Not Your Neighborhood Tesla Dealer; and Special Delivery
The International Franchise Association will host its 50th Annual Legal Symposium in early May – Barry Kurtz, Tal Grinblat, David Gurnick and Matthew Soroky will all attend, representing Lewitt Hackman in Washington D.C. The conference brings together franchise owners, operators, executives and attorneys to discuss current laws and regulatory environments.
Not Your Neighborhood Tesla Dealer
Among the many differences between Tesla and traditional automakers, Tesla does not sell or service its electric cars through franchised dealers; it sells direct to consumers. Recent legal challenges to Tesla’s direct-to-consumer sales model highlight an auto maker’s hurdles in selling through its own subsidiaries.
The Utah Supreme Court upheld an agency ruling that Utah’s Motor Vehicle Business Regulation Act (the “Licensing Act”) and New Automobile Franchise Act (the “Franchise Act”) combined to prohibit a Tesla subsidiary from selling new Teslas in Utah showrooms. The relationship between Tesla and its subsidiary was found to be a “franchise” under both statutes, and was barred by the Franchise Act’s prohibition against subsidiary relationships.
At first, the subsidiary applied for a required new car dealer license to sell Tesla vehicles at a Salt Lake City showroom. Its application was denied for not having a “franchise” to sell the vehicles, as required by the Licensing Act. The subsidiary responded by entering into a “dealer agreement” with Tesla and reapplying for the dealer license.
The dealer agreement sought to create the required “franchise” relationship needed to satisfy the Licensing Act. Unfortunately for Tesla, the Franchise Act prohibits a franchisor from owning an interest in a new car dealer. Therefore, to avoid creating a “franchise” relationship of the kind that would be subject to the Franchise Act, the agreement prohibited the subsidiary from using the Tesla name.
The court noted the subsidiary was caught “between the rock of the Licensing Act and the hard place of the Franchise Act.” Either it lacked the franchise with Tesla required by the Licensing Act, or it was a franchise in conflict with the Franchise Act’s prohibition against owning an interest in a new car dealer.
A “franchise” under the Licensing Act is simply “a contract or agreement between a dealer and a manufacturer . . . by which the dealer is authorized to sell any specified make or makes of new motor vehicles.” The court ruled that the subsidiary had such a contract.
The Franchise Act was more complex. The first element of a “franchise” is a “license to use a trade name, trademark, service mark, or related characteristic.” This requirement was satisfied by the subsidiary’s use of Tesla’s trademarks. The dealer agreement’s disclaimer of a franchise relationship could not be reconciled with the “reality of the relationship” between Tesla and its subsidiary. The second element of a franchise — a “community of interest” in marketing new cars, was also present because Tesla and its subsidiary had a unity of interest in selling Teslas.
The court said it issued a “narrow, legal decision” that did not rule on “broad policy questions” about how cars should be sold. The Court stopped short of deciding whether Tesla itself was barred from obtaining its own dealer license. A car maker could presumably do so, but the practical and legal effects of Tesla selling direct to customers without the protection of using a subsidiary are likely to leave Tesla between the proverbial rock and hard place.
For a relationship to meet the legal definition of a “franchise” in some jurisdictions, the franchisor must give significant assistance to, or have significant control over, the franchisee’s business. A franchisor’s prescribed marketing plan can be enough to meet this requirement.
The “marketing plan” element is multifaceted and imprecise. A distributor’s marketing plan may be based on a contract, course of dealing or industry customs. A marketing plan need not be mandatory. And a plan need not include traditional advertising or marketing. It is enough for a franchisor to give franchisees instructions or advice on operating techniques or skill training, so that independent franchisees appear to consumers as if they are centrally managed and follow uniform standards.
In Neubauer v. FedEx, a former delivery contractor claimed FedEx violated the North Dakota Franchise Investment Law (NDFIL) when it offered and sold him an unregistered franchise. A federal appeals court in St. Louis found an absence of any appearance of central management in this delivery context, and affirmed a lower court decision to dismiss the contractor’s claim.
The court noted FedEx’s business is direct-to-customer package delivery. The delivery contractor picked up and delivered packages, but did not claim a right to offer, sell or distribute services to individual customers.
The contract with FedEx said he was an independent contractor who provided transportation services to FedEx, and received payments from FedEx – not from customers – through a weekly settlement check. Noting that the NDFIL’s definition of “marketing plan” was nearly identical to the definition in California’s Franchise Investment Law, the Court cited a California decision in which a similar delivery contractor failed to prove the existence of a franchise relationship.
In the California case, because there was no allegation that the delivery contractor cultivated customer relationships, the court found the contractor did not offer and distribute goods and services to customers within the meaning of the franchise law.
The “marketing plan” element required to establish a franchise relationship may be satisfied in various ways. A delivery contractor that can allege sufficient encounters with individual customers has a better chance to establish the existence of a marketing plan, but should bear in mind each component of the marketing plan element and the subtle variations to assert a plausible franchise claim.