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Entries in contractual disclaimers (3)

Tuesday
May232017

Franchise 101: State Taxes on Franchise Fees; and Breach of Contract Claims

Franchise 101 News

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

 

May 2017

 

Franchise Lawyers

New Rules re Financial Performance Representations

Tal Grinblat, a member of the Executive Committee of the Business Law Section of the State Bar of California, co-wrote a notice distributed to state bar members regarding new guidelines franchisors must follow when using financial performance representations (FPRs). The new guidelines impact all franchisors in the U.S. and its territories. The e-bulletin alerts those in the industry about the North American Securities Administrators Association's (NASAA) adoption of financial performance guidelines which require a number of new disclosures and a certain admonition. The guidelines also set requirements for franchisors using "averages" or "medians" in their FPRs.

Read the e-Bulletin: NASAA Issues New Commentary on Financial Performance Representations in Franchise Disclosure Documents


FRANCHISOR 101:
State Taxes on Franchise Fees

Franchisors collect weekly or monthly "franchise fees." In many cases, fees are for particular services, such as marketing assistance or IT support. In franchising, the parties may be in any number of different states: for example, a franchisor may be headquartered in California, provide IT support from Texas to a franchisee in Florida, and receive payments at an office in Washington. Which states may tax the franchisor on franchise fees, and in what proportion?

In Upper Moreland Township. v. 7-Eleven, the convenience store franchisor provided advertising services (store signage development) and information technology services to franchisees. Advertising services were provided from Texas. Information technology services were provided from Massachusetts. Franchisees in Pennsylvania and New England sent their payments to a 7-Eleven regional office in a Pennsylvania town where 7-Eleven also had one corporate store and one franchisee-owned store.

The town imposed "Business Privilege Taxes" (BPTs) at a rate of 3.5 mills on gross receipts of "[e]very person engaging in a business ... in the Township." 7-Eleven paid the tax on activities of its corporate store in the town, but not on fees collected at that office from franchisees. After an audit, the town assessed 7-Eleven over a million dollars for unpaid BPTs, interest, and penalties.

7-Eleven challenged the constitutionality of the assessment. A Pennsylvania court relied on a 1970s- era U.S. Supreme Court decision, Complete Auto Transit, Inc. v. Brady (1977), to determine if a local tax on interstate commerce is constitutionally permissible. To be "fairly apportioned," as Brady requires, the local tax must be "externally consistent." To be externally consistent, a tax must apply to "only that 'portion of the revenues from the interstate activity which reasonably reflects the instate component of the activity being taxed.'" A tax does not meet this standard if the amount of income taxed is "disproportionate to the business transacted by the taxpayer in that municipality."

Applying the Brady rule, the Pennsylvania court found the town's assessment was unconstitutional because it was not fairly apportioned to reflect the location of the various interstate activities that generated the 7-Eleven service charges. 7-Eleven just received payments in the town, but the rest of the activities occurred elsewhere. The court remanded the case to the town for a "constitutional recalculation of the assessment."

A franchisor may consider using constitutional limits on local tax powers to protest some municipal taxes. It may also be useful to identify as many components of its interstate commerce activity as it can in locales with lower tax rates.

Read: Upper Moreland Twp. v. 7 Eleven, Inc. 144 CD 2016, before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court


FRANCHISEE 101:
Contract Curveballs

In every Franchise Agreement, the franchisor and franchisee promise to fulfill obligations to the other. For some promises, whether or not they were performed can be a clear "yes" or "no." For example: either a franchisee paid the royalty to the franchisor on the specified date of the month, or it did not - there is usually no third option. However, other obligations - such as a franchisor's promise to provide the franchisee with "support" - may be vague. How much assistance and what kind of help a Franchisor must provide may not be clear. These are judgment calls that may ultimately be presented to a jury as questions to decide at trial.

In Anne Armstrong v. Curves International, Inc., franchisees owning 83 locations sued Curves International, the franchisor of 30-minute women's gyms, after suffering losses in their Curves businesses. The franchisees claimed their losses were due to Curves not giving them support promised in their franchise agreements. The agreements said Curves would "make available certain services," followed by a list of services that "may" be included, such as opening assistance, pre-opening training, periodic reviews of franchisee operations, periodic training, ongoing support, and advertising data and advice. The franchisees claimed they generally did not receive any of the promised assistance.

As evidence of their losses, the franchisees provided tax returns, and a statement by Curves' founder that Curves felt "a reasonable return on the franchise was probably $30,000 a year," though no level of profit was guaranteed by the agreements.

Curves moved to dismiss the claims, arguing that the agreements stated only that Curves "may" provide the listed services. Curves also argued that clauses allowing it to exercise "business judgment" gave it "unquestionable discretion" regarding support it provided, as long as its decisions were intended to or could benefit the entire Curves system. Curves presented evidence that it provided franchisees with local marketing materials, and informed franchisees of other advertising initiatives Curves was pursuing.

A jury found that Curves breached its contracts, and awarded the franchisees more than $1.5 million. This included individual plaintiff awards ranging from $0 to $143,928. Counsel for the franchisees stated that the franchisees were pleased with the award, which they calculated to have compensated them for approximately 80 percent of their losses. Curves stated that it strongly disagreed with the decision and plans to file post-trial motions and potentially appeal the verdict.

Had Curves been able to point to text in the agreements literally stating it had no obligation to provide certain services, or that it actually had "unquestionable discretion" to decide what support to provide to franchisees, the outcome may have been different. As it was, the jury had to decide if franchisees received the reasonable support they paid for.

Read: Armstrong v. Curves International, Inc. - 6:15-cv-00294-SDD, Order on Motion for Summary Judgment, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas

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 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday
Oct272015

Catch-all Disclaimers No Substitute for Untrained Salespeople; and "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right"

Franchise 101 News

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

October 2015

 

38th Annual Forum on Franchising

Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick, Tal Grinblat, Gabe Wintner and Sam Wolf all attended the American Bar Association's 38th Annual Forum on Franchising in New Orleans. The three day event provides an opportunity for attorneys from around the world to discuss industry-wide legal concerns. David Gurnick spoke on the potential legal risks and opportunities of using intellectual property created by others.

 

Franchise Lawyers*Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law, per the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization

FRANCHISOR 101:
Catch-all Disclaimers No Substitute for Untrained Salespeople

 

 

How strong are "non-reliance disclaimers" or "integration" or "merger" provisions in franchise agreements at protecting a franchisor when it really matters? Only so much, a New York court recently decided.

For protection, franchisors often include "non-reliance disclaimers" in franchise agreements. By signing, the franchisee states they did not rely on any promise or representation which, though not in the printed Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD), was communicated in some way by the franchisor's staff. "Rather," the franchisee says, "I understand that only what is actually printed in the FDD is true."

To cover the other side of the issue and try to prevent any possibility of being bound by such promises, franchisors include an "integration" or "merger" clause in the franchise agreement. By signing, the franchisee agrees that only the terms printed in the agreement and its attachments - and nothing communicated outside of those documents - will actually bind the parties.

Two franchisees claimed they were induced to join the Engel & Voelkers real estate brokerage franchise by fraudulent statements made orally by E & V's representatives. E & V tried to have the claims dismissed based on non-reliance, integration and merger clauses in the franchise agreements. But the court refused to dismiss the claims and held that the anti-fraud provision in the New York Franchise Sales Act (NYFSA) prevented dismissal of claims just because such clauses were in the agreements.

The franchisees also claimed damage by not receiving FDDs before their first meetings with E & V's representatives. E & V moved to dismiss these claims as well, arguing that the franchisees could not suffer damage from failure to receive the disclosure at that early point because, ultimately, they received FDDs and were fully informed before they signed franchise agreements. Again the court disagreed, reasoning that the very existence of the NYFSA requirement implies that some harm could come to a franchisee just by beginning to speak with company representatives before having an FDD in hand.

Franchisors cannot depend fully on non-reliance provisions, merger clauses, or a "better late than never" approach to disclosure. A preferable approach is to have salespeople and company representatives trained in the rules and apply disciplined sales procedures.

To read the full opinion, click: EV Scarsdale Corp. v. Engel & Voelkers North East LLC, N.Y. Sup. Ct., para. 15,561

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
"Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right"

At one time or another, many people have occasion to be renters who feel mistreated by a landlord. This may be due to delays in repairs, responses, or just turning on the heat. A typical reaction is the temptation to retaliate by withholding rent. However, someone who watches court TV (or knows someone who does) knows that no matter how much one is in the right, failing to send the rent check is a wrong approach and often makes things worse.

In Dunkin' Donuts Franchising LLC v. Claudia III, LLC, a Pennsylvania court proved this when owners of a Dunkin' Donuts franchise did not complete a required renovation of their franchise location, and then stopped paying fees altogether. Due to their defaults, the franchisor terminated the franchise. But the owners continued operating as a Dunkin' Donuts store, claiming the original default - failure to complete renovation on time - was at least partly the franchisor's fault, because the franchisee owners had submitted a remodel plan that Dunkin' Donuts took an unusually long time to approve.

Nevertheless, the court found for the franchisor, issuing an injunction against the franchisee, prohibiting the owners from ever operating a store that used or infringed upon Dunkin's trademarks. The court noted that even if the franchisee could win its claim that the franchisor was at fault, that would not prevent the franchisor from terminating the franchise. The court held that a franchisee's remedy for wrongful termination is a claim for money damages, not continued unauthorized use of the franchisor's trademarks. The court noted that the franchisee never disputed its default nor questioned Dunkin's ownership of the trademarks, and therefore decided there was no choice but to rule against the franchisee.

Franchisees may have valid claims against their franchisor. But, to continue operating the franchise, a franchisee must stay in compliance with the franchise agreement - even if the franchisor does not. Failure to maintain this contractual moral high ground will give a franchisor the right to terminate.

To read the full opinion, click here: Dunkin' Donuts Franchising LLC v. Claudia III, LLC, DC Pa., para. 15,584

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.

 

Thursday
Jul302015

Contractual Disclaimers & Distributor/Licensees as Franchisees

Franchise 101 News

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

July 2015

 

Top Attorneys in Southern California

Barry Kurtz was recently recognized as one of Southern California's Top Rated Lawyers by American Lawyer Media and Martindale-Hubbell. David Gurnick and Tal Grinblat were chosen among the nation's "2015 Top Rated Lawyers in Intellectual Property" by the same organizations. 

Franchise Lawyers*Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law, per the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization

Most Trusted Advisors

Barry Kurtz and Tal Grinblat have been nominated for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal's "Most Trusted Advisors" awards, which honor top professionals working in law, accounting, banking and insurance in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley. Area business leaders will select the finalists in these areas - award winners will be announced in August. 

Barry Kurtz & Bryan Clements published in Valley Lawyer

"Too often, expansion minded business owners choose to offer trademarked products or services through purported licensing agreements or distribution or dealership arrangements only to discover well into the game, that what they have actually done is sell franchises..." 

FRANCHISOR 101:
Contractual Disclaimers Save the Day

 

A federal court in Florida has ruled that a disclaimer of representations contained in the franchise agreement between a childcare business franchisor and its franchisees barred claims against the franchisor for alleged pre-sale misrepresentations.

The franchisees claimed they relied on oral and written misrepresentations about the required initial investment and other matters relating to their purchase of the franchise. They claimed the misrepresentations induced them to enter into their franchise agreements. The franchisor argued that the contractual disclaimer, stating in capital letters that the franchise agreement was the parties' entire agreement, that there were no oral or written understandings outside the franchise agreement, and that the franchisees were not relying on representations outside the franchise agreement, prevented the franchisees from any action or recovery on these claims.

Some evidence supported the franchisees' allegations. Still, the court ruled the agreement's disclaimer of representations limited the potential claims to misrepresentations contained in the franchise agreement itself and that any claim of reliance by the franchisees on alleged misrepresentations outside the agreement was unreasonable. The court's ruling was consistent with other court decisions on disclaimers of representations and reliance.

It is easy, after an agreement has been made, for someone to later claim there were additional promises outside the agreement. A disclaimer of representations provision in a franchise agreement or any agreement, is useful to thwart claims brought later, by franchisees or anyone. This type of disclaimer is included in most well drafted franchise documents. Many franchisors also require franchisees to answer and sign pre-sale questionnaires that confirm the franchise agreement is the entire agreement between the parties, that there are no oral or written understandings not included in the franchise agreement, and that the franchisee is not relying on any representations outside the franchise agreement.

Click to read the entire decision: Creative American Education v. The Learning Experience

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Hawaiian Distributor May Be a Franchisee

A long-standing distributor and licensee of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Hawaii was entitled to proceed on its claim that the business relationship with Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Inc. was a "franchise" under Hawaii's Franchise Investment Law (HFIL), according to the decision of a federal court in Hawaii.

Cycle City was a distributor and dealer of Harley-Davidson products in Hawaii under various agreements since 1966. Cycle City was also a party to a license agreement with Harley-Davidson that let Cycle City manufacture and sell certain Harley-Davidson trademarked products. When Harley-Davidson declined to renew the agreements, Cycle City sued for breach of the agreements and violations of the HFIL.

Cycle City claimed the license agreement was a "franchise", which is described in the HFIL as a business relationship under which (i) a license is granted to use a trade name, service mark, trademark, or logotype; (ii) the franchisee pays a "franchise fee" to the franchisor; and (iii) there exists a "community interest" between the franchisor and franchisee in the operation of the franchise business.

The HFIL defines a "franchise fee" as any fee or charge that a franchisee must pay or agrees to pay for the right to enter into or continue to operate a business under a franchise agreement and a "community interest" as a continuing ļ¬nancial interest between the franchisor and franchisee in the operation of the franchise business. Cycle City claimed the grant of the license to use the Harley-Davidson trademarks, a required annual minimum payment of $30,000 to Harley Davidson on the sale of licensed products, Cycle City's substantial investment in the licensing venture and Harley-Davidson extensive controls over Cycle City's sale of licensed products all combined to satisfy the three elements of a "franchise".

The court agreed with Cycle City and noted there is "no precise line between when a company is simply a distributor or a manufacturer's trademarked goods and when the company is a franchise. The mere licensing of a trademarked good, without more, does not give rise to a franchise relationship. How much more is required is a matter of degree and, in many cases such as this one, a question for the finder of fact."

Read the entire decision: Cycle City, Ltd. v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., 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 2015. All Rights Reserved.

 

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