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Wednesday
May252016

States Protect Against Joint Employer Liability; and Combatting Franchisor's Harmful New Policies

Franchise 101 News

bkurtz@lewitthackman.com
dgurnick@lewitthackman.com
tgrinblat@lewitthackman.com
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May 2016

 

Franchise Lawyers

Barry Kurtz in The Business Journals

 

"...Is the business sustainable in the marketplace? To be sustainable, the business concept should be unique enough to withstand competition, and also...”

Click to read: Guidelines When Considering Buying a Franchise

IFA Legal Symposium

 

Barry Kurtz, David Gurnick and Tal Grinblat attended the International Franchise Association's 49th Annual Legal Symposium in Washington D.C. The conference provides an opportunity to gain insights into many of the legal challenges faced by franchisors around the world. This year's symposium featured Philip Miscimarra of the National Labor Relations Board, who spoke on the NLRB's recent decisions regarding joint employer liability.

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
State Bills re Franchisor Joint Employer Liability

With franchisors deeply concerned about joint liability for franchisee employees, more states are passing laws trying to prevent that from happening. Here are some states and measures that have passed:

Texas enacted Senate Bill 652, providing that: "[A] franchisor is not considered to be an employer of: (1) a franchisee; or (2) a franchisee's employees." 

Michigan passed House Bills 5070 - 5073, stating: "[A]s between a franchisee and franchisor, the franchisee is considered the sole employer of workers for whom the franchisee provides a benefit plan or pays wages." 

Utah passed House Bill 116, stating, "[A] franchisor is not considered to be an employer of: (i) a franchisee; or (ii) a franchisee's employee."  

Wisconsin enacted Act 203 stating: "[A] franchisor ... is not considered to be an employer of a franchisee ... or of an employee of a franchisee."

Indiana approved House Bill 1218, which provides: "a franchisor ... is not considered to be an employer or co-employer of: (1) a franchisee ... or (2) an employee of a franchisee." 

Georgia enacted Senate Bill 277, providing: "[N]either a franchisee nor a franchisee's employee shall be deemed to be an employee of the franchisor for any purpose."

The Virginia legislature attempted to pass House Bill 18, stating that "[N]either a franchisee nor a franchisee's employee shall be deemed to be an employee of the franchisee's franchisor." But, the governor vetoed the bill.

These state laws will not protect franchisors from all claims. For example, various claims based on federal law may not be affected. But passage shows which states are friendlier to franchises and want to retain and grow their franchise industries.

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
What to Do About Franchisor’s Harmful New Policies

Franchisees aren't always excited when their franchisor introduces a new policy. But if a new policy overreaches and might doom a franchisee's business, can it be stopped before it starts?

Automotive Technologies, Inc. ("ATI") is the franchisor of "Wireless Zone" stores. These stores sell Verizon Wireless cell phone products and services. The franchisor, ATI, received sales commissions from Verizon that it passed on to franchisees who made the sales. ATI also paid performance incentive payments ("PIPs") to franchisees when they sold certain phones. When ATI announced it would stop paying the PIPs or start taking a 5% royalty from commissions before passing them on, a group of franchisees sued. They claimed the new policy was a breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and unfair practice, and asked the court for a preliminary injunction to stop the new policy.

The court ruled that to immediately stop ATI from applying its plan, the franchisees had to show they would be irreparably harmed - that is, they would lose "substantially all of their businesses." Based on financial information from the franchisees, the court found they could suffer no more than a 2% loss of revenue from ATI's new policy, and were not at risk of losing their businesses. The court denied the preliminary injunction.

Franchisors and franchisees may disagree on what is best for a franchise system, and the wisdom of a particular course may be known only in time. The case shows that franchisees must meet a high bar before a court will cut off a proposed new policy implemented by the franchisor in good faith.

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
Aug152014

NLRB McDonald's Ruling May Put Crimp on Franchising

Franchise 101

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

AUGUST 2014

 

Los Angeles Franchise Panel Discussion

Barry Kurtz will participate in a panel discussion and Q&A for potential franchisors, franchisees, business attorneys and accountants in Southern California, regarding the A-Zs of franchising a business, buying a franchise, accessing capital, and other topics. The breakfast event will be hosted by The Los Angeles Business Journal on October 3rd in Los Angeles. Click to email Chris Podbielski for further details about the event.

 

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

California Supreme Court Cites Law Review Article by David Gurnick

In Patterson v. Domino's Pizza LLC (see Franchisor 101 for details below), the Supreme Court cited an article co-authored by David Gurnick, entitled: Minimizing Vicarious Liability of Franchisors for Acts of Their Franchisees. Mr. Gurnick's 1987 article was published in the ABA Franchise Law Journal.

 

Tal Grinblat Appointed as Co-Chair, Franchise Law Committee

The Business Law Section of the State Bar of California appointed Tal Grinblat as Co-Chair of the Franchise Law Committee for the 2014-2015 term. Mr. Grinblat's term began at the end of the State Bar's annual meeting in San Diego on September 14th. The Franchise Law Committee (with franchisee and franchisor constituencies) works with the Department of Business Oversight and the State Bar in sponsoring legislation involving franchising in California.

 

Barry Kurtz and David Gurnick published in Los Angeles Business Journal

What should franchisors look for in potential franchisees? How should investors choose a franchise system? Read: What to Look for in a Franchisee or Franchisor for insights. 

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
California Supreme Court Overturns 2012 Domino's Decision

 

On August 28, 2014, the California Supreme Court reversed a 2012 Court of Appeal decision in Patterson v. Domino's Pizza, LLC. The lower court held that franchise operating systems, like Domino's, deprive franchisees of the ability to control the manner and means of their business operations, thus making the franchisee's employees the franchisor's employees for vicarious liability purposes.

Ms. Patterson, an employee of a Domino's Pizza franchisee, alleged she was sexually assaulted by the store manager. Patterson sued the franchisee, as well as the franchisor, Domino's Pizza, claiming Domino's was vicariously liable for the assault. Domino's argued that it was not Ms. Patterson's employer because the franchise agreement stated that the franchisee was an independent contractor and that Domino's was not involved in the "training, supervision or hiring of [the franchisee's] employees."

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding the case could proceed to trial since reasonable inferences could be drawn from the franchise agreement and Domino's' management guidelines that the franchisee lacked managerial independence and that evidence existed that a Domino's area representative had interfered with the franchisee's employment decisions by suggesting the franchisee should fire the store manager.

Recognizing that system-wide controls in the traditional franchising context, which are designed to protect a franchisor's trademarks, trade name and goodwill, do not necessarily deprive franchisees of day-to-day operational control of their businesses or employment practices, the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal's decision. It held:

The "means and manner" test generally used by the Courts of Appeal cannot stand for the proposition that a comprehensive operating system alone constitutes the "control" needed to support vicarious liability claims like those raised here.

The court instituted a new test for determining whether a franchisee's employees may be deemed employees of the franchisor, holding:

A franchisor becomes potentially liable for actions of the franchisee's employees only if it has retained or assumed a general right of control over factors such as hiring, direction, supervision, discipline, discharge, and relevant day-to-day aspects of the workplace behavior of the franchisee's employees.

The Supreme Court found Domino's had not retained or assumed a general right of control over the hiring, direction, supervision, discipline, discharge, and relevant day-to-day aspects of the workplace behavior of the franchisee's employees since Domino's had no right or duty to control employment or personnel matters (including sexual harassment training), and did not do so.
To read the entire case, click: Taylor Patterson v. Domino's Pizza, LLC.

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Forum Selection Clauses May Be Enforceable

A recent decision in Allegra Holdings, LLC v. Davis demonstrates that courts are enforcing forum selection clauses in favor of out-of-state franchisors and against in-state franchisees, notwithstanding franchise anti-waiver protections.

In 2003, Allegra Holdings, LLC, a Michigan LLC, as franchisor, entered into a franchise agreement with Fox Tracks, Inc., a Minnesota corporation, as franchisee, for an Allegra Print and Imaging Center in Burnsville, Minnesota.

The franchise agreement provided that all actions arising under the franchise agreement must be brought in Troy, Michigan. But, the Minnesota Franchise Act (MFA) prohibited franchisors such as Allegra, except in certain specified cases, from requiring litigation to be conducted outside of Minnesota. Allegra filed suit in a U.S. District Court in Michigan for trademark infringement and breach of franchise agreement. Fox filed a motion to transfer the case to Minnesota, arguing that the Franchise Agreement and the MFA required Allegra to litigate its claims against Fox in Minnesota.

The district court began its analysis by citing Atlantic Marine Const. Co., Inc. v. U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in all but the most unusual of cases, the "interests of justice" are served by enforcing valid forum selection clauses in contracts, including franchise agreements. However, the court rejected Fox's argument that Allegra's suit in Michigan was tantamount to requiring Fox to litigate outside of Minnesota in violation of the MFA, opining that nothing in the contractual language limited Fox from selecting a Minnesota court should Fox choose to file suit against Allegra. Further, the court noted that nothing in the referenced Minnesota statutes or rules precluded parties to a franchise agreement from agreeing on a forum selection. The court held, "A choice of forum is not tantamount to a choice of law." Here, it concluded, "Nothing in [this] choice of forum provision in any way diminishes [Fox's] right to avail [itself] of Minnesota laws."

Similarly, courts have refused to apply a provision of the California Franchise Investment Law (CFIL) that voids any provision in a franchise agreement that restricts venue to a forum outside California when franchisors have sued California franchisees outside of California. In TGI Friday's Inc. v. Great Nw. Rests. Inc., a U.S. district court in Texas enforced a franchise agreement setting venue in Texas, noting that:

Defendants do not explain...why this court should apply California law to void a franchise agreement that provides that Texas law applies to all matters relating to the agreement, and that Texas is the forum for any disputes relating to the agreement.

In contrast, in Frango Grille USA Inc. v. Pepe's Franchising Ltd., a California district court recently refused to enforce an agreement setting venue in London, England, stating that the Atlantic Marine precedent enforces valid agreements on venue selection, but the application of the CFIL rendered the contractual forum selection provision invalid.

Click here to read the opinion for Allegra Holdings LLC v. Fox Tracks, 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.

 

Thursday
May222014

When is Unreasonable, Reasonable?

Franchise 101

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

May 2014

 

47th Annual International Franchise Association Legal Symposium

David Gurnick, along with representatives from Brinker International (known for the Chili's and Macaroni Grill brands) and Restaurant Services Inc. (national cooperative of Burger King franchisees) were invited to speak at the IFA's Annual Legal Symposium in Chicago, discussing aspects of the cooperative business model. Barry Kurtz and Tal Grinblat also attended. Tal served as roundtable facilitator on manufacturing issues facing franchise companies.

 

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

Barry Kurtz & Bryan H. Clements in Fresno County Bar Association's Bar Bulletin

"Many unsuspecting businesses that have licensed their trade marks and marketing plans to others without providing the required disclosures or registering as a franchise have been found to be in violation of federal and state law." Click Is Franchising the Right Model for Your Client's Business? for further information.

 

Tal Grinblat & David Gurnick in American Bar Association's  Franchise Law Journal

"Implicit in the franchise relationship is that the franchisor owns intellectual property, which others cannot use without the franchisor's permission. But this fundamental premise is not entirely correct." Continue reading: OPIP: When Is It Lawful to Use Other People's Intellectual Property in Franchising?

 

FRANCHISOR 101:
When is Unreasonable, Reasonable?

Crown Imports, LLC (Crown) imports Corona beer from Mexico. In 2008, two of Crown's Southern California distributors, Classic and HBC, agreed that Classic would buy HBC's Crown distributorship. Crown denied approval of the transfer citing Classic's poor performance.

In 2008 and 2009, Classic won top-distributorship awards, and in 2010, Classic again sought Crown's approval to buy HBC's distributorship. But Crown again refused consent, and HBC sold its distributorship to Anheuser-Busch.

Classic sued Crown for interference, claiming that Crown had a secret plan to prevent Classic from acquiring HBC's distributorship. On appeal, the California Court of Appeal disagreed with Classic and with a lower court, and held that no genuine issues of fact existed as to whether Crown unlawfully withheld consent to the Classic/HBC transfer.

A plaintiff claiming interference must prove, among other things, that the defendant intentionally or negligently committed an independently wrongful act to disrupt an existing business relationship, which did disrupt the relationship.

Beer LawClassic argued Crown unreasonably withheld consent to its purchase of HBC's distribution rights in violation of California Business and Professions Code Section 25000.9, which, Classic claimed, amounted to an independently wrongful act. Section 25000.9 says that "Any beer manufacturer who unreasonably withholds consent [to a distributor transfer] shall be liable to the [distributor]."

In rejecting Classic's arguments, the court held that since Section 25000.9 provides a remedy for disappointed sellers, not buyers, Crown's denial, even if it was unreasonable and violated Section 25000.9, was not an independently wrongful act. Moreover, the court opined, Section 25000.9 can be read to "permit a beer manufacturer to unreasonably deny approval [of] a transfer."

It ruled that "as long as a seller receives adequate compensation either from a successor purchaser or the manufacturer itself, there is no violation of the statute." The court further ruled that good policy reasons exist to let beer manufacturers unreasonably deny consent to transfers, provided they make the disappointed distributors whole.

Under California law, beer distributors may not sell beer without first entering into written distribution agreements with manufacturers and filing the agreements with state. So, the court explained, if a manufacturer could not withhold consent, it would be forced to enter a new contract with the transferee distributor, even if it did not wish to do business with the new distributor.

Notwithstanding the court's reasoning and outcome in this case, California brewers should still keep in mind the risk that unreasonably denying consent to a distributor transfer may violate California law. Discretion remains a better part of valor.

Read the appellate court opinion: Crown Imports, LLC v. Superior Court and Classic Distributing & Beverage Group. 

 

FRANCHISEE 101:
Item 19 Misdirection Ultimately Discovered by Franchisee

Franchisors that make Item 19 financial performance representations (FPRs) must disclose all material facts and not knowingly conceal any facts necessary to make their disclosures true under the circumstances in which they are presented. Abbo v. Wireless Toyz L.L.C. provides hope for franchisees whose franchisors do not disclose all relevant facts in their FPRs.

Franchise LitigationIn August 2004, Wireless Phones, L.L.C. (WP) entered into a franchise agreement with Michigan franchisor Wireless Toyz Franchise, L.L.C. (Toyz) for a Wireless Toyz franchise to be located in Colorado. Wireless Toyz franchisees earn commissions by selling cellular equipment and 3rd party cellular contracts to customers. The commissions are reduced by Hits (customer discounts offered by cellular providers) and Charge Backs (recoupments due to early termination of customer contracts).

Before buying the franchise, WP was given Toyz's disclosure document, which contained an FPR that made no mention of Hits and only cautioned that commissions could be subject to Charge Backs, but included no data to indicate the financial impact Charge Backs would have on a franchisee profits. WP apparently recognized the discrepancies, raised the issue and received verbal assurances from Toyz's owner that the average Hit would not exceed $50 and Charge Backs would average 5% to 7% percent of annual commissions.

After WP's store failed in 2009, WP brought suit, asserting, among other claims, that Toyz violated Michigan's Franchise Investment Law (MFIL) and committed the tort of fraudulent concealment by knowingly concealing facts regarding Hits and Chargebacks.

A claim for fraudulent concealment arises from suppression of the truth with intent to defraud. The trial judge ruled that the evidence did not support a claim of fraudulent concealment, and WP appealed.

The appellate court overturned the trial court and ruled Toyz was liable for fraudulent concealment. The court held that the MFIL required Toyz to refrain from making material misrepresentations or omitting pertinent information from any disclosures relating to the sale of the franchise. The court found Toyz's FPR "omitted [material] information concerning average Hits and Chargebacks" that was necessary to make the FPRs not misleading and Toyz suppressed the truth by falsely giving WP verbal assurances that the impact of Hits and Chargebacks would be minimal.

Potential franchisees should carefully review their franchisor's FPRs to ensure that all pertinent financial information is fully presented and make further inquiry when they believe that is not the case.

Read the court opinion re: Abbo v.Wireless Toyz Franchise.

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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