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.
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.”
November 26th, 2012
In Ford v. Palmden Restaurants, LLC
, the Court of Appeals of California issued a strong reminder to both restaurant franchisees and their franchisors of their potential liability for criminal conduct that takes place on a restaurant’s premises. While the legal principles at issue differ for franchisees and franchisors, this potential liability is one that neither can ignore.
The case involved a Denny’s restaurant in Palm Springs, California, that was operated by Palmden Restaurants, LLC (“Palmden”). Starting during 2002 members of a gang known as the Gateway Posse Crips (“Gateway”) would “take over” the restaurant around 2 a.m. each Sunday, after closing of the club that they “hung out at” on Saturday night. “Taking over” meant:
“Members of the Gateway group refused to wait in line; they would just seat themselves. They were loud; they would use “foul language.” They would “table-hop.” Only a few of them would order food, and the ones who did would leave without paying. Other customers responded by canceling their orders or asking for their food to go and then leaving. Some Gateway members would stay outside in the parking lot, drinking and smoking marijuana. They had had “many fights,” both outside and inside the restaurant.”
In March 2003, there was a significant brawl around 2 a.m. at the restaurant, instigated by members of Gateway. The fight involved injuries to “innocent” female patrons, overturned furniture and a broken window. Police officers recommended to the owner of Palmden that she take several security measures, including installing video cameras and hiring off-duty uniformed police officers. Palmden closed the restaurant for the early a.m. hours only during the first weekend after the brawl, and thereafter Gateway resumed its “take overs.” Palmden did not install security cameras, hire off-duty police officers or take other new substantive security measures.
In April 2004, Terrelle Ford, who was a loan officer, had the misfortune of being at the restaurant with friends on a Sunday at 2 a.m. when the Gateway members arrived. A large group of men began beating one man standing outside the restaurant, and some of Ford’s friends went outside to break up the fight. When Ford saw his cousin being attacked he came outside to protect him and was severely beaten by Gateway members, suffering permanent brain injury. Shortly thereafter Palmden began closing the restaurant on Sundays in the early a.m., and the Gateway gang found a new “after-hours hangout.”
Could the Franchisee Be Liable for the Patron’s Injuries?
The trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of Palmden, finding that it could not be liable for the harms caused by the criminal acts of the Gateway gang members. The appeals court disagreed and reversed, sending the case back for trial.
The court, following well-established precedent, held that all restaurants and other public establishments have an obligation to undertake reasonable steps to secure common areas against the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties that are likely to occur without such precautionary measures: “The more certain the likelihood of harm, the higher the burden a court will impose on a [proprietor] to prevent it; the less foreseeable the harm, the lower the burden a court will place on a [proprietor].” The central question was the extent of Palmden’s duty to take action to prevent gang violence, and the essence of the decision was that Palmden was liable because it adopted no meaningful new security measures after the 2003 gang fight and before Ford’s severe beating. As the court said:
“We emphasize that we are not saying that a business that is plagued by gang members necessarily has to shut down (even for a few hours). It would be perfectly reasonable for it to experiment first with lesser measures, such as surveillance cameras, security guards, or a protective order. [Palmden argues that] it is speculative [whether] these would have been successful. What we can say with certainty is that either these measures would have worked, or else closing down the restaurant would have worked.”
Therefore, Palmden’s failure to act may have been a substantial cause of Ford’s injuries and Ford had a right to have a jury decide Palmden’s liability.
What About the Franchisor?
Ford advanced several arguments as to why DFO, LLC, the Denny’s franchisor; Denny’s, Inc., which leased the restaurant to Palmden; and the parent company of both of those entities, Denny’s Corporation, should be held jointly liable for his damages. The court found that summary judgment could be overturned on the grounds that Palmden was those entities’ “ostensible agent” in operating the restaurant, because Ford was not aware that the Denny’s restaurant was a franchise and his belief that it was a “corporate location” must be reasonable under the circumstances. The court found the following facts important in making that conclusion:
“While some Denny’s restaurants are franchisee-operated, others are corporate-operated; hence, we cannot say it is common knowledge that all Denny’s are necessarily franchises. There was no signage or other indication that the particular Denny’s was actually operated by a franchisee. Finally, Ford testified that he had seen advertisements identifying Denny’s as “a family style restaurant . . . in which a patron could enjoy a good meal in a friendly, safe, and secure environment” and that this led him to conclude that “[h]e and [his] friends could enjoy a meal at the subject Denny’s . . . .” ”
The court also reversed summary judgment in favor of the landlord, Denny’s, Inc., the parent company Denny’s Corporation and other affiliates, on the basis that they might be “alter egos” of the franchisor DFO, LLC. The trial court had granted summary judgment for those entities without analysis and they had not provided the appeals court with support in favor of keeping them out of the case.
If you own a restaurant you have a duty to your patrons and employees to establish security that is reasonable under the circumstances. If the circumstances are as dire as described in this case, your best course of action is to close the restaurant during the dangerous hours, and if you need permission build the case for doing so in writing directed to your franchisor and/or landlord.
If you are a restaurant franchisor, at a minimum make sure that each restaurant has a conspicuous sign identifying who owns the restaurant, as an independent licensee of your company. If the restaurant is run by your affiliate company, then that affiliate should be identified just like a franchisee. Seek to include the words “independently owned” in any local advertising. For casual dining establishments, consider including a place in the menu template to identify the owner, perhaps underneath the logo.
November 8th, 2012
Most of the work that I do for franchise owners (or “franchisees”) falls into two categories: (1) helping to evaluate a potential franchise opportunity and negotiating the franchise agreement and real estate lease, and (2) representing franchisees seeking to exit the franchise, including evaluating claims against the franchisor. While grateful to serve in those capacities, I worry whether franchisees and other small business owners are adequately planning for and protecting against their own death or disability.
While life and disability income insurance are very important, there are several legal and practical issues that business owners (or indeed all reasonably solvent adults) should address while they are healthy and of sound mind. Some of those issues are:
1. Will: Why do you need a will? Without one, after you die the laws of the state where you live and held property will determine what happens to that property. Your spouse, children or other heirs could end up with less than you planned, the assets could be mismanaged, your minor children might not have the guardian you wished, or your estate could end up paying more in taxes and legal fees than necessary. Writing a will allows you to control who gets what, and also could enable you to leave some of your assets to charities or other causes. Clarity is particularly important if you own a business since succession planning is critical to the wellbeing of the business’s employees and other stakeholders.
2. Titling of Assets: How you hold title to certain assets can have a significant effect on the ability of your creditors to take away those assets. If you are married, holding an asset in the names of yourself and your spouse may prevent a creditor of only one of you from taking that asset. However, this is often more appropriate for personal assets (such as homes and cars) than ownership interests in a business. If you are not married then there are other legal devices that, under appropriate circumstances, could enable you to shield assets from seizure if your financial fortunes decline.
3. Durable Power of Attorney: A power of attorney (“POA”) designates a representative to perform certain actions on your behalf. A durable POA can be particularly important if you are a small business owner, to make sure that the business is able to function on your behalf if you become ill, incapacitated or otherwise unable to manage your affairs, since otherwise your chosen representative (usually a spouse, parent or sibling) will have to receive court approval to perform needed financial transactions. However, the durable POA also needs to be crafted with some care to avoid any abuse by the appointed representative.
4. Living Will and Medical Proxy: A living will is a written declaration of what life-sustaining medical treatments you will allow or not allow if you are incapacitated; for example, life-sustaining nourishment when terminally ill. The medical proxy or medical POA authorizes a specific individual to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so.
5. Letters of Instruction: In this digital age a lot of our personal and digital information is saved electronically in password-protected accounts. After your death the person you chose to manage your estate (your “personal representative”) will benefit greatly from written instructions on how to access those accounts. Since the will itself is meant to cover the disposition of categories of property, the letters of instruction can aid your personal representative in disposing of specific pieces of property (such as family heirlooms) in the manner that you wish.
6. Life Insurance Trust. One common trust for people of even relatively modest means is a trust to hold life insurance policies. Estates with net assets of over $1,000,000 are subject to the estate taxes in Maryland and several other states, and the federal (U.S.) estate tax threshold has been moved several times in recent years but may move down to $1,000,000 effective January 1, 2013. Utilizing an irrevocable trust to hold your life insurance policy excludes their death benefits from your estate, which may allow your estate to be completely exempt from taxation.
Estate planning is not just for people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Mark Zuckerberg – it is necessary for all reasonably successful adults and particularly for franchise owners. At Whiteford Taylor & Preston we have a talented team of estates and trust attorneys licensed in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia who can assist you on the types of issues described above at either fixed fees or reasonable hourly rates. Contact us so we can help you make sure that your bases are covered.
August 16th, 2012
Takeaway: Through effective trade associations and lobbying efforts, during the last century automobile dealer franchises in the United States convinced state governments to give them significant protection against commercial abuse or unfair dealing by the manufacturer or supplier franchisors. Franchisees in other industries could learn from that example.
The strength of the laws protecting dealer franchises was demonstrated by a recent New York court decision in Audi of Smithtown, Inc. v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. . The case was brought by one set of Audi dealers charging that Audi’s wholly-owned subsidiary, VW Credit, Inc. discriminated in favor of new dealers to the detriment of the incumbents who brought the case. At issue were incentives that VW Credit put in place for dealerships to purchase vehicles returned by customers at the end of their leases. (For example, if Joe Brown leases an Audi Quattro for 3 years, the vehicle is owned by VW Credit during the lease, so at the end of 3 years, VW Credit has a “pre-owned vehicle” to sell.) The incentive programs were based on the proportion of returning off-lease vehicles that a dealership purchased. However, since incumbent dealerships had more leases, they had more opportunity than new dealers to benefit from the incentives.
To level the playing field, VW Credit automatically granted new dealers a more favorable level of available discounts and bonuses (known as “Champion Level”) for the first three years of the dealership. While this program seems to have a logical business justification – making it easier to open a new dealership, which increases Audi’s presence in the local market — the Court ruled instead that it constituted price discrimination against the incumbent dealers. New York’s law provides: “It shall be unlawful for any franchisor . . . [t]o . . . sell directly to a franchised motor vehicle dealer . . . motor vehicles . . . at a price that is lower than the price which the franchisor charges to all other franchised motor vehicle dealers.” N.Y. Vehicle & Traffic Law § 463(2)(aa).
Audi argued that VW Credit is not a “franchisor” under the statute and therefore no violation could have occurred. The dealers had that covered, however, because in 2008 the New York legislature amended the statute to add references to “captive finance sources” so as to prohibit a motor vehicle franchisor from using “any subsidiary corporation, affiliated corporation, captive finance source, or any other controlled corporation, company partnership, association or person to accomplish what would otherwise be unlawful conduct under this article on the part of the franchisor.” N.Y. Vehicle & Traffic Law § 463(2)(u).
The New York laws prohibiting price discrimination and the use of shell entities to get around the law are similar to those in others states that protect car dealers in their relationships with their franchisors. In Maryland, for instance, the law requires manufacturers to act honestly and observe reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing in performance or enforcement of the franchise agreement. They are also not allowed to:
1. Coerce dealers to do something not required by their franchise agreements, or make them agree to material modifications (for instance, changes to their purchasing or performance requirements), unless the changes apply to all other Maryland franchisees of the same manufacturer.
2. Stop a dealer from offering other manufacturers’ products at the same facility through a franchise agreement granted by another manufacturer.
3. Require a material change to “the dealer’s facilities or method of conducting business if the change would impose substantial financial hardship on the business of the dealer.”
4. Require a franchisee to adhere to performance standards unless, as applied, they are “fair, reasonable, equitable and based on accurate information.”
5. Refuse to permit an individual to be the responsible person of the dealer “unless the individual is unfit due to lack of good moral character or fails to meet reasonable general business experience requirements” — and the manufacturer has burden of proving unfitness.
6. Unreasonably withhold consent to a request to transfer a franchise, and an aggrieved franchisee has a right to an administrative remedy to contest a manufacturer’s refusal to consent.
7. Terminate the dealership for any reason without payment to the dealer of compensation for various types of assets and franchise-specific improvements.
8. Require the dealer to reimburse it for attorneys’ fees in any dispute involving the franchise.
Maryland Transp. Code Sections 15-206.1 through 15-212.2. In addition, aggrieved franchisees have a right to bring an action for damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in vindicating their rights. Id. at Section 15.-213.
These statutes are not a cure-all for auto dealers who fail to properly execute their responsibilities. And, in any event, the 2009 bankruptcy proceedings of General Motors and Chrysler show that extreme economic circumstances can trump state statutory rights.
But overall, the various state laws protecting automobile dealers show the advantages of a century-old industry, widely dispersed, and generally liked in their local communities. The auto dealers have been able to put their case to their state representatives and win some good protections. This is an example franchisees in other industries could learn from.
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.
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.
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 13th, 2010
The final installment in this series focusses on the Franchisor’s selection of franchisees.
Evaluation of Franchise Prospects by Franchisors
In the recent economic climate, franchisors have been tempted to ease their qualifications for new franchise prospects. However, franchisors need to remember that they are investing in their franchisees just as much as their franchisees are investing in them, and must resist compromising their brand’s long-term growth for short-term cash flow.
The following considerations are frequently cited by industry experts as fundamental criteria for evaluating prospective franchisees. Regardless of the economic conditions a franchisor may be facing, it should remain loyal to these fundamental principles for determining the viability of candidates:
- Ability to learn and follow the franchisor’s system;
- Fitting with the franchise system’s “culture”;
- Having relevant business experience or general business acumen;
- Being located in a geographic and demographic area that favors the franchise concept;
- Having access to capital; and
- Having grounded and realistic expectations.
While the specific traits and skills needed to succeed in any particular franchise system obviously will vary, these fundamental requirements can generally be applied broadly across all franchise systems, regardless of the industry they are in.
The need to select quality prospects as franchisees is particularly important for new and early-stage franchisors, though it obviously remains critical for highly-developed franchise systems as well. While one “bad apple” may not be as detrimental to the brand image or the ability to sell franchises for larger systems, unsuccessful franchisees can cause significant administrative burdens, and quite possibly legal fees, for franchisors of all sizes. Signing an under-qualified franchisee as one of the first non-affiliated representatives of a franchise system may have dire effects on a new system’s ability to attract qualified franchisees. When counseling prospective franchisees, we recommend that they speak with as many existing and former franchisees as possible when performing their due diligence, and one or a few franchisees who are unhappy or unsuccessful, or who are simply unimpressive as people, can impact a prospect’s view of the franchise system as a whole.
By carefully screening and interviewing franchise prospects, franchisors can protect the quality and value of their franchise systems, enhance their ability to sell additional franchises, and avoid the headaches of franchise terminations and legal disputes. We regularly counsel our new franchisor clients that selecting quality franchisees must be a top priority for their long-term success.
Individual franchised outlets and franchise systems as a whole stand a greater chance of success if they are built around committed franchise owners who trust and believe in the franchisor and everything it has to offer. Franchisees and franchisors both benefit substantially when they carefully evaluate each other during the pre-sale courting process.
August 6th, 2010
Part 2 of this series focuses on how a prospective franchisee should investigate a specific Franchise Opportunity, after narrowing focus through self-evaluation:
After examining your capabilities and ambitions, the next step is to perform your due diligence and fully investigate the franchise opportunity you are considering. In addition to researching the opportunity directly, this also involves investigating competitive opportunities to make sure that the one you choose is the best fit for you. You should carefully read the franchisor’s Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”), and you should prepare questions and talk with the franchisor’s representatives regarding any issues or concerns you may have.
You also should contact existing franchisees to find out how their business is doing and what they feel the benefits are of being involved with the franchisor’s system and brand name. Franchisors are often willing to “assist” with this process, by referring prospects to their most successful franchisees. What may go overlooked, however, is the opportunity to gain information from former franchisees. The third table in Item 20 of the FDD provides valuable information concerning former franchisees. Franchisors are required in this table to list the numbers of terminations, non-renewals and reacquisitions during each of the three prior calendar years, as well as the number of franchisees who “Ceased Operations – Other Reasons”—which often means that the franchisee was simply forced to close their doors because they were unable to turn a profit. In addition, franchisors are required to provide contact information for all current franchisees and former franchisees who left the system during the past year. Both current and former franchisees can provide first-hand insight into numerous qualitative aspects of a franchisor’s system.
If the franchise system has been in existence for at least five years, also consider researching the availability of existing franchises through the Internet. It is a bad sign if many franchises are for sale and at low prices. It is a good sign if relatively few are for sale and at high prices. If you find no information through the Internet on this topic, then you should ask franchisees in locations near you about purchasing their business; and, if they express interest, pursue the topic to see their level of interest in “getting out” and their reasons for wanting to do so.
Other, often overlooked, aspects of a franchise system that can ultimately have a significant effect on franchisees’ profitability include supply and purchase arrangements established by the franchisor. A powerful purchasing cooperative can significantly improve a system’s franchisees’ bottom line. Among the required disclosures in the FDD, franchisors are required to state in Item 8 whether they receive rebates or commissions based on franchisees’ purchases of goods and services from suppliers. In a successful franchise system, the bulk of the franchisor’s revenue should come from franchisee royalties, and not from franchisees’ mandatory purchases from outside vendors. Moreover, quality franchisors do not force their franchisees to pay a premium over the fair market price for ingredients and other products central to the operation of the business.
Finally, is equally, if not more important to your potential for long-term success, to look beyond the FDD and the franchise system’s historical performance, and evaluate the current and future market for the franchisor’s goods or services. Just because you have a strong interest in a particular field or product and fall in love with a franchisor’s system and business methods does not mean that the general public will do the same. In addition, while joining a regional, national or international franchise system typically will have immediate name-recognition benefits, this may not be the case with a newer or smaller franchisor. If the franchisor’s name has little or no value, and the franchisor’s system is not unique or distinctive from the competition, then you should consider whether their franchise is worth the investment.