August 6th, 2014
Take-away. A franchisor’s diligence in conducting and documenting quality assurance inspections is as important as ever, particularly if the franchisor seeks to exercise its ultimate weapon – termination of the franchise agreement. Prudent inspection and documentation practices are particularly crucial in the many U.S. states and territories that have statutes requiring a showing of “good cause” in order for a franchisor to terminate a franchise agreement. In such states, a franchisor must furnish evidence demonstrating that the franchisee failed to substantially comply with the material and reasonable franchise requirements; otherwise, a court may well restore the franchise rights and order money damages to the franchisee.
The Case. Pooniwala v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp., a May 2014 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, is an exemplary demonstration of how a franchisor establishes that one of its franchisees repeatedly violated quality assurance standards so that there was “good cause” to terminate the franchise agreement under state law. The franchisor’s in this case diligently conducted and documented regular quality assurance (“QA”) inspections.
The Facts. Minn. Stat. Section 80C.14, part of the Minnesota Franchise Act, allows a franchisor to terminate an agreement if the franchisor can show “good cause” for termination. Good cause means failure by the franchisee to substantially comply with the material and reasonable franchise requirements imposed by the franchisor, including “any act by or conduct of the franchisee which materially impairs the goodwill associated with the franchisor’s trademark, trade name, service mark, logotype or other commercial symbol.”
Pooniwala involved franchise agreements for two hotels, one a “Super 8,” and the other a “Travelodge.” The franchisee alleged that the franchisors, both of which are affiliated companies within the Wyndham Hotel Group, took retaliatory action against the franchisee because of a lawsuit between the franchisee and Ramada Worldwide Inc., its fellow Wyndham Group affiliate. The franchisors, for their side, argued that their attempts to terminate the franchise agreements were not retaliatory actions, but rather that the franchisee had repeatedly violated QA standards found in the respective franchise agreements, giving each franchisor good cause for termination.
The first attempted termination involved a Super 8 hotel facility in Roseville Minnesota. The franchise agreement for the Roseville Super 8 included quality assurance requirements, as well as provisions allowing Super 8 to inspect the facility to ensure that it was operating in compliance with Super 8’s system standards and QA requirements. The franchisee had failed six consecutive QA inspections at the Roseville Super 8. Each inspection was followed by a letter indicating that the franchisee had received a failing score on the QA inspections. The letters also gave the franchisee notice that it had sixty days to cure the QA deficiencies, the failure of which could result in termination of the franchise agreement. Finally in September 2013 Super 8 notified the franchisee that the franchise would terminate on December 29, 2013, unless the hotel passed a final QA inspection. The franchisee failed that final inspection, and shortly thereafter Super 8 informed the franchisee that termination would take effect on the originally scheduled termination date.
The second termination was for a Travelodge hotel facility in Burnsville, Minnesota. The Burnsville Travelodge agreement contained similar QA requirements, and the franchisee failed eight consecutive QA inspections, receiving letters documenting the failures following each inspection. Finally the franchisee received notice of termination for the Travelodge franchise. The notice described QA deficiencies, and stated that termination would take effect in ninety days, but that another inspection would be scheduled to determine whether the QA violations had been cured. The franchisee failed that inspection, and as a result Travelodge informed the franchisee that termination would take effect on the originally scheduled date.
Preliminary Injunction. It is not a wonder that motions for preliminary injunction are commonplace in hotel franchise termination cases. With the great potential for loss of good will among customers, employees and suppliers, franchisees will not want to give up their rights to franchise logos or their presence on a franchisor’s reservation system. In Pooniwala, the franchisee sought an order for preliminary injunction to stop the franchisors from terminating the franchise agreements before the court heard the case on its merits.
In deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction, courts have to balance the harm to the two sides. They also consider the requesting party’s likelihood of success on the merits in the underlying claim–here, violation of the good cause requirement of the Minnesota Franchise Act.
In Pooniwala, the court denied the franchisee’s motion for preliminary injunction and ordered it to go ahead with its post-termination obligations, such as removing the franchised brands’ signage. The court found that, given the many QA inspection failures at the two hotels, and the fact that the franchisees had continuing franchise relationships with Wyndham Hotel Group affiliates at other hotel properties, the franchisee did not demonstrate an adequate likelihood of success of proving that the termination was without good cause. Further, the court held that, while the franchisee would suffer obvious harm through loss of the franchise rights, the franchisors were also suffering continuing, irreparable harm as long as the franchisee’s hotels continued to operate under their trademarks while not maintaining brand quality standards.
Conclusion. Hotel franchise agreements typically provide for substantial liquidated damages if the franchisor terminates for cause, meaning that the Pooniwala franchisees are likely to owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. In other franchise cases, the terminated franchisee may be forced to cease operating a similar business due to a covenant not to compete.
The stakes are high, and franchisors can expect a fight. So if they decide to take the drastic step of terminating for cause, they had better have their “ducks in a row.” In Pooniwala, the Wyndham Hotel Group franchisors showed how this is done.
Nicholas Cintron, a law clerk at the firm and a 2016 J.D. candidate at Wake Forest University Law School, contributed to the preparation of this article.
June 19th, 2014
Today the CEO of an residential services company (handyman, cleaning, etc.) posted the following question on the American Bar Association’s Forum on Franchising’s email LISTSERV:
“What are the laws regarding licensing franchises to illegal aliens? What other considerations need to be reviewed before taking such a step?”
I was so facinated by his question that I spent some time looking into it myself. My conclusions were as follows:
Based on my brief Internet research there is not any obvious legal restriction, generally, on doing business with people who do not have a legal immigration status. However, a couple of concerns come to mind:
- Is it conceivable that the franchisee could be considered the franchisor’s employee, in any sense? Government agencies have been aggressive in challenging independent contractor classifications in a variety of areas, so if the franchise owner actually provides a lot of the services offered in a business (such as cleaning or home renovations) then it is not hard to imagine ICE taking the position that they are “employees in disguise” and that a franchisor that knowingly recruits such a person is violating the employment-based restrictions on hiring “illegal aliens”.
- If you know that a person is in the country illegally, then arguably you have a duty under the various franchise disclosure laws to inform the person that he or her illegal status may result in loss of the entire investment in the business. In particular, because the franchisee has to comply with all laws, including obtaining a legitimate tax identification number and paying income taxes, if the franchisee cannot obtain a tax ID number due to lack of immigration status then compliance with the franchise agreement is impossible.
- If the franchisor grants a franchise to someone knowing that, due to immigration status, he or she will have to avoid paying taxes, then isn’t the franchisor participating in tax evasion (or at least “aiding and abetting”)? This would a particularly precarious position for the franchisor if it is at all involved in billing and collection from customers and then remitting net proceeds (after royalties) to the franchisee, since the franchisor is then actively involved in handling funds that it knows are not being reported to the IRS.
- If the franchisee cannot obtain an employer ID number because he or she doesn’t have a social security number, then the franchisee won’t be able to comply with the employment laws in hiring workers. Franchisee probably would try to get around this by hiring “independent contractors” and paying them in cash, since this franchisee isn’t reporting taxes anyway. If the franchisor knows about all of this and lets it go on indefinitely, wouldn’t a plaintiffs’ lawyer pursuing a class-action misclassification case (like in the Coverall case) come after the franchisor too, as “joint employer”?
In short, the potential derivative liability for the franchisor in this scenario is daunting. I suppose that, if your franchise system is simple and low-cost and is attractive to immigrants, you would be best off just not asking for a social security number or any other information that could reveal a prospect’s immigration status. If you don’t have actual knowledge or a reason to know about the person’s status, then it seems like the risk would be vastly reduced – particularly if the franchisee is simply paying a flat periodic fee and the franchisor has little involvement in the details of the franchisee’s operation.
Bottom line: In this scenario it is the franchisee’s responsibility to comply with immigration laws, and in the U.S. an undocumented person is taking a significant risk investing in a franchise (or any other business). However, as shown above, if you are franchising a business of any substantial cost or complexity, it is probably in your best interests to avoid granting franchises to a person who lives in the U.S. but cannot demonstrate a legal right to do so.
June 10th, 2014
Take-away: If your franchise offering document is silent on key issues, you can be liable if your people “oversell” to a potential franchisee. Better to deal with the issue in carefully vetted writing than to be surprised by something your people say off the cuff.
The case: A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision, reinstating a jury verdict against a cellular communications store franchisor, shows the potency of franchise investment and disclosure laws in protecting franchisees against misleading sales tactics, if the information provided does not contradict the franchise disclosure document presentation.
The facts: In Abbo v. Wireless Toyz Franchise, L.L.C., Abbo was a failed franchisee and area developer of cellular communications stores. Looking back, he alleged that an officer of Wireless Toyz provided misleading information in the “discovery day” presentation.
As background, you need to understand something about the business model of cellular franchises. Their profitability can be affected by “hits” (discounts given in the sale of phones); “chargebacks” that decrease store commission revenue; the franchisor’s bargaining power with cell phone carriers; the hidden costs of purchasing inventory from the franchisor; and ultimately the number of cell phone sales necessary to make a profit.
None of these issues was dealt with in any meaningful way in Wireless Toyz’s franchise disclosure document (“FDD”). Since the FDD was silent, that left wide areas about which prospective franchisees could ask for additional information, and left the franchisor’s executives, eager to sell franchises, vulnerable to providing answers outside the FDD. In this particular case, the franchisee directly asked a senior franchisor executive about revenue deductions from “chargebacks” and “hits,” and the franchisor executive apparently said that chargebacks constituted “only five to seven percent” of total commissions and that Wireless Toyz stores outside of Michigan (the home state) had been “subject to only ‘very minor’ hits.” In fact, neither statement was accurate.
The FDD’s Item 19 Financial Performance Representation said that there were 181 average new activation contracts each month, and an average of $222.31 in commissions per activation. However, the presentation did not mention “hits” or the minimal amount of revenue (net of the cost of cellular devices) earned by the stores, and it also did not detail the extent of chargebacks and how they impacted the actual net commissions earned per activation.
After a jury trial, the jury found that the franchisor had failed to provide material facts necessary to make the FDD’s statements not misleading under the circumstances of their presentation, and also that it was liable for creating false impressions when responding to the prospective franchisee’s direct questions regarding “hits” and “chargebacks.” The Michigan Franchise Investment Law (like its statutory cousin, the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law) creates an affirmative legal duty to disclose all material facts necessary to avoid creating a false impression.
In this case, Wireless Toyz made a corporate decision not to provide information on the extent of chargebacks in Item 19 of the FDD, even though that information was clearly relevant to the picture of commission revenue generated per activation. The “gasoline on the fire” in this case was the “five to seven percent” estimate provided by the franchise salesperson in response to a direct question.
Initially, despite the jury’s findings, Wireless Toyz came out ahead: the trial court overturned the jury verdict because of the following, very common, franchise agreement provision:
Except as provided in the [Disclosure Document] delivered to the Franchise Owner, the Franchise Owner acknowledges that Wireless Toyz has not, either orally or in writing, represented, estimated or projected any specified level of sales, costs or profits for this Franchise, nor represented the sales, costs or profit level of any other Wireless Toyz Store.
The jury concluded that, despite this language in the contract, Abbo was reasonable in relying on the verbal statements on matters not addressed in the FDD. Moreover, because the verdict was for misleading omissions, the jury presumably found that the failure to provide additional clarifying information both in and out of the FDD presentation was what misled the franchisee.
The appellate court agreed with the jury, not the trial judge.
There was a dissenting opinion at the appellate level, and it is likely that Wireless Toyz will seek to have the Michigan Supreme Court review the decision. However, that court is not obligated to do so and may not want to substitute its opinion for that of the jury. As in many franchise cases, Wireless Toyz’s chances were not terribly good once it allowed a jury to deliberate regarding its actions.
In an era when about two-thirds of franchisors now provide written financial performance information in their FDD, this decision is an important reminder to franchisors of the risk of providing only partial information in the FDD – particularly if the franchisor has access to accurate (if not necessary encouraging) information on unit-level expenses or deductions from revenue.
For example, in a quick service food system, if a franchisor has a standard accounting system, then it should have access to franchisees’ costs of ingredients and packaging supplies as well as their labor costs. (And, since the franchisee will use these figures to calculate its tax deductions from gross revenue, the amount of those costs probably will not be understated.)
That sort of information is important to prospective franchisees and is almost certainly data that they will seek from the franchisor. It is better to disclose fully in the FDD instead of hoping your salespeople don’t get asked about it or that, if asked, they answer accurately.
January 3rd, 2014
The case of Wojcik v. Interarch, Inc., currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against the fast casual restaurant franchisor Saladworks, LLC, contains a factual scenario that should serve as a valuable reminder for existing franchisors who are updating their Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”) for use in 2014, for companies beginning the offer of franchise rights, and for prospective franchisees who are investigating opportunities. Bottom Line: Franchisors need to be careful not to underestimate site development costs, ongoing operating costs, and the challenges of opening locations in geographic areas not familiar with their brands.
During 2011, one of the plaintiffs, David Wojcik of suburban Chicago, investigated development of a Saladworks franchise restaurant. Saladworks is based in suburban Philadelphia, and the bulk of Saladworks locations are within 250 miles of Philadelphia. When Mr. Wojcik attended Saladworks’ “Discovery Day” to learn more about the franchise, Saladworks’ executives took him to their “Gateway” location, which they described as being typical in terms of physical appearance and menu offerings. They also told him that Saladworks’ designated commercial real estate firm Site Development, Inc. (“SDI”) and a designated architecture firm would help Wojcik find a location and design his restaurant.
After reviewing the FDD and going to “discovery day,” Mr. Wojcik convinced his wife Denise that they should sign the franchise agreement and that she should invest $90,000 that they used to purchase a single franchise license plus multi-unit development rights in suburban Chicago. However, it cost the Wojciks substantially more to open their first Saladworks location than the estimated initial investment cost stated in the FDD, and the business failed within six months – both opening and closing during 2012.
The court decision, denying Saladwork’s and SDI’s motions to dismiss for the most part, is interesting on a couple of legal grounds, including the court’s holding that Saladworks could have violated several franchise agreement provisions by failing to “exercise its discretion in good faith,” and also holding that the site selection firm SDI assumed legal duties to the franchisee not to misrepresent its qualifications to provide site selection advice in suburban Chicago. However, more instructive are the failed franchisee’s factual allegations concerning representations made to induce its franchise purchase, including those in the FDD. As the court wrote:
“According to Wojcik, Saladworks misrepresented, among other things, that:
A. “Saladworks had the experience and expertise to support a franchisee’s introduction of its brand in the Chicago market and that Saladworks would be committed to success in this market”;
B. “Wojcik’s Illinois restaurants would basically replicate what he saw on discovery day at the Gateway Restaurant”;
C. InterArch and SDI “would be . . . strong positive factor[s]” in helping him develop his restaurants;
D. Wojcik “would receive a `standard location,'” thus making the financial information Saladworks included in its FDD for franchised restaurants at “standard locations” relevant and meaningful for him.
Wojcik also alleges that Saladworks omitted a number of material facts, including the following:
(1) Saladworks based the projected construction costs disclosed in its FDD on “site locations that did not require any substantial changes in use, e.g., that . . . previously [had] a restaurant on the site. . . .”
(2) “[W]ithin any market there can be material differences between particular sites that will substantially affect the performance of any particular franchise, such that, by inducing franchisees to believe that he or she would receive a `standard location,'” the franchisee was being misled and deceived into believing that SDI and Saladworks had developed some sort of process that eliminated the risk of poor site selection. . . .”
(3) InterArch—Saladworks’ designated architect—”had insufficient familiarity with the local building codes of Schaumburg or the other Illinois communities in which Wojcik was planning to build and InterArch was not licensed in Illinois.”
(4) “[The Saladworks] brand was most successful in a core market area, which included the area covered by an approximate 250-mile radius of Philadelphia. . . . [but] beyond the core market area, most of [Saladworks’] franchises were substantially under-performing in relationship to those that were located within the core market area,” thus making Saladworks’ disclosures about the financial performance of franchised restaurants at “standard locations” deceptive and misleading to a franchisee in Illinois.
(5) The two restaurants for which Saladworks supplied information about average operating costs obtained free labor from new franchisees in training, thus making the average operating costs Saladworks disclosed in its FDD materially misleading.
(6) Saladworks “did not intend to do `brand development advertising’ in Illinois,” and thus, a franchisee in Illinois would receive no benefit from its required contributions to Saladworks’ “Brand Development Fund.”
(7) InterArch, Saladworks’ designated architecture firm, charged a $5,000 “supervision fee,” in addition to its design fee, if the franchisee chose to have InterArch supervise construction of the restaurant.”
This case decision was in the context of Saladworks’ and SDI’s motions to dismiss (the architect, InterArch, had already settled), and many of the allegations recited above may not survive a motion for summary judgment on the failed franchisee’s misrepresentation claims. For example, as the court also points out, the franchise agreement specifically warned the franchisee that its “Brand Development Fund” contributions did not have to be used to promote the franchisee’s restaurant (as opposed to other System restaurants), and a franchisee in a new region typically should negotiate that point.
However, some issues that renewing franchisors should carefully consider are:
(i) Do franchises outside of your core geographic area struggle, as compared to those in the core? If so, your Item 19 Financial Performance Representation probably needs to highlight those differences and conspicuously warn prospects considering a franchise that would operate outside of “the core.”
(ii) If your Item 19 disclosure includes operating costs disclosures, are those impacted at all by the use of trainees in place of paid staff?
(iii) if you feel it is necessary to designate a commercial real estate company or architecture firm, be careful about how you promote their abilities, and consider (a) requiring the real estate firm to work with a local firm with whom it would share its fees, and (b) for states where the architect is not licensed, consider allowing the franchisee to select alternative architects upon payment of a modest review fee to your designated designers.
(iv) Are your Leasehold Improvement or construction estimates in Item 7 based on certain positive assumptions? If so, carefully disclose them, and consider whether the high estimate should not include those optimistic assumptions.
From the point of view of a prospective restaurant or retail franchisee, the lesson of this case is to show the kinds of issues you should carefully consider in your due diligence before purchasing a franchise. While litigation may help you recover if the franchisor is not completely truthful, better to figure it out beforehand!
January 2nd, 2014
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.
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 a 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. You should consider what financing, if any, you would be willing to provide to new franchisees as part of a package to help them obtain a bank loan.
Franchising vs. Other Methods of Expansion
The main advantage that franchising has over expanding a business on your own is that you get to invest other people’s time, skills, and money to growing the business instead of borrowing against your business and personal assets or granting stock to outside investors. Having franchisees allow a business to play off of a diverse pool of talent that may attract different types of people to the business.
Many businesses have found that, by granting franchises, they can recruit talented individuals who will be driven to tremendous lengths to make their business a success. While incentives to the managers of company-owned remote locations can drive good short-term results, franchisees who risk their net worth on the enterprise have the ultimate incentive to develop the businesses for long-term profitability.
As the franchisor, your business will be less likely to be held liable for any claims of personal injury or employment discrimination that that may happen on the premises of a franchised unit, as opposed to one opened with borrowed or equity capital. Making sure that this liability shield is effective takes careful planning, but when properly executed it is a substantial benefit of franchising.
It’s not all good news however. After outside lenders or investors are repaid, company units may yield more profit to the brand founder than franchises. It can be more difficult and costly to terminate a misbehaving franchisee than a location manager. Finally, company owned units located near franchises could suffer revenue losses through competition with the franchises.
So You’ve Decided to Franchise…
With all of that in mind, and you’ve decided that your business is ready to franchise, there are a few things you should do before looking for your first franchisee.
- Develop the operating manual and training plan. Owners often create these items with the help of a consultant and with overall legal guidance.
- Put money aside. A thoughtful and responsible business owner should have at least $100,000 available for franchising purposes, including legal, development of training programs and operations manuals, and advertising for franchisees (both creative and placement). Also, a shrewd businessman might put away that money, spend half on the aforementioned items, and keep the rest on hand to show sufficient capitalization to obtain state franchise registration on favorable terms.
- Be prepared to do some hand-holding. Business owners that are looking to franchise need to be realistic when they look at the additional operating costs of getting a franchise up and running. They must spend money and time recruiting and supporting the new franchisees. Time away from the core-business means money for managerial costs for the original businesses that form the “prototype” for the franchises.
Potential franchisors need to accept that franchising successfully will require some short term sacrifices in terms of time and money. Done correctly and thoroughly can mean the growth of your business to larger regional or national markets. Improperly, underfunded, and rushed could mean the loss of the business entirely. Early investment in franchise resources and assistance will give the business a better chance at success and growth within your industry.
December 30th, 2013
At the October 2013 American Bar Association Forum on Franchising Convention, the keynote program was entitled “If I had a Wizards’s Wand” and concerned what each of the four presenters would change about franchising and the law, if they could. Rochelle “Shelley” Spandorf’s proposals as part of that program are summarized by reporter Janet Sparks in this BlueMauMau.com article . While Ms. Spandorf’s proposed changes are wonderful as far as they go (if not magical), unfortunately she did not clearly address one of the most important dispute resolution issues in the U.S. legal system, including franchising; the use of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses to blunt weaker parties’ access to civil justice.
Aspects of Shelley’s proposals that seem particularly commendable are requiring all new franchisors to have some base of experience, creating a uniform national regisry of franchise sales registration, mandating the provision of a financial performance representation, and freeing states’ attorney generals to puruse enforcement rather than adminiistering a registration system. Moreover, while such legislation might appear to be substantially more burdensome to franchisors than the current legal regime of franchise sales regulation, the reality is that, even in the so-called “non-registration states” most franchisees do have the ability to pursue private civil actions for material violations of the FTC Franchise Rule; for example, see Final Cut, LLC v. Sharkey, 2012 Conn Super. LEXIS 98, 2012 WL 310752 (Conn. Superior Ct., Jan. 3, 2012) (franchisee prevails under Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act in claims that franchise sales were made in material violation of the FTC Franchise Rule).
However, on the issue of dispute resolution, it is unclear whether the proposal that U.S. federal courts have “exclusive jurisdiction” over U.S. franchise law claims would mean that franchisors could not require arbitration instead of court proceedings. This is particularly important with regard to the ability of franchisees to pursue group or class actions. Through many Supreme Court decisions authored by conservative justices, as well as legislation passed by Republican Congressional majorities, plaintiffs seeking class certification face a rigorous burden in U.S. courts. As many an attorney can attest, there are myriad difficulties (both ethical and practical) in representing substantial groups of franchisees pursuing common claims. However, in appropriate circumstances where common questions of fact predominate, particularly on liability, use of a group or class action is the most efficient (and sometimes the ony practical) way for parties who have suffered grievous financial losses to seek a remedy. Supreme Court decisions have made it extremely easy for parties to bar class or group actions by inserting an arbitration clause in their form contracts and refusing to remove them.
While reforms freeing state attorneys’ general to focus on claims enforcement might help improve failed franchisees’ access to justice, experience shows that attorney generals tend to focus on relief for large number of consumers rather than smaller numbers of small business owners. Unless a federal franchise law contains an express exemption from the Federal Arbitration Act for disputes between franchisors and franchisees, its benefits for franchisees may prove to be illusory.
December 20th, 2013
Summary: Recent cases involving attempted enforcement of covenants not to compete by franchisors show the unpredictability of the results in such cases. However, careful reading of the factual circumstances of the cases also supports the adage that “bad facts make bad law.” So it behooves franchisors to check whether they have a sympathetic case on the facts when trying to enforce their non-competes.
In July 2013, in the case of Golden Crust Patties, Inc. v. Bullock, Case No. 13-CV-2241, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York “threw the book” at a recently terminated Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill Restaurant franchisee. The franchise was terminated because the franchisee was “not only selling the competitor’s products (i.e., frozen Caribbean-style patties), but were selling those products using Golden Krust packaging.” Thus, the franchisee was engaging in a classic form of trademark piracy, likely to cause harm to the brand. Despite receiving an immediate termination notice, the franchisee only stopped using the trademarks after Golden Krust filed suit. Even then, rather than adopting a new name it put up a sign reading, “Come in. We are Open. Nothing has Changed Only Our Name”; and another sign that read: “Open. Same Great Food, Same Great Service. Thanks for Your Support!!! Come Again.”
Under those circumstances, the court enjoined the former franchisee and her son, who had managed the restaurant, from continued operation of a Caribbean-style restaurant. In its order the court, acting under New York law, enjoined such operations at the former franchised location and within 4 miles of it (rather than 10 miles, as written in the contract), or within 2.5 miles of any other Golden Krust restaurant (rather than 5 miles, as written in the contract). While giving them a bit of a break on the geographic extent of the non-compete, the court overall had no sympathy for the franchisee’s arguments of harm to their livelihood, including the possibility that their landlord would not allow them to operate a different type of restaurant at the leased premises; rather, the court found that to be a harm of the former franchisee’s own making.
In September of this year, in the case of Steak ‘N Shake Enterprises, Inc. v. Globex Company, LLC, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado found that the franchisor had good cause to terminate and force its Denver franchisee to cease use of the trademarks, but did not find cause to enjoin the former franchisee from violating the covenant not to compete. The cause for termination was that the franchisee refused to comply with the franchisor’s demand that it offer a “$4 value menu” and instead insisted on charging higher prices. The court held that Steak ‘N Shake had good cause to terminate the franchise and enjoined continued use of the Steak ‘N Shake trademarks, trade dress and menu item names.
However, the court did not order the former franchisee to refrain from operating a similar restaurant, finding that, because the next closest Steak ‘N Shake restaurant was in Colorado Springs (about 100 miles away) and the franchisor had no prospects to open up any Denver area locations in the near future, it could not prove irreparable harm if the former franchisee continued to operate. This decision does not preclude the franchisor from seeking damages due to violation of the covenant not to compete later in this case. While not expressly stated in the opinion, it is quite possible that the court may have been swayed by the fact that Steak ‘N Shake was requiring that an enormous number of meals be offered for $3.99, which likely would mean little or no profit to the franchisee on those sales. In other words, Steak ‘N Shake had a right to insist that restaurants using its name follow its pricing demands, but if it chose to terminate on those grounds it would have to suffer repercussions.
Finally, on August 6, 2013, in the case of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives Franchising, Inc. v. Patrick Harders, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a state trial court ruling denying enforcement of a post-expiration covenant not to compete by a North Carolina based franchisor against its former franchisee in northern Virginia. In so doing, the court wrote, “During the time in which Mr. Harders operated as an OLP franchisee, entities holding OLP franchises encountered numerous problems with OLP suppliers. Since [Outdoor Living Brands] purchased [the franchisor] in 2008, numerous franchises have closed and the OLP business model has been devalued. Among other things, [the franchisor] failed to provide its franchisees with adequate support, feedback, and product innovation. Although the information provided to Mr. Harders and OLP-NVA by [the franchisor] was alleged to be proprietary, much of it was publicly available and common knowledge in the industry. Similarly, the training that Mr. Harders had received from [the franchisor] was readily available without charge in many national home improvement stores.
Once the court laid out the facts in this manner, it was obvious that it would rule against the franchisor. It did so in a fairly creative manner, seizing on the fact that the non-compete prohibited the non-renewing franchisee from engaging in a “competitive business” within any “Affiliate’s territory.” At the time of the franchise agreement, the franchisor was only involved in Outdoor Lighting Perspectives, but during the term the franchisor was purchased by OUtdoor Living Brands, which also owned the Mosquito Squad® and Achadeck® franchise systems. While the likely purpose of restricting competition with “affiliates” was to protect Outdoor Lighting Perspective businesses owned by the Franchisor’s corporate siblings, and the franchisor was not seeking to enjoin the former franchisee from competing with later-acquired affiliates in unrelated fields, the literal language of the non-compete supported an argument that it was overbroad in its geographic scope.
The court also found that the definition of a prohibited “Competitive Business” under this non-compete was overly broad. It prohibited involvement in “any business operating in competition with an outdoor lighting business” or “any business similar to the Business.” The provision’s scope could prohibit the former franchisee from operating an indoor lighting business or “obtaining employment at a major home improvement store that sold outdoor lighting supplies, equipment tor services as a small part of its business even if he had no direct involvement” in that part of the operation. The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision to read the provision literally and therefore refuse to enforce it in any manner, rather than entering a more limited injunction prohibiting the former franchisee from operating or managing an outdoor lighting business.
These court rulings demonstrate the “bad facts make bad law” truism. The Golden Krust franchisor had a sympathetic case and a franchisee acting badly; in the Steak ‘N Shake case, the parties clearly needed to go their separate ways, but the franchisor’s inflexibility persuaded the court to allow the franchisee to operate independently, at least pending a full trial; and the Outdoor Lighting franchisor, despite litigating in its “home court,” apparently had such an unimpressive franchise system that the court was unwilling to fashion an equitable remedy when confronting an overly broad non-compete. These cases should make franchisors think carefully about the situations in which they seek to enjoin competition by their former franchisees.
July 16th, 2013
“Do not pass Go, do not collect $200” is a phrase we all remember from the childhood game Monopoly. Like Monopoly, state franchise sales laws have rules and regulations that must be followed. A franchisor’s failure to follow these basic procedural rules for selling franchises can result in self-destruction.
On December 10, 2012, a decision in the case of In Re. Butler demonstrated a strict approach on the policy and procedures that a franchisor must follow for selling a franchise. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court sitting in North Carolina ruled that the owners of a franchise were personally liable to a franchisee for $714,000 plus interest in damages for violating the New York Franchise Law. The court further ruled that the franchise owners’ liability was non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Michael and Kathy Butler opened a small retail store to serve the marketing needs of small businesses. After much success, the Butlers formed PRS Franchise Systems LLC (“PRS”). Based in North Carolina, PRS Franchise handled all of the franchising for the PR Stores. PRS had obtained a one year license from New York to sell franchises to its residents, but subsequently PRS did not renew its New York registration on an annual basis.
In 2007, John Mangione, a New York resident, expressed interest in purchasing 20 PR Store franchises in the New York area. Because of Mangione’s interest, PRS submitted an application to renew its registration to sell franchises in New York. Before receiving approval of its renewal application, PRS sold 20 PR Store franchises to Mangione and received $716,000 in initial franchise fees between April and July 2007.
The franchise relationship was not to Mangione’s satisfaction, most of his PR Store locations were unsuccessful, and he ceased operating them by 2009. The Butlers also had a reversal of fortune and by 2009 they had dissolved PRS and filed for bankruptcy.
The Butlers argued that they were permitted to engage in franchise sale transactions while the application of renewal for registration was pending under New York Law. The court rejected this argument on the grounds that, while New York law does permit franchisors to sell franchises while renewal applications are pending, the law also requires the franchisor to give the buyer its last registered offering prospectus (also commonly known as the franchise disclosure document, or “FDD”), escrow the franchise fees paid in a separate trust account and then, once the renewal application is approved, provide the franchisee with the approved new prospectus and an opportunity to rescind the franchise agreement and have the fees returned. The court stated that even if PRS’ application was timely, PRS failed to escrow the initial franchise fees, provide Mangione with the registered prospectus after its approval in August 2007 and offer rescission as required by New York law. Instead, shortly after receiving initial franchise fee payments, PRS distributed the funds as sales commissions to its broker and as salaries for the principals of the company – the Butlers.
Because the Butlers directly engaged in the unlawful sale of the franchises to Mangione, and profited personally from his payments, the court found that the Butlers were personally liable to Mangione. The court stated that the remedies for an unlawful offer or sale of a franchise are: 1) rescission of the Franchise Agreement, 2) damages with 6% interest from the date of the transaction, and 3) reasonable attorney fees and costs. Therefore, the court found that Mangione was entitled to rescission of the franchise agreements and return of the $714,000 paid by him, plus 6% interest from May 7, 2007.
The next issue that the court addressed was whether the Butlers’ debt was dischargeable in bankruptcy. According to the court, a debtor’s debt is non-dischargeable if the money is obtained by “false pretenses, a false representation, or actual fraud.” The court found that the Butlers’ committed fraud by misrepresenting to Mangione that PRS had the legal right to sell franchises in New York, even though its registration was only pending, not approved. The court further stated that a debtor’s debt is non-dischargeable “for fraud or defalcation while acting in a fiduciary capacity, embezzlement, or larceny.” The court stated that a debtor must prove: 1) the debt arose while the debtor was acting in a fiduciary capacity, and 2) the debt arose from the debtor’s fraud or defalcation. In this case, the court found that the Butlers’ failure to escrow the franchise fees, and their failure to return the funds to Mangione, each amounted to defalcation.
This case demonstrates the danger to the franchisor’s executives if their company fails to follow franchise sales rules. A violation of such rules can, without additional evidence of factual fraud or misrepresentation, result in those executives being held personally liable to the franchisee and being unable to obtain a discharge of that judgment in their personal bankruptcy proceedings.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: THIS POST WAS CO-WRITTEN BY KATELYN P. VU, A SUMMER ASSOCIATE AT WHITEFORD TAYLOR & PRESTON AND 2015 J.D. CANDIDATE AT UNIVERSITY OF BALTIMORE LAW SCHOOL
June 28th, 2013
For the second straight year the annual International Franchise Expo took place in New York City from June 20 – 22, 2013, and it seemed even bigger and better than ever! This post highlights interesting young franchisors on display at the franchise expo.
One aspect of the Expo that is notably improved is the depth of seminar and educational offerings. I attended a seminar called “Maintaining Brand Standards When Franchising”, presented by Mark Siebert, CEO of the iFranchise Group of franchising consultants and by Harold Kestenbaum, a senior attorney from Long Island. They provided some great “war stories,” but the gist was Siebert’s “Four Pillars of Quality Control,” which are (1) Franchisee Selection, (2) Documentation & Training Tools, (3) Support, and (4) Compliance Program backed by Legal Documents. The most memorable “punch line” was Siebert’s: franchisors are generally better if they choose franchisees who have been married for a long time, because “they can handle pain.”
The exhibit hall featured many well-known large franchisors such as Choice Hotels and 7-Eleven. However, as a counselor for emerging franchisors and for many franchisees of emerging systems, I always find innovative newer brands to be interesting. Here are a few that intrigued me, with the proviso that none of the descriptions are an endorsement of the franchise:
Restoration 1: tested by handling flood, water and mold damage remediation in the very busy south Florida area, this franchise combines high-quality restoration services with unique marketing methods to differentiate itself from incumbants in this industry such as ServiceMaster and ServPro. It also offers large exclusive territories not available from the established restoration services franchisors.
America’s Taco Shop: an authentic Mexican fast casual restaurant founded by America Corrales Bortin, who is originally from Culiachán, Sinaloa, Mexico. This is a repeat from last year, but their food is incredibly great! I once again talked with the founder’s husband Terry who told me about their steady expansion from Arizona. They are owned by Kahala Corp., which is a highly experienced franchisor with a strong team for site selection and location development.
Ping Pong Dim Sum: an apparently hip, upscale version of the traditional Chinese version of “tapas,” with an interesting mix of teas and mixed drinks. There are company owned locations in Washington D.C. (Dupont Corner and Chinatown) plus in London and Dubai.
Cooperstown Connection: a sports apparel and souvenir shop founded in Cooperstown, New York, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. As a baseball fan I like the name, which this franchisor has registered as a trademark. When I asked why there would be an advantage to operating this store, as opposed to many other sports apparel shops, the franchise seller claimed to have a wide variety of custom products as well as strong buying power. Prospects should put them to the test on those selling points!
CPR Cell Phone Repair: Getting quality service at stores that focus on selling smart phones and tablets is not a pleasant experience, and the demand and need for repair of mobile devices just keeps growing. I have no idea the quality of service provided at CPR stores, but this franchise seems intriguing because of the name and the need.
Taziki’s Cafe: a fast casual Greek and Mediterranean Café from Birmingham, Alabama (not a typo). The youthful founders, who definitely sound like Alabama natives, honeymooned in Greece in 1998 and decided to imitate their favorite café when they returned. The franchisor claims average store level gross sales of $1.45 million and average “gross profit” of $502,000.
Grade Power Learning: an off-shoot of the well-established Canadian tutoring chain Oxford Learning, this new U.S. competitor is being franchised by the same team that runs the Minuteman Press franchise system. The company’s literature says, “Our cognitive approach to learning, designed by educational experts, is based on proven scientific research into how children actually learn. Learning is not about memorizing facts. It’s about knowing, really understanding, how to integrate and retain new information.” While this competes in a crowded supplemental education field, the need for this type of service continues to be great.
Web XL: a website developer with a twist – focused on creating efficient e-Commerce and payment gateway solutions, along with Internet marketing support, on a monthly plan basis. While anyone can make a website, if this company really provides efficient e-Commerce solutions, then affiliating with them may be a great opportunity for a good salesperson. The franchisor offers “no money down” one year financing on the Initial Franchise Fee.
Froyo World: yes, I know, what’s interesting about another self-serve frozen yogurt chain? This one’s flavors are unique and the quality is truly outstanding, the most distinctive I’ve tasted.
Bed Bug Chasers – could be an excellent add-on to pest management or disaster restoration.
Churro Mania – mall food court or small location dessert business, specializing in Mexican Churro products, which given U.S. demographics only figure to get more popular!
If you decide to pursue these opportunities or a different one, we stand ready to assist you with due diligence, evaluation of the franchise offering, and contract negotiation.
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.