Severe Consequences for Franchisor Executives: Personal Liability and Non-dischargeable Debt
“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 article was co-written by Katelyn P. Vu, who is a summer associate at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston and a 2015 J.D. candidate at the University of Baltimore Law School.