Tag: franchise fraud
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.”
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.
November 7th, 2011
A recent decision in A Love of Food I, LLC v. Maoz Vegetarian USA, Inc. , Case No. AW-10-2352, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,633 (decided July 7, 2011), the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in denying a motion to dismiss, highlighted the need for franchisors to vigilantly update their government-required disclosure document to maintain its accuracy, while also providing a valuable reminder as to the geographic scope of state franchise sales laws’ application.
Misrepresentations in Franchise Disclosures
The franchise agreement at issue in the case was for a Maoz Vegetarian® quick-serve restaurant that the plaintiff opened and operated in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The franchisee alleged that the startup cost estimates in the franchisor’s government-mandated disclosure document (then known as the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular, or “UFOC”) dramatically underestimated the actual startup costs for its franchise, and that the franchisor knew that the representations were inaccurate at the time it made them. They alleged that the franchisor’s actions constituted violations of the anti-fraud provisions of the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law, as well as fraud as a matter of the general common law of Maryland.
In a decision during 1999 in the case of Motor City Bagels, LLC v. American Bagel Co., Civ. No. S-97-3474, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 11,654, another judge in the U.S. District Court for Maryland had held that a franchisor could have committed fraud by misrepresenting the initial investment costs in its UFOC by approximately 20 – 25%. By contrast, in this case the franchisee alleged that it had to spend more than twice the franchisor’s “maximum” estimate of $269,000 to open their restaurant, and that during 2008 the franchisor increased the “maximum” initial investment cost estimate in its UFOC by $225,000.
The UFOC specifically encouraged the franchisee to rely on the startup cost estimates in two ways. First, the UFOC specifically itemized various cost categories and provided sub-estimates for each category. Second, the UFOC pointed out that the estimates were based on the franchisor’s “15 years of combined industry experience and experience in establishing and assisting our franchisees in establishing and operating 23 [vegetarian restaurants] which are similar in nature to the Franchised Unit you will operate.”
The franchisor argued that cost projections were statements of opinion and could not constitute fraud because they were not susceptible to exact knowledge at the time they are made. However, the court held that erroneous projections could supply a basis for fraud under Maryland law in some cases. Whether projections were sufficiently concrete and material to qualify as statements of fact required a context-sensitive inquiry that could not be reduced to a single formula. An assessment of relevant factors—including the extent of the alleged discrepancy, whether the projection was based on mere speculation or on facts, and whether the projection was contrary to any facts in the franchisor’s possession—supported the conclusion that the franchisee had sufficiently stated a claim for fraud to proceed with factual discovery for its common law fraud and Maryland Franchise Law claims.
Jurisdiction in Maryland and Application of New York Franchise Sales Law
The franchise agreement in this case only permitted the franchisee to open a restaurant in the District of Columbia, and in fact that is where the restaurant has been operated. The defendant franchisor maintains its principal place of business in New York, and the parties’ first meeting concerning a potential franchise sale took place at the franchisor’s New York office. The plaintiff franchisee was formed by Maryland residents and, at the time of the franchise purchase, “maintained its principal place of business” in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The parties had numerous telephone conversations during which the franchisor’s representatives were located in New York and the franchisee’s representatives were in Maryland. The franchisor sent its UFOC and the proposed franchise agreement contract to the franchisee’s address in Maryland.
Based on those facts, the court found that those activities were sufficient to allow it to exercise jurisdiction, meaning that it could require the franchisor to defend itself in Maryland.
The franchisee filed a claim for violation of the New York Franchise Sales Act on that basis that the law applied because the franchise sale was made from New York. The court, following the express terms of that law and a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, found that the New York Franchise Sales Act protects franchisees in other states where offer and/or acceptance took place in New York. The rationale for extending the statute to situations such as this was to protect and enhance the commercial reputation of New York by regulating not only franchise offers originating in New York by New York-based franchisors.
The anti-fraud provisions of the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law, as well as those of other states such as California, also apply to franchise sales made from the state. However, to the author’s knowledge, New York is the only state that requires franchisors based within its borders to obtain state registration approval before selling franchises to out of state residents.
(1) Franchisors need to be vigilant to monitor the actual initial investment costs being incurred to open new locations (whether company-owned or franchised) and promptly update initial cost estimates. Prospective franchisees should not assume that the franchisor is doing this, and should ask existing franchisees about their initial investments before buying franchise rights.
(2) If a franchise seller is discussing a franchise sale with a person located in state with a franchise sales law, then the franchisor needs to determine if it needs to obtain pre-sale registration approval from that state before selling the franchise.
(3) New York needs to amend its law to exempt out of state franchise sales from its registration requirements.
May 13th, 2011
A recent case with compelling facts shows that, despite attempts through written agreements and disclosure documents to shield franchisors from liability, deceptive conduct within the franchise relationship can still result in substantial liability for franchisors.
In Holiday Inn Franchising, Inc. v. Hotel Associates, Inc., 2011 Ark.App. 147 (Ark. Ct. Apps. 2011), the franchisee Hotel Associates, Inc. (“HAI”), is owned by J.O. “Buddy” House, one of the early Holiday Inn franchisees who was close friends with the chain’s founder. The court found that, over the course of decades, House had developed a relationship with the executives of Holiday Inn Franchising, Inc. (“Holiday Inn”) founded in “honesty, trust and the free flow of pertinent information”, thereby creating a “special relationship” imposing a duty on Holiday Inn to disclose facts material to the ongoing relationship.
In 1994, HAI, at the suggestion of a Holiday Inn executive, considered purchase of a rundown hotel in Wichita Falls, Texas to convert to a Holiday Inn. House realized that the property would need expensive renovations and requested a 15 or 20 year term in the Holiday Inn franchise agreement. Holiday Inn declined, but its Vice President of Franchising “stated that, if House operated the hotel appropriately, there was no reason to think that he would not receive a license extension at the end of the ten years.”
HAI signed a ten year franchise agreement in early 1995 and made extensive renovations before opening. The hotel was successful and HAI received offers to sell for up to $15 million, but declined based on its belief that the franchise would be extended. Meanwhile, Holiday Inn’s commission franchise salesperson was pursuing conversion of a nearby Radisson hotel at the end of HAI’s term and prepared a business plan for that conversion in 1999.
In 2001, an employee of HAI spoke to a Holiday Inn representative about early relicensure, and was convinced to send Holiday Inn a $2,500 fee to obtain a Property Improvement Plan (“PIP”) for changes needed for relicensure. The PIP required changes costing $2 million dollars, and after going through 2 rounds of Holiday Inn PIPs, HAI spent about $3,000,000 — without ever being informed of the business plan for the Radisson, which continued to be pursued.
In October 2002, when the hotel was fully renovated pursuant to the PIP and received a quality score of 96.05 (out of 100), Holiday Inn informed HAI that the Radisson had applied for a license and was being considered as a possible “partial replacement” for HAI’s facility “if it left the system.” After HAI protested, Holiday Inn stated that the Radisson application had been denied. However, after several more twists and turns, the new franchise development team “prevailed” over the relationship managers, the Radisson was licensed and HAI’s facility was denied relicensure. HAI sold it in 2007 for $5 million, before the real estate crash.
After a jury trial, HAI prevailed on claims against Holiday Inn of fraud and promissory estoppel, which means detrimental reliance on promises. After appeal, HAI’s judgment was for over $10 million in compensatory damages and $12 million in punitive damages. The case is notable because (a) HAI had no right to relicensure under the parties’ written agreement, but (b) the court found a “special relationship” that imposed a duty to disclose to the franchisee material information about the future of the business relationship, and (c) the court found that Holiday Inn’s course of conduct supported a punitive damages award.
August 23rd, 2010
Do you think you’re ready to make your business a franchise? Ready to become the next Subway or Jiffy Lube?
In this column, I’ll outline some key factors to consider as you make the important decision of whether and when to franchise your business methods. Part 1 focuses on signs that a business is “franchisable”. Part 2 will focus on franchising vs. other methods of expansion, and steps necessary to franchise.
One thing is for sure – given the number of jobs lost over the past two years, there are many potential franchise owners “out there” who are eager to find their next opportunity. Becoming the owner of a franchised business (as the “franchisee”) can be a great option for someone who has entrepreneurial skills and motivation but doesn’t want to start a business “from scratch.” But before you take the plunge and dive headlong into becoming their franchisor, it’s important to keep in mind the most important factors that will determine your success.
Signs That Your Business Is Ready To Franchise
The first hurtle to “franchise-ability” is whether your business has been consistently profitable over a substantial period of time. Typically, if your business is in a mature industry, such as food service or printing, you need to have been in business at least three years and have a steady record of profits. You should also have multiple separate locations to disprove that notion that it’s only a local success.
A different rule applies to “new” industry or niche businesses. If a business presents a truly unique and innovative operating method, and has shown some profitability, then it may be in the business’ best interests to franchise quickly to gain regional recognition as the leader for that niche. For example, a fitness company that offers a new type of program and that has been developed locally should try to get into the market quickly and establish themselves as the dominant brand for that niche.
The second hurtle is having developed a business system that you can teach to franchisees and can be easily replicated in other locations. Disclosures that must be given to prospective franchisees under U.S. and state laws have essentially mandated that a franchisor prepare some sort of “Operations Manual” to loan to active franchisees, and also that it plan out a new franchisee training program in advance of offering franchises. Therefore, before franchising you need to carefully document both how to develop and operate the business you want to franchise, and also plan how you will train others to replicate your methods.
Another important question is whether you have a business name and/or logo that can obtain and maintain trademark protection. Having a “strong Mark” for both marketing and legal purposes is very important to the long-term success of a franchise system, and if that factor is not present then you should carefully consider whether to re-brand and obtain trademark registration in advance of franchising.
Last but not least, will your prospective franchisees be able to obtain the capital that they need to open and operate franchises? A prospective franchisor needs to talk with its bankers to develop a profile for a suitable franchisee that will have sufficient net worth (both total and liquid) to be able to personally qualify for financing. You should then obtain informal commitments from financial institutions to finance candidates who have meet those qualifications and secure suitable locations or geographic territories from which to operate the franchise.
August 14th, 2009
A franchisor may choose to give prospective franchisees information on the sales and/or profits of existing franchises in their official Franchise Disclosure Document. This information can serve as an extremely useful tool in evaluating the potential earning power of owning a franchise. The complexity of these disclosures may range from simple gross sales averages taken straight from monthly royalty reports to complicated charts and pro formas breaking down statistics by months of operation, location, etc.
However, a franchisor is not obligated to provide you with any unit-level financial performance information at all. While franchise sales regulators encourage franchisors to include such information in their FDDs, many franchisors choose not to distribute such information. Common reasons for not doing so are concern that they do not have enough historical information to provide an adequate basis for a claim; that providing any information could expose them to complaints that the data was misleading; that they do not need to provide the information to sell franchises, or because the data will not show favorable performance.
If an “earnings claim” is included, it must comply with specific standards stated in the FTC Franchise Sales Rule. Once the disclosure is included in the FDD, a franchisor can include excerpts of it in franchise sales literature, provided the excerpts are not misleading, and also may provide supplemental information to a prospective franchisee after he or she has received the FDD. The restrictions on providing an “earning claim” does not apply to providing historical financial data for a particular store or unit that a franchisor owns and is offering for sale.
If a franchisor does not provide financial performance information in its FDD, but its salesperson or other representative discusses the sales or profits of franchisees with you, be sure to document exactly what was said, by whom, in what capacity, and the time/date/circumstances. Should the numbers they provide to you orally end up being inaccurate, and you feel you were mislead, the oral statments may provide a basis for recovery of some of your losses.
What have your experiences with regard to earnings claims? Which franchisors are willing to provide earnings claims to prospective franchisees? Have they proved to be a useful tool in your decision to undertake (or not to undertake) a particular franchise?
David L. Cahn