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.
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.
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.