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Wednesday
May302018

Franchise 101: Pain at the Pump; and Pizza Franchisor Gets Burned

Franchise 101 News

Best Lawyers 2018 BadgeSouthern California Tier 3 Best Lawyers in Franchise Law 2018 bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
msoroky@lewitthackman.com
kwallman@lewitthackman.com
tvernon@lewitthackman.com



 

 

May 2018

  

International Franchise Association’s Legal Symposium

Barry Kurtz, Tal Grinblat and David Gurnick attended the 51st Annual IFA Legal Symposium this month. The symposium addresses current laws, regulations and business challenges impacting franchise systems throughout the world.

We are Growing!

Taylor M. Vernon joined our Franchise & Distribution Practice Group as an Associate. Taylor earned his JD at the UCLA School of Law in 2011 and a B.A. in History from the University of Texas at Austin. Taylor's practice focuses primarily on franchise, distribution, licensing and corporate transactions. With seven attorneys, we now have one of the largest franchise & distribution practice groups in the western United States.

FRANCHISOR 101:
Pain at the Pump

Pumped Up Franchisor

In Curry v. Equilon Enterprises LLC, a California court ruled, and the Court of Appeal affirmed, that a class-action wage and hour lawsuit against Shell Oil could not go forward because the service station manager bringing the suit was not an employee of Shell. The manager was employed by the company that contracted with Shell to operate the station.

Franchise Distribution Attorneys

Shell granted leases and operating agreements giving operators a rental interest in service station convenience stores and carwashes. Operators kept all profits from the convenience stores and carwashes. Shell paid the operators to run the station fuel facilities.

ARS had a contract with Shell to operate multiple stations. The plaintiff managed two locations. She was hired by an ARS employee, trained by ARS employees, reported to ARS employees, and supervised ARS employees. ARS designated the plaintiff as an exempt employee and set her salary.

The plaintiff brought a class-action suit against ARS and Shell, claiming she and other managers were misclassified as exempt employees, were denied overtime pay and were denied meal and rest breaks. The plaintiff also claimed that ARS and Shell were joint employers.

Definition of Employer

The appellate court noted three alternative definitions of what it means to employ someone:

  • To exercise control over wages, hours or working conditions;

  • To suffer or permit to work;

  • To engage.

The court said the first definition did not apply because Shell did not control the plaintiff's wages, hours or working conditions. ARS was responsible for training the plaintiff. ARS alone determined that she would be exempt from overtime requirements, where and when she would work, and her compensation and health benefits. And ARS controlled what the plaintiff did on a daily basis. The second definition did not apply because Shell had no authority to hire or fire the plaintiff.

As to the third definition, the court said "to engage" referred to the multifactor test used to determine if a worker is an employee or independent contractor. Under this test as well, the plaintiff was not employed by Shell. She was engaged in a distinct occupation. She was not supervised by Shell. Shell did not require a particular skill set for individuals hired by ARS. And Shell did not control her length of employment or compensation.

Read: Curry v. Equilon Enterprises LLC

Soon after this case was decided, the California Supreme Court, in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, announced a new three-part test for determining if an individual is an employee or independent contractor for claims under California's Wage Orders. To show that a worker is an independent contractor, a business must establish each of three factors: (A) the worker is free from control and direction of the hiring entity in performing the work, under the contract for the work and in fact; (B) the work is outside the usual course of the hiring entity's business; and (C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business. Failure to establish any one of these factors means a worker will be classified as an employee.

The Supreme Court's decision will impact how many industries do business, and many businesses will need to re-examine their use of independent contractors, and their current agreements, to determine if re-classification is needed.

FRANCHISEE 101:
Pizza Franchisor Gets Burnt

Pizza Oven

A recent case from Indiana demonstrates consequences to a franchisor that deviates from the contractually agreed audit method. In Noble Roman's Inc. v. Hattenhauer Distributing Co., an Indiana federal court granted a pizza franchisee (Hattenhauer) summary judgment on its franchisor's underreporting claim.

In 2014, Noble Roman's audited non-traditional franchisees who paid royalties based on reported sales. These audits included two of Hattenhauer's locations. The audits relied on a review of Hattenhauer's purchases from its distributor and estimates of Hattenhauer's rate of waste, product mix, and pricing to estimate gross sales. Noble Roman's did not review Hattenhauer's books and records or verify the information in the distributor reports.

Based on the audits, Noble Roman's concluded that Hattenhauer's locations underpaid royalties. Without giving prior notice, Noble Roman's tried to electronically withdraw funds from Hattenhauer's bank account to cover the unpaid royalties. Hattenhauer's bank rejected the attempted transfers. Noble Roman's then made more attempts to withdraw the money, without providing Hattenhauer notice.

Noble Roman's sued Hattenhauer, claiming it breached the Franchise Agreements by underreporting sales and failing to pay proper royalties. Noble Roman's argued its audits were authorized under the Franchise Agreements. Hattenhauer counterclaimed, alleging that Noble Roman's breached the Franchise Agreements by improper calculation of gross sales and unauthorized attempts to withdraw money. Hattenhauer argued that, pursuant to the Franchise Agreements, it was required to pay royalties on actual gross sales, not on sales that Noble Roman's believed it should have achieved.

The court rejected Noble Roman's argument, noting that royalties Noble Roman's sought to collect were not properly calculated and therefore were not owed-and that nothing in the Franchise Agreements gave Noble Roman's the right to collect unpaid royalties calculated based on an audit, by means of electronic withdrawals without Hattenhauer's consent.

Franchisors should pay particular attention to the contractual rights they can enforce against franchisees and not exceed those rights in the process of collection efforts.

Read: Noble Roman's Inc. v. Hattenhauer Distributing Co.

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 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Friday
Feb022018

Franchise 101: Copycat Restaurant Shutdown; and Out of Time, Out of Gas

Franchise 101 News

Best Law Firms Southern California Badge 2018bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
swolf@lewitthackman.com
msoroky@lewitthackman.com
kwallman@lewitthackman.com



JANUARY 2018

 

Franchise Distribution Attorneys

2018 Southern California Super Lawyers

Congratulations to Barry Kurtz, Tal Grinblat and David Gurnick, all State Bar of California Certified Specialists in Franchise & Distribution law, and all named 2018 Franchise/Dealership Super Lawyers for Southern California. To be selected, Barry, Tal and David were first nominated by attorneys at other law firms, and then underwent a 12-point selection process based on peer recognition and professional achievement: Super Lawyers 2018

Barry Kurtz inSFV Business Journal

Barry Kurtz was quoted in an article regarding the expansion of franchises in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. His insights on the post-recession appeal of buying into franchise systems is available here: Franchise Companies Find Retail Room to Grow

David Gurnick in Valley Lawyer

"Under the principal formulation of unconscionability, two elements must be present: procedural and substantive unconscionability. But they need not be present in the same degree. . . ." Read David Gurnick's full article: Unconscionability in California: Contract Power Tool for the Powerless and Powerful

FRANCHISOR 101:
Copycat Restaurant Shutdown

A registered trademark is a valuable corporate asset and can be a significant part of a company's worth. A franchisor has an affirmative legal duty to police use of its mark by licensed franchisees and also third-party infringers. For instance, a federal court in Louisville permanently enjoined a competitor from using "La Bamba" in its name, holding that use by La Bamba Authentic Mexican Cuisine (LBAMC) was likely to cause confusion with the La Bamba Mexican restaurant chain operated by franchisor and restaurant owner La Bamba Licensing (LBL).

Both parties served casual, Mexican food. The court found the marks were similar enough that consumers could mistakenly think the restaurants were related.

LBL owns the registration of La Bamba for restaurant services, and operates eight La Bamba Mexican restaurants in Kentucky and the Midwest. LBAMC opened a casual, Mexican restaurant named "La Bamba" 65 miles from Louisville. LBL sued after LBAMC refused to comply with LBL's demands to cease and desist and change the name of its restaurant.

LBL argued and the court agreed that the La Bamba mark is distinctive, despite some ordinary language usage, because the phrase "La Bamba," a famous Mexican folk song, is unrelated to LBL's restaurant services. LBL provided evidence that its mark acquired distinctiveness for Mexican cuisine, based on its continuous use of the mark for nearly 30 years, particularly in Kentucky. LBAMC argued that the mark was weak due to un-policed third-party use. But LBAMC failed to point to evidence of similar marks, let alone the number, location, or types of goods and services offered by allegedly numerous undisclosed third-party users.

The court found a likelihood of confusion and permanently enjoined LBAMC from using the La Bamba name. In balancing hardship of an injunction, the court noted that LBAMC operated only a single restaurant, only since 2015, while LBL operated several restaurants in multiple states for an extended time period.

A franchisor that tolerates infringers will find its trademark asset has "eroded" and "shrunken" because the strength of its mark as a distinctive symbol is diminished by the presence of similar marks. Vigilance in policing marks helps build a stronger, reputable brand, avoid loss of trademark rights, and minimize the risk of an infringer operating with impunity.

La Bamba Licensing, LLC v. La Bamba Authentic Mexican Cuisine, Inc.

FRANCHISEE 101:
Out of Time, Out of Gas

A California federal judge held that breach of contract claims brought by franchisees of two ARCO-branded gas stations against their franchisor BP West Coast Products were untimely, and declined to adopt the franchisees' argument that equitable estoppel tolled the statute of limitations.

The franchisees operated two gas stations since 1998, one in San Ramon, California and one in Dublin, California. In 2007 a BP sales representative allegedly approached plaintiffs offering to brand the stations as ARCO gas stations. Prior to signing contracts to convert both sites to the ARCO brand and add mini Markets, a BP representative allegedly projected to plaintiffs $40,000 per month of profits for the San Ramon station.

After heavy losses, the franchisees closed the stations and sued. The franchisees claimed that BP breached the franchise agreements by refusing to allow them fuel pricing allowances and ability to use additional vendors for the on-premises mini-markets. Since the franchisees sued more than four years after closure of the stations their action was barred unless equitable estoppel could save the claims.

The franchisees argued equitable estoppel saved their claims based on a purported oral "Walkaway Agreement" in which BP representatives represented that they would not pursue any claims based on the franchise agreements.

The judge found the franchisees could not reasonably rely on the alleged Walkaway Agreement because the franchise agreements had bold disclaimers on their signature pages saying no BP representative could orally modify or amend the agreements. The fact that plaintiffs received BP's demand for $1.2 million for gasoline, unpaid loans and other payments under the franchise agreements approximately one month after the alleged Walkaway Agreement further suggested that plaintiffs' reliance was not reasonable. The judge noted it would have been unreasonable for the franchisees, sophisticated business people, to expect BP to relinquish its claim to those payments.

Equitable estoppel may defeat a statute of limitations defense when the defendant's promises, threats or representations induce a plaintiff to delay filing a lawsuit. But it is not always successful in overcoming the statute of limitations. This case is a harsh reminder that equitable estoppel may not save a time-barred claim even if based on settlement negotiations between the parties.

Power Quality & Electrical Systems, Inc. v. BP West Coast Products LLC

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 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday
Aug292017

Franchise 101: Selective Enforcement; and Squeezed at the Pump

Franchise 101 News

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


 

AUGUST 2017

 

Franchise Distribution Attorneys

David Gurnick in Corporate Counsel

When Uber acquired Otto, the self-driving automobile tech company fronted by former Waymo executives, Google filed a lawsuit alleging misappropriation of trade secrets, among other claims. Corporate Counsel magazine interviewed David Gurnick for his take.

Read more: Was Uber’s Deal With Otto Out of the Ordinary?

Welcome Katherine L. Wallman!

We are very pleased to announce the arrival of our newest associate, Kate Wallman. Ms. Wallman earned her law degree from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, where she graduated cum laude. She's worked as a franchise attorney for various firms in Washington D.C. and most recently served as in-house senior counsel at DineEquity, parent company of Applebees and IHOP.

Learn more about: Katherine L. Wallman

FRANCHISOR 101:
Selective Enforcement of Franchise Agreement Provisions

 

A franchisor's ability to set renewal terms can bind franchisees to terms in a later franchise agreement before the renewal agreement even exists. In a recent case, a franchisor could enforce a hypothetical non-compete restriction in a renewal agreement, even though it waived the restriction in the currently-effective franchise agreement.

James Robinson, a veterinary hospital franchisee, also ran other veterinary clinics not affiliated with the franchise. The franchise agreement's non-compete provision would have prohibited operating the independent locations. But the franchisor chose not to enforce it. On expiration of the franchise agreement, the franchisor notified the franchisee of its intent to enforce the covenant in the renewal agreement.

The franchisee refused to divest the independent locations. No renewal agreement was signed. The franchisee sued for breach of the franchise agreement, covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and interference with economic relations - all based on the absence of any renewal.

A federal district court dismissed the complaint, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The courts said plain language of the franchise agreement's renewal provision allowed the franchisor to condition renewal on compliance with a different non-compete provision than the current agreement.

One may ask - how could a franchisee be bound by a future non-compete provision, in a future agreement, when the covenant in the present contract was not enforced? The courts were satisfied that the existing agreement's renewal provision explicitly said the renewal agreement would be "substantially similar to the then-current form of the franchise agreement." The Ninth Circuit ruled, based on this clause, that the renewal agreement would have a similar non-compete provision.

The courts ruled that the franchisor's waiver of the non-compete provision in the franchise agreement did not extend to the renewal agreement, nor was there a promise to never enforce a non-compete provision in the future. Dismissal of the interference claim was upheld because conduct between business competitors is proper if it is to further the defendant's own business interests. The franchisee alleged only that the franchisor's act of not renewing him was "done to make a profit," which was not wrongful.

See: Robinson v. Charter Practices International

FRANCHISEE 101:
Squeezed at the Pump

Most dealership and franchise agreements require the franchisor's prior written consent to the transfer of a business from one franchisee to another. The new franchisee is often required to sign the franchisor's then-current agreement as a condition to getting the franchisor's consent to the transfer.

Can a franchisor unreasonably withhold consent, or can an incoming franchisee or dealer be coerced to sign up with a franchisor? A California appellate court has said no and upheld a lower court's ruling that a petroleum products distributor and franchisor of "76" brand gas stations unreasonably tried to coerce a purchaser to sign a new franchise agreement. The franchisor was found to have breached the seller's franchise agreement, which excused further performance by the seller and purchaser.

The seller asked several times for the franchisor's consent and for the original branded reseller agreement. But the franchisor never obliged or responded to the purchaser's transfer application, short of telling the seller they were "working on it."

After nearly a month with no response, escrow closed without an assignment of the original reseller agreement. The seller continued to buy gasoline for the purchaser, who paid the seller for the gasoline shipments until the franchisor stopped delivering gasoline.

The franchisor then told the parties it was considering other potential purchasers and never took the purchaser's application seriously. The franchisor refused to make further gasoline deliveries to the station unless the purchaser signed a 64-page franchise agreement on the spot. The franchisor refused the purchaser's request for time to review the agreement, and rejected its offer to pay in advance for gasoline deliveries made before finalizing the agreement. The franchisor threatened to sue the purchaser and put it out of business unless it signed "then and there."

The trial court came down hard on the franchisor, finding the franchisor was unreasonable in failing to respond to the seller's request to assign the original agreement and in its actions and threat toward the purchaser. The appellate court agreed, affirming that the franchisor breached the original reseller agreement because it gave no notice to the seller or purchaser before placing a hold on the purchaser's gasoline orders. The purchaser also received an attorneys' fees award based on the agreement, even though it never entered into any contract with the franchisor.

While franchisors often reserve the right to impose conditions on assignment of a franchise, a franchisor cannot unreasonably withhold consent to impede a transfer.

See: Westco Petroleum Distributors v. Huntington Beach Industrial

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.

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