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.”
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.
April 28th, 2010
A recent case out of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has opened the door for insurance agents to bring claims under the Michigan Franchise Investment Law (“MFIL”). Parting from clearly established precedent in other jurisdictions, the court held in Bucciarelli v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., Bus. Fran. Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,200 (2009), that a Nationwide insurance agent would qualify as a franchisee under the MFIL if it could demonstrate that payments made to Nationwide for allegedly-overpriced furniture and computer equipment constituted a franchise fee.
This decision contrasts with the law in many other jurisdictions, including Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, in which the courts have held that their states’ franchise laws do not apply to the insurance industry.
Bucciarelli, the plaintiff, was the sole owner of a Nationwide insurance agency located in Michigan, pursuant to an Independent Contractor’s Agent Agreement signed in 2002. Following a series of changes and new implementations in the Nationwide product offerings and independent agent system, Bucciarelli alleged that the Nationwide customer base began to erode, and certain performance goals and other standards for independent agents became unachievable. Based on these allegations, Bucciarelli filed suit against Nationwide claiming, among other things, deceptive trade practices in violation of the MFIL.
State franchise laws commonly provide that, in order to be deemed a “franchisee,” a party must have the authority to offer the franchisor’s products or services for sale. Nationwide argued, and other courts have held, that in order to “offer” products or services, the offering party must have the capability to actually enter into a contract for the proposed sale. In the insurance industry, policies are entered into by the insurance company (e.g., Nationwide) directly, and the independent insurance agents act as commissioned salespersons on behalf of the insurer. Thus, the decisions holding that state franchise laws do not apply to independent insurance agents have generally rested on the theory that insurance agents are “mere order takers,” who contractually cannot actually “offer” insurance products to customers, and therefore cannot qualify as franchisees under the states’ statutory schemes.
However, the court in Bucciarelli held that the actions of independent sales agents may qualify as making an “offer” under the MFIL. The court rested its decision on the fact that the MFIL’s definition of a franchise refers to both the ability to “offer” and to “sell,” and stated that if “offer” were given the meaning prescribed in other jurisdictions, then the word “sell” would be duplicative. As a result, the court interpreted “offer” much more broadly, “to refer to making goods or services available in a practical rather than a legal sense.” Under this interpretation, the court held that an insurance agent could satisfy the statutory elements of the franchise definition. Interestingly, the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law also includes this offer/sale dichotomy, and further distinguishes and includes “distributing” the franchisor’s products or services within the franchise definition.
As Nationwide did not dispute that Bucciarelli had the right to substantially associate his business with the Nationwide trademark, the only issue that remained was to determine whether Bucciarelli had paid a “franchise fee” to acquire his Nationwide insurance agency. While the Independent Contractor’s Agent Agreement did not suggest that such a fee had been paid, Bucciarelli’s argument that his purchase of allegedly over-priced furniture and computer equipment from Nationwide satisfied the “franchise fee” requirement was sufficient to get his MFIL claim past Nationwide’s pre-trial motion to dismiss.
While the particular factual scenario in this case only has relevance if the agent will be purchasing physical assets from the insurance agency, the legal analysis applied by the court has the potential to have a sweeping impact in states like Michigan and Maryland where the insurance industry may now be subject to franchise disclosure laws. Though it remains unlikely that franchise implications will arise where the agent does not make any payments to the insurance company in connection with taking over an existing agency, where the agent does make payments—even in exchange for equipment or training—the payments have the potential to be classified as indirect franchise fees. In such cases, the parties’ relationship may now fall within the relevant state statute’s “franchise” definition.
By: Jeffrey Fabian
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