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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.

Monday
Feb232015

DBO Automatic Effectiveness Date Extension; and Quasi-Franchise Business Models

Franchise 101

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

February 2015

 

Franchise Times Legal Eagles 2015

Tal Grinblat, Certified Specialist in Franchise and Distribution Law and Chair of the Franchise Law Committee of the Business Law Section of the State Bar of California, has once again been selected as one of the best attorneys in franchising by the Franchise Times. The full list of honorees will be published in the magazine's April edition.

IFA 2015

Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick and Tal Grinblat attended the International Franchise Association's annual convention, held in Las Vegas. The event provided an opportunity to participate in roundtable discussions and learn about the latest business and operational challenges franchisors and franchisees face in today's ever-evolving market.

E-Filing Gaining Momentum

As of January 1, 2015, the Department of Business Oversight (DBO) is authorized to accept multiple types of electronic filings under several laws it administers. The Commissioner may now prescribe circumstances under which the DBO accepts electronic records or electronic signatures. This progression suggests that California may be inching closer toward a universal electronic filing system.

 

FRANCHISOR 101: California Increases Time for Automatic Effectiveness from 15 to 30 Business Days


Automatic Franchise Effectiveness Date 

A new California law has given the California Department of Business Oversight, the State's regulator of franchises, more time to review franchise registration and renewal applications, with the result that franchisors, their accountants and their attorneys must work harder and faster to update their franchise disclosure documents, prepare their year-end audited financial statements and submit their applications to renew and maintain their franchise registrations.

The law amends the automatic effectiveness statutes in the Corporations Code (Sections 31116 and 31121) to increase, from 15 to 30 business days, the length of time that the Commissioner of Business Oversight has to review franchise applications and franchise renewals under the Franchise Investment Law. The revised statute provides that registration of an offer of franchises automatically becomes effective at 12 o'clock noon, California time, on the 30th business day after the filing of a complete application for registration.

A complete application is defined as one that includes the appropriate filing fee, Uniform Franchise Disclosure Document, and all additional exhibits, including audited financial statements for the franchisor's prior fiscal year, in conformity with regulations of the Commissioner.

Because most franchisors operate under a January to December fiscal year, franchisors and their accountants should keep the timing requirements of the new law in mind since they will have to file their complete applications early in March to take advantage of the automatic effectiveness statute.

 

FRANCHISEE 101: Is It a Franchise?


Accidental and Quasi-Franchises

Franchise 101 Lawyers*Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law, per the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization

For decades, non-franchise businesses have tried using a quasi-franchise business model (i.e., any business format license) to distinguish themselves from franchisors to avoid onerous franchise investment laws. A recent federal decision from California serves as an important reminder that it doesn't pay to skirt franchise registration requirements when a business arrangement meets the threshold requirements of a franchise.

In Chicago Male Medical Clinic v. Ultimate Management, Inc., a federal district court in Los Angeles ruled that a consulting agreement between a Chicago medical clinic and a management company amounted to the sale of a franchise under Illinois law.

The parties stipulated to the following facts: the clinic and the franchisor entered into a consulting agreement, giving the franchisee: 

  1. the right to use the National Male Medical Clinic trademark;

  2. a suggested marketing plan;

  3. access to the franchisor's expertise and knowledge in advertising and marketing certain medical services; and

  4. call center services.

Pursuant to the agreement, the franchisee paid an initial fee of $300,000, over $56,000 in royalties, and call center fees of over $45,000. The franchisee filed suit, alleging fraud for failure to follow disclosure requirements under the Illinois Franchise Disclosure Act ("IFDA").

Finding that the management company violated the IFDA by failing to register with the Illinois Attorney General's Office and failing to deliver a disclosure document, the court entered judgment in favor of the medical clinic, awarding the return of the initial $300,000 investment, and over $56,000 in royalties paid, plus costs and attorney fees.

Franchise laws are written in broad terms and are designed to protect franchisees. So licensors in business arrangements that fit the criteria of a franchise can wind up paying heavily on the back end if they dodge the franchise registration process.

Click: Chicago Male Medical Clinic, LLC v. Ultimate Management, Inc. et al., DC Cal. for further information.
 
 

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.

Tuesday
Apr222014

False Financial Representation Slams Franchisor

Franchise 101

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com

April 2014

 

Craft Brewers Conference 2014

 

Barry Kurtz and Bryan H. Clements were invited to speak at the annual Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America, the largest brewer's trade show in the country. The three day event was held in Denver. Lewitt Hackman represents craft brewers in distribution and related transactions. Barry and Bryan's presentation focused on the federal three-tier system of beer distribution law, and its similarities and contrasts with franchise and distribution law.

 

*Certified Specialist in Franchise & Distribution Law as designated by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization

David Gurnick in Valley Lawyer Re Non-Compete Clauses

 

Generally, California Courts will not enforce a restrictive covenant. But there are several circumstances in which such covenants can be enforced. Read, Enforcement of Non-Compete Clauses in California by David Gurnick for details.

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
False Financial Representation Slams Franchisor

 

In Rogers Hospitality, LLC v. Choice Hotels International, Inc., a panel of arbitrators found that the franchisor of Choice Hotels violated Minnesota franchise laws by making false financial performance representations to its franchisee.

Hotel FranchiseThe franchisee proved that in a 2008 investor conference, the franchisor's Director endorsed financial projections for a potential Sleep-Inn and Suites Hotel in Minnesota. The projections were adopted into a pro-forma that identified average daily rates the hotel could expect.

At the conference, Choice Hotels' Director claimed the pro forma numbers were "attainable, conservative, and/or spot-on." The statements were made outside Item 19 of the Franchise Disclosure Document. Therefore they were unlawful.

The arbitration panel also found the information was false because only 2.3% of Choice's Sleep-Inn and Suite hotels achieved such performance, and Choice's Director failed to disclose this low percentage. The arbitrators concluded that some of the franchisee's representatives at the conference relied on the statements in electing to purchase the franchise. Accordingly, the panel ruled against Choice Hotels and in favor of the franchisee.

For franchisors, the Choice Hotels case is a reminder of the importance not to give financial performance information to franchisees or endorse pro formas prepared by franchisees, if not included in the Franchise Disclosure Document, Item 19.

This case should also remind franchisees to tread carefully when given earnings information outside Item 19. The information may be inaccurate, false or misleading.

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Terminated Franchisee Can Pursue Fraudulent Disclosure Claims

 

In Solanki v. 7-Eleven, Inc., a U. S. District Court in New York ruled that a terminated 7-Eleven franchisee who decided to purchase a third location before receiving the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD) could proceed with claims that 7-Eleven made false presale revenue and earnings claims in violation of the New York Franchise Sales Act.

The franchisee owned two 7-Elevens and contacted the franchisor to buy a third. At that time, he received the New York version of the 7-Eleven FDD, which contained unaudited financial statements showing averages of actual sales, earnings, and other financial performance of franchised 7-Eleven stores.

7-11 Franchise LitigationIn a deposition, the franchisee testified he decided to buy the third store before receiving the FDD. Later, he explained that he committed to the purchase only after seeing the FDD.

Prior to signing the franchise agreement, he provided a business plan to 7-Eleven for approval. When he was approved, he was told the projections in his business plan were consistent and in line with 7-Eleven's estimates.

However, 7-Eleven never provided its revenue projections for the store he purchased. In the first year of operation, the store never achieved the sales projected in the business plan. Later he was unable to make payroll. At the franchisee's request, 7-Eleven terminated the Agreement.

The franchisee brought an action claiming 7-Eleven's representation that the revenue projections in his business plan "were consistent with and in line with 7-Eleven's estimates" violated New York's Franchise Sales Act because:

 

  • 7-Eleven's revenue estimates and their basis were not in the FDD, as required by the Franchise Sales Act, and

  • 7-Eleven's earnings estimates were false, misleading and lacked any reasonable basis.

 

Though the franchisee testified he decided to purchase a third franchise before receiving the FDD, the court rejected 7-Eleven's defense. The court explained that making up one's mind to buy a particular store and committing to go through with the purchase based on information received from 7-Eleven were two different actions. The court also held that any disclaimers reviewed, acknowledged, or agreed to by the franchisee in the franchise agreement could not bar his claims.

For franchisees the 7-Eleven case shows that claims for damages and fraud against franchisors can be won, even though it is not clear how much a franchisee relied on an FDD when deciding to purchase the franchise and even though a franchise agreement contains customary disclaimers.

For more information regarding this case, click Jimmy Solanki v. 7-Eleven, 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 2014. All Rights Reserved.
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