Category: Business Law
May 10th, 2013
In Long John Silver’s Inc. v. Nickleson, decided February 12, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky issued another decision demonstrating the danger of franchisors relying on disclaimers in their contracts and the Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”) to defeat claims that it provided false financial performance information in selling a franchise. The court denied summary judgment for the franchisor of A&W Restaurants, Inc. (“A&W”) and will allow the franchisee’s claims of fraud and violation of franchise sales laws to be decided at trial. The case is particularly noteworthy because the franchise purchased was the claimant’s fourth from the same franchisor.
A&W’s FDD had what is known a “negative disclosure” in Item 19 concerning the provision of information about the sales or profits at existing franchises, specifically saying “[w]e do not make any representations about a franchisee’s future financial performance or past financial performance of company-owned or franchised outlets.” The Minnesota-based franchisee alleged that, in connection with considering purchase of a franchise to open a new “drive in” model A&W restaurant, the franchisor provided “information, including financial projections, which was laden with false data.” These allegations, if true, would mean that A & W provided a financial performance representation (“FPR”) outside of its FDD, in violation of federal and state franchise sales laws.
A&W followed the usual route of trying to get the franchisee’s claims thrown out before trial on the argument that, in light of the disclaimers in Item 19 of the FDD and in various parts of the franchise agreement, as a matter of law the franchisee could not “reasonably rely” on the information provided. The court rejected the argument that the disclaimers could be used to bar the franchisee’s claim that A&W provided misleading information in violation of the Minnesota Franchise Act, because that law (like the Maryland Franchise Registration & Disclosure Law) contains a provision making “void” any waivers of conduct contrary to the franchise sales law. The franchisor will be permitted to use the disclaimers in the contract and the FDD at trial as evidence to persuade the jury that the franchisee could not have reasonably relied on the “projections “.
The court also ruled that the disclaimers could not be used to deny the franchisee a trial on its claim of common law fraud (under Kentucky law) with regard to its claim that the projections provided were based on false data about other locations’ sales or earnings. In the words of the court, “A broadly-worded, strategically placed disclaimer should not negate reliance as a matter of law where A&W allegedly shared objectively false data to induce Defendant to enter into the Franchise Agreement.” Therefore summary judgment was denied and the franchisee’s fraud claim will proceed to trial, with A&W potentially liable for punitive damages if the franchisee prevails on that claim.
Given that the franchisee in this case already owned three (3) other A&W restaurants at the time it purchased the franchise at issue, it would hardly be surprising if it demanded and received specific financial performance information about the other “drive-in” models. A logical question is, if A&W had included sales and earnings data in Item 19 of the FDD that it provided to this franchisee, was it less likely to have faced the allegations made in this case? In this author’s opinion, based on more than fifteen (15) years of representing franchisors and franchisees, A&W would have been in a better position to defend against the allegations had it included such data in Item 19. The reason is that the data would have been reviewed by A&W’s attorneys and probably by upper management, who would be more likely to make sure that the presentation was accurate and not misleading. Once the presentation is in the FDD, most franchise salespeople will be less likely to “go off script” and provide information that is more optimistic than Item 19.
However, even if the franchise seller did provide information beyond the written FPR, at trial the franchisor will be able to point to the data provided in Item 19 and say, “Look, we gave the franchisee the data in the FDD and made it easy for him to investigate further, so it is ridiculous to believe he relied on something are franchise salesperson said.” In that situation it may be more likely than not that the jury would agree with the franchisor. By contrast, by denying its franchise seller use of an Item 19 FPR, A&W made it difficult to comply with the law and convince qualified candidates to purchase the franchise – setting up a scenario where a jury may believe that the franchise seller “went over the line.”
November 26th, 2012
In Ford v. Palmden Restaurants, LLC
, the Court of Appeals of California issued a strong reminder to both restaurant franchisees and their franchisors of their potential liability for criminal conduct that takes place on a restaurant’s premises. While the legal principles at issue differ for franchisees and franchisors, this potential liability is one that neither can ignore.
The case involved a Denny’s restaurant in Palm Springs, California, that was operated by Palmden Restaurants, LLC (“Palmden”). Starting during 2002 members of a gang known as the Gateway Posse Crips (“Gateway”) would “take over” the restaurant around 2 a.m. each Sunday, after closing of the club that they “hung out at” on Saturday night. “Taking over” meant:
“Members of the Gateway group refused to wait in line; they would just seat themselves. They were loud; they would use “foul language.” They would “table-hop.” Only a few of them would order food, and the ones who did would leave without paying. Other customers responded by canceling their orders or asking for their food to go and then leaving. Some Gateway members would stay outside in the parking lot, drinking and smoking marijuana. They had had “many fights,” both outside and inside the restaurant.”
In March 2003, there was a significant brawl around 2 a.m. at the restaurant, instigated by members of Gateway. The fight involved injuries to “innocent” female patrons, overturned furniture and a broken window. Police officers recommended to the owner of Palmden that she take several security measures, including installing video cameras and hiring off-duty uniformed police officers. Palmden closed the restaurant for the early a.m. hours only during the first weekend after the brawl, and thereafter Gateway resumed its “take overs.” Palmden did not install security cameras, hire off-duty police officers or take other new substantive security measures.
In April 2004, Terrelle Ford, who was a loan officer, had the misfortune of being at the restaurant with friends on a Sunday at 2 a.m. when the Gateway members arrived. A large group of men began beating one man standing outside the restaurant, and some of Ford’s friends went outside to break up the fight. When Ford saw his cousin being attacked he came outside to protect him and was severely beaten by Gateway members, suffering permanent brain injury. Shortly thereafter Palmden began closing the restaurant on Sundays in the early a.m., and the Gateway gang found a new “after-hours hangout.”
Could the Franchisee Be Liable for the Patron’s Injuries?
The trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of Palmden, finding that it could not be liable for the harms caused by the criminal acts of the Gateway gang members. The appeals court disagreed and reversed, sending the case back for trial.
The court, following well-established precedent, held that all restaurants and other public establishments have an obligation to undertake reasonable steps to secure common areas against the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties that are likely to occur without such precautionary measures: “The more certain the likelihood of harm, the higher the burden a court will impose on a [proprietor] to prevent it; the less foreseeable the harm, the lower the burden a court will place on a [proprietor].” The central question was the extent of Palmden’s duty to take action to prevent gang violence, and the essence of the decision was that Palmden was liable because it adopted no meaningful new security measures after the 2003 gang fight and before Ford’s severe beating. As the court said:
“We emphasize that we are not saying that a business that is plagued by gang members necessarily has to shut down (even for a few hours). It would be perfectly reasonable for it to experiment first with lesser measures, such as surveillance cameras, security guards, or a protective order. [Palmden argues that] it is speculative [whether] these would have been successful. What we can say with certainty is that either these measures would have worked, or else closing down the restaurant would have worked.”
Therefore, Palmden’s failure to act may have been a substantial cause of Ford’s injuries and Ford had a right to have a jury decide Palmden’s liability.
What About the Franchisor?
Ford advanced several arguments as to why DFO, LLC, the Denny’s franchisor; Denny’s, Inc., which leased the restaurant to Palmden; and the parent company of both of those entities, Denny’s Corporation, should be held jointly liable for his damages. The court found that summary judgment could be overturned on the grounds that Palmden was those entities’ “ostensible agent” in operating the restaurant, because Ford was not aware that the Denny’s restaurant was a franchise and his belief that it was a “corporate location” must be reasonable under the circumstances. The court found the following facts important in making that conclusion:
“While some Denny’s restaurants are franchisee-operated, others are corporate-operated; hence, we cannot say it is common knowledge that all Denny’s are necessarily franchises. There was no signage or other indication that the particular Denny’s was actually operated by a franchisee. Finally, Ford testified that he had seen advertisements identifying Denny’s as “a family style restaurant . . . in which a patron could enjoy a good meal in a friendly, safe, and secure environment” and that this led him to conclude that “[h]e and [his] friends could enjoy a meal at the subject Denny’s . . . .” ”
The court also reversed summary judgment in favor of the landlord, Denny’s, Inc., the parent company Denny’s Corporation and other affiliates, on the basis that they might be “alter egos” of the franchisor DFO, LLC. The trial court had granted summary judgment for those entities without analysis and they had not provided the appeals court with support in favor of keeping them out of the case.
If you own a restaurant you have a duty to your patrons and employees to establish security that is reasonable under the circumstances. If the circumstances are as dire as described in this case, your best course of action is to close the restaurant during the dangerous hours, and if you need permission build the case for doing so in writing directed to your franchisor and/or landlord.
If you are a restaurant franchisor, at a minimum make sure that each restaurant has a conspicuous sign identifying who owns the restaurant, as an independent licensee of your company. If the restaurant is run by your affiliate company, then that affiliate should be identified just like a franchisee. Seek to include the words “independently owned” in any local advertising. For casual dining establishments, consider including a place in the menu template to identify the owner, perhaps underneath the logo.
November 8th, 2012
Most of the work that I do for franchise owners (or “franchisees”) falls into two categories: (1) helping to evaluate a potential franchise opportunity and negotiating the franchise agreement and real estate lease, and (2) representing franchisees seeking to exit the franchise, including evaluating claims against the franchisor. While grateful to serve in those capacities, I worry whether franchisees and other small business owners are adequately planning for and protecting against their own death or disability.
While life and disability income insurance are very important, there are several legal and practical issues that business owners (or indeed all reasonably solvent adults) should address while they are healthy and of sound mind. Some of those issues are:
1. Will: Why do you need a will? Without one, after you die the laws of the state where you live and held property will determine what happens to that property. Your spouse, children or other heirs could end up with less than you planned, the assets could be mismanaged, your minor children might not have the guardian you wished, or your estate could end up paying more in taxes and legal fees than necessary. Writing a will allows you to control who gets what, and also could enable you to leave some of your assets to charities or other causes. Clarity is particularly important if you own a business since succession planning is critical to the wellbeing of the business’s employees and other stakeholders.
2. Titling of Assets: How you hold title to certain assets can have a significant effect on the ability of your creditors to take away those assets. If you are married, holding an asset in the names of yourself and your spouse may prevent a creditor of only one of you from taking that asset. However, this is often more appropriate for personal assets (such as homes and cars) than ownership interests in a business. If you are not married then there are other legal devices that, under appropriate circumstances, could enable you to shield assets from seizure if your financial fortunes decline.
3. Durable Power of Attorney: A power of attorney (“POA”) designates a representative to perform certain actions on your behalf. A durable POA can be particularly important if you are a small business owner, to make sure that the business is able to function on your behalf if you become ill, incapacitated or otherwise unable to manage your affairs, since otherwise your chosen representative (usually a spouse, parent or sibling) will have to receive court approval to perform needed financial transactions. However, the durable POA also needs to be crafted with some care to avoid any abuse by the appointed representative.
4. Living Will and Medical Proxy: A living will is a written declaration of what life-sustaining medical treatments you will allow or not allow if you are incapacitated; for example, life-sustaining nourishment when terminally ill. The medical proxy or medical POA authorizes a specific individual to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so.
5. Letters of Instruction: In this digital age a lot of our personal and digital information is saved electronically in password-protected accounts. After your death the person you chose to manage your estate (your “personal representative”) will benefit greatly from written instructions on how to access those accounts. Since the will itself is meant to cover the disposition of categories of property, the letters of instruction can aid your personal representative in disposing of specific pieces of property (such as family heirlooms) in the manner that you wish.
6. Life Insurance Trust. One common trust for people of even relatively modest means is a trust to hold life insurance policies. Estates with net assets of over $1,000,000 are subject to the estate taxes in Maryland and several other states, and the federal (U.S.) estate tax threshold has been moved several times in recent years but may move down to $1,000,000 effective January 1, 2013. Utilizing an irrevocable trust to hold your life insurance policy excludes their death benefits from your estate, which may allow your estate to be completely exempt from taxation.
Estate planning is not just for people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Mark Zuckerberg – it is necessary for all reasonably successful adults and particularly for franchise owners. At Whiteford Taylor & Preston we have a talented team of estates and trust attorneys licensed in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia who can assist you on the types of issues described above at either fixed fees or reasonable hourly rates. Contact us so we can help you make sure that your bases are covered.
July 11th, 2012
Section 7 of the U.S. National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) states,
Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection . . .
U.S. Code, Title 29, Section 157.
This provision and the balance of the NLRA, which was enacted during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, are primarily focused on the right to join a union and collectively bargain. As the percentage of U.S. private sector employees represented by unions has dropped substantially over recent decades, the NLRA has become a much less prominent part of the discussion of employment-related legal matters. However, through its recent activities the current National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has indicated its determination to make the NLRA relevant to all U.S. employees (and employers), by focusing on the last part of the quoted portion of Section 7, “Employees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection.”
Among the areas where this emphasis is being shown is the ability of employers to limit employees’ use of social media networks such as Facebook. The “social media policies” area is particularly interesting because many (if not most) of employees’ online posts relating to their employers cannot be construed as “concerted activities for the purpose of mutual aid or protection.” Nevertheless, the NLRB has authority to stop an employer from maintaining a “work rule” that if that rule “would reasonably tend to” discourage employees from communicating with other employees “for the purpose of mutual aid or protection.” If the “social media policy” does not clearly restrict protected activities, such as by forbidding employees to “friend” each other on Facebook or to write posts about wages, hours or working conditions, then the policy only violates the NLRA if: “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.”
In several cases, the NLRB has found that an employer’s social media policy has in fact been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights, and required the employer to reinstate employees terminated due to their Facebook postings and subsequent responses by Facebook friends. For example, after an employee of a collections agency was transferred to a different position that would substantially limit her earning capacity, she posted on her Facebook page that her employer had “messed up” (using expletives) and that she was “done with being a good employee.” The employee was Facebook friends with approximately 10 current and former coworkers, including her direct supervisor. An extensive exchange ensued among the coworkers regarding the employer’s management methods and preference for cheap labor, culminating with one of the former employees calling for a class action among the disaffected workers.
The employee who had prompted the exchange was fired the next work day explicitly because of her Facebook posts and the responses they triggered. The NLRB found the discharge to be a violation of the NLRA because (a) the employer had an unlawfully broad “non-disparagement policy,” the violation of which was the basis for the termination, and (b) the employee had been fired for “engaging in conduct that implicates the concerns underlying Section 7 of the Act.”
In other recent cases brought before it, the NLRB has concluded that, while the complaining former employee was not unlawfully discharged due to his or her online postings, the employer’s policy itself violated the NLRA and needed to be modified. In response to this, the NLRB recently issued a report summarizing its decisions specifically on acceptable social media policies, and perhaps most importantly, has in essence provided a sample policy that it has deemed to be lawful. The policy, as amended by Wal-Mart after the initiation of an NLRB complaint regarding its prior policy, focuses fairly narrowly on refraining from posts that “include discriminatory remarks, harassment and threats of violence” or are “meant to intentionally harm someone’s reputation.” While the policy forbids dissemination of the company’s confidential information, it provides a sufficient specific definition of “trade secrets” to put employees on notice that the policy (probably) does not include internal reports or procedures specifically touching on conditions of employment. Perhaps most importantly, the policy expressly acknowledges that employees may post work-related complaints and criticism, even while discounting the possibility that such posts are likely to result in changes that the employee seeks.
If your company has a social media policy, we can review it for purposes of conforming it to the NLRB’s latest guidance on acceptable policies and help you avoid future problems that could result from overly broad restrictions on employee’s online conduct. Of course, as specific situations arise we are available to counsel you as to legally appropriate measures to take in response to employee’s online conduct.
May 7th, 2012
While the continuous growth of Internet-based commerce has to lower prices for many consumer shopping for goods, it has been a major problem for many “bricks and mortar” retailers and also has caused concerns for product manufacturers who want to insure quality experiences for customers purchasing their goods. The question is the extent to which manufacturers may, under applicable U.S. anti-trust and competition law, take steps to protect the image of their brand as well as stopping the “e-tailers” from “free-riding” on the promotion efforts of traditional retailers.
U.S. law applicable to manufacturer’s application of retail pricing requirements has been in flux since the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc v. PSKS, Inc., 127 S. Ct. 2705 (2007). In that decision, the Court overruled the holding in Dr. Miles Medical Co. v. John D. Park & Sons Co., 31 S. Ct. 376 (1911), that any agreement not to sell a product at below a specific minimum price was per se illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, the U.S.’s primary antitrust statute.
In Leegin, the Court ruled that, in determining whether Section 1 of the Sherman Act is violated by a series of express agreements in which dealers promise not to sell a manufacturer’s product at below a specific retail price, courts would apply the so-called “Rule of Reason” to determine whether such an agreement actually causes harm to competition. To boil this down, such an agreement will not violate U.S. antitrust law if (a) the manufacturer does not have more than 25% market share for the sale of that type of product, and (b) the minimum pricing program is not the result of the demands of a single dominant retailer or an agreement among retailers purchasing a substantial percentage of the goods to demand that the manufacturer adopt such policies (as opposed to individual retailers’ complaints).
An example of the “dealer cartel” scenario was a 2008 ruling in Toledo Mack Sales & Service, Inc. v. Mack Trucks, Inc., in which Mack Trucks terminated a dealer who repeatedly sought sales of products in other dealer’s primary service areas by undercutting the local dealers on price. After numerous dealers complained about that specific discounter, and after Mack demanded that the discounter comply with pricing guidelines, Mack Trucks finally ceases supplying the discounter. Because Mack Trucks does have appreciable market power nationally in heavy construction equipment, the U.S. District Court refused to grant Mack summary judgment and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision.
A fact pattern in which a dominant retailer allegedly coercing several manufacturers into minimum pricing requirements is a 2008 ruling in Babyage.com, Inc. v. Toys “R” Us, Inc., which a court refused to dismiss a claim by an Internet retailer involving alleged actions by “Babies ‘R’ Us“ with regard to the sale of strollers and other baby products. Specifically, Babies ‘R’ Us allegedly threatened to cease buying the manufacturers’ items or to give them extremely unfavorable shelf space and promotion unless the manufacturer enforced a minimum RPM program with regard to Internet retailers. Because Babies ‘R’ Us has sufficient market power to coerce the manufacturers with such threats, its actions may have harmed competition at the consumer level and therefore violated the Sherman Act.
If a manufacturer has appreciable market power in a product market, then the risk of a series of minimum RPM agreements increases, particularly if manufacturers that also have substantial market share implement similar minimum RPM agreements and this “parallel conduct” causes an overall increase in pricing for “high-quality” apparel of this type. Such contracts may still be permissible under U.S. antitrust law if the manufacturer can demonstrate that it is driven by the desire to maintain the brand’s profile in high end (and high volume) traditional retail outlets, which would not be possible without such a program. If it can make the business case that such a move actually will result in higher total volume sales on a wholesale basis, then such contract clauses may be “pro-competitive” as envisioned by the Supreme Court in Leegin.
Yes, but What About State Antitrust Laws?
As the Supreme Court emphasized in a 1989 opinion, “Congress intended the federal antitrust laws to supplement, not displace, state antitrust remedies”, and states are free to enact laws that further the purposes embodied by U.S. anti-trust law of “deterring anticompetitive conduct and ensuring the compensation of victims of that conduct.” California v. ARC America Corp., 490 U.S. 93 (1989). In somewhere between 11 and 14 different U.S. states, including California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Ohio, it is illegal to enter into any contract requiring another party to agree to not to sell a product or service below a specific price. The manufacturer cannot enforce an express minimum RPM agreement with any retailer that is headquartered in any of those states, and it is possible that such retailers could prevail in a state law civil antitrust claim if the manufacturer refuses to sell and the retailer can prove damages from not being able to obtain the manufacturer’s products.
Moreover, in eight states (including California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and New York), consumers have standing as “indirect purchasers” to pursue claims for damages in the amount of inflated prices caused by resale price maintenance programs. The decision of the Supreme Court of Kansas in O’Brien v. Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc., Case No. 101,100 (decided May 4, 2012), Kansas’ highest court reversed summary judgment against the plaintiffs in a class action case brought under Kansas’ anti-trust statute against the same manufacturer of Brighton leather goods that had won the U.S. Supreme Court victory in 2007. Under the Kansas law, the practice of implementing and enforcing a retail pricing policy to be a per se violation of Kansas anti-trust statute, which that court summarized as follows:
There are alternate theories under which a Kansas restraint of trade plaintiff may proceed [under the state’s statute]: A plaintiff may prove the existence of an arrangement, contract, agreement, trust, or combination between persons designed to advance, reduce, or control price, or one that tends to advance, reduce, or control price. Mere arrangements between persons are within the scope of the statute; a plaintiff does not have to show a relationship rising to the level of an agreement. In addition, it is enough to show that the arrangement is designed to or tends to control prices; a plaintiff does not have to show that the arrangement actually succeeds in increasing prices.
It remains to be seen whether other states with statutes that more specifically address resale price maintenance follow this opinion and find that a practice intended to maintain a brand’s retail pricing is a violation, even if it is not embodied in a formal agreement between the manufacturer and its retailers.
Manufacturer’s Unilateral Use of a Pricing Policy
If a manufacturer sells at wholesale through purchase orders or other less formal means than written dealer agreements, there is little need for any reciprocal written agreement with retailers. Instead, in accepting purchase orders a manufacturer might unilaterally state, “Our products will be delivered to you with minimum suggested retail pricing (“MSRP”) for each item. If you sell any of our products at below the MSRP, we reserve the right to refuse to supply you with our products at wholesale in the future.” Such a policy is not a considered a “contract, combination or conspiracy” in restraint of trade, but rather the unilateral act of the seller. United States v. Colgate, 250 U.S. 300 (1919). See also, Australian Gold, Inc. v. Hatfield, 436 F.3d 1228, 1236 (10th Cir. 2006) (holding that similar “rights reserved” language in a standard written, bilateral distributor agreement constituted unilateral action permissible under Colgate).
California and New York courts have confirmed that proper implementation of a Colgate policy is not a violation of their state antitrust laws. State of New York v. Tempur-pedic International, Inc., 916 N.Y.S.2d 900 (N.Y. County Sup. Ct. 2011) and Chavez v. Whirlpool Corporation 93 Cal. App. 4th 363 (Cal. Ct. App. 2001). However, the New York Attorney General’s office appeal of the adverse trial court ruling in Temper-pedic is currently pending.
Another method of mitigating risks is to use a Minimum Advertised Price (“MAP”) policy, rather than MSRP. Such a policy would merely restrict the advertising of the product for sale below a specific price. It does not restrict retailers from discounting at checkout, whether at a physical location or the “shopping cart” of a website, if the discounting is evenly applied to all goods sold by the retailer and is not specific to the manufacturer’s products.
There are disadvantages to using a Colgate policy. First, the manufacturer cannot offer more favorable pricing or terms for retailers who explicitly agree to adhere to the MSRP, since that would turn the policy into a bilateral agreement. Second, the manufacturer’s sole remedy is to cease selling to the retailer without issuing any additional warning. Confronting the retailer and demanding that it comply with policy risks waiving the Colgate defense to a claim of unlawful conspiracy, particularly if (as is usually the case) the confrontation is prompted by complaining dealers. Under Colgate, the manufacturer is free to “cut off” the discounter after receiving complaints from other retailers (subject to the “dealer cartel” issue explained above), but it cannot try to coerce the “violator” into complying.
Kansas Supreme Court’s decision in O’Brien v. Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. demonstrates the difficulty of proving that a pricing program’s implementation was truly “unilateral” by the manufacturer. While acknowledging that truly unilateral conduct by “Brighton” by issuing a pricing policy and then cutting off violating retailers would not prove a “combination” that is necessary to violate Kansas’ antitrust law. However, the Court found that two emails from Brighton’s chief operating officer to retailers, one denying a retailer’s request to offer discounted pricing and another explaining why compliance with the policy was important for all retailers of Brighton products, was sufficient evidence to show a knowing “arrangement” between Brighton and independent retailers to maintain the prices paid by consumers to Brighton’s suggested retail price. That court was clearly influenced by the facts that Brighton has a substantial direct to consumer retail sales division, including its own retail stores in Kansas, and also that Brighton “cut off” at least one Kansas retailer after receiving complaints about its discount pricing from another independent Kansas retailer.
The one “inducement” that a manufacturer may be able to provide and remain within the Colgate exemption is promotional assistance to retailers who comply with MSRP or the MAP policy. If the manufacturer catches one of the retailers violating the policy, it can inform that retailer that it is no longer eligible for the allowance. The manufacturer should not “bargain” with the retailer after sending such a notice, i.e., agreeing to resume the assistance if the retailer agrees to comply with the policy. It can continue to supply the retailer and monitor its retail pricing and sales practices, and if that retailer starts complying then the manufacturer can resume providing promotional assistance. However, this type of program may be risky to use in the states identified above in which RPM programs are or may be per se unlawful.
Even if individual retailers’ complaints (or threats) have led the manufacturer to decide to implement an MSRP or MAP policy, when implementing the policy the manufacturer should make clear to all of its wholesale customers that they are not to discuss retail pricing among themselves and that the manufacturer has the exclusive right to determine what steps to take if a customer does not comply with the policy. The manufacturer should then put in place a program to monitor compliance with the policy, either through internal staff or through a third party monitor. These steps are important to avoid converting a vertical manufacturer to retailer restraint into a horizontal conspiracy with complaining retailers that could be a per se violation of U.S. antitrust law. This is especially true if the manufacturer also sells direct to consumers on a retail basis.
As an attorney licensed in Maryland and the District of Columbia, I am qualified to provide a summary on U.S. anti-trust law as it concerns this subject, whereas I do not provide legal advice on other countries’ competition laws. However, as a general matter most other countries have yet to follow Leegin and continue to treat any manufacturer practices designed to set minimum retail price levels as per se illegal, and given that disposition are unlikely to look favorably on Colgate-like arguments regarding unilateral conduct in “cutting off” a seller who sells below the desired minimum price. In addition, European courts have issued decisions indicating that restrictions on the re-sale of products through the Internet will generally be considered violations of European competition law. See Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS (European Court of Justice, March 3, 2011).
There is some basis for a position that the competition laws of other countries will not be applicable to vertical pricing restraints in which both the manufacturer and their wholesale customers are small enterprises that do not have substantial market share in the relevant product types. However, an analysis of the applicable law of the foreign jurisdictions must be made through qualified counsel before a manufacturer pursues any programs to restrict minimum retail price.
April 24th, 2012
During 2012 Sylvan Learning, Inc. and its corporate affiliates are fighting a claim of violating of the Maryland Franchise Registration & Disclosure Law and fraudulent conduct in its sale of tutoring center franchise rights, after having its motions to dismiss the fraud claims denied by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
In Next Generation Group, LLC v. Sylvan Learning Centers, LLC, Case CCB-11-0986 (decided Jan. 5, 2012), the plaintiff franchisee alleged that he agreed to develop and operate a new Sylvan Learning Center in Irving, Texas, in reliance upon representations from Sylvan that it would sell the plaintiff two existing Centers in nearby Arlington and Allen, Texas. According to the Amended Complaint, those representations were made orally by Sylvan’s agent to plaintiff’s principal both before and after the plaintiff signed the franchise agreement for Irving, but several weeks before the Irving location opened, Sylvan’s agent advised plaintiff’s principal “in writing that Sylvan had approved his acquisition of the Arlington and Allen Learning centers, respectively.” The parties executed letters of intent for the sale of both sites about two weeks before the Irving Center opened. However, about three weeks after the Irving Center opened, Sylvan’s same agent “informed [plaintiff] that Sylvan would not sell him the license and assets for any more franchises.” According to the Amended Complaint, Sylvan provided no explanation of its reversal of course. The franchisee claimed that Sylvan fraudulently induced it to develop and open the Irving location.
Sylvan argued for dismissal of the claims on the basis that the Irving franchise agreement contained an “integration clause” that prevented the plaintiff from relying on promises made outside that written agreement. The court rejected this, by quoting a prior court decision stating, “[T]he law in Maryland … is that a plaintiff can successfully bring a tort action for fraud that is based on false pre-contract promises by the defendant even if (1) the written contract contains an integration clause and even if (2) the pre-contractual promises that constitute the fraud are not mentioned in the written contract. Most of our sister states apply a similar rule. Greenfield v. Heckenbach, 144 Md. App. 108, 130, 797 A.2d 63, 76 (2002).” Sylvan’s problem is that the contractual “integration clause” did not disclaim any specific oral representations, and certainly not any concerning Sylvan’s willingness to sell the plaintiff additional existing franchised businesses. Without specific disclaimers as to representations made on that specific topic, the integration clause did not prevent pursuit of the claim.
While Sylvan could use the presence of the integration clause at trial to challenge whether the plaintiff reasonably relied on promises made outside of the Irving franchise agreement, based on the facts alleged the court stated, “there is reason to believe [plaintiff] could reasonably have relied on Sylvan’s representations” concerning the sale of the existing locations. Therefore, the court held that permitting the plaintiff to file a second amended complaint would not be “futile” and granted the plaintiff’s motion to do so.
After the plaintiff filed its Second Amended Complaint, Sylvan immediately moved to dismiss it on essentially the same grounds as asserted previously, and the court once again refused to dismiss the claims for fraud and violation of the Maryland Franchise Registration & Disclosure Law. Accordingly, the parties are now conducting discovery that may take most of 2012 to complete.
It is important to recognize that the proceedings in this case to date solely concern the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s factual allegations as a matter of law, and in later proceedings Sylvan’s representatives will provide information on what occurred with regard to this franchise sale. Nevertheless, the decision reiterates an important point for all Maryland business people – even if promises and statements are excluded from a particular written agreement, they may have legal consequences if the subsequent business relationship fails to meet the other party’s expectations.
April 20th, 2012
An appeals court has held that Doctor’s Associates, Inc., the franchisor of Subway® sandwich shops, could be liable for the payment of workers’ compensation benefits for the injured employee of a franchisee under the Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Act because the franchisee could fit the Act’s definition of a “subcontractor” and Doctors Associates could be considered a “prime contractor”. Uninsured Employers’ Fund v. Brown, et al., Case No. 2010-CA-000283-WC (Ct. App. Ky., Sept. 3, 2010).
The court sent the case back to the lower courts to allow for: (1) presentation of additional proof regarding the nature of the franchisor’s business and whether the work that the franchisee performed was a regular or recurrent part of the franchisor’s business; and (2) additional findings of fact after presentation of that evidence.
In late 2011, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the decision to remand the case for further fact-finding and ended it in favor of Doctors Associates, Inc. (“DAI”). However, that court expressly held that franchisors are not immune from scrutiny as a “statutory employer” of franchisees’ employees under Kentucky’s workers’ compensation law. Since Maryland and other states have similar workers’ compensation laws, this principle of law applies to offering a franchise in Maryland or elsewhere. Doctors Associates, Inc. v. Uninsured Employers’ Fund (KY Nov. 23, 2011).
An employee of one of the franchisor’s Kentucky franchisees had sustained injuries while working at the restaurant. The franchisee carried no workers’ compensation insurance at the time. Accordingly, the employee’s medical and disability expenses were paid by the Uninsured Employers Fund which sought indemnity from the franchisor, under a provision of the Act requiring contractors to pay compensation to an injured employee of a subcontractor if the subcontractor did not carry workers’ compensation insurance.
The ALJ concluded that he could not impose liability for workers’ compensation benefits upon the franchisor for the franchisee’s injured employee for a number of reasons. First, the franchisor was a “commercial franchisor”, a category of business not specifically covered by the statute. Second, a contractor-subcontractor relationship existed under the statute only where the contractor paid the subcontractor to perform work. Because the franchisee was paying the franchisor, the franchisee could not be the franchisor’s subcontractor.
The Court Says, “It’s Always an Issue of Fact”
The appellate court reversed the decision because there is no blanket exemption from the worker’s compensation system of “commercial franchisors.” In jurisdictions outside of Kentucky, courts resolved whether franchisors were liable for workers’ compensation benefits based on the specific facts of the cases, rather than by general rules of exemption, the court observed. A natural tension existed between the types of franchisor controls inherent in franchising and the types of control over day-to-day operations that courts traditionally evaluated to determine whether an employment relationship existed. The factual issue to be determined in the context of a franchise is whether the alleged subcontractor has performed work “of a kind which is a regular or recurrent part of the work of the trade, business, occupation, or profession of [the contractor],”.
The resolution of whether the franchisee was performing work for the franchisor under the meaning of the Act required the finder of fact to put aside the fact that the franchisee purchased a franchise from the franchisor, and instead look to the nature of the lasting relationship that was created between the franchisor and franchisee thereafter, the court decided. If the franchisor essentially contracted with the franchisee to perform a function that was a regular and recurrent part of its business, then the arrangement between the franchisor and franchisee was that of contractor and subcontractor and subject to the Act.
Thus, if selling sandwiches to the public was a regular and recurrent part of Doctor’s Associates, Inc.’s business, then the franchisee was unquestionably performing work that Doctor’s Associates, Inc. otherwise would have had to perform for itself and with its own employees, and the franchisee would fit within the Act’s definition of “subcontractor.”
Concurrence Goes Further on Franchisor’s Liability
A concurring option also raised the issue of whether a franchisor that failed to enforce the franchise agreement requirement that the franchisee maintain adequate insurance and name the franchisor as an additional insured, thereby becomes liable to third parties due to the franchisee’s failure to have such insurance. This could open the door to even great legal liability in franchising in Maryland and other states.
Supreme Court reverses due to deference given to Workers Compensation Board
The Kentucky Supreme Court agreed that the ALJ erred in finding that franchisors are immune as a matter of law from being a statutory employer of franchisee’s employees. However, the Supreme Court nevertheless ended the case for the following reason: “The [Uninsured Employers’ Fund] is the claimant bearing the burden of proof to show that DAI is a contractor subject to up-the-ladder liability. The ALJ and the Board found that DAI was in the business of franchising, not the business of selling sandwiches. So the franchisee did not perform a regular or recurrent part of DAI’s business. Substantial evidence supported this finding, and we find that the evidence does not compel a finding for the UEF.”
This court decision demonstrates the importance of franchisors vigorously enforcing its contract provisions regarding insurance coverage, as well as other contract provisions that, if not complied with by the franchisee, may lead to liability to franchisee’s employees and customers. It also supports the notion that entrepreneurs beginning a franchising program should not offer franchises through a company that also operates the business being franchised, but instead create a new company used solely for franchising activities. It is important for companies offering franchises in Maryland to consult with an attorney and minimize this risk.
March 20th, 2012
In Girl Scouts of Manitou Council, Inc. v. Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Inc.
, 646 F.3d 983 (7th Cir. 2011), the U.S. Court of Appeals for Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin held that the national Girl Scouts organization, a nonprofit incorporated by an Act of Congress, violated the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law by dissolving a local Wisconsin chapter of the national organization “without good cause.” The 2011 decision is notable both because of its author, the extremely well-known, respected and conservative Judge Richard Posner, and because of the language used by the Court in rejecting the Girl Scouts of the United States’ arguments for immunity based on its nonprofit mission. This article is designed to help the leaders of nonprofit organizations and associations identify ways to mitigate risks posed by this decision.
Under the Wisconsin law, a “dealer” is one who is granted the right by contract to “use [the grantor's] trade name, trademark, service mark, logotype, advertising or other commercial symbol” and has “a community of interest” with the other party to the contract “in the business of offering, selling or distributing goods or services at wholesale, retail, by lease, agreement, or otherwise.” The Girl Scouts of the United States argued that its contract with the affiliate was not “commercial” and that the affiliate was not “in business.” To that, the Court said:
. . . one doesn’t usually think of nonprofit enterprises as being “commercial” and engaged in “business.” Or didn’t use to–for outweighing these hints is the fact that nonprofit enterprises frequently do engage in “commercial” or “business” activities, and certainly the Girl Scouts do. Proceeds of the sale of Girl Scout cookies are the major source of Manitou’s income. The local councils sell other merchandise as well. Sales of merchandise account for almost a fifth of the national organization’s income, and most of the rest comes from membership fees and thus depends on the success of the local councils in recruiting members; that in turn depends on the councils’ revenues and thus gives the national organization an indirect stake in the cookie sales.
646 F.3d at 987. The Court went on to emphasize that, when competing with for-profit entities in commercial enterprises and endeavors, nonprofits may be held to the same legal standards of conduct.
Laws that prohibit termination or cancellation of a dealer or franchisee, except for “good cause,” are called “franchise relationship” laws. Wisconsin’s definition of a “dealer” is similar to the definition of a “franchise” under the franchise relationship laws of Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey. Another 11 states have franchise relationship laws, but require the “franchisee” to prove that it was required to pay some sort of “fee” as a condition of selling goods or services under the “grantor’s” trademark. Such “fees” have been deemed charged if the “franchisee” was required to pay the “franchisor” for a policies and procedures manual, for its director to attend a training conference, or even for marketing materials to distribute to prospective customers of the good or service.
The 15 states that have laws regulating the granting of a franchise, typically known as “franchise sales laws,” mandate certain disclosures be provided to prospective franchisees and that the franchisor refrain from certain actions in recruiting franchisees. All of those laws also contain a requirement that the “grantee” directly or indirectly pay some sort of “fee” to the grantor as a condition of operating under the grantor’s trademark. Most of those laws do not require that the fee be paid up front, and thus the fee could be a percentage of the grantee’s cash received in operating the business. However, payments from the grantee to the grantor for products at their “bona fide wholesale price” cannot be franchise fees, and the payment of commissions to the grantee when it has acted as a bona fide sales agent of the grantor are excluded. However, if the fee element is satisfied and there is substantial association with a common name, then Judge Posner’s reasoning on what is a “commercial endeavor” and operation of a “business” could be meaningful in proving the existence of a franchise.
The Federal Trade Commission also has a trade regulation rule that contains disclosure requirements and recruitment prohibitions that are similar to the state franchise sales laws. Fortunately for nonprofit organizations, the FTC has issued several advisory opinions finding that a nonprofit engaging in transactions that would otherwise be considered franchising were exempt from the Franchise Rule provided that (a) the licensor is not engaged in the relationship “for its own profit or the profit of its members,” and (b) the licensees are also bona fide non-profits. The first requirement is driven by the limit of the FTC’s jurisdiction, since it may only regulate a company “which is organized to carry on business for its own profit or that of its members.” 15 U.S.C. § 44. However, when the nonprofit associations of glass makers and insurance agents collaborated to form “The Glass Network” to enable the insurers to obtain lower cost auto glass replacement services and the glass makers access to that market, the FTC staff found that “network” to be covered by the Franchise Rule, notwithstanding its ownership by nonprofits. The Glass Network, LLC, FTC Informal Staff Advisory Opinion 04-4 (2004).
What follows are some key questions to ask in determining whether your chapter or affiliate program could be deemed a franchise system, or should otherwise focus on franchise law matters:
1. Are your members for-profit companies or professionals?
2. Is there an upfront affiliation fee or annual dues to maintain affiliate status, or a requirement that the affiliate purchase certain quantities of goods or services, regardless of customer demand?
3. Do your affiliates pay you a share of membership dues they receive, or does the affiliate receive membership commissions from you?
4. Is your association’s name or logo a prominent or significant part of the affiliate’s name or identity, from the perspective of its members?
5. Do your affiliates provide direct business development opportunities for their members (as opposed to general promotional benefit)?
6. Does a substantial portion of each of your affiliates’ revenues come from the sale of the same type of products or services, and are those products or services also sold by for-profit companies? Examples besides cookies are travel tours, function facility space, summer camps, or sports leagues.
7. Do your affiliates have exclusive territorial rights?
8. Is there a minimum quota of memberships that the affiliate must maintain?
9. Is good cause required to terminate the affiliate’s charter?
10. Is there a covenant not to compete after revocation of the charter, and if so who does it bind (i.e., just the affiliate as a nonprofit entity, or also its officers and directors)?
If a nonprofit organization or association answers “yes” to many of these questions, it may be advisable to review the chapter or affiliate structure – and applicable affiliation agreement – to mitigate the risk of inadvertently being considered to fall within the franchise laws.
January 25th, 2012
On January 3, 2012, the National Labor Relations Board
(NLRB) issued a decision in D. R. Horton, Inc. and Michael Cuda, NLRB Case 12–CA–25764
, that provides a powerful incentive to expand business in the U.S. methods through franchising or other methods that do not involve hiring employees. It ruled that requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements that prevent
them from joining a class action lawsuit or class arbitration over employment-related issues (like overtime pay) violates the National Labor Relations Act
(NLRA). This decision applies to all private employers, regardless of whether their employees are unionized or not.
Specifically, the NLRB ruled that “employers may not compel employees to waive their NLRA right to collectively pursue litigation of employment claims in all forums, arbitral and judicial.” The NLRB did not forbid agreements that require employees to arbitrate workplace disputes, but rather held that such agreements must provide a method for employees to assert class or collective claims in arbitration or through the courts.
This decision came in a case in which an employee attempted to bring a class action arbitration accusing his employer of misclassifying certain supervisors as exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime pay requirements. The employer refused to arbitrate on a class basis, citing a provision in the employee’s employment agreement that barred arbitration of class claims. The employee then filed an unfair labor practices claim with the NLRB, alleging that the agreement violated his rights under the NLRA. The NLRB found the employee’s claim had merit, and that “the NLRA protects employees’ ability to join together to pursue workplace grievances, including through litigation.”
The NLRB also held that, under these circumstances, its decision did not conflict with the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). The NLRB distinguished last year’s Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the use of class arbitration waivers in consumer contracts, on the basis that the employer’s mandatory class action “waiver interferes with substantive statutory rights under the NLRA, and the intent of the FAA was to leave substantive [legal] rights undisturbed.” The NLRB’s basis for interpreting the FAA was a line of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, in particular Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 24 (1991).
Nevertheless, given that the NLRB’s decision has wide application to all employment relationships, and it conflicts with the Supreme Court’s many recent pro-arbitration and anti-class action rulings, this decision will likely be challenged in the courts and may wind up being addressed by the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, however, this decision is another reminder that growing a business through debt or equity financing for “company-owned” locations comes with many legal risks, not the least of which is employment liability. Franchising might be an alternative worth considering for many businesses.
January 19th, 2012
Compliance costs and ongoing challenges of obtaining financing for new businesses have led many companies seeking growth to search for alternatives to franchising. These efforts, while quite understandable, have legal and practical implications. To understand whether they are worth the effort involved, it is important to analyze the nature of your business and its growth objectives by attempting to answer these types of questions:
1. Does your business primarily involve the sales of products you supply, the sale of products to be created by others using your methods, or the provision of services?
2. Does your business benefit from close association with a related enterprise? Examples are energy auditing, which is complementary to mechanical and renovation contractors, and the selling of fractional interests in real estate as part of a real estate brokerage business.
3. Will your business incur substantial upfront costs in the opening of new locations, either directly in the purchase of materials and inventory or indirectly in the time spent by staff in supporting the new operator?
4. Are your business methods a more compelling business asset than your brand name?
5. To what degree is poor service quality in one location likely to jeopardize the ongoing fortunes in other locations?
6. What is your ability to finance growth through profits from existing operations?
7. What is your appetite for risk in growth? Company-owned locations can be more profitable than franchises, but also substantially riskier for many reasons, including employment risk (for a recent example, see this National Labor Relations Board decision).
Your answers to these questions and others will help lead to the desired method of growth and, in turn, the steps required to comply with applicable laws and that safeguard your company’s interests. The answer could be granting a franchise for someone else to develop and own a truly new, independent business, i.e., licensing someone else to operate using your brand, under methods you prescribe and in exchange for fees paid to you. Alternatively, you might recruit local representatives who have successful related businesses to sell your product or service as a relatively small part of their ongoing operations. You might use profits from existing operations to finance part of the costs of opening new locations, while recruiting “local talent” who will finance the other part of the cost and operate those locations (as “partners”). Or perhaps you will offer stock in your company and recruit talented salespeople or managers who will make no cash investment, but who also will have more limited ability to control and profit from local operations over time.
Each such solution (and there may be more than one) requires different legal services and provide different challenges. As growth counselors, the attorneys of Whiteford Taylor & Preston L.L.P. have the skills to assist with any of these endeavors. Contact David L. Cahn to discuss your growth strategy.