March 20th, 2012
In Girl Scouts of Manitou Council, Inc. v. Girl Scouts of the United States of America, Inc.
, 646 F.3d 983 (7th Cir. 2011), the U.S. Court of Appeals for Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin held that the national Girl Scouts organization, a nonprofit incorporated by an Act of Congress, violated the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law by dissolving a local Wisconsin chapter of the national organization “without good cause.” The 2011 decision is notable both because of its author, the extremely well-known, respected and conservative Judge Richard Posner, and because of the language used by the Court in rejecting the Girl Scouts of the United States’ arguments for immunity based on its nonprofit mission. This article is designed to help the leaders of nonprofit organizations and associations identify ways to mitigate risks posed by this decision.
Under the Wisconsin law, a “dealer” is one who is granted the right by contract to “use [the grantor's] trade name, trademark, service mark, logotype, advertising or other commercial symbol” and has “a community of interest” with the other party to the contract “in the business of offering, selling or distributing goods or services at wholesale, retail, by lease, agreement, or otherwise.” The Girl Scouts of the United States argued that its contract with the affiliate was not “commercial” and that the affiliate was not “in business.” To that, the Court said:
. . . one doesn’t usually think of nonprofit enterprises as being “commercial” and engaged in “business.” Or didn’t use to–for outweighing these hints is the fact that nonprofit enterprises frequently do engage in “commercial” or “business” activities, and certainly the Girl Scouts do. Proceeds of the sale of Girl Scout cookies are the major source of Manitou’s income. The local councils sell other merchandise as well. Sales of merchandise account for almost a fifth of the national organization’s income, and most of the rest comes from membership fees and thus depends on the success of the local councils in recruiting members; that in turn depends on the councils’ revenues and thus gives the national organization an indirect stake in the cookie sales.
646 F.3d at 987. The Court went on to emphasize that, when competing with for-profit entities in commercial enterprises and endeavors, nonprofits may be held to the same legal standards of conduct.
Laws that prohibit termination or cancellation of a dealer or franchisee, except for “good cause,” are called “franchise relationship” laws. Wisconsin’s definition of a “dealer” is similar to the definition of a “franchise” under the franchise relationship laws of Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey. Another 11 states have franchise relationship laws, but require the “franchisee” to prove that it was required to pay some sort of “fee” as a condition of selling goods or services under the “grantor’s” trademark. Such “fees” have been deemed charged if the “franchisee” was required to pay the “franchisor” for a policies and procedures manual, for its director to attend a training conference, or even for marketing materials to distribute to prospective customers of the good or service.
The 15 states that have laws regulating the granting of a franchise, typically known as “franchise sales laws,” mandate certain disclosures be provided to prospective franchisees and that the franchisor refrain from certain actions in recruiting franchisees. All of those laws also contain a requirement that the “grantee” directly or indirectly pay some sort of “fee” to the grantor as a condition of operating under the grantor’s trademark. Most of those laws do not require that the fee be paid up front, and thus the fee could be a percentage of the grantee’s cash received in operating the business. However, payments from the grantee to the grantor for products at their “bona fide wholesale price” cannot be franchise fees, and the payment of commissions to the grantee when it has acted as a bona fide sales agent of the grantor are excluded. However, if the fee element is satisfied and there is substantial association with a common name, then Judge Posner’s reasoning on what is a “commercial endeavor” and operation of a “business” could be meaningful in proving the existence of a franchise.
The Federal Trade Commission also has a trade regulation rule that contains disclosure requirements and recruitment prohibitions that are similar to the state franchise sales laws. Fortunately for nonprofit organizations, the FTC has issued several advisory opinions finding that a nonprofit engaging in transactions that would otherwise be considered franchising were exempt from the Franchise Rule provided that (a) the licensor is not engaged in the relationship “for its own profit or the profit of its members,” and (b) the licensees are also bona fide non-profits. The first requirement is driven by the limit of the FTC’s jurisdiction, since it may only regulate a company “which is organized to carry on business for its own profit or that of its members.” 15 U.S.C. § 44. However, when the nonprofit associations of glass makers and insurance agents collaborated to form “The Glass Network” to enable the insurers to obtain lower cost auto glass replacement services and the glass makers access to that market, the FTC staff found that “network” to be covered by the Franchise Rule, notwithstanding its ownership by nonprofits. The Glass Network, LLC, FTC Informal Staff Advisory Opinion 04-4 (2004).
What follows are some key questions to ask in determining whether your chapter or affiliate program could be deemed a franchise system, or should otherwise focus on franchise law matters:
1. Are your members for-profit companies or professionals?
2. Is there an upfront affiliation fee or annual dues to maintain affiliate status, or a requirement that the affiliate purchase certain quantities of goods or services, regardless of customer demand?
3. Do your affiliates pay you a share of membership dues they receive, or does the affiliate receive membership commissions from you?
4. Is your association’s name or logo a prominent or significant part of the affiliate’s name or identity, from the perspective of its members?
5. Do your affiliates provide direct business development opportunities for their members (as opposed to general promotional benefit)?
6. Does a substantial portion of each of your affiliates’ revenues come from the sale of the same type of products or services, and are those products or services also sold by for-profit companies? Examples besides cookies are travel tours, function facility space, summer camps, or sports leagues.
7. Do your affiliates have exclusive territorial rights?
8. Is there a minimum quota of memberships that the affiliate must maintain?
9. Is good cause required to terminate the affiliate’s charter?
10. Is there a covenant not to compete after revocation of the charter, and if so who does it bind (i.e., just the affiliate as a nonprofit entity, or also its officers and directors)?
If a nonprofit organization or association answers “yes” to many of these questions, it may be advisable to review the chapter or affiliate structure – and applicable affiliation agreement – to mitigate the risk of inadvertently being considered to fall within the franchise laws.
September 27th, 2011
In its recent decision of Meineke Car Care Centers, Inc. v. RBL Holdings, LLC, et al., Case No. 09-2030, Case No. 09-2030, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,586 (decided April 14, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit provided valuable guidance on one of the most important legal issues for franchisors and franchisees. Specifically, if a franchisee closes franchised businesses that it can no longer afford to operate, can its franchisor obtain a judgment for “lost future royalties” that it would have earned had the businesses continued to operate?
In this Meineke case, the trial court had granted summary judgment dismissing the franchisor’s claim, on the bases that: (1) the franchise agreement did not state that the franchisee would be liable for royalties even if the business closed, and (2) even if Meineke had the right to seek lost future profits due to the franchisee’s closure of the stores, the claim failed because Meineke could not prove that it was “reasonably certain” that such profits would have been realized if the stores had not been closed. The U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed on both points and remanded the case for trial on Meineke’s claim.
On the first point, the court held that the parties are not required to specify in the Franchise Agreement all categories of potential damages each could seek as a result of the other’s breach. Rather, the standard is whether, at the time of entering into the agreement, “lost profits may reasonably be supposed to have been within [the parties’] contemplation as a probable result of [the franchisee’s] premature closure of the Shops.” A specific statement in the Franchise Agreement that the franchisee would be liable for all royalties throughout the term of the agreement would have been powerful evidence of the parties’ understanding when they signed the contracts. However, it was not the only admissible evidence of the parties’ “contemplation” on that issue, and therefore a factual dispute on that point existed – making it an issue for the jury to decide.
On the second point, the court emphasized that the royalties payable to Meineke were calculated from a percentage of the Stores’ gross revenue, not net profits. The court found that Meineke had demonstrated “with reasonable certainty” that, except for the franchisee’s breach of the agreements by closing the Shops, some revenue and therefore some lost royalties would have been realized. Thus, a trial was necessary to determine the amount of those lost “profits” with reasonable certainty.
However, at the trial, it would be relevant in making that determination how long it would have been “commercially feasible” to continue to operate each of the Shops, based on its historical net profits to the owner. In other words, the fact finder’s decision of how long it was “commercially feasible” to expect the franchisee to keep the doors open would determine the amount of the lost future royalties damages.
(1) the only way that a franchisee and its personal guarantors can be sure that they will not be liable for lost future royalties if the franchise fails is to insist upon language in the franchise agreement eliminating (or limiting) the franchisor’s right to those damages.
(2) if a franchised store ceases operations and truly “goes dark” due to ongoing net operating losses, at trial on a claim for lost future royalties the franchisor will need to be able to demonstrate that it was “commercially feasible” for the franchisee to remain open and, if so, provide some reasonable basis for the fact finder to determine how long the store should have remained open.
Given the uncertainty and fact intensive nature of such a case, it is probably in the best interests of both the franchisor and the franchisee to directly address the issue in the written agreement the franchisor’s right to “lost future royalties” and an agreed upon method to calculate those “damages.”
The full opinion can be viewed at http://pacer.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinion.pdf/092030.U.pdf
May 13th, 2011
A recent case with compelling facts shows that, despite attempts through written agreements and disclosure documents to shield franchisors from liability, deceptive conduct within the franchise relationship can still result in substantial liability for franchisors.
In Holiday Inn Franchising, Inc. v. Hotel Associates, Inc., 2011 Ark.App. 147 (Ark. Ct. Apps. 2011), the franchisee Hotel Associates, Inc. (“HAI”), is owned by J.O. “Buddy” House, one of the early Holiday Inn franchisees who was close friends with the chain’s founder. The court found that, over the course of decades, House had developed a relationship with the executives of Holiday Inn Franchising, Inc. (“Holiday Inn”) founded in “honesty, trust and the free flow of pertinent information”, thereby creating a “special relationship” imposing a duty on Holiday Inn to disclose facts material to the ongoing relationship.
In 1994, HAI, at the suggestion of a Holiday Inn executive, considered purchase of a rundown hotel in Wichita Falls, Texas to convert to a Holiday Inn. House realized that the property would need expensive renovations and requested a 15 or 20 year term in the Holiday Inn franchise agreement. Holiday Inn declined, but its Vice President of Franchising “stated that, if House operated the hotel appropriately, there was no reason to think that he would not receive a license extension at the end of the ten years.”
HAI signed a ten year franchise agreement in early 1995 and made extensive renovations before opening. The hotel was successful and HAI received offers to sell for up to $15 million, but declined based on its belief that the franchise would be extended. Meanwhile, Holiday Inn’s commission franchise salesperson was pursuing conversion of a nearby Radisson hotel at the end of HAI’s term and prepared a business plan for that conversion in 1999.
In 2001, an employee of HAI spoke to a Holiday Inn representative about early relicensure, and was convinced to send Holiday Inn a $2,500 fee to obtain a Property Improvement Plan (“PIP”) for changes needed for relicensure. The PIP required changes costing $2 million dollars, and after going through 2 rounds of Holiday Inn PIPs, HAI spent about $3,000,000 — without ever being informed of the business plan for the Radisson, which continued to be pursued.
In October 2002, when the hotel was fully renovated pursuant to the PIP and received a quality score of 96.05 (out of 100), Holiday Inn informed HAI that the Radisson had applied for a license and was being considered as a possible “partial replacement” for HAI’s facility “if it left the system.” After HAI protested, Holiday Inn stated that the Radisson application had been denied. However, after several more twists and turns, the new franchise development team “prevailed” over the relationship managers, the Radisson was licensed and HAI’s facility was denied relicensure. HAI sold it in 2007 for $5 million, before the real estate crash.
After a jury trial, HAI prevailed on claims against Holiday Inn of fraud and promissory estoppel, which means detrimental reliance on promises. After appeal, HAI’s judgment was for over $10 million in compensatory damages and $12 million in punitive damages. The case is notable because (a) HAI had no right to relicensure under the parties’ written agreement, but (b) the court found a “special relationship” that imposed a duty to disclose to the franchisee material information about the future of the business relationship, and (c) the court found that Holiday Inn’s course of conduct supported a punitive damages award.
October 27th, 2009
In a recent case out of the Federal District for the Eastern District of Virginia, it was held that a franchise agreement’s non-competition covenant could be applied to an owner of a corporate franchisee who had not signed the franchise agreement or a personal guarantee of the franchisee’s obligations. The facts of the case make the outcome unsurprising, and highlight a rule of federal law that can serve as an important tool for franchisors facing similar situations.
The case involved a short-lived Little Caesar’s pizza restaurant in Portsmouth, Virginia. Apparently in ongoing discussions with Little Caesar’s, an individual prospective franchisee, Ms. Ross, worked with her partner, Mr. Krever, to acquire a lease and begin building out the leased space to suit a Little Caesar’s franchise. Ms. Ross approached Little Caesar’s about Mr. Krever also becoming a party to the anticipated franchise agreement, but Little Caesar’s refused.
Despite this refusal, Ms. Ross and Mr. Krever jointly formed Little Caesar’s VA, Inc., and Ms. Ross entered into a franchise agreement with Little Caesar’s on the corporation’s behalf. While the agreement contained provisions requiring all owners to be approved and to sign a personal guarantee, Little Caesar’s was never made aware of Mr. Krever’s ownership interest.
The franchisee’s restaurant quickly failed and Mr. Krever took over operations, rebranding the restaurant as “Family Pizza Plus”, but continuing to use Little Caesar’s advertising and ingredients. Little Caesar’s sent a notice of default and termination to Ms. Ross, and sent multiple cease and desist notices to Mr. Krever, the unauthorized partner.
Following Mr. Krever’s refusal to cease operations of Family Pizza Plus, Little Caesar’s sued the franchisee-entity and both owners in federal court. Among other things, the complaint sought injunctive relief to enforce the franchise agreement’s non-competition provisions against both Ms. Ross and Mr. Krever.
The court awarded Little Caesar’s the relief sought. Despite never signing the franchise agreement or a personal guaranty, Mr. Krever was found to be subject to the franchise agreement’s non-competition provisions. The court cited two reasons for this result. First, Rule 65(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure grants federal courts the authority to issue injunctions against parties and their “officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys.” Second, the court held that the unauthorized partner should not be permitted to benefit from his own fraud and deception. According to the court, had Mr. Krever’s involvement been made known to Little Caesar’s, he would have been required to agree the franchise agreement’s non-competition provisions. The equities clearly favored Little Caesar’s in this case, and accordingly the court issued an order enjoining Mr. Krever from operating the Family Pizza Plus business at the former Little Caesar’s franchise location.
By: Jeffrey S. Fabian