May 10th, 2013
In Long John Silver’s Inc. v. Nickleson, decided February 12, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky issued another decision demonstrating the danger of franchisors relying on disclaimers in their contracts and the Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”) to defeat claims that it provided false financial performance information in selling a franchise. The court denied summary judgment for the franchisor of A&W Restaurants, Inc. (“A&W”) and will allow the franchisee’s claims of fraud and violation of franchise sales laws to be decided at trial. The case is particularly noteworthy because the franchise purchased was the claimant’s fourth from the same franchisor.
A&W’s FDD had what is known a “negative disclosure” in Item 19 concerning the provision of information about the sales or profits at existing franchises, specifically saying “[w]e do not make any representations about a franchisee’s future financial performance or past financial performance of company-owned or franchised outlets.” The Minnesota-based franchisee alleged that, in connection with considering purchase of a franchise to open a new “drive in” model A&W restaurant, the franchisor provided “information, including financial projections, which was laden with false data.” These allegations, if true, would mean that A & W provided a financial performance representation (“FPR”) outside of its FDD, in violation of federal and state franchise sales laws.
A&W followed the usual route of trying to get the franchisee’s claims thrown out before trial on the argument that, in light of the disclaimers in Item 19 of the FDD and in various parts of the franchise agreement, as a matter of law the franchisee could not “reasonably rely” on the information provided. The court rejected the argument that the disclaimers could be used to bar the franchisee’s claim that A&W provided misleading information in violation of the Minnesota Franchise Act, because that law (like the Maryland Franchise Registration & Disclosure Law) contains a provision making “void” any waivers of conduct contrary to the franchise sales law. The franchisor will be permitted to use the disclaimers in the contract and the FDD at trial as evidence to persuade the jury that the franchisee could not have reasonably relied on the “projections “.
The court also ruled that the disclaimers could not be used to deny the franchisee a trial on its claim of common law fraud (under Kentucky law) with regard to its claim that the projections provided were based on false data about other locations’ sales or earnings. In the words of the court, “A broadly-worded, strategically placed disclaimer should not negate reliance as a matter of law where A&W allegedly shared objectively false data to induce Defendant to enter into the Franchise Agreement.” Therefore summary judgment was denied and the franchisee’s fraud claim will proceed to trial, with A&W potentially liable for punitive damages if the franchisee prevails on that claim.
Given that the franchisee in this case already owned three (3) other A&W restaurants at the time it purchased the franchise at issue, it would hardly be surprising if it demanded and received specific financial performance information about the other “drive-in” models. A logical question is, if A&W had included sales and earnings data in Item 19 of the FDD that it provided to this franchisee, was it less likely to have faced the allegations made in this case? In this author’s opinion, based on more than fifteen (15) years of representing franchisors and franchisees, A&W would have been in a better position to defend against the allegations had it included such data in Item 19. The reason is that the data would have been reviewed by A&W’s attorneys and probably by upper management, who would be more likely to make sure that the presentation was accurate and not misleading. Once the presentation is in the FDD, most franchise salespeople will be less likely to “go off script” and provide information that is more optimistic than Item 19.
However, even if the franchise seller did provide information beyond the written FPR, at trial the franchisor will be able to point to the data provided in Item 19 and say, “Look, we gave the franchisee the data in the FDD and made it easy for him to investigate further, so it is ridiculous to believe he relied on something are franchise salesperson said.” In that situation it may be more likely than not that the jury would agree with the franchisor. By contrast, by denying its franchise seller use of an Item 19 FPR, A&W made it difficult to comply with the law and convince qualified candidates to purchase the franchise – setting up a scenario where a jury may believe that the franchise seller “went over the line.”
April 24th, 2012
During 2012 Sylvan Learning, Inc. and its corporate affiliates are fighting a claim of violating of the Maryland Franchise Registration & Disclosure Law and fraudulent conduct in its sale of tutoring center franchise rights, after having its motions to dismiss the fraud claims denied by the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
In Next Generation Group, LLC v. Sylvan Learning Centers, LLC, Case CCB-11-0986 (decided Jan. 5, 2012), the plaintiff franchisee alleged that he agreed to develop and operate a new Sylvan Learning Center in Irving, Texas, in reliance upon representations from Sylvan that it would sell the plaintiff two existing Centers in nearby Arlington and Allen, Texas. According to the Amended Complaint, those representations were made orally by Sylvan’s agent to plaintiff’s principal both before and after the plaintiff signed the franchise agreement for Irving, but several weeks before the Irving location opened, Sylvan’s agent advised plaintiff’s principal “in writing that Sylvan had approved his acquisition of the Arlington and Allen Learning centers, respectively.” The parties executed letters of intent for the sale of both sites about two weeks before the Irving Center opened. However, about three weeks after the Irving Center opened, Sylvan’s same agent “informed [plaintiff] that Sylvan would not sell him the license and assets for any more franchises.” According to the Amended Complaint, Sylvan provided no explanation of its reversal of course. The franchisee claimed that Sylvan fraudulently induced it to develop and open the Irving location.
Sylvan argued for dismissal of the claims on the basis that the Irving franchise agreement contained an “integration clause” that prevented the plaintiff from relying on promises made outside that written agreement. The court rejected this, by quoting a prior court decision stating, “[T]he law in Maryland … is that a plaintiff can successfully bring a tort action for fraud that is based on false pre-contract promises by the defendant even if (1) the written contract contains an integration clause and even if (2) the pre-contractual promises that constitute the fraud are not mentioned in the written contract. Most of our sister states apply a similar rule. Greenfield v. Heckenbach, 144 Md. App. 108, 130, 797 A.2d 63, 76 (2002).” Sylvan’s problem is that the contractual “integration clause” did not disclaim any specific oral representations, and certainly not any concerning Sylvan’s willingness to sell the plaintiff additional existing franchised businesses. Without specific disclaimers as to representations made on that specific topic, the integration clause did not prevent pursuit of the claim.
While Sylvan could use the presence of the integration clause at trial to challenge whether the plaintiff reasonably relied on promises made outside of the Irving franchise agreement, based on the facts alleged the court stated, “there is reason to believe [plaintiff] could reasonably have relied on Sylvan’s representations” concerning the sale of the existing locations. Therefore, the court held that permitting the plaintiff to file a second amended complaint would not be “futile” and granted the plaintiff’s motion to do so.
After the plaintiff filed its Second Amended Complaint, Sylvan immediately moved to dismiss it on essentially the same grounds as asserted previously, and the court once again refused to dismiss the claims for fraud and violation of the Maryland Franchise Registration & Disclosure Law. Accordingly, the parties are now conducting discovery that may take most of 2012 to complete.
It is important to recognize that the proceedings in this case to date solely concern the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s factual allegations as a matter of law, and in later proceedings Sylvan’s representatives will provide information on what occurred with regard to this franchise sale. Nevertheless, the decision reiterates an important point for all Maryland business people – even if promises and statements are excluded from a particular written agreement, they may have legal consequences if the subsequent business relationship fails to meet the other party’s expectations.
November 7th, 2011
A recent decision in A Love of Food I, LLC v. Maoz Vegetarian USA, Inc. , Case No. AW-10-2352, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,633 (decided July 7, 2011), the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in denying a motion to dismiss, highlighted the need for franchisors to vigilantly update their government-required disclosure document to maintain its accuracy, while also providing a valuable reminder as to the geographic scope of state franchise sales laws’ application.
Misrepresentations in Franchise Disclosures
The franchise agreement at issue in the case was for a Maoz Vegetarian® quick-serve restaurant that the plaintiff opened and operated in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The franchisee alleged that the startup cost estimates in the franchisor’s government-mandated disclosure document (then known as the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular, or “UFOC”) dramatically underestimated the actual startup costs for its franchise, and that the franchisor knew that the representations were inaccurate at the time it made them. They alleged that the franchisor’s actions constituted violations of the anti-fraud provisions of the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law, as well as fraud as a matter of the general common law of Maryland.
In a decision during 1999 in the case of Motor City Bagels, LLC v. American Bagel Co., Civ. No. S-97-3474, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 11,654, another judge in the U.S. District Court for Maryland had held that a franchisor could have committed fraud by misrepresenting the initial investment costs in its UFOC by approximately 20 – 25%. By contrast, in this case the franchisee alleged that it had to spend more than twice the franchisor’s “maximum” estimate of $269,000 to open their restaurant, and that during 2008 the franchisor increased the “maximum” initial investment cost estimate in its UFOC by $225,000.
The UFOC specifically encouraged the franchisee to rely on the startup cost estimates in two ways. First, the UFOC specifically itemized various cost categories and provided sub-estimates for each category. Second, the UFOC pointed out that the estimates were based on the franchisor’s “15 years of combined industry experience and experience in establishing and assisting our franchisees in establishing and operating 23 [vegetarian restaurants] which are similar in nature to the Franchised Unit you will operate.”
The franchisor argued that cost projections were statements of opinion and could not constitute fraud because they were not susceptible to exact knowledge at the time they are made. However, the court held that erroneous projections could supply a basis for fraud under Maryland law in some cases. Whether projections were sufficiently concrete and material to qualify as statements of fact required a context-sensitive inquiry that could not be reduced to a single formula. An assessment of relevant factors—including the extent of the alleged discrepancy, whether the projection was based on mere speculation or on facts, and whether the projection was contrary to any facts in the franchisor’s possession—supported the conclusion that the franchisee had sufficiently stated a claim for fraud to proceed with factual discovery for its common law fraud and Maryland Franchise Law claims.
Jurisdiction in Maryland and Application of New York Franchise Sales Law
The franchise agreement in this case only permitted the franchisee to open a restaurant in the District of Columbia, and in fact that is where the restaurant has been operated. The defendant franchisor maintains its principal place of business in New York, and the parties’ first meeting concerning a potential franchise sale took place at the franchisor’s New York office. The plaintiff franchisee was formed by Maryland residents and, at the time of the franchise purchase, “maintained its principal place of business” in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The parties had numerous telephone conversations during which the franchisor’s representatives were located in New York and the franchisee’s representatives were in Maryland. The franchisor sent its UFOC and the proposed franchise agreement contract to the franchisee’s address in Maryland.
Based on those facts, the court found that those activities were sufficient to allow it to exercise jurisdiction, meaning that it could require the franchisor to defend itself in Maryland.
The franchisee filed a claim for violation of the New York Franchise Sales Act on that basis that the law applied because the franchise sale was made from New York. The court, following the express terms of that law and a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, found that the New York Franchise Sales Act protects franchisees in other states where offer and/or acceptance took place in New York. The rationale for extending the statute to situations such as this was to protect and enhance the commercial reputation of New York by regulating not only franchise offers originating in New York by New York-based franchisors.
The anti-fraud provisions of the Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law, as well as those of other states such as California, also apply to franchise sales made from the state. However, to the author’s knowledge, New York is the only state that requires franchisors based within its borders to obtain state registration approval before selling franchises to out of state residents.
(1) Franchisors need to be vigilant to monitor the actual initial investment costs being incurred to open new locations (whether company-owned or franchised) and promptly update initial cost estimates. Prospective franchisees should not assume that the franchisor is doing this, and should ask existing franchisees about their initial investments before buying franchise rights.
(2) If a franchise seller is discussing a franchise sale with a person located in state with a franchise sales law, then the franchisor needs to determine if it needs to obtain pre-sale registration approval from that state before selling the franchise.
(3) New York needs to amend its law to exempt out of state franchise sales from its registration requirements.
October 5th, 2009
A recent case out of the Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania demonstrates what appears to be a movement by the courts away from their traditional franchisor-friendly view of franchisee waivers and disclaimers.
In the past, a franchisee’s willingness to sign a franchise agreement has generally bound them to the waivers and disclaimers included therein, regardless of any related fraud or misrepresentation on the part of their franchisor. Courts have typically been unsympathetic to franchisees’ claims of fraudulent inducement where the franchise agreements themselves and other documents, such as “franchisee disclosure questionnaires,” expressly stated that the franchisees were not relying on any statements made by the franchisor’s representatives other than those in the Franchise Disclosure Document (or “UFOC”), and that the franchisees understood that the parties’ entire agreement was contained in the franchise agreement. Most courts have held that franchisors are entitled to rely on their franchisees’ express affirmations, and that franchisees are bound by the statements and agreements they sign.
However, the federal district court in Martrano v. The Quizno’s Franchise Co. denied Quizno’s’ motion to dismiss a class of franchisees’ claims for fraudulent inducement based on waivers and disclaimers included in the Quizno’s franchise documents. The franchisees’ primary claim was that a statement in the UFOC that Quizno’s negotiated volume discounts for the benefit of its franchise system was misleading, and the court held that the franchise agreement and disclosure questionnaire did not disclaim any of Quizno’s’ assertions contained in the UFOC itself.
Importantly, the court also allowed the franchisees to pursue additional fraudulent misrepresentation claims for statements made outside of the UFOC based on the franchisees’ assertion that Quizno’s required all prospects to provide “correct” responses to the disclosure questionnaire in order to be awarded a franchise. The court also cited previous cases holding that disclaimers of intentional misconduct are void as against public policy, and that parties cannot waive the right to sue for fraudulent inducement in the very contract they wish to challenge. Finally, the court noted that Quizno’s may be liable for violating its general duties of good faith and fair dealing by taking actions detrimental to its franchisees for its own benefit.
While the court’s acceptance of the franchisees’ claim based on the misrepresentation included in the UFOC was clearly in line with established precedent and current franchising regulations, its willingness to allow the franchisees to pursue other claims that Quizno’s argued were barred by express waivers and disclaimers represents a separation from established precedent. This case suggests that courts may in the future accord less weight to defenses asserted by franchisors based solely on a franchisees’ execution of form contracts and other documents.
Also of note, the court also denied Quizno’s claim for enforcement of the franchise agreements’ class action waiver provision. The court held that class action certification is a matter of federal procedural law, and therefore remains within the federal courts’ discretion regardless of any agreement between the private litigants.
By: Jeffrey S. Fabian