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Apr292016

Joint Employer Liability: Wins, Losses, Lessons; and Understanding Merger/Integration Clauses

Franchise 101 News

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
gwintner@lewitthackman.com

April 2016

 

Franchise Lawyers

FRANCHISOR 101:
Wins, Losses & Lessons in Joint Employer Liability

As joint employer liability continues to develop, plaintiffs seeking deep pockets continue to claim, with some success, that franchisors are joint employers, responsible for actions of their franchisees' employees. In April, a jury found Domino's Pizza (DP) liable for $10.1 million for a delivery driver's car accident that caused a man's death.

In the accident a franchisee's employee drove in front of an oncoming truck. The truck swerved, crashing into a median to avoid the DP driver. The truck driver was left quadriplegic and later died. The jury found that the delivery driver caused the accident, and that DP controlled the franchisee's operation enough to be liable. DP's attorney argued that DP did not control hiring or firing of the franchisee's employees.

But the plaintiff's attorney focused on overall control by DP, noting that it extended even to particular conduct of delivery drivers, like requiring them not to use radar detectors or carry more than $20 cash. The attorney persuaded the jury that the franchise agreement's description of the franchisee as an "independent contractor" was just an effort by DP to avoid this kind of liability, and did not describe the actual relationship, in which the franchisee was actually DP's agent.

Click to read: Wiederhold v. Domino’s Pizza, 2-11-CA-001589

By contrast, when an employee of a landscape service franchise sued the franchisee and franchisor for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, the court found that the franchisor was not her employer and could not be liable. The court explained that the franchisor, Mountain View Lawn Care, did not exert control over the plaintiff's employment, since the franchisor did not:

1. Have the ability to hire or fire the plaintiff;
2. Supervise or discipline the plaintiff;
3. Provide the equipment or uniform used by the plaintiff;
4. Possess employment records for the plaintiff;
5. Train the plaintiff or any of the franchisee's employees;
6. Employ anyone with similar duties to the plaintiff's;
7. Receive the sole benefit of the plaintiff's work;
8. Do anything to show that it intended to be the plaintiff's employer.

Click: Wright v. Mountain View Lawn Care, LLC

Juries are less predictable, as shown by the Domino's Pizza case, but a franchisor can improve its prospects of avoiding joint employer liability by following the factors outlined in Mountain View.

FRANCHISEE 101:
Understanding Merger/Integration Clauses

Before a final agreement is signed there are often oral discussions, negotiations, and representations. There may be written memorandums of understanding or letters of intent. But, when the final agreement has a "merger" or "integration" clause, in many states it is as if anything that came before never happened.

After various disputes between Chrysler Group and its distributor in Greece, the parties entered into a settlement agreement. The agreement said the distributor would now sell only Chrysler's "Lancia" branded vehicles. Before they signed the agreement, Chrysler represented to the distributor that it planned to expand the Lancia line over the next few years. When that expansion didn't happen, the distributor sued Chrysler for fraud.

The settlement agreement did not mention expansion of the Lancia line but did have a "merger/integration clause." That clause said the agreement superseded all other agreements between the parties. As a result, regardless of any representations allegedly made by Chrysler, the court denied the distributor's claim.

A merger clause may resemble the following:

Entire Understanding: This Agreement contains all of the terms and conditions agreed on by the parties with reference to its subject matter. This Agreement supersedes and replaces all prior agreements, arrangements, negotiations, representations and understandings among the parties, whether written or oral, concerning its subject matter.

An agreement with a clause like this will be the last, and only, word on the subject in those states that give force to these clauses. Before signing an agreement that contains such a clause, be certain that the agreement also contains every part of the final deal as you understand it.

Details: Lancia Jeep Hellas S.A. v. Chrysler Group Int'l LLC, Mich. Ct. App.

This communication published by Lewitt Hackman is intended as general information and may not be relied upon as legal advice, which can only be given by a lawyer based upon all the relevant facts and circumstances of a particular situation. Copyright Lewitt Hackman 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday
Mar292016

Protecting Interests in Preliminary Injunctions; & The Purposes and Limits of Non-Compete Clauses

Franchise 101 News

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
gwintner@lewitthackman.com

 

March 2016

 

Franchise Lawyers

Tal Grinblat in Valley Lawyer

The ever-pervasive Happy Birthday to You - sung by waiters in corporate restaurants around the world to embarrassed celebrants and diners - may now reside in the public domain..."

Click to read: Music Publisher Caught in Birthday Suit, Agrees to Settle by Tal Grinblat and Nicholas Kanter

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
Protecting Interests in Preliminary Injunctions

 

A franchisor in a termination dispute with a franchisee may request a preliminary injunction to force the franchisee to immediately stop operating the franchised business and using the franchisor's trademarks and intellectual property. A court will grant a preliminary injunction when the party asking for it can show that it is likely to succeed on the claim and that, without an injunction, the party will suffer irreparable harm. Recently some franchisors have had difficulty obtaining preliminary injunctions. Courts have clarified when they will and will not grant injunctions in a franchise context.

In 7-Eleven, Inc. v. Sodhi, 7-Eleven issued termination notices to a franchisee because the net worth of five of his locations fell below amounts required by the franchise agreements. The franchisee disputed that he breached the franchise agreements, so he continued to operate despite receiving the notices. 7-Eleven sued the franchisee for trademark infringement and asked the court for a preliminary injunction.

The court found that several factors calling for an injunction were satisfied, including a likelihood that 7-Eleven would succeed in its claim. However, it also found that 7-Eleven did not prove exactly what irreparable harm it would suffer to its reputation or property from temporary continuation of the stores' operation. 7-Eleven submitted evidence of customer complaints on lack of cleanliness. But the court found those insufficient to show harm to reputation, in part because 7-Eleven received them before the franchisee's breach. The complaints did not prove the franchisee's continued operation was causing new harm to 7-Eleven's reputation that hadn't already occurred. The court declined the injunction.

In Intelligent Office System, LLC v. Virtualink Canada, Ltd., Intelligent Office System (IOS) entered into a Master License Agreement (MLA) with Virtualink Canada, Ltd. (Virtualink). The agreement granted Virtualink the exclusive right to license IOS's trademarks and business concept (for "virtual offices") to subfranchisees in Canada. In March 2013, IOS sent Virtualink a notice of defaults that Virtualink committed, including not meeting sales and opening goals and not providing reports and tax returns. IOS claimed Virtualink continued committing defaults, until IOS sent Virtualink a termination notice in October 2015. IOS filed suit in December 2015 and shortly after sought a preliminary injunction to shut Virtualink down.

The Colorado court noted that the purpose of a preliminary injunction is to maintain the positions of the parties until a trial could be held. So any preliminary injunction that would change the parties' positions would be disfavored and scrutinized carefully. The court reasoned that forcing Virtualink to stop the business it had run would change the parties' positions that existed in which Virtualink had been the "Master Licensee" for Canada. In declining to grant an injunction the court explained that IOS failed to show that it would be irreparably harmed without an injunction, since for years Virtualink had committed the defaults IOS claimed it wanted to stop, yet IOS allowed them to continue.

Both IOS and 7-Eleven show that a franchisor must act quickly and show urgency in response to franchisee defaults or courts may be unsympathetic when an injunction is requested. This can result in a franchisee receiving a notice of termination and yet continuing to operate the franchised business, possibly for years to come.

Click to read: 7-Eleven, Inc. v. Karamjeet Sodhi or Intelligent Office System, LLC v. Virtualink Canada, Ltd. 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Purposes and Limits of Non-Compete Clauses

Many franchise agreements have "non-compete clauses", which state that after termination or expiration of the franchise agreement, the ex-franchisee may not operate a business that is similar to or that would compete with the franchised business. These clauses apply for a stated time and cover a stated geography. In some jurisdictions, such as California, non-compete clauses are not enforceable. In other jurisdictions where these clauses can possibly be enforced, courts also decline to enforce them in some circumstances.

In AAMCO Transmissions, Inc. v. Romano, Robert and Linda Romano sold their AAMCO franchise in Florida and terminated their AAMCO franchise agreement. Then they opened a new transmission repair shop over 90 miles away from their old location. The Romanos' franchise agreement had a non-compete clause barring them, for two years, from opening a competing business within 10 miles of any AAMCO location. The Romanos' new location was only 1.4 miles from an AAMCO business. Despite this, a court refused to enforce the non-compete provision. The court ruled that the provision was too broad in its geographic scope, and limited enforcement to 10 miles from the franchisees' former location, and 10 miles from any other AAMCO location within the county in Florida where the franchise had been located.

In MEDIchair LP v. DME Medequip Inc., MEDIchair franchise businesses sold and leased medical equipment to be used at home. The MEDIchair franchisor also owned and operated similar businesses, but under the name "Motion Specialties." A MEDIchair franchisee in Ontario, Canada discovered it was competing with a nearby Motion Specialties store serving the same area. When the franchisee's franchise agreement ended, it de-identified its store as a MEDIchair franchise, and operated a similar business in the same location, with the same employees selling the same or similar products. MEDIchair then sued the franchisee to enforce the non-compete clause in the franchise agreement. That clause prohibited the franchisee from operating a competing business within 30 miles of the franchised location or any other MEDIchair franchise for 18 months after expiration of the agreement.

The Ontario court noted that, to be enforceable, a non-compete clause must serve a legitimate business interest of the franchisor - namely, to protect the franchise system. In this case, the evidence suggested the franchisor did not seek a replacement franchisee for the vacated location, since the territory was already served by its own Motion Specialties location. MEDIchair's actions showed that it had no interest in protecting the interests of its franchise system in Ontario. Therefore, the court refused to enforce the non-compete clause against the former franchisee in that territory.

AAMCO and MEDIchair show that even in jurisdictions where non-competes can be enforced, courts may narrowly construe the franchisor's legitimate business interests that may be protected by a non-compete clause. A court may find, as in AAMCO, that the non-compete only protects the franchisor's interests in the particular franchised location sold. Or, as in MEDIchair, a court may conclude that the franchisor has no business interest to protect - or, that the interest it seeks to protect is not "legitimate."

Read: AAMCO v. Robert V. Romano and Linda Romano, and MEDIchair LLP v. DME Medequip Inc.

This communication published by Lewitt Hackman is intended as general information and may not be relied upon as legal advice, which can only be given by a lawyer based upon all the relevant facts and circumstances of a particular situation. Copyright Lewitt Hackman 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday
Feb242016

Importance of Arbitration Clauses; and Reliance on Profit Projections

Franchise 101 News

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
gwintner@lewitthackman.com

 

February 2016

 

Franchise Lawyers

Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick & Tal Grinblat at IFA

Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick and Tal Grinblat attended the International Franchise Association's Annual Convention in San Antonio this month. This is the 56th annual conference, which draws thousands of global business leaders, franchisors and suppliers.

 

Tal Grinblat Selected

For the third consecutive year, Tal Grinblat has been recognized as a U.S. Legal Eagle by Franchise Times Magazine. Legal Eagles are nominated by attorney clients and peers as the best in the industry.

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
The Importance of Arbitration Provisions

 

Though some of the more important terms may appear early in a franchise agreement, some key terms placed near the end - the portion of the agreement that is often called "boilerplate" - may determine who wins or loses a legal fight. A franchisor that has a preference to arbitrate disputes should pay close attention to the arbitration provisions.

Courts have held provisions requiring arbitration to be enforceable time and again. In Jacobson v. Snap-on Tools Co., a franchisee claimed that a provision in his franchise agreement compelling arbitration was unenforceable because the franchisee had not read it, saying it was "hidden", and the franchisor had not called special attention to it. The court found the arbitration provision, which looked no different than the rest of the agreement, was not hidden and the franchisor had no duty to particularly point out that provision to the franchisee. The franchisor was able to compel arbitration.

But not all arbitration provisions are equal. In Meadows v. Dickey's Barbecue Restaurants, Inc., two groups of plaintiffs sued their franchisor claiming fraud and franchise law violations. All the agreements signed by both groups had provisions requiring all "disputes" to be submitted to binding arbitration. Dickey's moved to compel arbitration. The franchisees claimed they should not be bound by the arbitration provisions because, in their opinions, the agreements weren't valid.

The court looked at the franchise agreements and found they were not all the same: for the first group, the definition of what had to be submitted to arbitration included disputes about validity of the agreement itself; but for the second group, "validity of the agreement" was not listed in the definition of "disputes." As a result of the discrepancy, while Dickey's had the right to compel arbitration with the first group, much more analysis and argument was needed to reach the same conclusion for the second group.

In summary: if you want arbitration, make sure you have an arbitration provision in your franchise agreement that is complete and well drafted.

Read the Motion to Dismiss or Compel Arbitration: Jacobson v. Snap-on Tools Company et al, or an Order Granting Defendant's Motion to Compel Arbitration: Meadows et al v. Dickey's Barbecue Restaurants Inc.

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Relying on Franchisor’s Profit Projections

Most experienced franchisors know better than to make claims about profits franchisees can expect when those claims do not match the information in the franchisor's Franchise Disclosure Document. However, if a franchisor or its representative does make a profit claim, can you rely on it?

In Fantastic Sams Salons Corp. v. PSTEVO, LLC, a franchisee claimed that, before he signed a Fantastic Sams Franchise Agreement, he was given promising financial documents in a private meeting with a company vice president and regional director. According to the franchisee, the documents showed that the salon would be profitable after just three months of operation. When the salon was not, in fact, profitable after three months, the franchisee sued Fantastic Sams for fraudulent misrepresentation.

However, as many franchisors do, Fantastic Sams required the franchisee to sign a disclaimer as a pre-condition to signing the franchise agreement. In that disclaimer was a statement that "NO ORAL, WRITTEN OR VISUAL CLAIM OR REPRESENTATION WHICH STATED OR SUGGESTED ANY SALES, INCOME, OR PROFIT LEVELS WAS MADE TO ME, EXCEPT:" Though several blank lines followed the statement, the franchisee wrote the word "None". The court found this disclaimer defeated the franchisee's claim of fraudulent misrepresentation, and dismissed his claim. Another court recently dismissed a franchisee's fraud claim when the disclaimer was just a provision in the franchise agreement itself. Moxie Venture LLC et al v. UPS Store, Inc.

Had the Fantastic Sams franchisee described representations on the blank lines of the disclaimer, the franchisor may not have moved forward to sign a franchise agreement. For some franchisors, one purpose of the disclaimer is to screen out franchisees having potential to make the kinds of allegations described above. So what should a franchisee do if a franchisor makes profit claims, yet requires signing a disclaimer, or a franchise agreement with a disclaimer? In some systems, the answer is to choose between walking away from a deal that may involve misrepresentations, or going forward based on projections that are not supported, and without being able to rely on the representations provided.

Click to read: Fantastic Sams Salons Corp., v. Pstevo, LLC and Jeremy Baker or, Moxie Venture LLC v. The UPS Store, Inc.

This communication published by Lewitt Hackman is intended as general information and may not be relied upon as legal advice, which can only be given by a lawyer based upon all the relevant facts and circumstances of a particular situation. Copyright Lewitt Hackman 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Friday
Jan292016

DOL on Joint Employer Liability; and CA Expands Franchisee Protections

Franchise 101 News

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
gwintner@lewitthackman.com

January 2016

 

Franchise Lawyers

Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick & Tal Grinblat: Super Lawyers 2016

Three of our franchise law attorneys were selected as 2016 Super Lawyers, in the Franchise/Dealership category. Only 11 attorneys in all of Southern California were so named. Among them, Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick and Tal Grinblat have a combined 23 years of Super Lawyer recognitions. All three attorneys are also Certified Specialists in Franchise & Distribution Law, per the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. 

Tal Grinblat Co-Authors Legislation

As Co-Chair of the Franchise Law Committee, Tal Grinblat wrote an Affirmative Legislative Proposal (ALP) to enable franchisors wishing to test California markets to exhibit at trade shows without first registering as franchises. The ALP was approved by the Trustees of the California Bar and will now be introduced as a bill in Sacramento by Assembly Judiciary Committee Member Brian Maienschein. Click: BLS-2016-01 for further information. 

San Fernando Valley Business Journal Quotes David Gurnick re PizzaRev

"It's important for a franchiser to develop critical mass in a particular market before expanding into neighboring regions..." Read: Chain Offers Slice for further details.

Barry Kurtz Presentation at Southwestern University

Barry Kurtz co-presented a seminar regarding business law at his alma mater, Southwestern University. The one hour presentation, "Transactional Law in Practice" was geared towards law students and graduates of the school. Mr. Kurtz is an active member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors, which co-sponsored the event.

David Gurnick Speaks at San Fernando Valley Bar Association

David Gurnick participated in the San Fernando Valley Bar's MCLE Marathon, giving a 90 minute presentation entitled "Online Negativity: How to Fight Back." The marathon is held each year, and provides an opportunity for area lawyers to earn continuing education credits.

FRANCHISOR 101:
Department of Labor Weighs in on Joint Employer Liability

 

Recently, some plaintiffs - employees of franchisees - have tried to hold franchisors responsible for unpaid overtime and other claimed violations by franchisees they work for. They use the theory that franchisors are their joint employer, along with the franchisee who hires, pays and directs them.

In the latest development of the changing standard for joint employer liability, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued an Administrator's Interpretation ("AI") stating the analysis the DOL plans to apply in these cases.

The AI first distinguishes "horizontal" and "vertical" joint employment. Horizontal is where an employee works at the same time for two separate but related or overlapping employers. Vertical means the work an employee does for one direct or "intermediary employer" also benefits another company, the "potential joint employer." The benefit exists because the direct or intermediary employer provides services benefitting another company that may include labor and some employer functions, like hiring and payroll. The DOL believes a franchise is vertical, in which the franchisee is an intermediary employer that makes the franchisor a potential joint employer. In the DOL's view, a franchisee provides a labor force that benefits the franchisor by getting the franchisor's product, whether foods or merchandise or services, to consumers.

The AI says that a vertical joint employment analysis "must be an economic realities analysis and cannot focus only on control." It provides seven factors to be considered in determining if an employee "is economically dependent on the potential joint employer." The factors suggesting economic dependence, and joint employment, are:

1. The employee's work is directed, controlled, or supervised by the potential joint employer.

2. The potential joint employer may hire, fire, or modify the employee's employment conditions.

3. The employee's work that benefits the potential joint employer is full-time, of long duration, or permanent.

4. The employee's work is repetitive or rote, requiring little skill or training.

5. The employee's work is an integral part of the potential joint employer's business.

6. The employee works on premises owned or controlled by the potential joint employer.

7. The potential joint employer performs administrative functions for the employee that would typically be performed by an employer, like handling payroll or providing transportation.

Some of these factors resemble the relationship between a franchisor and employees of its franchisees. But in a set of frequently asked questions accompanying the AI the DOL states that "the existence of a franchise relationship, in and of itself, does not create joint employment." Which franchise relationships do create joint employment will be developed in future guidance and decisions. 

Read: U.S. Department of Labor Administrator's Interpretation No. 2016-1

FRANCHISEE 101:
California Expands Protections for Franchisees

California Assembly Bill 525, passed into law in 2015 applies to franchise agreements entered into or renewed on or after January 1, 2016. It expands and provides new protections for franchisees. Franchisees subject to California now benefit from the following provisions:

1. A franchisor may not terminate a franchise agreement for minor infractions; but may terminate only if the franchisee failed to substantially comply with lawful requirements imposed on the franchisee by the franchise agreement. The franchisor must give notice and at least 60 days opportunity to cure the default.

Exceptions: in certain severe events, such as franchisee bankruptcy or abandonment of the franchise business, a franchisor may give notice of immediate termination without an opportunity to cure.

2. On termination or non-renewal of a franchise, the franchisor must buy from the franchisee all inventory, supplies, equipment, fixtures, and furnishing purchased or paid for by the franchisee under the terms of the franchise agreement. The franchisor must pay for the items at the price paid, minus depreciation, and must buy any items the franchisee purchased from the franchisor or its approved suppliers and sources.

Exceptions: The franchisor need not buy items that were personalized, or that the franchisee was not contractually required to purchase. The franchisor need not purchase anything in certain situations, such as where a) termination or non-renewal is mutually agreed with the franchisee, b) the franchisor allows the franchisee to remain in the principal place of the franchise business, or c) termination or non-renewal is due to the franchisor's "nondiscriminatory decision" to completely withdraw from all franchise activity in the relevant geographic market area where the franchise is located.

3. A franchisor may not prevent a franchisee from selling or transferring the franchise to someone else, so long as that party would qualify under the franchisor's then-existing standards for the approval of new or renewing franchisees.

Exceptions: A franchisor may refuse to consent to a transfer or sale if the franchisee and buyer, transferee, or assignee do not comply with the transfer conditions specified in the franchise agreement. Also, the franchisor may still have a contractual right of first refusal, allowing it to purchase the franchise itself before allowing it to be transferred or sold to an outside party.

With these new laws in effect, added onto already existing protections for franchisees in the context of termination and nonrenewal, California is among the nation's most franchisee-friendly states.

Source: California Assembly Bill 525

This communication published by Lewitt Hackman is intended as general information and may not be relied upon as legal advice, which can only be given by a lawyer based upon all the relevant facts and circumstances of a particular situation. Copyright Lewitt Hackman 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday
Dec292015

10 Ways to Reduce Vicarious Liability Risks; and Paying Attention to Contractual Statutes of Limitation

Franchise 101 News

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
gwintner@lewitthackman.com

Franchise Lawyers

December 2015

 

National Award: Best Law Firms 2016 (Franchise Law)

We were named one of U.S. News & World Report's 2016 Best Law Firms for franchise law. According to the publication, the selection is based on rigorous scrutiny of client and lawyer evaluations -- at least one attorney from the firm must be eligible for Best Lawyer ranking in a particular practice area within a specific region. David Gurnick has been selected to the Best Lawyers in franchise list for the past four, consecutive years: Franchise Law National Ranking

 

Barry Kurtz in Los Angeles Business Journal

"First time restaurant licensors sometimes struggle to help partner companies get off the ground. At the same time, they sometimes realize too late that their partners lack skills to run the business." For more information regarding Los Angeles's popular gourmet marketplace and cafe, Joan's on Third, read: Eateries Fed Up

 

Tal Grinblat, David Gurnick and Nicholas Kanter in Valley Lawyer

"Individuals and businesses are becoming increasingly vulnerable to electronically posted falsehoods, invasions of privacy, revenge and other negative content... There are several strategies and legal tools for victims and lawyers to fight back." Read Online Negativity: How to Fight Back, for details.

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
10 Ways Franchisors Can Reduce Vicarious Liability Risks

 

Franchise Vicarious Liability 

The U.S. Department of Labor says McDonald's is liable for actions of franchisees. In the last three months a California federal court said McDonald's could be liable for a franchisee's alleged failure to pay overtime and provide meal and rest breaks.

But another California federal court dismissed similar claims against the franchisor of ARBY's. In 2014 the California Supreme Court said Domino's Pizza was not liable for misconduct by a franchisee's manager. The decision was close, decided by a 4-3 vote. All of these cases concern franchisor liability for acts and omissions of franchisees.

There are several theories on which a franchisor may be liable for acts of omissions of a franchisee.

One is the claim that the franchisor has so much control over the franchisee as to be, in effect, a principal or employer, with the franchisee being an agent. Another is the claim that the franchisor let the franchisee appear to the public or to employees to be an agent or branch of the franchisor. A third theory, developed in recent years, is that the franchisor exercises control over the franchisee's employees, and is therefore their joint employer along with the franchisee they work for.

Here are ten steps franchisors can take to reduce the risk of being liable for actions of their franchisees:

1. Choose or change the franchise company's name to something different from the name of the franchise. If the franchise brand is "Apex Advisors" or "Bubble Balloon Parties" the franchisor could be AA Franchising, LLC or BBP, Inc., or another formulation. Many lawsuits simply use the name of the franchise as the Defendant. By using a different name, a franchisor will reduce the risk of being inadvertently named as a defendant.

2. Require each franchisee to use and inform others of its/their/his/her true name. Franchisee business cards, stationery, checks, signage, advertising, menus, service lists, memos, and other materials should state the true name of the person or company that operates the franchise. Require each franchisee to display a plaque, for example: "This Apex Advisors Franchise is independently owned and operated by Sarah and Johan Jones." Other ways are to present certificates of training, longevity (years of ownership) and awards that state the independent owner's name.

3. Require the franchisee to display a sign in the employee area, possibly on the doorway to the work and customer area, reminding employees who owns the franchise. For example: "This franchise is independently owned by Sarah and Johan Jones. We appreciate your service and want to remind you that you are employed by us, not Bubbles Balloons." The franchisee should state a similar message on communications to service providers, inventory suppliers, utilities, chambers of commerce and other trade associations.

4. Review the franchise agreement, operating manual and operating policies to remove controls or requirements that are not essential to goodwill of the brand. For example, restricting the activities of franchisees' employees when they are not at work; specifying the color scheme of the employees-only area, or designating suppliers for a franchisee's holiday party are matters that do not protect the brand, and should be removed from the operating manual.

5. Remind franchisees in writing of all operational aspects of the business in which they are the decision-maker. Examples include site selection (franchisor does not select site but only consents to site selected by franchisee), lease negotiation, where and how to advertise, recruiting personnel, deciding who to hire, setting compensation, conducting reviews and giving raises, setting and scheduling hours, choosing which publications to advertise in, choosing which charities to support, setting prices, managing inventory, whether to extend credit; how much credit to extend; and declining to do business with some customers.

Store and location decor is an area where franchisors may consider allowing franchisees more flexibility. A McDonald's or other franchise can still be recognizable as part of the chain, even if the franchisee has wider discretion to customize or individualize many aspects of layout and decor.

6. State in the franchise agreement that the franchisee is responsible for safety of customers, workers and vendors who are at the premises and require the franchisee to be attentive to these matters.

7. Make sure the franchise agreement has indemnity language requiring the franchisee to indemnify the franchisor for any claims arising from the franchised business including employment claims by the franchisee's employees against the franchisor.

8. The franchisee should be required to purchase liability insurance and name the franchisor and franchisor's management and personnel as additional insureds under the franchisee's insurance.

The franchisor should require the franchisee to annually provide a copy of the full policy, so in the event of a claim the franchisor can tender it directly to the insurer. In addition, the franchisee should be required to purchase employment practices liability insurance with a co-defendant endorsement in favor of the franchisor.

9. In the franchise agreement require the franchisee to cooperate in the defense of any vicarious liability claim.

10. Franchisor personnel should not give directions or instructions to employees of the franchisee. For example, in an inspection visit of a franchisee's location, franchisor personnel should call the franchisee's attention to any deficiencies, but should not presume to instruct an employee of the franchisee to make any changes. The employees work for the franchisee, not for the franchisor. Employees should not come to view the franchisor as their supervisor.

In the Arby's and McDonald's cases mentioned above, Arby's was found not liable because Arby's did not make decisions about hours, breaks, or hiring and firing of the franchisee's employees. In the McDonald's case, the court found McDonald's might be liable, because the franchisees' employees said they believed McDonald's was their employer, partly because they wore McDonald's uniforms, served McDonald's food in McDonald's packaging, received paystubs and orientation materials marked with McDonald's name and logo, and applied for their jobs through McDonald's website.

The above are some steps a franchisor can take to reduce the risk of being sued and of being liable for acts and omissions of a franchisee. This article does not list every possible step that can be taken, but provides a good place to start.

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Pay Attention to Contractual Statutes of Limitation

Many franchise agreements include a contractual limitation period or time limit when parties can bring a claim for relief. Though the franchise agreement is often written by and for the franchisor, these limitations can help or hurt either party.

Recently a court in Ohio ruled that a contractual time limit for claims, barred an action by the franchisor. The franchisor, Buffalo Wings and Rings, sent a notice to its franchisee in early 2011 describing claims. More than one year later, the franchisor filed a lawsuit.

At the franchisee's request the court dismissed the action, ruling that the franchisor's claim was barred by the one year limitation period stated in the franchise agreement. The Buffalo Wings and Rings case is a reminder to franchisors and franchisees, to be thoughtful of both statutory and contractual time limits for bringing claims, and is a reminder that a statutory or contractual time limit may be a successful defense to a claim by the other side. 

This communication published by Lewitt Hackman is intended as general information and may not be relied upon as legal advice, which can only be given by a lawyer based upon all the relevant facts and circumstances of a particular situation. Copyright Lewitt Hackman 2015. All Rights Reserved.

 

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