Tag: bankruptcy

Severe Consequences for Franchisor Executives: Personal Liability and Non-dischargeable debt

July 16th, 2013
David Cahn

David Cahn

“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

Can They Really Do That? Franchisees’ Liability for Lost Future Royalties after Store Failure

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.

The takeaways:
(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