Succession plans ask what will happen when the principal owner/operator is not available.

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A succession plan may be coordinated with an estate plan, which contemplates dispositive transfers through sale, and other means. The disposition can also occur by wills and trusts, buy-sell agreements, augmented by life insurance and family partnerships. A valuation of the business is often a key element in any exit strategy, and the succession plan, estate plan and valuation should be coordinated. These issues need to be coordinated with any restrictions that may exist under a franchise agreement on sale or disposition. In addition, state law may invalidate or alter some of these restrictions. For these reasons, the succession planning probably should be coordinated with lawyers familiar with both franchise law and estate planning.

Confronting the Key Questions

  • How will the business continue if the operator unexpectedly exists, becomes incapacitated or dies?
  • Should the business be continued or liquidated in the unexpected exit of the operator?
  • Would it be better if the business were sold in a planned sale?
  • In the absence of the operator, who will be on the making these key decisions and should a team be established now?

All of these issues require business and tax planning by a team of professionals.

Make the Decisions.

For the next generation, will ownership be separate from management? If the business is transferred to the children, do they have the experience, skill and motivation to take over? If not, the compensation plan to retain key employees needs to executed now.

Who will be on the succession team and trusted advisers? These specialists should include a franchise attorney, CPA or financial advisor, valuation specialist and a tax savy estate planning attorney, Judgment calls need to be made and the franchisee needs to be well informed.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Make your succession plan decisions early, and with good counsel to maximize your goals.

A federal court in Colorado recently upheld a franchisor’s non-competition provision despite that state’s strong public policy against non-competes. The franchisor prevailed due to its thoughtful contract drafting and ability to effectively communicate the unique nature of franchising to the court.

In-home care franchisor Homewatch International, Inc. and its franchisee, Prominent Home Care, Inc., signed a franchise agreement that terminated on June 30, 2016. The next day, Prominent’s sole shareholder and officer (the “Defendant”), started a competing company. Homewatch sued the Defendant for breach of contract, seeking to enforce the non-competition provisions in their agreements.

The Defendant made two arguments in her defense (i) the franchise agreement’s non-competition provision did not bind her because she signed the franchise agreement only in her executive capacity on behalf of Prominent; and (ii) the non-competition provision was unenforceable under Colorado law.

Argument 1:  Parties Bound
The franchise agreement stated that, after the term of the franchise agreement, Prominent and its officers and shareholders could not own or operate a competing business within a twenty-five mile radius of a Homewatch location. Only Prominent (not the Defendant) signed the franchise agreement. However, the franchisor had also required the Defendant to sign a personal guaranty. The guaranty stated that the Defendant would be bound by the non-competition covenant in the franchise agreement.

The court ruled in the franchisor’s favor. It held that the guaranty unambiguously stated that the Defendant—in her individual capacity—would be bound by the franchise agreement’s non-competition provisions.

Argument 2:  Colorado Policy
Colorado law generally disfavors non-competition provisions. One exception to this rule is for a contract for the purchase and sale of a business. This exception promotes the purchase and sale of businesses by protecting the good will of the business being sold (i.e., a purchaser may be less likely to buy a business if it cannot obtain an enforceable non-compete from the prior owner).

Prior to Homewatch, the courts had not definitively decided whether the sale of a franchise qualified for this exception under Colorado law. The Defendant argued that the exception did not apply because the sale of a franchise is not a sale of a business—instead it is the sale of a license to the franchisor’s methods and intellectual property for a certain term.

The court rejected this argument, holding that the exception applied and the non-compete was enforceable. The court concluded that the “good will” rationale was just as important in the franchise context, noting that a significant portion of the value of a franchise system is its good will. (It should be noted, however, that Homewatch is a federal court opinion. A Colorado state court could come to a different conclusion; however, the state court would likely consider the Homewatch rationale in its decision.)

The Takeaways
Franchisors should take note of the Homewatch decision and ensure that their franchisees’ owners and key employees, especially those with access to confidential materials and training, sign non-competes in their individual capacities. This is often addressed in the personal guaranty, as it was in Homewatch. Franchise systems in states that frown upon non-competition provisions should be aware of the Homewatch rationale in the event they need to enforce their non-competes. Franchisors should also make sure to use experienced franchise counsel. In Homewatch, counsel was able to communicate the unique franchise model to the court and to persuasively argue why the court should apply a law that was probably not drafted with franchising in mind. The result was a win for the franchisor and also franchising, which relies on non-competes to mitigate risks inherent in the franchise model.

From our Family to Yours, all of the Franchise and Distribution attorneys of Fox Rothschild send to you the warmest Thanksgiving wishes. We are most thankful for our franchise friends and clients, and wish them every continued success.

 

Menu and chef
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The Trump administration is moving forward with an Obama-era initiative requiring certain food establishments to list calorie information on menus and menu boards, including food on display and self-service food. The FDA recently released new draft recommendations to help affected businesses comply with the menu labeling rule.

The rule implements the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which are intended to give consumers direct, point-of-purchase access to nutritional information, including the calorie content of foods. When the rule was originally published, we blogged about its impact on restaurants and followed up with a report on the Small Entity Compliance Guide, which explains the rule’s requirements in a question/answer format.

The rule has met stiff opposition and enforcement has been delayed multiple times. Most recently, just four days shy of implementation, the deadline for compliance was extended to May 7, 2018. The extension was intended to give the FDA time to consider how to reduce the rule’s regulatory burden and increase flexibility, while providing consumers with nutritional information.

The FDA’s recent guidance is non-binding and addresses stakeholder concerns regarding implementation of the rule, including:

  • Clarifying calorie disclosure requirements for self-service food, including buffets and grab-and-go food;
  • Addressing the need for flexible methods to provide calorie disclosure information;
  • Explaining the criteria for distinguishing between menus and marketing materials;
  • Addressing how the FDA will assist covered establishments to comply with the rule, and how it will enforce compliance;
  • Expanding upon the “reasonable basis” standard that covered establishments must meet when disclosing nutritional information; and
  • Explaining the criteria for determining whether establishments (including franchises) and menu items are subject to the rule.

The FDA invites public comment on the draft guidelines through January 8, 2018.  We will continue to monitor developments and the rule’s effect on franchise systems.

The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently approved the “Save Local Business Act” (HR 3441 – Byrne).  If enacted, the Act would limit joint employer liability by reversing the rule announced by the NLRB in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186.  The Browning-Ferris decision departed from 30 years of precedent by issuing a new joint employer test with significant ramifications for the franchise model.  Under Browning-Ferris, a company (e.g., a franchisor) that has “indirect” or “potential” control over the employees of another company (e.g., a franchisee) may be considered a joint employer of those employees. The decision significantly expanded franchisors’ potential liability for matters related to their franchisees’ employees (including collective bargaining and employment torts).  Browning-Ferris is currently on appeal before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Save Local Business Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act to clarify that a person or company is a joint employer only if it “directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a limited and routine manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment.” Essential terms and conditions include hiring employees, discharging employees, determining individual employee rates of pay and benefits, day-to-day supervision of employees, assigning individual work schedules, positions, and tasks, and administering employee discipline.

During its hearings, the Committee heard from franchise owners who described the impact of the Browning-Ferris rule on their business operations. Many legislators have specifically cited the franchise industry in announcing their support for the Act.  The Act’s passage would be a major win for the franchise model, which has been plagued with uncertainty over joint employer liability since the Browning-Ferris decision.

If a franchisor waives the non-compete provision in its current franchise agreement, can it enforce a non-compete when the franchise agreement is renewed? According to a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is yes, and franchisors should consider a few key lessons from the decision. Robinson, DVM v. Charter Practices International, LLC, No. 15-35356 (June 21, 2017).

In Robinson, a franchisee sued its franchisor for breach of contract and other claims when the franchisor refused to renew their franchise agreement for a veterinary hospital franchise. During the term of the original franchise agreement, the franchisee owned and operated independent veterinary clinics that competed with the franchise. The franchisor did not enforce the non-competition provision in the original franchise agreement. However, when it came time for renewal, the franchisor notified the franchisee that it would enforce the non-compete under the renewal agreement and gave the franchisee an opportunity to disinvest from his independent clinics. The franchisee refused, and the parties did not renew the franchise agreement. The franchisee sued the franchisor alleging improper refusal to renew under Oregon law.

The district court dismissed the franchisee’s claims and the 9th Circuit affirmed. The court’s decision holds three important lessons:

  1. The renewal provision specifically allowed the franchisor not to renew the original franchise agreement unless the franchisee complied with the non-competition provision in the renewal agreement. Renewal provisions typically (and should) include general language requiring the franchisee to acknowledge it will be bound by the new franchise agreement. However, it is often wise to specifically reference sensitive provisions, including non-competes and other restrictive covenants and confidentiality provisions.
  2. The renewal provision in the original franchise agreement stated that the renewal agreement would be substantially similar to the franchisor’s then-current form of franchise agreement. It made clear that the terms could differ from the original franchise agreement. This language highlighted that the original agreement and renewal agreement were different contracts. The court used concluded that the waiver of the non-compete under the original franchise agreement did not carry over into the renewal agreement.
  3. The franchisor provided notice to the franchisee that it intended to enforce the non-competition provision, and it gave the franchisee an opportunity to disinvest. The franchisee argued that he and the franchisor had a “course of conduct” that permitted him to compete. According to the court, the franchisor’s notice disrupted this course of conduct, and therefore the waiver under the original franchise agreement did not apply to the new agreement.

Franchisors (especially emerging franchisors) may find it necessary to waive provisions in their form of franchise agreement to close the deal with a prospect. While this may make sound business sense at one point in time, it can chafe down the road. As Robinson shows, a carefully drafted renewal provision and notice may provide an escape hatch in certain situations.

Janitorial services franchisor Jan-Pro Franchising International, Inc. (“Jan-Pro”) is not the employer of its unit franchisees, according to a recent California federal court decision. Roman v. Jan-Pro Franchising Int’l, Inc., No. C 16-05961 WHA (N.D. Cal. May 24, 2017). The plaintiff franchisees failed to show that Jan-Pro exercised sufficient control over their day-to-day employment activities.

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What makes this case unique is that Jan-Pro operates a three-tiered franchising structure, often called a subfranchise arrangement. Under this arrangement, Jan-Pro grants subfranchise rights to a regional master franchisee (“Master Franchisee”), who is responsible for selling Jan-Pro unit franchises to individual franchisees (“Unit Franchisees”) in a particular geographic territory. The Unit Franchisees operate the franchised cleaning service business. Importantly, as is common in a subfranchise arrangement, Jan-Pro never directly contracts with its Unit Franchisees. Instead, Jan-Pro directly contracts with its Master Franchisees. Then, the Master Franchisees directly contract with the Unit Franchisees.

 

The plaintiff Unit Franchisees claimed that they were misclassified as independent contractors when they were really Jan-Pro’s employees. They sought minimum wages and overtime premiums from Jan-Pro. The plaintiffs argued that they were Jan-Pro’s employees under California law because the contracts between Jan-Pro and its Master Franchisees permitted Jan-Pro to control the business of the Master Franchisees and Unit Franchisees through its policies and procedures.

Under California law, “to employ” means

  1. To exercise control over the wages, hours or working conditions, or
  2. To suffer or permit to work, or
  3. To engage, thereby creating a common law employment relationship.

Martinez v. Combs, 49 Cal. 4th 35, 64 (2010). However, in the franchise context, controlling the “means and manner” of a franchisee’s operations is not sufficient to make a franchisor an employer. A franchisor is only an employer if it retains or assumes general control over employment matters such as hiring, direction, supervision, discipline and discharge. Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC, 60 Cal. 4th 474, 498 (2014).

The court concluded that Jan-Pro did not employ the Unit Franchisee’s employees. It reached this result despite the fact that the Master Franchisees exerted control over the Unit Franchisees under the contracts between them. Critical to the court’s analysis was the fact that these contracts did not confer any rights on Jan-Pro to control or terminate the Unit Franchisees. Nor was Jan-Pro a third party beneficiary of these agreements, which could give Jan-Pro the right to directly enforce them. Moreover, Jan-Pro never directly contracted with the Unit Franchisees.

The court’s analysis focused on features that are specific to subfranchise arrangements, especially the lack of a direct contractual relationship between Jan-Pro and its Unit Franchisees. A subfranchise arrangement is only one form of multi-unit arrangement, and is not appropriate for all franchise systems. Franchisors engaged in or considering this system should perhaps not put too much emphasis on the court’s analysis. For one thing, a franchisor may want to have some contractual rights it can enforce directly against Unit Franchisees. Additionally, even if Jan-Pro had directly contracted with Unit Franchisees, there appeared to be scant evidence that Jan-Pro controlled employment conditions in a manner that would make it a joint employer. However, if a franchisor were to indirectly control employment conditions through a subfranchise arrangement, a court might come to a different conclusion. In any event, the court’s decision was well reasoned and grounded in a firm understanding of franchising. It was certainly a win for the franchise model, made especially important by the fact that it took place in California, which is typically considered an employee and franchise friendly jurisdiction.

Safe Step Walk In Tub Co. (“Safe Step”) failed to take the requisite “safe steps” before potentially becoming an accidental franchisor. In Safe Step Walk In Tub Co. v. CKH Industries, Inc., Safe Step filed an action against a licensee, CKH Industries, Inc. (“CKH”) for breach of contract for non-payment of certain fees. CKH filed 22 counter-claims against Safe Step including violation of the Federal Trade Commission Rule on Franchising (“FTC Rule”) as well as the state franchise laws of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island for illegal franchise sales and wrongful termination of the franchise relationship. Safe Step filed a motion to dismiss CKH’s counter-claims and the Court denied that motion (in part) as further outlined below.

Under the terms of the applicable licensing agreements, CKH is the exclusive licensee permitted to market the Safe Step products in designated regions. Additionally, CKH was required to pay Safe Step a licensing fee. Lastly, there were certain addenda to the licensing agreements that regulated CKH’s business plan. Specifically, Safe Step assisted CKH with a marketing plan and could makes changes to CKH’s business model. Further, the agreements forbid CKH from offering competitive products and allowed Safe Step to terminate the licensing agreements if CKH failed to complete certain training programs.

Copyright: iimages / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: iimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When examining whether a franchise relationship had been formed, the Court first looked to the FTC Rule. The FTC Rule of course defines a franchise as an arrangement where the franchisee obtains the right to use the franchisor’s mark, the franchisor exerts a significant degree of control over the operation of the business, and the franchisee pays the franchisor a non-nominal fee. Here, the Court easily determined that the licensing agreements fulfilled the first and third prongs of the test because Safe Step permitted CKH to offer products under Safe Step’s marks and CKH paid Safe Step a licensing fee. Additionally, the Court held that Safe Step’s alleged involvement in the business outlined in the paragraph above may rise to the requisite level of “significant degree of control”. Further, as have many courts before it, the Court noted that it did not matter that Safe Step called the arrangement a licensing agreement.

The Court then examined the state franchise laws. The definition of a franchise under each state law is similar to the definition under the FTC Rule except that the state laws are more specific with respect to the “significant degree of control” aspect of the test. Under each state law (except for New York where the statute of limitations had already run on certain of its counter-claims), CKH had proffered enough facts to argue that its Safe-Step related operations qualified as franchises.

The outcome of this case is another cautionary tale for those companies that are structuring licensing arrangements to avoid complying with federal and state franchise laws. It is important to examine federal law and each state’s law to make sure you are taking the “safe steps” to prevent the accidental franchise relationship. As this blog has often noted, many people, including otherwise experienced business lawyers unfamiliar with franchise law, are unaware of how easy it is to form a franchise relationship under federal law and many state laws.

Menu and chef
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Over two years ago, on December 1, 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) published a food labeling rule requiring “chain” restaurants and similar retail food establishments to list calorie information on menus and menu boards, including food on display and self-service food (the “Rule”). On May 5, 2017, the FDA will begin enforcing the Rule. Businesses covered by the Rule must be in compliance by May 5, 2017.

The Rule implements the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which is intended to give consumers direct, point-of-purchase access to nutritional information, including the calorie content of foods. When the Rule was published, we blogged about the Rule’s impact on restaurants and vending machines.

Who does the Rule apply to?

The Rule applies to any chain and franchised food business which meets the following criteria:

  1. It is part of a system with 20 or more locations;
  2. All of the restaurants or food establishments in the chain do business under the same name; and
  3. All of the restaurants in the chain offer for sale substantially the same restaurant-type food menu items.

What must covered businesses do?

Covered businesses are required to determine and disclose to consumers the nutritional content of the food they serve, including by:

  1. Disclosing calorie information on menus and menu boards for standard menu items;
  2. Posting a succinct statement concerning suggested daily caloric intake on menus and menu boards; and
  3. Posting on menus and menu boards a statement that written nutrition information is available upon request.

The Rule was originally slated to come online on December 1, 2015. In response to multiple requests from stakeholders to give businesses more time to comply, the FDA extended the compliance deadline until December 1, 2016. However, per applicable law, the Rule could not be enforced until one year after the FDA published a Level 1 guidance with respect to nutrition labeling of standard menu items. The FDA did so on May 5, 2016, extending the enforcement deadline until May 5, 2017. Recently, the FDA made clear that May 5, 2017 was the deadline for both compliance and enforcement 017.

In addition to the Rule itself, food establishments affected by the Rule should review the FDA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide, which restates the Rule’s requirements in plain language. The Guide is organized in a question/answer format. We’ve previously blogged in detail on the Guide, which includes information on multiple topics, including:

  • What establishments the Rule does and does not cover;
  • What types of food the Rule does and does not cover;
  • How to label menus and other displays with nutritional information; and
  • How to determine nutritional content of foods, including how to substantiate menu labels to the FDA.

Additional industry guidance is also available at the FDA’s website.

The Rule is highly detailed and includes requirements for restaurants to substantiate their nutritional information claims and clarifies how the Rule will be enforced. Experienced counsel can help businesses understand whether they are affected and, if so, how best to satisfy the new standards.

Commentators are writing a lot about integrating millennials into the business world.  A  recent article in QSR Magazine  brings this discussion to the franchise industry by urging franchisors to target millennials as the next generation of franchise business owners.  According to the article, millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) spend more money in restaurants per capita than any previous generation and are the largest living generation in the United States.   Millennials have the potential to be innovative managers and franchisees but are selective about finding an authentic brand that fits their lifestyle. The article quoting Dan Rowe, founder and CEO of Fransmart, says that millennials are finding successful and thriving brands through social media and seeking out franchise opportunities unsolicited.

Copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

For franchise brands looking to attract millennials as franchisees it pays to keep in mind the things that induce them to the franchise industry:

  1. Social Media Buzz. Because many millennials are well versed in public relations, technology savvy and driven by things like Yelp ratings, it pays more than ever for a franchise system to have a good social media presence.
  2. Alternative Financing.   Gone are the days when the only way to finance a new business venture was to walk into your local bank and ask for a loan. Millennials are willing and able to take advantage of funding sources available online for start-up costs. Franchisors should be aware of these financing opportunities when evaluating prospects.
  3. Understanding Their Own Weaknesses. Millennials are more honest with themselves at what they are good at and what they are not good at. Millennials are often attracted to models where a system provides the “back-end work figuring out suppliers and logistics.”

While many articles have focused on how to “deal with” millennial traits that may not be desirable to a market still filled with babyboomers and Generation Xers, this article does a good job outlining Millennials positive attributes. Franchise systems looking to expand their prospect pool should give it a read.