Tag: vicarious liability

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

“Gangland” Judicial Opinion is a Reminder of Liability for Franchisees and Their Franchisors

November 26th, 2012

David Cahn


In Ford v. Palmden Restaurants, LLC, the Court of Appeals of California issued a strong reminder to both restaurant franchisees and their franchisors of their potential liability for criminal conduct that takes place on a restaurant’s premises. While the legal principles at issue differ for franchisees and franchisors, this potential liability is one that neither can ignore.

The case involved a Denny’s restaurant in Palm Springs, California, that was operated by Palmden Restaurants, LLC (“Palmden”). Starting during 2002 members of a gang known as the Gateway Posse Crips (“Gateway”) would “take over” the restaurant around 2 a.m. each Sunday, after closing of the club that they “hung out at” on Saturday night. “Taking over” meant:

“Members of the Gateway group refused to wait in line; they would just seat themselves. They were loud; they would use “foul language.” They would “table-hop.” Only a few of them would order food, and the ones who did would leave without paying. Other customers responded by canceling their orders or asking for their food to go and then leaving. Some Gateway members would stay outside in the parking lot, drinking and smoking marijuana. They had had “many fights,” both outside and inside the restaurant.”

In March 2003, there was a significant brawl around 2 a.m. at the restaurant, instigated by members of Gateway. The fight involved injuries to “innocent” female patrons, overturned furniture and a broken window. Police officers recommended to the owner of Palmden that she take several security measures, including installing video cameras and hiring off-duty uniformed police officers. Palmden closed the restaurant for the early a.m. hours only during the first weekend after the brawl, and thereafter Gateway resumed its “take overs.” Palmden did not install security cameras, hire off-duty police officers or take other new substantive security measures.

In April 2004, Terrelle Ford, who was a loan officer, had the misfortune of being at the restaurant with friends on a Sunday at 2 a.m. when the Gateway members arrived. A large group of men began beating one man standing outside the restaurant, and some of Ford’s friends went outside to break up the fight. When Ford saw his cousin being attacked he came outside to protect him and was severely beaten by Gateway members, suffering permanent brain injury. Shortly thereafter Palmden began closing the restaurant on Sundays in the early a.m., and the Gateway gang found a new “after-hours hangout.”

Could the Franchisee Be Liable for the Patron’s Injuries?

The trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of Palmden, finding that it could not be liable for the harms caused by the criminal acts of the Gateway gang members. The appeals court disagreed and reversed, sending the case back for trial.

The court, following well-established precedent, held that all restaurants and other public establishments have an obligation to undertake reasonable steps to secure common areas against the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties that are likely to occur without such precautionary measures: “The more certain the likelihood of harm, the higher the burden a court will impose on a [proprietor] to prevent it; the less foreseeable the harm, the lower the burden a court will place on a [proprietor].” The central question was the extent of Palmden’s duty to take action to prevent gang violence, and the essence of the decision was that Palmden was liable because it adopted no meaningful new security measures after the 2003 gang fight and before Ford’s severe beating. As the court said:

“We emphasize that we are not saying that a business that is plagued by gang members necessarily has to shut down (even for a few hours). It would be perfectly reasonable for it to experiment first with lesser measures, such as surveillance cameras, security guards, or a protective order. [Palmden argues that] it is speculative [whether] these would have been successful. What we can say with certainty is that either these measures would have worked, or else closing down the restaurant would have worked.”

Therefore, Palmden’s failure to act may have been a substantial cause of Ford’s injuries and Ford had a right to have a jury decide Palmden’s liability.

What About the Franchisor?

Ford advanced several arguments as to why DFO, LLC, the Denny’s franchisor; Denny’s, Inc., which leased the restaurant to Palmden; and the parent company of both of those entities, Denny’s Corporation, should be held jointly liable for his damages. The court found that summary judgment could be overturned on the grounds that Palmden was those entities’ “ostensible agent” in operating the restaurant, because Ford was not aware that the Denny’s restaurant was a franchise and his belief that it was a “corporate location” must be reasonable under the circumstances. The court found the following facts important in making that conclusion:

“While some Denny’s restaurants are franchisee-operated, others are corporate-operated; hence, we cannot say it is common knowledge that all Denny’s are necessarily franchises. There was no signage or other indication that the particular Denny’s was actually operated by a franchisee. Finally, Ford testified that he had seen advertisements identifying Denny’s as “a family style restaurant . . . in which a patron could enjoy a good meal in a friendly, safe, and secure environment” and that this led him to conclude that “[h]e and [his] friends could enjoy a meal at the subject Denny’s . . . .” ”

The court also reversed summary judgment in favor of the landlord, Denny’s, Inc., the parent company Denny’s Corporation and other affiliates, on the basis that they might be “alter egos” of the franchisor DFO, LLC. The trial court had granted summary judgment for those entities without analysis and they had not provided the appeals court with support in favor of keeping them out of the case.

Takeaways

If you own a restaurant you have a duty to your patrons and employees to establish security that is reasonable under the circumstances. If the circumstances are as dire as described in this case, your best course of action is to close the restaurant during the dangerous hours, and if you need permission build the case for doing so in writing directed to your franchisor and/or landlord.

If you are a restaurant franchisor, at a minimum make sure that each restaurant has a conspicuous sign identifying who owns the restaurant, as an independent licensee of your company. If the restaurant is run by your affiliate company, then that affiliate should be identified just like a franchisee. Seek to include the words “independently owned” in any local advertising. For casual dining establishments, consider including a place in the menu template to identify the owner, perhaps underneath the logo.

Franchisor Could Be Liable Under Workers’ Compensation Act

April 20th, 2012

David Cahn

An appeals court has held that Doctor’s Associates, Inc., the franchisor of Subway® sandwich shops, could be liable for the payment of workers’ compensation benefits for the injured employee of a franchisee under the Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Act because the franchisee could fit the Act’s definition of a “subcontractor” and Doctors Associates could be considered a “prime contractor”.  Uninsured Employers’ Fund v. Brown, et al., Case No. 2010-CA-000283-WC (Ct. App. Ky., Sept. 3, 2010).

The court sent the case back to the lower courts to allow for: (1) presentation of additional proof regarding the nature of the franchisor’s business and whether the work that the franchisee performed was a regular or recurrent part of the franchisor’s business; and (2) additional findings of fact after presentation of that evidence.

In late 2011, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the decision to remand the case for further fact-finding and ended it in favor of Doctors Associates, Inc. (“DAI”). However, that court expressly held that franchisors are not immune from scrutiny as a “statutory employer” of franchisees’ employees under Kentucky’s workers’ compensation law. Since Maryland and other states have similar workers’ compensation laws, this principle of law applies to offering a franchise in Maryland or elsewhere. Doctors Associates, Inc. v. Uninsured Employers’ Fund (KY Nov. 23, 2011).

An employee of one of the franchisor’s Kentucky franchisees had sustained injuries while working at the restaurant. The franchisee carried no workers’ compensation insurance at the time. Accordingly, the employee’s medical and disability expenses were paid by the Uninsured Employers Fund which sought indemnity from the franchisor, under a provision of the Act requiring contractors to pay compensation to an injured employee of a subcontractor if the subcontractor did not carry workers’ compensation insurance.

The ALJ concluded that he could not impose liability for workers’ compensation benefits upon the franchisor for the franchisee’s injured employee for a number of reasons. First, the franchisor was a “commercial franchisor”, a category of business not specifically covered by the statute.  Second, a contractor-subcontractor relationship existed under the statute only where the contractor paid the subcontractor to perform work. Because the franchisee was paying the franchisor, the franchisee could not be the franchisor’s subcontractor.

The Court Says, “It’s Always an Issue of Fact”

The appellate court reversed the decision because there is no blanket exemption from the worker’s compensation system of “commercial franchisors.”  In jurisdictions outside of Kentucky, courts resolved whether franchisors were liable for workers’ compensation benefits based on the specific facts of the cases, rather than by general rules of exemption, the court observed. A natural tension existed between the types of franchisor controls inherent in franchising and the types of control over day-to-day operations that courts traditionally evaluated to determine whether an employment relationship existed.  The factual issue to be determined in the context of a franchise is whether the alleged subcontractor has performed work of a kind which is a regular or recurrent part of the work of the trade, business, occupation, or profession of [the contractor],”.

The resolution of whether the franchisee was performing work for the franchisor under the meaning of the Act required the finder of fact to put aside the fact that the franchisee purchased a franchise from the franchisor, and instead look to the nature of the lasting relationship that was created between the franchisor and franchisee thereafter, the court decided. If the franchisor essentially contracted with the franchisee to perform a function that was a regular and recurrent part of its business, then the arrangement between the franchisor and franchisee was that of contractor and subcontractor and subject to the Act.

Thus, if selling sandwiches to the public was a regular and recurrent part of Doctor’s Associates, Inc.’s business, then the franchisee was unquestionably performing work that Doctor’s Associates, Inc. otherwise would have had to perform for itself and with its own employees, and the franchisee would fit within the Act’s definition of “subcontractor.”

Concurrence Goes Further on Franchisor’s Liability

A concurring option also raised the issue of whether a franchisor that failed to enforce the franchise agreement requirement that the franchisee maintain adequate insurance and name the franchisor as an additional insured, thereby becomes liable to third parties due to the franchisee’s failure to have such insurance.  This could open the door to even great legal liability in franchising in Maryland and other states.

Supreme Court reverses due to deference given to Workers Compensation Board

The Kentucky Supreme Court agreed that the ALJ erred in finding that franchisors are immune as a matter of law from being a statutory employer of franchisee’s employees. However, the Supreme Court nevertheless ended the case for the following reason: “The [Uninsured Employers’ Fund] is the claimant bearing the burden of proof to show that DAI is a contractor subject to up-the-ladder liability. The ALJ and the Board found that DAI was in the business of franchising, not the business of selling sandwiches. So the franchisee did not perform a regular or recurrent part of DAI’s business. Substantial evidence supported this finding, and we find that the evidence does not compel a finding for the UEF.”

Conclusion

This court decision demonstrates the importance of franchisors vigorously enforcing its contract provisions regarding insurance coverage, as well as other contract provisions that, if not complied with by the franchisee, may lead to liability to franchisee’s employees and customers.  It also supports the notion that entrepreneurs beginning a franchising program should not offer franchises through a company that also operates the business being franchised, but instead create a new company used solely for franchising activities. It is important for companies offering franchises in Maryland to consult with an attorney and minimize this risk.

Franchising and its Growth Alternatives

January 19th, 2012

David Cahn

Compliance costs and ongoing challenges of obtaining financing for new businesses have led many companies seeking growth to search for alternatives to franchising. These efforts, while quite understandable, have legal and practical implications. To understand whether they are worth the effort involved, it is important to analyze the nature of your business and its growth objectives by attempting to answer these types of questions:

1. Does your business primarily involve the sales of products you supply, the sale of products to be created by others using your methods, or the provision of services?

2. Does your business benefit from close association with a related enterprise? Examples are energy auditing, which is complementary to mechanical and renovation contractors, and the selling of fractional interests in real estate as part of a real estate brokerage business.

3. Will your business incur substantial upfront costs in the opening of new locations, either directly in the purchase of materials and inventory or indirectly in the time spent by staff in supporting the new operator?

4. Are your business methods a more compelling business asset than your brand name?

5. To what degree is poor service quality in one location likely to jeopardize the ongoing fortunes in other locations?

6. What is your ability to finance growth through profits from existing operations?

7. What is your appetite for risk in growth? Company-owned locations can be more profitable than franchises, but also substantially riskier for many reasons, including employment risk (for a recent example, see this National Labor Relations Board decision).

Your answers to these questions and others will help lead to the desired method of growth and, in turn, the steps required to comply with applicable laws and that safeguard your company’s interests. The answer could be granting a franchise for someone else to develop and own a truly new, independent business, i.e., licensing someone else to operate using your brand, under methods you prescribe and in exchange for fees paid to you. Alternatively, you might recruit local representatives who have successful related businesses to sell your product or service as a relatively small part of their ongoing operations. You might use profits from existing operations to finance part of the costs of opening new locations, while recruiting “local talent” who will finance the other part of the cost and operate those locations (as “partners”). Or perhaps you will offer stock in your company and recruit talented salespeople or managers who will make no cash investment, but who also will have more limited ability to control and profit from local operations over time.

Each such solution (and there may be more than one) requires different legal services and provide different challenges. As growth counselors, the attorneys of Whiteford Taylor & Preston L.L.P. have the skills to assist with any of these endeavors. Contact David L. Cahn to discuss your growth strategy.

Lessons for Both Sides of the Table from the Recent Jackson Hewitt Franchisor Liability Cases

June 16th, 2010

Even in the best of franchise relationships, franchisors must be wary of litigation and potential liability arising out of their franchisees’ business operations. Where a franchisor imposes and exercises substantial controls over its franchisees’ operational and administrative methods and procedures, the franchisor may well find itself a defendant in lawsuits brought by customers and employees of its franchised outlets, claiming that the franchisor’s exercise of control makes it liable for its franchisees’ negligence or misconduct.

Two recent cases involving employee and customer claims against Jackson Hewitt shed light on this issue. In one case, a customer of a Jackson Hewitt franchised tax center in Louisiana filed suit against the franchisor based upon a privacy breach committed by the franchisee. In the other, an employee of a Jackson Hewitt franchise in Pennsylvania sued the franchisor for sexual harassment based upon the alleged actions of certain owners and managers of the franchise. In asserting their claims against the franchisor, both plaintiffs relied heavily upon language in Jackson Hewitt’s franchise operations manual and other documentation, and also the direct involvement of Jackson Hewitt representatives in the operations of its franchisees. The courts in both cases were willing to consider the plaintiffs’ claims against Jackson Hewitt despite clear admonitions in the Franchise Agreement and Operations Manual that the franchisee and its employees “shall not be considered or represented [by the franchisee] as [Jackson Hewitt’s] employees or agents” and that franchisee has exclusive responsibility over hiring and matters relating to personnel.

Jackson Hewitt provided its franchisees with detailed mandatory policies and procedures for center operations. It required all franchisees to provide customers with a copy of the “Jackson Hewitt Privacy Policy” promising that the confidentiality of personally identifying information (e.g., social security numbers) would be safeguarded. It also provided franchisees’ employees with a Code of Conduct, which made no reference to the existence of franchises, and which included numerous references to the reader as an “employee” of Jackson Hewitt. Jackson Hewitt also operated an Intranet site through which franchise employees could apply for employment positions with other Jackson Hewitt offices, could obtain Jackson Hewitt policies, and could communicate with Jackson Hewitt representatives. In addition, franchise employees were directed to call Jackson Hewitt’s corporate office to resolve issues with tax returns. All of these factors weighed in favor of establishing a sufficient level of control over franchisees’ operations to impose liability on Jackson Hewitt. The court also found significant control in the Jackson Hewitt system relating to training and termination of employees of the franchises.

The conclusion to be drawn from the Jackson Hewitt litigation is that franchisors are essentially presented with two options when drafting their franchise agreements and operations manuals. The first option is to impose significant operational controls over their franchisees’ operations, similar to those described above, and assume the attendant risk of facing liability for third-party claims arising from actions taken in accordance with the operational mandates. The other option is to limit the franchise operations manual to providing examples, general guidance and non-mandatory recommendations for operating procedures and specifications.

The first approach allows franchisors to impose greater control over, and have more say in, their franchisees’ operations—which is an attractive proposition for many franchisors. In addition, franchisees may perceive greater value in a franchise system that provides strict operating standards and procedures, which may help to distinguish the franchisor from competing brands. If the franchisor chooses this approach, it should consider increasing the minimum policy limits required for franchisees’ insurance policies and the types of required policies. It may also want to explore direct insurance coverage for the franchisor for all claims arising from franchised operations.

The advantages of the second option are demonstrated by a recent court decision from Illinois, Braucher v. Swagat Group, LLC, Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 14,355 (Mar. 19, 2010), in which Choice Hotels International, Inc. avoided liability in a wrongful death claim for the alleged negligence of one of its franchisees in maintaining its indoor swimming pool and whirlpool. Choice provided very limited operational guidance and controls with regard to swimming areas, and this approach allows a franchisor to avoid potential liability associated with imposing mandatory operational controls over franchises. However, it also carries the potentially negative business implications of allowing franchisees a measured level of discretion in running their businesses under the franchised brand. The term “measured” is important, because the franchise agreement should still include rights of termination or other remedies for acts or omissions that have the potential to cause material detriment to the franchise system’s goodwill. In addition, franchisees may view a franchisor that employs this approach as providing very little in terms of affirmative guidance and support, not acknowledging that the information and non-binding recommendations of a franchisor can provide value in and of themselves, irrespective of whether compliance is deemed mandatory.

A prospective franchisee can also glean guidance from the information provided above. When evaluating a franchise opportunity, a prospective franchisee should seek to review the franchisor’s operations manual, even if its table of contents is provided in the Franchise Disclosure Document (“FDD”). It is acceptable for a franchisor to require the prospect to sign a non-disclosure agreement with regard to the Manual. If the operations manual provides detailed mandatory specifications and procedures, the prospective franchisee should be wary of the likelihood that the franchisor will pursue rigorous enforcement, to account for the assumption of the significant liability risks described above. While the “deep pocket” franchisor’s potential “joint and several” liability for third-party claims may seem like a benefit to the franchisee, the prospect should be aware that indemnification and contribution provisions in the franchise agreement is likely to shift the ultimate financial burden back to the franchisee, unless it can prove that the franchisor’s actions caused the third party’s claim.

If the operations manual provides only examples and recommendations for franchisee policies and operational procedures, as opposed to detailed mandates, the franchisor may be attempting to avoid any direct performance obligations to its franchisees, or it may simply be attempting to limit its exposure. In performing its due diligence, a prospective franchisee should attempt to gain as much information as possible from the franchisor and its active franchisees to discern the quality and operational support the franchisor actually offers.

The operations manual and other forms and operational materials can be valuable tools for franchisors and franchisees alike. But, depending on how they are written, they can expose the franchisor to liability and raise serious questions in the minds of franchisees as to the benefit to be derived from subscribing to a particular franchise. Parties on both sides of the table should be sure to carefully evaluate these documents to ensure that they serve and meet their needs and expectations.