August, 2011 browsing by month


“Franchise Fees” and the New York Franchise Law

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

The New York Franchise Law defines a franchise fee as any fee or charge that a franchisee or subfranchisor is required to pay or agrees to pay directly or indirectly for the right to enter into a business under a franchise agreement, or otherwise sell, resell or distribute goods, services, or franchises under such an agreement, including, but not limited to, any such payment for goods or services.  The NY Franchise Law also contains several exclusions to the franchise fee definition, but no exemptions pertain to the purchase/sale of equipment.  Rather, the exemptions to the NY law are nearly identical to the Maryland law.

The dollar threshold for a franchise fee under NY law is $500.

Like Maryland, the scope of the New York Franchise Law franchise fee definition is construed broadly.  For example, a one-time fee or a monthly payment during a four-year period, which was characterized as a lease, was ruled a franchise fee.

The Definition of “Franchise Fee” Under the Maryland Franchise Law

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

The Maryland Franchise Registration and Disclosure Law (“MD Franchise Law”), Section 14-201, defines a franchise as “an oral or written agreement in which: 1) a purchaser is granted the right to engage in the business of offering, selling or distributing goods or services under a marketing plan or system prescribed in substantial part by the franchisor; ii) the operation of the business under the marketing plan or system is associated substantially with the trademark, service mark, trade name, logotype, advertising or other commercial symbol that designates the franchisor or its affiliate; and iii) the purchaser must pay, directly or indirectly, a franchise fee.”

Section 14-201 of the MD Franchise Law goes on to define a franchise fee as a charge or payment that a franchisee or subfranchisor is required or agrees to pay for the right to enter into a business under a franchise agreement.  The purchase of equipment is included in the definition of a franchise fee.  Section 14-201 contains several exclusions from the definition of a franchise fee, but no exclusions for the purchase of equipment by a franchisee/licensee.

Many of the Maryland exclusions are limited to products-oriented licensors, as for the sale of goods at wholesale prices.  Other exemptions are for the sale or lease of real property for use in the business, and any amounts paid for sales materials used in making sales, sold at no profit by the licensor. An additional exemption exists for the sale, at fair market value, of supplies or fixtures that are necessary in order to operate the business. 

Section 14-203 of the MD Franchise Law sets the threshold amount for the franchise fee at any amount exceeding $100.

Threshold for a Franchise Fee Under the FTC Rule Is $500 Through The First Six Months

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

A licensing or other relationship where the trademark and system/significant control prongs of the FTC Franchise Rule are met is excluded from the scope of the franchise regulation if the total required payments by the franchisee before and during the 6-month period after the business opens do not exceed $500. 

The required fee element captures all sources of revenue paid by a licensee to a licensor for the license. The element is deliberately expansive, encompassing lump sum, installment, fixed, fluctuating, up-front, and periodic payments for goods or services, however denominated, whether direct, indirect, hidden, or refundable. 

To avoid the FTC Rule franchise fee requirement, it is possible for a licensor to defer required payments exceeding $500 for at least six months, and as a result, not be deemed a franchise under the FTC Rule and federal law.  This remains true even if the licensee signs a nonnegotiable, secured promissory note (with no acceleration clause) promising to pay the money after six months.

The deferment option is not all-encompassing however.  While the FTC Rule permits this deferment of payment option, this is applicable only in those states that do not have individual, state specific franchise laws, since in those states such license transactions are governed by the FTC Rule.  There are upwards of 15 states across the country, including Maryland, Virginia, New York, California, and Illinois, which do have specific franchise laws, and which do not grant this deferment option.  As a result, deferment is not an option in these states.  Have your franchise attorney check the franchise law of each individual state before proceeding.


The Definition of “Franchise Fee” Is Extremely Broad Under the FTC Franchise Rule

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

In addition to the trademark and system/significant control prongs of the FTC Franchise Rule, the FTC Rule requires as a third prong that the franchisee make a required payment or commit to make a required payment to the franchisor or the franchisor’s affiliate in order for a relationship to be deemed a franchise. 

The term “required payment” is defined broadly by the FTC to mean:  “all consideration that the franchisee must pay to the franchisor or an affiliate, either by contract or by practical necessity, as a condition of obtaining or commencing operation of the franchise.”  16 C.F.R. §436.1(s).

The definition of a required payment captures all sources of revenue that a franchisee must pay to a franchisor or its affiliate for the right to associate with the franchisor, market its goods or services, or begin operation of the business.

The FTC Franchise Rule Compliance Guide states that “required payments go beyond payment of a traditional initial franchise fee.  Thus, even though a franchisee does not pay the franchisor or its affiliates an initial franchise fee, the fee element may still be satisfied. Specifically, payments of practical necessity also count toward the required payment element. A common example of a payment made by practical necessity is a charge for equipment or inventory that can only be obtained from the franchisor or its affiliate and no other source. Other required payments that will satisfy the third definitional element of a franchise include: (i) rent, (ii) advertising assistance, (iii) training, (iv) security deposits, (v) escrow deposits, (vi) non-refundable bookkeeping charges, (vii) promotional literature, (viii) equipment rental, and (ix) continuing royalties on sales.”

Courts throughout the country, both in interpreting the FTC Franchise Rule as well as various state franchise laws, have held that almost any payment made by a franchisee to the franchisor will satisfy the franchise fee element.   

For example, a boat dealer’s extensive advertising and its required purchases of promotional materials from the franchisor satisfied the franchise fee requirement under the California Franchise Investment Act.  Boat & Motor Mart v. Sea Ray Boats, Inc., Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶8846 (9th Cir. 1987).

Similarly, a forklift dealer’s payments to a manufacturer for additional copies of a Parts and Repair Manual constituted a franchise fee under the Illinois Franchise Disclosure Act.  To-Am Equip. Co., Inc. v. Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift Am., Inc., 953 F. Supp. 987 (N.D. Ill. 1997).

 Finally, required payments for training or services made to the franchisor or its affiliate may satisfy the payment of a fee element.  Metro All Snax v. All Snax, Inc. Bus. Franchise Guide (CCH) ¶ 10,885 (D. Minn. 1996).

For further investigation of this issue, see also two separate FTC Opinions, FTC Informal Staff Advisory Opinion #00-2 dated January, 2000, as well as FTC Informal Staff Advisory Opinion #03-2 dated April, 2003, found on the FTC website.  In both instances, the FTC did not focus on whether payments made by the licensee were up front initial fees or royalty payments, but whether any payment whatsoever was made by the licensee to the licensor.

Vacating an Arbitration Award

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

There are many reasons one can point to in order to explain how over the last several years arbitration has become less and less favored as a dispute resolution mechanism in the franchise arena.  One of the mean reasons that the arbitration bubble has burst is due to a lack of a valid and fair appeals process.  While it is common knowledge that a losing party in a state or federal court trial is permitted to appeal an unfavorable decision on a multitude of grounds, the same is hardly true in the arbitration process.  Rather, it is extremely difficult for most losing parties in an arbitration matter to come close to meeting the rigid criteria for vacating an arbitration award.    

For those arbitration matters resolved under the Federal Arbitration Act, the standard of review of an arbitration award under the Federal Arbitration Act provides for only four specific grounds for vacating an arbitration award, as follows:  i)  where the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means; ii) where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or either of them; iii) where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy, or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced; or, iv) where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.  In addition, most state arbitration statutes mirror the FAA in this area.

As a result of the rigid four categories stated above, it is extremely difficult to overturn an arbitration award except in the most egregious circumstances. A court is prohibited from vacating an arbitration award regardless of how vociferously the court may disagree with the reasoning behind the arbitrator’s decision.  Rather, parties that have been successful in appealing an arbitration award have for the most part been able to provide evidence to the court that either the arbitration committed fraud, misconduct or was biased, or the party has been able to prove that a procedural defect was committed thereby severely prejudging a party to the point the party was denied its fundamental rights of due process.

Unless an aggrieved party can show documented evidence in one of these two areas, a court is extremely unlikely to grant a motion to vacate an arbitration award.  It is for this reason, and others, that many franchisors in a variety of industries have turned away from arbitration and instead prefer to have their disputes heard by a state or federal court judge.