Franchise 101: A Clean Sweep; and Upgrading Your Metal
Will you be attending Franchise Expo West at the Los Angeles Convention Center in early November? We’ll be there, and we’ll be happy to meet with you. Use one of the email addresses above to contact one of our attorneys directly, or send a message to our Franchise Practice Group mailbox. Someone will be in touch regarding potential meeting times.
State Bar Appointment
David Gurnick joins Barry Kurtz on the State Bar of California’s Franchise and Distribution Law Advisory Commission. Members of the Commission serve a three year term, and are tasked with reviewing application packages of California attorneys who sat for and passed the Franchise and Distribution Certified Specialist exam, and providing recommendations to the California Board of Legal Specialization as to awarding the credential. Currently there are less than 60 Certified Specialists in Franchise and Distribution Law in the state of California, three of whom include our own Barry Kurtz, Tal Grinblat, and David Gurnick.
FRANCHISOR 101: A Clean Sweep
A federal court recently held that under California law, cleaning services franchisor Jan-Pro Franchising International (Jan-Pro) was not the employer of its unit franchisees. The franchisee plaintiffs failed to show that Jan-Pro exercised sufficient control over day-to-day employment activities or reserved the right to exercise such control.
Jan-Pro operates a three-tier franchising structure. Jan-Pro grants the right to use its trademark “Jan-Pro” to a regional master franchisee for a specific geographic area. The master franchisee is responsible to sell Jan-Pro franchises in that area. The master franchisee sells unit franchises, giving franchisees the right to service accounts provided by the master franchisee. Each unit franchise operates pursuant to a franchise agreement. Franchise agreements are between the master franchisee and unit franchisee, but Jan-Pro is not a party.
The unit franchisees sued Jan-Pro seeking minimum wage and overtime premiums, claiming they were improperly classified as independent contractors when they were really Jan-Pro’s employees. The court evaluated the claims under California’s three alternative definitions of an employer/employee relationship: (i) exercise of control over wages, hours, or working conditions; (ii) to suffer or permit to work; or (iii) to engage, thereby creating a common law employment relationship. A common-law employment relationship requires evidence of the right to control day-to-day activities.
The unit franchisees argued that Jan-Pro met the first and third definitions because Jan-Pro’s contracts with its master franchisees gave it the absolute right to control policies and procedures of any master franchisee as well as any unit franchisee. The court disagreed. It found the right to control policies and procedures were set forth only in Jan-Pro’s contracts with its master franchisees, not in contracts with unit franchisees. The court determined that unit franchisees’ franchise agreements with master franchisees did not set out any rights for Jan-Pro or otherwise indicate that Jan-Pro would be a third-party beneficiary. The court concluded that the unit franchise agreements did not create rights between Jan-Pro and the unit franchisees.
Next, the court rejected the unit franchisees’ argument that Jan-Pro had authority to stop them from working under the second definition of an employer/employee relationship. The court stated that Jan-Pro’s agreements with regional master franchisees purported to confer that authority, but the unit franchisees’ agreements with master franchisees did not extend Jan-Pro’s authority to the unit franchisees.
Finally, the court rejected an ostensible agency theory raised by the unit franchisees because they failed to offer evidence that they believed the master franchisees were agents of Jan-Pro.
The court’s analysis focused on features that are unique to subfranchise systems, specifically the lack of a direct contractual relationship between the franchisor and unit franchisees. A franchisor considering a subfranchise system should pay particular attention to the contractual rights it can enforce directly against unit franchisees. If a franchisor determines that it wants to have some direct contractual rights then it should be careful not to exert direct or indirect control over a unit franchisee’s employment conditions in a way that would make it a joint employer.
FRANCHISEE 101: Upgrade Your Metal
A federal court in New York denied a franchisee’s motion for preliminary injunction that would have prevented its franchisor Metal Supermarkets Franchising America (MSFA) from installing technology upgrades in its stores.
MSFA is the franchisor of a metal parts business. JDS Group (JDS), a Washington corporation, owned two MSFA franchises. For ten years as an MSFA franchisee, JDS used a software system called “Metal Magic” that MSFA supplied. In 2012, MSFA determined that Metal Magic was outdated and below an appropriate measure of MSFA’s standards. It developed a new software system, called “MetalTech,” which took three years to develop and cost over $1 million. MSFA began installing MetalTech at franchisee locations. But JDS continued to use the Metal Magic system and refused to switch its stores to MetalTech, claiming it was unreliable and did not perform as required. JDS sued MSFA for violation of the Washington State Franchise Investment Protection Act (FIPA) and for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and asked the court for a preliminary injunction to prevent MSFA from installing MetalTech in its stores.
JDS claimed MetalTech was unreliable and inefficient and submitted declarations of six MSFA franchisees, all alleging that they had serious problems using MetalTech that hurt their business operations. The court found that express terms of the franchise agreements permitted MSFA to develop or designate computer software programs and required JDS to use them. The court noted that federal courts have repeatedly held that it is permissible for a franchisor to require franchisees to use its proprietary computer systems. The court found no evidence of bad faith by MSFA and concluded it was unlikely that JDS would be successful on the merits of its FIPA claim.
The court also held that JDS failed to show it was likely to suffer irreparable harm if MetalTech were installed in its stores. MSFA showed that 78 out of 86 stores were using MetalTech and on average those stores saw sales increases after the conversion. The court found that any impediment imposed by MetalTech was not so great as to impair JDS’s ability to continue operating its business. Accordingly, the court found an injunction was not warranted and denied JDS’s motion.
An important aspect of operating a franchise that may be overlooked by potential franchisees is the possibility of changing or upgrading technology at the franchisor’s request. Franchisors typically reserve the right to require franchisees to upgrade computer and technology systems. Prospective franchisees should understand before they enter into a franchise agreement that technology upgrades are likely to occur during the life of their franchised business.