A recent decision in the United States District Court of Arizona (“Court”) could have far-reaching consequences to many franchisors based on the broad-sweeping principles the Court used in its reasoning. In Zounds Hearing Franchising, LLC et. al. v. Bower et. al., the Court answered the question of whether the Ohio Business Opportunity Purchasers Protection Act (BOPPA) trumps a choice of law and venue provision that provides for the application of law other than the State of Ohio.
Here, four franchisees filed suit against Zounds Hearing Franchising, LLC and Zounds Hearing, Inc. (collectively, “Zounds”) in the state court of Ohio for failure to comply with the five-day cancellation requirement under the BOPPA. Further, the aggrieved franchisees claim that Zounds made false, misleading and/or inconsistent representations than that contained in its FDD in connection with the sale of its franchises in violation of the BOPPA. Each Franchise Agreement provides that Arizona law governs the interpretation and enforcement of the Franchise Agreement and all disputes are subject to pre-suit mediation (at Zounds’ option) and venue in Arizona. As such, Zounds moved to remove the suits to Ohio federal court, which then transferred the suits to the instant Court.
In analyzing whether BOPPA should trump the provisions of the Franchise Agreement, the Court relied on the rules of the Restatement of Conflict of Laws. Specifically, the law of the state with the “most significant relationship” to the parties shall govern the agreement or, if the parties chose the law of another state, that state’s law shall govern. However, if the choice of law is contrary to a fundamental policy of the state with the most significant relationship, that state will presume to have the materially greater interest in its state law governing the agreement. In holding that Ohio has the most significant relationship to the parties, the Court noted that all of the franchises and franchisees were located in Ohio and it has a strong interest in protecting its residents, particularly where the underlying statute is designed to protect franchisees that are in an inferior bargaining position. Further, Arizona lacks a statute that protects purchasers of franchises, while BOPPA is directly on point to address the franchisees’ purported harm. Essentially, the franchisees would be left with little recourse against Zounds if Arizona law applied.
Further, the Court held that it is difficult to imagine that a statute that makes certain conduct a crime as being anything but the fundamental policy of the state. Additionally, the Ohio legislature amended the BOPPA in 2012 to explicitly state that any venue or choice of law provision that deprives an Ohio resident of protection thereunder is contrary to public policy, void and unenforceable further evidencing its intent. Lastly, the Court went so far as to say that even if a statute does not explicitly outline that it is fundamental policy of that state, a court still could deem it so by its very nature. Further, the lack of a non-waivability term does not doom the statute under this analysis. These principles may open the door to seemingly endless arguments about what constitutes the fundamental policy of a state.
As such, even though the parties agreed to the Arizona choice of law and venue provisions, the application of Arizona law would be contrary to the public policy of Ohio because Arizona does not have a statute that protects the rights of franchisee purchasers as does Ohio. Further, Ohio has a materially greater interest in the enforcement of its law because the franchisees are Ohio residents and the franchises are located therein.
In the alternative, Zounds filed a motion to compel mediation pursuant to the requirement for pre-suit mediation in Arizona in the Franchise Agreement. Here, the Court determined that the pre-suit mediation requirement violated the franchisees’ rights to Ohio venue because the mediation is “intimately bound up” with the franchisees’ right to sue under the BOPPA. Lastly, the Court determined that the mediations for all four franchisees could be joint despite the Franchise Agreement requiring that all proceedings arising out of the Franchise Agreement be decided on an individual basis. Here, the Court held that because pre-suit mediation was a “proceeding” (as argued by Zounds’ counsel), then the BOPPA prohibitions apply to the mediation requirement and the BOPPA specifically prohibits class action waivers. As such, the requirement to conduct pre-suit mediation was void in violation of the BOPPA. However, the parties conceded to conduct mediation during the course of the suit. As such, the Court required that the parties conduct joint pre-suit mediation. To take it a step further, the Court awarded the franchisees their attorneys’ fees because Zounds burdened the franchisees with a multiplicity of actions in a distant forum. Further, the Court cited the unequal provision in the Franchise Agreement that stated Zounds could recover attorneys’ fees upon a successful claim against a franchisee but did not afford franchisees with a reciprocal right. The Court noted that it would be a presumptive abuse of discretion not to award attorneys’ fees against an unsuccessful party who “used its superior bargaining position to impose such a term”.
Overall, this result could have substantial effects to any franchisor that currently has franchises in Ohio or has Arizona law as its choice of law. This decision suggests courts have wide latitude to determine whether another state has a substantial interest in the transaction and whether that state’s law should govern the agreement. Further, it is important to take note of the consequences this has on a franchisor’s ability to enforce non-binding mediation as a preliminary form of dispute resolution (and on an individual basis) and to collect attorneys’ fees (without a corresponding right afforded to the franchisee). Lastly, it would be prudent for all franchisors to review their franchise agreements in light of this decision.