May 20th, 2013
In the opening General Session of the International Franchise Association (“IFA”) Legal Symposium on May 6, 2013, Aziz Hashim
, President & CEO of NRD Holdings, LLC (Multi-Unit Franchisee of Popeye’s, Checkers, and Domino’s Pizza) & the IFA’s current Secretary, and Kenneth L. Walker
, formerly IFA Chairman and the Chairman of the Board of Driven Brands, Inc. (franchisor of Meineke Car Care businesses), commented on franchise agreements and franchise relationship management in an interview-style program moderated by Joel Buckberg. Their comments, which are summarized below, demonstrate both the promise and the challenges inherent in franchising.
Franchise Agreement “Turn-offs”: Hashim’s “bad marks” when evaluating franchise agreements all relate to the security of the franchisee’s equity investment in the business, and are:
1. Franchisor’s right to a liquidated damages award following termination for any reason;
2. Unlimited personal guarantees required by the franchisee’s owners, particularly after an approved sale of the owner’s interest in the franchisee;
3. Franchisor’s right to require the buyer of a location to sign the franchisor’s then-current form of franchise agreement, which might have higher fees or weakened territorial rights;
4. Franchisor’s right to require “periodic” remodeling, without limitations on the frequency, timing or cost of the facility changes.
Walker did not list any concerns with franchise agreements, which is not surprising given his background as a franchisor executive. However, he did emphasize that one of his biggest “turnoffs” when he was CEO (from 1996 until 2012) was having the first contact in a negotiation coming from a franchisee’s lawyer rather than the franchisee executive himself. He was much more likely to negotiate an issue with a franchisee who first approached him directly, even if the final agreement might be worked through by each party’s counsel.
Use of Marketing Funds: Walker expressed a preference for wide franchisor discretion in deciding how to use franchisee contributions, as long as the uses were devoted to growing franchisees’ businesses. Hashim agreed, but with the caveat that franchisees had to be actively engaged and consulted as to the franchisor’s proposed uses of the monies. Hashim objected to use of such funds to cover part of franchisor’s executive salaries (such as for a Chief Marketing Officer) or to conduct product development analysis. He supported flexible uses such as contributing towards the remodeling and rebranding of franchisee restaurants. Walker agreed that franchisee engagement and “buy-in” is critical, on the basis that it is better to have a somewhat flawed marketing plan that is widely executed than an outstanding plan that the franchisees refuse to implement.
Territorial Rights: With regard to franchisees’ territory protections, Walker argued that if the brand as a whole is losing market share to competitors with its existing network of locations, then it should be able to “backfill” with additional franchises. Hashim seemed to agree, as long as the plan protected franchisees who were properly executing the system and meeting expected revenue targets.
Supply Chain Controls: Hashim argued that franchisors should not require purchases of commonly available supplies or ingredients from more expensive sources, if the franchisees can obtain the same items less expensively through other means. He said that at a minimum, there should be clear disclosure to prospective franchisees of how the franchisor makes money from the supply chain.
Facility Remodeling and “Upgrades”: The panelists agreed that it is critical for franchisors to efficiently monitor the quality of goods and services being provided and to discipline franchisees who are not meeting such standards. However, Hashim argued that franchisors need to “make the business case” as to how facility updates or remodeling are going to benefit the profitability and value of the franchisees’ businesses rather than just drive revenue growth. He also believes that “smart franchisors” help fund the costs of facility updates to obtain rapid adoption by most franchisees.
Transfer: Walker emphasized the need to make sure that approval of a transfer is unlikely to harm the viability of a location. Hashim said that it is critical that the franchisor’s rules for obtaining approval are clear, objective and disclosed to active franchisees, and if the criteria are changed the franchisor should be able to explain why change is necessary. Hashim recommends this simple test: “If you would sell this person a new franchise, then you should approve a transfer to that same person.”
Training and Operations Support: Walker believes that in-person, live training and conventions continue to have value in fostering a team spirit among franchisees and an exchange of best practices information, as compared to Internet “webinars” or recorded trainings. Hashim expressed frustration that the ratio of franchisor field staff or “business consultants” to franchisees has been decreasing over time, and the experience level of those consultants has been decreasing. He said that periodic visits by qualified field representatives play in important role in franchisee satisfaction and success.
Termination and Damages: Despite his broad disapproval of personal guarantees and liquidated damages, Hashim agreed with Walker that, if a franchisee is not in financial distress but simply wants to quit the franchise to stop paying royalties, then it is appropriate to require that franchisee to pay termination compensation to the franchisor.
Concluding Comments: Hashim made the following noteworthy comments to franchisors:
1. Recognize that you are not bestowing franchise rights, but rather recruiting important business partners;
2. Don’t make your franchise agreement so harsh that it scares of good prospective franchisees, since quality franchisees drive a brand’s success;
3. Poll your best franchisees to find out their thoughts about the brand and franchisor staff;
4. Mystery shop your franchise salespeople, to find out what they are saying (and failing to say) to prospects; and
5. Employ a true ombudsman to address franchisee complaints and concerns before they mushroom into disputes.
In many ways this program showed the best that the IFA has to offer, since it brought together franchisor and franchisee perspectives for the purpose of furthering industry best practices. It also highlighted Aziz Hashim as a rising leader in franchising who bears watching in the future.
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.
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.
September 27th, 2011
In its recent decision of Meineke Car Care Centers, Inc. v. RBL Holdings, LLC, et al., Case No. 09-2030, Case No. 09-2030, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,586 (decided April 14, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit provided valuable guidance on one of the most important legal issues for franchisors and franchisees. Specifically, if a franchisee closes franchised businesses that it can no longer afford to operate, can its franchisor obtain a judgment for “lost future royalties” that it would have earned had the businesses continued to operate?
In this Meineke case, the trial court had granted summary judgment dismissing the franchisor’s claim, on the bases that: (1) the franchise agreement did not state that the franchisee would be liable for royalties even if the business closed, and (2) even if Meineke had the right to seek lost future profits due to the franchisee’s closure of the stores, the claim failed because Meineke could not prove that it was “reasonably certain” that such profits would have been realized if the stores had not been closed. The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed on both points and remanded the case for trial on Meineke’s claim.
On the first point, the court held that the parties are not required to specify in the Franchise Agreement all categories of potential damages each could seek as a result of the other’s breach. Rather, the standard is whether, at the time of entering into the agreement, “lost profits may reasonably be supposed to have been within [the parties’] contemplation as a probable result of [the franchisee’s] premature closure of the Shops.” A specific statement in the Franchise Agreement that the franchisee would be liable for all royalties throughout the term of the agreement would have been powerful evidence of the parties’ understanding when they signed the contracts. However, it was not the only admissible evidence of the parties’ “contemplation” on that issue, and therefore a factual dispute on that point existed – making it an issue for the jury to decide.
On the second point, the court emphasized that the royalties payable to Meineke were calculated from a percentage of the Stores’ gross revenue, not net profits. The court found that Meineke had demonstrated “with reasonable certainty” that, except for the franchisee’s breach of the agreements by closing the Shops, some revenue and therefore some lost royalties would have been realized. Thus, a trial was necessary to determine the amount of those lost “profits” with reasonable certainty.
However, at the trial, it would be relevant in making that determination how long it would have been “commercially feasible” to continue to operate each of the Shops, based on its historical net profits to the owner. In other words, the fact finder’s decision of how long it was “commercially feasible” to expect the franchisee to keep the doors open would determine the amount of the lost future royalties damages.
(1) the only way that a franchisee and its personal guarantors can be sure that they will not be liable for lost future royalties if the franchise fails is to insist upon language in the franchise agreement eliminating (or limiting) the franchisor’s right to those damages.
(2) if a franchised store ceases operations and truly “goes dark” due to ongoing net operating losses, at trial on a claim for lost future royalties the franchisor will need to be able to demonstrate that it was “commercially feasible” for the franchisee to remain open and, if so, provide some reasonable basis for the fact finder to determine how long the store should have remained open.
Given the uncertainty and fact intensive nature of such a case, it is probably in the best interests of both the franchisor and the franchisee to directly address the issue in the written agreement the franchisor’s right to “lost future royalties” and an agreed upon method to calculate those “damages.”
The full opinion can be viewed at http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/092030.U.pdf
September 13th, 2011
Talking to your competitors can be risky
Criminal Price-Fixing Conspiracy Convictions Highlight Dangers
Two recent guilty pleas announced by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division highlight an underappreciated area of serious legal liability – price coordination in violation of the Sherman Act.
On August 24, 2011,the Justice Department announcedthe guilty plea of Great Lakes Concrete, one of four Iowa companies that sell “ready-mix concrete” for construction projects and have plead guilty to reaching agreements regarding their respective price lists and project bids and then accepting payment for those sales at prices artificially increased due to collusion. The press releaseemphasizes the maximum fine that may be imposed for the conviction, which is the greater of $100 million, twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims of the crime. In addition, the president of Great Lakes Concrete was sentenced to serve a year and a day in prison.
On August 31, 2011, the Justice Department announced a guilty plea by a California company, Sabry Lee (U.S.A.) Inc., in “a global conspiracy to fix the prices of aftermarket auto lights.”The company is the U.S. distributor for a Taiwan producer of the auto lights, which are most commonly installed in vehicles after collisions. The alleged conspiracy was apparently between several Taiwan based manufacturers of auto lights and their U.S. distributors, who “met and agreed to charge prices of aftermarket auto lights at certain predetermined levels” and “issued price announcements and price lists in accordance with the agreements reached, and collected and exchanged information on prices and sales of aftermarket auto lights for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing adherence to the agreed-upon prices.” Executives of two of the U.S. distributor companies have pled guilty to price-fixing charges, and the second ranking officer of one of the Taiwan manufacturers was arrested in the U.S. and has been indicted.
While the press release leads one to believe that the executives in these cases knowingly intended to fix prices at artificially high levels, it is quite possible that at least some of them were not completely aware of the legal implications of their conversations. However, any communications between competing companies concerning prices are legally risky.
The Takeaway: Business people should seek pricing intelligence from customers, service providers, or independent websites — but not from direct communications with their competitors. This is particularly true for industries in which formal competitive bidding is common or in which a relatively small number of companies make a large percentage of the total sales.
Beyond that basic rule, certain types of communications and collaborationsbetween competitors are permitted and even encouraged by U.S. antitrust law. Each situation needs to be analyzed based on the particular facts and reasons for your collaborative effort.
June 16th, 2010
Even in the best of franchise relationships, franchisors must be wary of litigation and potential liability arising out of their franchisees’ business operations. Where a franchisor imposes and exercises substantial controls over its franchisees’ operational and administrative methods and procedures, the franchisor may well find itself a defendant in lawsuits brought by customers and employees of its franchised outlets, claiming that the franchisor’s exercise of control makes it liable for its franchisees’ negligence or misconduct.
Two recent cases involving employee and customer claims against Jackson Hewitt shed light on this issue. In one case, a customer of a Jackson Hewitt franchised tax center in Louisiana filed suit against the franchisor based upon a privacy breach committed by the franchisee. In the other, an employee of a Jackson Hewitt franchise in Pennsylvania sued the franchisor for sexual harassment based upon the alleged actions of certain owners and managers of the franchise. In asserting their claims against the franchisor, both plaintiffs relied heavily upon language in Jackson Hewitt’s franchise operations manual and other documentation, and also the direct involvement of Jackson Hewitt representatives in the operations of its franchisees. The courts in both cases were willing to consider the plaintiffs’ claims against Jackson Hewitt despite clear admonitions in the Franchise Agreement and Operations Manual that the franchisee and its employees “shall not be considered or represented [by the franchisee] as [Jackson Hewitt’s] employees or agents” and that franchisee has exclusive responsibility over hiring and matters relating to personnel.
The conclusion to be drawn from the Jackson Hewitt litigation is that franchisors are essentially presented with two options when drafting their franchise agreements and operations manuals. The first option is to impose significant operational controls over their franchisees’ operations, similar to those described above, and assume the attendant risk of facing liability for third-party claims arising from actions taken in accordance with the operational mandates. The other option is to limit the franchise operations manual to providing examples, general guidance and non-mandatory recommendations for operating procedures and specifications.
The first approach allows franchisors to impose greater control over, and have more say in, their franchisees’ operations—which is an attractive proposition for many franchisors. In addition, franchisees may perceive greater value in a franchise system that provides strict operating standards and procedures, which may help to distinguish the franchisor from competing brands. If the franchisor chooses this approach, it should consider increasing the minimum policy limits required for franchisees’ insurance policies and the types of required policies. It may also want to explore direct insurance coverage for the franchisor for all claims arising from franchised operations.
The advantages of the second option are demonstrated by a recent court decision from Illinois, Braucher v. Swagat Group, LLC, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,355 (Mar. 19, 2010), in which Choice Hotels International, Inc. avoided liability in a wrongful death claim for the alleged negligence of one of its franchisees in maintaining its indoor swimming pool and whirlpool. Choice provided very limited operational guidance and controls with regard to swimming areas, and this approach allows a franchisor to avoid potential liability associated with imposing mandatory operational controls over franchises. However, it also carries the potentially negative business implications of allowing franchisees a measured level of discretion in running their businesses under the franchised brand. The term “measured” is important, because the franchise agreement should still include rights of termination or other remedies for acts or omissions that have the potential to cause material detriment to the franchise system’s goodwill. In addition, franchisees may view a franchisor that employs this approach as providing very little in terms of affirmative guidance and support, not acknowledging that the information and non-binding recommendations of a franchisor can provide value in and of themselves, irrespective of whether compliance is deemed mandatory.
A prospective franchisee can also glean guidance from the information provided above. When evaluating a franchise opportunity, a prospective franchisee should seek to review the franchisor’s operations manual, even if its table of contents is provided in the Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”). It is acceptable for a franchisor to require the prospect to sign a non-disclosure agreement with regard to the Manual. If the operations manual provides detailed mandatory specifications and procedures, the prospective franchisee should be wary of the likelihood that the franchisor will pursue rigorous enforcement, to account for the assumption of the significant liability risks described above. While the “deep pocket” franchisor’s potential “joint and several” liability for third-party claims may seem like a benefit to the franchisee, the prospect should be aware that indemnification and contribution provisions in the franchise agreement is likely to shift the ultimate financial burden back to the franchisee, unless it can prove that the franchisor’s actions caused the third party’s claim.
If the operations manual provides only examples and recommendations for franchisee policies and operational procedures, as opposed to detailed mandates, the franchisor may be attempting to avoid any direct performance obligations to its franchisees, or it may simply be attempting to limit its exposure. In performing its due diligence, a prospective franchisee should attempt to gain as much information as possible from the franchisor and its active franchisees to discern the quality and operational support the franchisor actually offers.
The operations manual and other forms and operational materials can be valuable tools for franchisors and franchisees alike. But, depending on how they are written, they can expose the franchisor to liability and raise serious questions in the minds of franchisees as to the benefit to be derived from subscribing to a particular franchise. Parties on both sides of the table should be sure to carefully evaluate these documents to ensure that they serve and meet their needs and expectations.
June 15th, 2010
A recent decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals illustrates the fundamental importance of seeking affirmative legal protection for your intellectual property rights. While Brass Metal Products, Inc. v. E-J Enterprises, Inc., 984 A.2d 361, 189 Md. App. 310 (Md. App. 2009) involves an inventor’s loss of rights as a result of his failure to obtain a patent for his invention, the principles applied by the Court are equally applicable to other forms of intangible property.
In Brass Metal Products, Brass Metal, a distributor of aluminum construction railing products, entered into a wholesale supply agreement with E-J Enterprises (“E-J”), under which E-J would purchase unique aluminum railings from extrusion mills for resale to Brass Metal on an as-needed basis. The railings were designed by Brass Metal’s owner, James Burger, but Burger never obtained patents on his designs. Several years later Brass Metal authorized E-J to sell its excess inventory of railings extruded from Burger’s designs.
Eventually, E-J began selling railings it had purchased for Brass Metal to Parthenon, a new company owned by Brass Metal’s top salesman. When E-J refused Brass Metal’s request to stop these sales, Brass Metal filed suit against Parthenon and E-J. However, since neither Brass Metal nor its owner had obtained patents for the designs, Brass Metal was limited to basing its claim concerning use of designs on the tort theory of conversion rather than a statutory patent infringement. Brass Metal settled with Parthenon before trial, but lost its case against E-J and then appealed.
Conversion is essentially theft (“any distinct act of ownership or dominion exerted by one person over the personal property of another in denial of its right or inconsistent with it”). Darcars Motors of Silver Spring, Inc. v. Borzym, 379 Md. 249, 261 (2004). Fundamental to any claim for conversion is that the claimant must have a property interest in the thing that it claims was converted. This requirement imposes unique hurdles to protect intangible property rights. To succeed on a claim for conversion of intangible property, the Maryland courts have held that the owner’s rights must be “merged or incorporated into a transferable document.” Allied Inv. Corp. v. Jasen, 354 Md. 547 (1999). Burger and Brass Metal failed to meet this requirement in this case, at least as to E-J.
Brass Metal also asserted that custom and usage in the industry demonstrated that E-J understood that Brass Metal’s rights in the railings’ design were protected. The court denied this claim, citing Brass Metal’s failure to meet the “clear and convincing evidence” standard for establishing the custom and usage of the aluminum extrusion industry.
Absent the prerequisites for a claim for conversion of intangible property, since Brass Metal failed to obtain a patent for Burger’s design, it did not have the right to prohibit E-J from selling to Parthenon (or anyone else) aluminum railings extruded from Burger’s designs or extremely similar ones provided by to E-J by Parthenon. As a result, the trial court ruled in favor of E-J Enterprises on all claims.
The Maryland courts have held that, subject to the limitation discussed above, claims for conversion may succeed for forms of intangible property other than patents, such as partnership interests and copyrights, although conversion claims for copyrightable materials may be subject to preemption by the federal Copyright Act. See U.S. ex rel. Berge v. Bd. of Trustees of the Univ. of Alamaba, 104 F.3d 1453 (4th Cir. 1997). Before entering into any transaction involving any type of creative work, including technical designs or specifications, business people should be sure to take all steps necessary to fully protect their intangible rights and write contracts properly safeguarding these rights.
June 9th, 2010
During the summer two parties agree to a transfer of a mobile festival concessions business for a total sales price of $150,000. The assets of the business to be transferred include a truck, a trailer, kitchen equipment, signs and lighting apparatus. The purchasers (a mother and daughter) pay $10,000 cash up front, with the balance due once the purchaser secures bank financing. The purchasers take possession of the assets and operate the business for several months, paying the sellers (a husband and his wife) a modest consulting fee to assist with the business transition. Insurance and title to the assets remains in the sellers’ name, pending payment of the $140,000 balance owed. The purchasers buy replacement equipment, pay the business’s taxes and pay the business’s employees.
By the end of the festival season, the profits do not meet the purchasers’ expectations. The purchasers’ loan has been approved, but the funds have not been transferred. The purchasers attempt to return the truck and equipment to the sellers’ storage facility and avoid the parties’ oral agreement. Who wins and why?
This law school-worthy fact pattern presented itself in a 2008 case from Illinois, Jannusch v. Naffziger, 883 N.E.2d 711 (Ill. App. 2008), and the entertaining scenario provides a well-suited platform for analyzing contract issues relevant to commercial transactions and business acquisitions of all shapes and sizes.
The purchasers argued that the parties had never entered into a valid agreement for the sale of the concessions business named “Fesitival Foods”. Specifically, the purchasers asserted that the parties’ discussions did not address numerous essential terms that were necessary for a binding agreement, including allocation of the purchase price among equipment and goodwill, whether there would be a covenant not to compete binding the sellers, how lien releases would be obtained, and what would occur if the financing never came through. The court disagreed, finding that the parties had agreed to all the necessary “essential terms” which were the purchase price and the items to be transferred. Thus, the purchasers’ argument that the parties course of conduct was merely preliminary to a potential future purchase agreement was found unpersuasive:
“The conduct in this case is clear. Parties discussing the sale of goods do not transfer those goods and allow them to be retained for a substantial period before reaching agreement. [The purchasers] replaced equipment, reported income, paid taxes, and paid [the sellers] for [their] time and expenses, all of which is inconsistent with the idea that [the purchasers were] only ‘pursuing buying the business.’ An agreement to make an agreement is not an agreement, but there was clearly more than that here.”
Contracts for the sale of goods are governed by Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”). However, whether a business acquisition constitutes a “sale of goods” is not always cut and dry. Where a transaction, such as a typical business acquisition, involves sales of both goods and services, courts apply the “predominant purpose” test to determine whether Article 2 applies. In Jannusch, the court held that the fact that, “significant tangible assets were involved” was sufficient to place the parties’ transaction within the scope of Article 2.
As noted by the purchasers, the general rule under Article 2 is that contracts for the sale of goods over $500 must be in writing to be enforceable. However, even oral contracts in excess of $500 will be enforced if one side has either acknowledged the agreement in court or partially performed its obligations under the agreement. Thus, in Jannusch, even though the parties’ contract was oral, it still was governed by Article 2 because both sides had partially performed. Specifically, the sellers had delivered the equipment, the purchasers had made the $10,000 down payment and, most importantly, the purchasers had applied for and obtained a bank loan to pay the $140,000 balance of the purchase price. In addition, one of the purchasers acknowledged in her testimony that the purchasers had agreed to pay $150,000 for the business, she just couldn’t recall exactly when.
As a result, despite the lack of formality and the limited terms upon which the parties had actually agreed, the trial court found—and the appellate court affirmed—that the parties had entered into a valid, binding and enforceable contract for the sale of the business. The defendants’ attempt to “get out of the deal” because of disappointing profits during two months of operations failed, and the defendants were liable for a $140,000 judgment.
Court decisions like Jannusch are important for businesspeople because they demonstrate that a party’s subjective understanding of a transaction—or even a communication not intended to form a transaction—can be irrelevant to the legal results that arise. While the purchasers’ claims in this case may have been an after-the-fact attempt to avoid the effects of their knowing conduct, the implications extend to cases of legitimate misunderstanding and lack of intent to form a contract. Parties considering any substantial sale or purchase need to be careful to take steps to ensure that their oral or informal (e.g., email) interactions with potential buyers or sellers are limited so that they do not reach a binding agreement without intending to. Carefully drafted documentation is the best way to avoid disputes based upon conflicting intents and understandings.