In Lomeli v. Jackson Hewitt, Inc., the United States District Court in the Central District of California held that the plaintiff, Luis Lomeli (“Lomeli”), had submitted enough evidence to hold the franchisor (“Jackson Hewitt”) vicariously liable for potential class actions due to a franchisee’s preparation and submission of fraudulent tax returns. The most concerning part of this decision is that the Court held that Jackson Hewitt could be directly liable for the fraud claims. This decision is another lesson in the necessity of leaving a certain level of discretion to a franchisor’s franchisees.
Under the direct liability claim, the Court examined Jackson Hewitt’s level of involvement in the submission of a franchisee’s tax returns. Specifically, the Court noted that the franchisee was required to use Jackson Hewitt’s proprietary software to submit the fraudulent tax returns and that Jackson Hewitt controlled the software. Further, despite the fact that Jackson Hewitt had approved the submission of a tax return for Lomeli mere days before, Jackson Hewitt approved a second submission for Lomeli with a markedly different tax return. As such, Jackson Hewitt had and controlled the information that gave rise to the fraudulent filing of the tax returns. To make matters worse, Jackson Hewitt had recently run an advertising campaign touting its 100% accuracy guarantee and superiority to “mom and pop” tax preparers. The Court held that these affirmative statements to the public had the explicit purpose of engendering their trust. Further, Jackson Hewitt could not run these advertisements to convince consumers to use them and then immediately turn around and dismiss any reliance on them. As such, Lomeli could proceed with its fraud claim directly against Jackson Hewitt.
As a secondary claim if the direct liability claim fails, the Court examined the level of control Jackson Hewitt exerted over certain areas of the operation of the franchise to determine vicarious liability. In holding that Jackson Hewitt could be vicariously liable for Lomeli’s fraud claim, the Court highlighted Jackson Hewitt’s ability to hire, direct, supervise, discipline or discharge the franchisee’s employees, the required use of Jackson Hewitt’s Code of Conduct for employee relations and required attendance by franchisee’s employees at training sessions aimed at preventing the specific harm claimed by Lomeli. The Court noted that Jackson Hewitt’s control of the instrumentality that caused the harm, the hiring of tax preparers, directly contributes to its vicarious liability.
Unfortunately for Jackson Hewitt (and franchisors everywhere), Jackson Hewitt could be 100% liable for the filing of the inaccurate and fraudulent tax returns.