Newsletters

Franchise and Trade Regulation Update - December 2012

Date: December 7, 2012

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

By: David L. Cahn, Esq.

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.”

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. In plain English, 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.


The Power of Association: Auto Dealer Protection Laws

By: David L. Cahn, Esq.

Takeaway: Through effective trade associations and lobbying efforts, during the last century automobile dealer franchises in the United States convinced state governments to give them significant protection against commercial abuse or unfair dealing by the manufacturer or supplier franchisors. Franchisees in other industries could learn from that example.

The strength of the laws protecting dealer franchises was demonstrated by a recent New York court decision in Audi of Smithtown, Inc. v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc. 

The case was brought by one set of Audi dealers charging that Audi’s wholly-owned subsidiary, VW Credit, Inc. discriminated in favor of new dealers to the detriment of the incumbents who brought the case. At issue were incentives that VW Credit put in place for dealerships to purchase vehicles returned by customers at the end of their leases. (For example, if Joe Brown leases an Audi Quattro for 3 years, the vehicle is owned by VW Credit during the lease, so at the end of 3 years, VW Credit has a “pre-owned vehicle” to sell.) The incentive programs were based on the proportion of returning off-lease vehicles that a dealership purchased. However, since incumbent dealerships had more leases, they had more opportunity than new dealers to benefit from the incentives.

To level the playing field, VW Credit automatically granted new dealers a more favorable level of available discounts and bonuses (known as “Champion Level”) for the first three years of the dealership. While this program seems to have a logical business justification – making it easier to open a new dealership, which increases Audi’s presence in the local market -- the Court ruled instead that it constituted price discrimination against the incumbent dealers. New York’s law provides: “It shall be unlawful for any franchisor . . . [t]o . . . sell directly to a franchised motor vehicle dealer . . . motor vehicles . . . at a price that is lower than the price which the franchisor charges to all other franchised motor vehicle dealers.” N.Y. Vehicle & Traffic Law § 463(2)(aa).

Audi argued that VW Credit is not a “franchisor” under the statute and therefore no violation could have occurred. The dealers had that covered, however, because in 2008 the New York legislature amended the statute to add references to “captive finance sources” so as to prohibit a motor vehicle franchisor from using “any subsidiary corporation, affiliated corporation, captive finance source, or any other controlled corporation, company partnership, association or person to accomplish what would otherwise be unlawful conduct under this article on the part of the franchisor.” N.Y. Vehicle & Traffic Law § 463(2)(u).

The New York laws prohibiting price discrimination and the use of shell entities to get around the law are similar to those in others states that protect car dealers in their relationships with their franchisors. In Maryland, for instance, the law requires manufacturers to act honestly and observe reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing in performance or enforcement of the franchise agreement. They are also not allowed to:

  1. Coerce dealers to do something not required by their franchise agreements, or make them agree to material modifications (for instance, changes to their purchasing or performance requirements), unless the changes apply to all other Maryland franchisees of the same manufacturer.
  2. Stop a dealer from offering other manufacturers’ products at the same facility through a franchise agreement granted by another manufacturer.
  3. Require a material change to “the dealer’s facilities or method of conducting business if the change would impose substantial financial hardship on the business of the dealer.”
  4. Require a franchisee to adhere to performance standards unless, as applied, they are “fair, reasonable, equitable and based on accurate information.”
  5. Refuse to permit an individual to be the responsible person of the dealer “unless the individual is unfit due to lack of good moral character or fails to meet reasonable general business experience requirements” -- and the manufacturer has burden of proving unfitness.
  6. Unreasonably withhold consent to a request to transfer a franchise, and an aggrieved franchisee has a right to an administrative remedy to contest a manufacturer’s refusal to consent.
  7. Terminate the dealership for any reason without payment to the dealer of compensation for various types of assets and franchise-specific improvements.
  8. Require the dealer to reimburse it for attorneys’ fees in any dispute involving the franchise.

Maryland Transp. Code Sections 15-206.1 through 15-212.2. In addition, aggrieved franchisees have a right to bring an action for damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees incurred in vindicating their rights. Id. at Section 15.-213.

These statutes are not a cure-all for auto dealers who fail to properly execute their responsibilities. And, in any event, the 2009 bankruptcy proceedings of General Motors and Chrysler show that extreme economic circumstances can trump state statutory rights.

But overall, the various state laws protecting automobile dealers show the advantages of a century-old industry, widely dispersed, and generally liked in their local communities. The auto dealers have been able to put their case to their state representatives and win some good protections.

This is an example franchisees in other industries could learn from.


Contingency Planning for the Business Owner -- Are You Covered?

By David L. Cahn, Esq.

Most of the work that I do for franchise owners falls into two categories: (1) helping to evaluate a potential franchise opportunity and negotiating the franchise agreement and real estate lease, and (2) evaluating potential exit strategies from the franchise and/or claims against the franchisor. While grateful to serve in that capacity, I worry whether franchisees and other small business owners are adequately planning for and protecting against their own death or disability. This article outlines some legal and practical estate planning issues that each person should address.

While life and disability income insurance are very important, there are several legal and practical issues that business owners (or indeed all reasonably solvent adults) should address while they are healthy and of sound mind. Some of those issues are:

  1. Will: Why do you need a will? Without one, after you die the laws of the state where you live and held property will determine what happens to that property. Your spouse, children or other heirs could end up with less than you planned, the assets could be mismanaged, your minor children might not have the guardian you wished, or your estate could end up paying more in taxes and legal fees than necessary. Writing a will allows you to control who gets what, and also could enable you to leave some of your assets to charities or other causes. Clarity is particularly important if you own a business since succession planning is critical to the wellbeing of the business’s employees and other stakeholders.
  2. Titling of Assets: How you hold title to certain assets can have a significant effect on the ability of your creditors to take away those assets. If you are married, holding an asset in the names of yourself and your spouse may prevent a creditor of only one of you from taking that asset. However, this is often more appropriate for personal assets (such as homes and cars) than ownership interests in a business. If you are not married then there are other legal devices that, under appropriate circumstances, could enable you to shield assets from seizure if your financial fortunes decline.
  3. Durable Power of Attorney: A power of attorney (“POA”) designates a representative to perform certain actions on your behalf. This sort of document can be particularly important if you are a small business owner, to make sure that the business is able to function on your behalf if you become ill, incapacitated or otherwise unable to manage your affairs, since otherwise your chosen representative (usually a spouse, parent or sibling) will have to receive court approval to perform needed financial transactions. However, the POA also needs to be crafted with some care to avoid any abuse by the appointed representative.
  4. Living Will and Medical Proxy: A living will is a written declaration of what life-sustaining medical treatments you will allow or not allow if you are incapacitated; for example, life-sustaining nourishment when terminally ill. The medical proxy or medical POA authorizes a specific individual to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so.
  5. Letters of Instruction: In this digital age a lot of our personal and digital information is saved electronically in password-protected accounts. After your death the person you chose to manage your estate (your “personal representative”) will benefit greatly from written instructions on how to access those accounts. Since the will itself is meant to cover the disposition of categories of property, the letters of instruction can aid your personal representative in disposing of specific pieces of property (such as family heirlooms) in the manner that you wish.
  6. Life Insurance Trust: One common trust for people of even relatively modest means is a trust to hold life insurance policies. Estates with net assets of over $1,000,000 are subject to the estate taxes in Maryland and several other states, and the federal (U.S.) estate tax threshold has been moved several times in recent years but may move down to $1,000,000 effective January 1, 2013. Utilizing an irrevocable trust to hold your life insurance policy excludes their death benefits from your estate, which may allow your estate to be completely exempt from taxation.

Estate planning is not just for people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Mark Zuckerberg – it is necessary for all reasonably successful adults. At Whiteford Taylor & Preston we have a talented team of estates and trust attorneys licensed in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia who can assist you on the types of issues described above at either fixed fees or reasonable hourly rates. Contact us so we can help you make sure that your bases are covered.


NLRB "Pushing the Envelope" to Protect Employees' Rights to Communicate Online

By: David L. Cahn, Esq.

Takeaway: Through its recent activities the current National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has indicated its determination to make itself relevant to all U.S. employees (and employers), by focusing a less prominent part of its authority -- to insure that “Employees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection.” Among the areas where this emphasis is being shown is the ability of employers to limit employees’ use of social media networks such as Facebook to communicate with each other.

Section 7 of the U.S. National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) states,

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection . . .U.S. Code, Title 29, Section 157.

This provision and the balance of the NLRA, which was enacted during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, are primarily focused on the right to join a union and collectively bargain. As the percentage of U.S. private sector employees represented by unions has dropped substantially over recent decades, the NLRA has become a much less prominent part of the discussion of employment-related legal matters.

However, through its recent activities the current National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has indicated its determination to make the NLRA relevant to all U.S. employees (and employers), by focusing on the last part of the quoted portion of Section 7, “Employees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection.”

Among the areas where this emphasis is being shown is the ability of employers to limit employees’ use of social media networks such as Facebook. The “social media policies” area is particularly interesting because many (if not most) of employees’ online posts relating to their employers cannot be construed as “concerted activities for the purpose of mutual aid or protection.” Nevertheless, the NLRB has authority to stop an employer from maintaining a “work rule” that if that rule “would reasonably tend to” discourage employees from communicating with other employees “for the purpose of mutual aid or protection.” If the “social media policy” does not clearly restrict protected activities, such as by forbidding employees to “friend” each other on Facebook or to write posts about wages, hours or working conditions, then the policy only violates the NLRA if: “(1) employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity; (2) the rule was promulgated in response to union activity; or (3) the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.”

In several cases, the NLRB has found that an employer’s social media policy has in fact been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights, and required the employer to reinstate employees terminated due to their Facebook postings and subsequent responses by Facebook friends. For example, after an employee of a collections agency was transferred to a different position that would substantially limit her earning capacity, she posted on her Facebook page that her employer had “messed up” (using expletives) and that she was “done with being a good employee.” The employee was Facebook friends with approximately 10 current and former coworkers, including her direct supervisor. An extensive exchange ensued among the coworkers regarding the employer’s management methods and preference for cheap labor, culminating with one of the former employees calling for a class action among the disaffected workers.

The employee who had prompted the exchange was fired the next work day explicitly because of her Facebook posts and the responses they triggered. The NLRB found the discharge to be a violation of the NLRA because (a) the employer had an unlawfully broad “non-disparagement policy,” the violation of which was the basis for the termination, and (b) the employee had been fired for “engaging in conduct that implicates the concerns underlying Section 7 of the Act.”

In other recent cases brought before it, the NLRB has concluded that, while the complaining former employee was not unlawfully discharged due to his or her online postings, the employer’s policy itself violated the NLRA and needed to be modified. In response to this, the NLRB recently issued a report summarizing its decisions specifically on acceptable social media policies, and perhaps most importantly, has in essence provided a sample policy that it has deemed to be lawful. The policy, as amended by Wal-Mart after the initiation of an NLRB complaint regarding its prior policy, focuses fairly narrowly on refraining from posts that “include discriminatory remarks, harassment and threats of violence” or are “meant to intentionally harm someone’s reputation.” While the policy forbids dissemination of the company’s confidential information, it provides a sufficient specific definition of “trade secrets” to put employees on notice that the policy (probably) does not include internal reports or procedures specifically touching on conditions of employment. Perhaps most importantly, the policy expressly acknowledges that employees may post work-related complaints and criticism, even while discounting the possibility that such posts are likely to result in changes that the employee seeks.

If your company has a social media policy, we can review it for purposes of conforming it to the NLRB’s latest guidance on acceptable policies and help you avoid future problems that could result from overly broad restrictions on employee’s online conduct. Of course, as specific situations arise we are available to counsel you as to legally appropriate measures to take in response to employee’s online conduct.