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.