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Thursday
Mar292018

Franchise 101: Liability as Certain as Death & Taxes; and To First Refuse, or Not to Refuse

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



 

March 2018

 

 

Franchise Distribution Attorneys

FRANCHISOR 101:
Liability as Certain as Death & Taxes

Structuring a franchise to reduce risk of joint employment and vicarious liability means limiting a franchisor's control over franchisees. This is a challenge in a professional services franchise, where the brand is intertwined with the franchisee's personnel and the end product.

A California federal court held that a franchisee's former customer sufficiently alleged claims that tax preparation franchisor Jackson Hewitt exercised sufficient control over processing of tax returns to be vicariously liable for fraudulent conduct of a franchisee's rogue employee. The franchisor must also face claims of making fraudulent statements about accuracy of its tax preparation services.

The customer claimed the franchisee manipulated his tax returns to get a larger refund, and kept part of the refund as fees, without the customer's knowledge. In a prior ruling, the Court found the franchisor's controls were typical of a franchise relationship, and that control over certain aspects of a franchisee's operations was insufficient to create vicarious liability. This time, the customer alleged that Jackson Hewitt controlled the instrumentality of the harm by hiring and training tax preparers, and reviewing, approving and submitting tax returns to the IRS through the franchisor's proprietary and mandatory computer system. The Court was persuaded by allegations that the franchisor's "Code of Conduct" referred to the reader as an "employee" of Jackson Hewitt (not of the specific franchisee), mandated background checks and training programs to prevent preparation of fraudulent returns, and set parameters for termination of franchisee employees for failure to comply with system requirements.

Jackson Hewitt was also alleged to have made fraudulent ads touting 100% accurate returns, comparison to mom and pop tax preparers, and the "Preparer's Pledge" to handle a customer's tax return like their own. The Court said the purpose of the ads was to engender trust in potential customers, so they would hire Jackson Hewitt and its franchisees to prepare their taxes.

A professional services franchisor should be cautious in preparing training materials and manuals to delineate no more supervision than needed over franchisee personnel, to protect the franchisor's brand and intellectual property while trying to reduce the risk of vicarious liability for acts of a franchisee's employees.

Read: Lomeli v. Jackson Hewitt, Inc.

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
To First Refuse, or Not to Refuse

A franchisee looking to transfer assets of a franchised business may be subject to the franchisor's right of first refusal, the franchisor's option to purchase the business, or both, depending on the language of a franchise or dealer agreement.

In a federal court in Pennsylvania, a franchisee of seven car dealerships prevailed against Audi of America, the franchisor of one of the dealerships. Audi claimed the franchisee breached Audi's dealership agreement and violated state dealer law when, subject to the franchisor's right of first refusal, the franchisee did not provide pricing and other terms to transfer an Audi dealership.

The dealership agreement and Pennsylvania dealer law granted Audi a right of first refusal if the franchisee attempted to sell its majority ownership interest in the Audi dealership. The franchisee found a buyer and entered into an asset purchase agreement which packaged all seven dealerships as an "auto multiplex" for $17 million. The agreement did not separately price the Audi dealership. Believing the franchisee was acting in bad faith in valuing the Audi dealership at $8 million, Audi sued to block the transaction. A court granted a preliminary injunction.

After Audi filed the lawsuit, the franchisee and buyer signed two addenda to the purchase agreement, seeking to remove the Audi dealership from the sale. The franchisee contended that Audi's right of first refusal ended because it was no longer selling the Audi dealership. The trial court sided with the franchisee, finding there was no breach of the dealership agreement because the second addendum removed the Audi dealership, and the terms of the dealership agreement permitted the franchisee to withdraw the proposed sale after Audi elected its purchase right.

The Court also rejected Audi's claim that the first refusal right ripened into an irrevocable option to buy the dealership. It was only a general right of first refusal, which Audi failed to exercise before the franchisee withdrew the Audi dealership.

While Audi claimed it was unable to exercise its right due lack of a good faith price breakdown, the dealer was free to withdraw the asset from the sale. Accordingly, the franchisor received the full benefit of its right of first refusal, and was not entitled to further rights after failing to accept the right of first refusal prior to the withdrawal.

Read: Audi of America, Inc. v. Bronsberg & Hughes Pontiac, 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 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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
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.

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