to devote financial resources to paying workers rather than making improvements to food, facilities or other areas – or some other factor – remains to be seen. The authors of this study say a purely causal relationship has not been determined.

But what recourse do restauranteurs have? When it comes to minimum wage increases already in place, we refer back to The Buggles:

“We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far…”

 

Barry Kurtz is a State Bar of California Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Monday
Jun262017

Disparaging, Degrading, Derogatory Trademarks: They're Now Enforceable Says Supreme Court

 

Franchise and Trademark LawyerIntellectual Property Lawyer

 

 

by Tal Grinblat

(818) 907-3284

 

You may remember that several national sports franchises are under fire for trademarks and branding that is seen to be racially disparaging. The Washington Redskins are the first team to come to mind, and it wasn’t too long ago that we all thought they had an uphill, and probably losing legal battle to keep their name registered.

Trademark Law

That battle is likely over now that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on a trademark dispute for a rock band.

At issue? First Amendment rights. And the Court decided definitively and unanimously to uphold those rights, though the individual justices cited different reasons for doing so.

The Slants Challenge USPTO

Simon Tam is the lead singer for The Slants – a name the all Asian-American, Portland group was unable to register with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) because the agency found the moniker to be disparaging, if not outright racist. In reaching its decision, the USPTO found that the word “slants” is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent and that a substantial composite of persons would find the mark to be offensive.

It therefore refused registration relying on the Trademark Act provision, which allows for trademark registration refusals if a mark:

Consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute; . . .

Tam appealed the refusal to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. When the Board sided with the Examining Attorney at the agency, Tam filed a lawsuit, which took him on a seven year trek through the justice system, and ultimately to the Supreme Court. “This journey has always been much bigger than our band: it’s been about the rights of all marginalized communities to determine what’s best for ourselves,” Tam said.

Why did the Supreme Court Side with The Slants?

Band members contend that though “Slants” is a racially-charged term to describe persons of Asian descent, using the term for the name of their band would dilute the denigrating aspects of the word. The Court Opinion said the band hoped to “reclaim” and “take ownership” of stereotypes about people of Asian ethnicity.

In delivering their opinion, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer sided with the Band and against the government, ruling:

We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment prin­ciple: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend. . .

Procedurally, trademark examiners were required to use a two part test to determine if a mark is disparaging. They considered the likely meaning of the mark, including dictionary definitions, relationship of the matter to other elements in the mark, nature of the goods and services and manner in which the mark is used in connection with the goods and services.

If the mark refers to specific persons, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, the examiner then was required to consider whether or not the mark is disparaging to a substantial composite of persons given contemporary attitudes. If that proves to be true, the trademark applicant must prove the mark is not disparaging to continue with registration, generally an uphill battle.

In defending the claim that the USPTO’s decision did not violate the Band’s First Amendment free speech rights, the Government contended that:  

  1. Trademarks are government speech, not private speech;

  2. Trademarks are a form of government subsidy; and

  3. The constitutionality of the disparagement clause should be tested under a new ‘government-program” doctrine. 

The Supreme Court rejected all three USPTO arguments.

Regarding the first argument, the Supreme Court explained that “[t]rademarks have not traditionally been used to convey a Government message” and that trademarks are private (coined by individuals to name their products and services) and not government speech. They explained:  

Holding that the registration of a trademark converts the mark into government speech would constitute a huge and dangerous extension of the government-speech doctrine. For if the registration of trademarks constituted govern­ment speech, other systems of government registration could easily be characterized in the same way. . .

As to the USPTO’s second argument, the Court found that trademarks are not a form of government subsidy, as the USPTO is not paying trademark applicants to register their marks, but rather it is the applicant who must pay a filing fee as well as renewal fees to keep the trademark on the Register.

As to the USPTO’s third argument, Justice Alito stated the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled repeatedly that “the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers,” and that “government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society find the idea itself offensive or disagreeable”.

Therefore, the disparagement clause in the Trademark Act could not be saved by viewing it as a type of government program in which some content and speaker-based restrictions are permitted.

Disparagement Clause Found Overbroad and Unenforceable

free-speech-trademark-lawThe next matter the court considered was under what standard the band’s free speech rights should be viewed – specifically, whether trademarks should be viewed under the more relaxed scrutiny of commercial speech (whereby speech may be more easily restricted) or expressive speech which warrants a higher level of scrutiny.  

The Court found that it did not need to resolve this debate because the “disparagement clause” could not withstand either level of scrutiny. For commercial speech to be curtailed, it must serve a “substantial interest” and must be “narrowly drawn”.

Here the Supreme Court found that the disparagement clause failed this requirement as the “clause reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group or institution.”  In other words, the Clause goes further than necessary to serve the interest asserted. If the government could curtail any speech by labeling it a commercial speech, free speech would be endangered.

Accordingly, the Court held that the disparagement clause violated the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment resulting in the band finally being able to register their mark.  

Practical Implications for Brands Like The Slants

This seminal Supreme Court decision changes trademark law in a significant way.

The Disparagement Clause was part of the original Trademark Act passed by Congress in 1870, nearly 150 years ago. It has been used by the USPTO to block what the agency deemed offensive marks for over a century.

The Supreme Court’s decision now will allow both individuals and companies to register expressive brands regardless of whether the message is offensive, hateful or inappropriate. But that is a little price to pay to protect our freedom of expression. As the Court indicated, “the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’”. 

 

Tal Grinblat is an Intellectual Property Attorney and a Certified Franchise & Distribution Law Specialist.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Monday
Jun192017

Trademark Law & Genericide: Google's Not Dead Yet

 

Intellectual Property and Franchise Agreement LawyerTrademark Attorney

by Tal Grinblat

(818) 907-3284

 

Domain name registration is usually a good first step to cement trade name and mark ownership. In a previous blog we reminded readers that possession, even in Intellectual Property matters, is nine-tenths of the law (read Why Register a Domain Name? for more info).

Trademark logo designerSo when Chris Gillespie registered over 700 web domain names, we would normally applaud his ambition as well as his efforts.

Except for one problem: Gillespie registered various domain names that included the word “google”. For example, Gillespie registered: “googlenewtvs.com”, “googledisney.com”, and “googlebarackobama.net” without Google’s permission. The REAL Google, who is the registered owner of the mark, filed a complaint with the National Arbitration Forum (NAF), which decides domain name disputes.

Google complained Gillespie: 

  1. Violated the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (via trademark infringement, also known as cybersquatting); and

  2. Registered names that were confusingly similar to Google’s trademark, in bad faith. 

The agency agreed – NAF transferred the domain names to the web service company in 2012.

Not long after the NAF decision, David Elliott filed a petition in an Arizona Court to cancel the Google trademark registration under the Lanham Act, arguing “google” is now a generic verb for internet searching. Gillespie joined in the action. In September, 2013, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. Google prevailed and plaintiffs appealed.

But before we can deconstruct the respective parties' positions and the courts' decisions in Elliott v. Google, Inc., we must first understand the basics of genericide.

What is Trademark Genericide?

Trademark Infringement AttorneyGenericide is a term used when a trademark begins with strong trademark significance, but over time becomes generic and no longer identifies the source of products or services. Some examples of marks that started out as strong trademarks but later lost their significance include Aspirin and Escalator.  

These marks at one point were protectable as arbitrary or fanciful marks because they were primarily understood by the public to refer to specific products—a brand of headache reliever and a specific brand of moving stairs, respectively. But over time, these words became generic and the public now understands these words to describe the actual goods rather than the source of the goods.

Failing the Trademark Genericide Test

On June 14, 2017 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision and found that appellants’ arguments regarding the genericizing of “google” had two flaws: 

  1. “A claim of genericide must always relate to a particular good or service.”

  2. Appellants “erroneously assumed that verb use automatically constituted generic use.” 

The Appellate Court noted:

If there were no requirement that a claim of genericide relate to a particular type of good, then a mark like IVORY, which is “arbitrary as applied to soap,” could be cancelled outright because it is “generic when used to describe a product made from the tusks of elephants.” Abercrombie & Fitch Co. v. Hunting World, Inc., 537 F.2d 4, 9 n.6 (2d Cir. 1976).

As to the Appellants’ second argument, the Court decided it contradicted fundamental trademark protection principles, in reference to source identification.

Elliott contended that trademarks perform source-identifying functions only when used as adjectives. The court disagreed and upheld the lower court’s ruling that the relevant inquiry is not whether the public used “google” as a verb indiscriminately, but rather whether the primary significance of the word “google” to the public was a generic name for internet search engines (in which case the word became generic) or as a mark identifying Google’s search engine in particular (in which case was still protectable as a trademark). 

In other words, the court held that a word could be used as a verb, yet retain trademark significance.

Citing the terms “indiscriminate” and “discriminate” coined by the District Court in this case, the 9th Circuit said:

We have already acknowledged that a customer might use the noun “coke” in an indiscriminate sense, with no particular cola beverage in mind {in which case the mark was likely generic}; or in a discriminate sense, with a Coca-Cola beverage in mind. In the same way, we now recognize that an internet user might use the verb “google” in an indiscriminate sense, with no particular search engine in mind; or in a discriminate sense, with the Google search engine in mind.

The relevant question to ask is how the relevant public primarily understands the word itself. The court therefore denied appellants’ claims, holding that based on the evidence presented, even though some members of the public used “google” in a generic manner, the relevant public still primarily understood the word to refer to the Google search engine in particular.

Generic Lessons Learned

Intellectual Property Litigation

So what can budding business owners establishing trademarks learn from this case?

The evidence to prove a mark is generic must be overwhelming. Elliott provided three consumer surveys to bolster his claim that “googling” simply means performing internet searches, but some were not conducted by qualified companies or individuals, and two were rejected by both courts out of hand.

Additionally, both Google and Elliott provided competing evidence as to the public’s use of the word “google” and “Google” as generic terms and trademarks. Since there were enough examples of trademarked use, Elliot lost this argument as well.

Last, Elliot failed to show “google” was used to describe internet search engines generally, such as Bing and Yahoo. This demonstrated to the Court that the death of Google as a trademark was greatly exaggerated.

Tal Grinblat is an Intellectual Property Attorney, Certified Franchise & Distribution Law Specialist, and a Shareholder at our firm. 

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Friday
Jun162017

Old Grounds: A Lack of Prop 65 Warnings Brew Trouble for Coffee Franchisors

 

by Stephen T. Holzer and Barry Kurtz

 

California Prop 65 warnings – many residents barely notice these anymore, as we’ve lived with Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act notices for over 30 years now. They appear at gas pumps; in apartment and office buildings; on packaging for food, toys and other products; and in retail establishments all over the state.

The ubiquitous but largely ignored warnings are clear, generally stating that a consumer may be exposed to certain chemicals that may cause cancer or reproductive harm.

But if the average citizen of California no longer notices the signs, who does? Bounty hunters. More specifically, an opportunistic group of consumers and lawyers who notice the lack of Prop 65 signs and labels. They then file lawsuits on behalf of the public good. Most businesses settle the claims rather than engage in expensive litigation.

This leads to a whole new trend in tort litigation aimed at restaurants, though Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts were named (along with approximately 80 other coffee co-defendants) in a suit brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) back in 2010. CERT's complaint is that these businesses failed to warn customers of potentially harmful, carcinogenic chemicals in coffee, specifically acrylamide.

In the latest news on this particular CERT suit, Dunkin’ lost its argument for summary judgment. The franchisor claimed it needn’t put warning labels on its coffee because technically, the franchisor doesn’t sell coffee in California. Dunkin’ Brands Inc. oversees a corporation – it doesn’t buy, sell, roast, distribute or even possess coffee.

A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge found that argument weak, and so to court will Dunkin’ go, along with its codefendants. 

More Acrylamide and Other Chemically-Based Acrimony

The chemical acrylamide isn't just found in coffee. It forms on starchy foods as they cook, so toast, French fries and a host of other popular menu items carry trace amounts. Really, just about any one operating a restaurant in California can become a target for this type of tort.

But environmental plaintiffs worry about other chemicals and ingredients too.

Prop 65 and Restaurant Businesses

According to the Mercury News, plaintiffs filed lawsuits last year because of Bisphenol A (BPA) found in receipt paper and bottled water.

Sugar is also on the chemical hit list, though not considered a Prop 65 chemical. California lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 300, the Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Health Warning Act, which could require anyone selling closed container beverages to add warnings to their containers, and any business with vending or beverage dispensing machines to add signage to those machines.

The warning as written now, would read:  STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.

Some franchisors have already stated an intention to remove food dyes from the ingredients of their menu items, Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robins among them. But California has a bill targeting products with these chemicals too.

Senate Bill 504 would amend the state's Health and Safety Code to direct the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to review literature regarding the potential risks to children who may be consuming these chemicals.

A report from the OEHHA would be due in 2019. Chances are good the chemicals in food dyes will make their way to the hundreds of chemicals already flagged on California's Prop 65 list of potentially toxic agents.

Prop 65 Compliance

So what should restaurant owners know about Prop 65, and more importantly, what should they do?

1. Size Matters: Understand that the law affects businesses employing 10 or more people. Small café and food truck owners are probably safe if they employ a skeleton staff. In fact, that was another argument Dunkin' Brands Inc. attempted when it tried to get out of the coffee labeling suit.

2. The List is Long: There are about 900 chemicals cited as dangerous on the OEHHA list as of January (there are 1,000 rows on the Excel sheet – some of the data contains delisted chemicals, some are header information rows, etc.). Chances are good every business in California with 10 or more employees should be posting a warning of some sort.

3. Prop 65 Has Evolved: The rules regarding this law changed recently. Warning labels and signs gave general warnings in the past, now businesses must name the specific chemical present on the premises or in the product. That could get rather daunting, e.g. "This establishment sells products for consumption that may contain acrylamide, BPA, benzidene (found in food dyes), ethanol (found in alcoholic beverages), etc. The new rules will be enforced as of August 30, 2018.

4. Violation Penalties: Up to $2,500 per day, per violation.

5. Some Good News: Businesses could argue that the levels of the chemicals present in food or other products are so low, there is little risk of harm. This type of defense requires expert, scientific testimony however, and may be financially out of reach for many businesses.

Franchisors and franchisees should beware and be diligent. 

History tells us that when a contingency fee attorney finds one unit in a franchise system in potential violation of these types of consumer-protection laws, litigation on the claims spreads through the franchise system and company-owned units like wildfire. Since the franchisor generally establishes operating standards, specifications and procedures with which the franchisees must follow, both are at risk if they fail to comply with these measures once they become law.

 

Steve Holzer is the Chair of our Environmental Practice Group. Barry Kurtz is the Chair of our Franchise and Distribution Practice Group.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Wednesday
Jun142017

Franchise Law: Burden of Joint Employer Just Got a Little Lighter

Franchise LawyerChair, Franchise & Distribution Practice Group

 

by Barry Kurtz

818-907-3006

 

 

Direct control, indirect control…these are the employment litigation phrases that had franchisors cowering in duck-and-cover positions over the last few years. But the Department of Labor just issued a statement to breathe new life into the franchise industry.

The dangerous era of joint employer litigation isn’t completely over yet. Franchisors should still take protective measures as they can. Still, there’s a glimmer of hope in the trenches:

Last week the DOL announced a retreat of sorts by withdrawing its interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This January 2016 interpretation was the one that defined an employer as an entity or individual who has “indirect control” over an employee. In the franchise context, it meant courts were looking at whether or not an employee was economically dependent on the franchisor to determine whether that franchisor could be deemed liable for claims as a joint employer. (See our Franchise & Distribution Newsletters for more on Joint Employer Litigation.)

The NLRB was the first agency to take a broad stance on the issue of joint employment, most notably in 2015 in the Browning-Ferris Industries decision. In that case, the NLRB decided entities may be joint employers if:

(1) They are both employers within the meaning of the common law; and

(2) They share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment. In evaluating whether an employer possesses sufficient control over employees to qualify as a joint employer, the Board will – among other factors  consider whether an employer has exercised control over terms and conditions of employment indirectly through an intermediary, or whether it has reserved the authority to do so. 

DOL’s rescinding of guidance on this issue doesn’t necessarily change the law, it simply reflects the current government’s friendlier attitudes towards business.

So franchisors, take a deep breath and relax a little. But not too much, as the war on joint employer liability still wages on.

Barry Kurtz is a State Bar of California Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law.

Disclaimer:
This Blog/Web Site is made available by the lawyer or law firm publisher for educational purposes only, to provide general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this blog site you understand there is no attorney client relationship between you and the Blog/Web Site publisher. The Blog/Web Site should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

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