“Franchise Fees” and the New York Franchise Law

Written by Raymond McKenzie on 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

Written by Raymond McKenzie on 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

Written by Raymond McKenzie on 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

Written by Raymond McKenzie on 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

Written by Raymond McKenzie on 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.

 

 

 

Legal Requirements of an Existing Franchisee Sale of His or Her Outlet; Purchase of Additional Outlets; Extending the Term of an Existing Franchise?

Written by Raymond McKenzie on April 28th, 2011

An existing franchisee that sells his or her franchised business directly to a third party, without any significant contact with the franchisor does not need to abide by the federal franchise disclosure law, or any state franchise registration or disclosure law.

 The FTC Franchise Rule states, directly from the FTC website found at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/franchise/bus70.pdf

“Even if the franchisor has, and exercises, the right to approve or disapprove a subsequent sale (transfer) of a franchised unit, the transferee will not be entitled to receive disclosures unless the franchisor plays some more significant role in the sale. For example, if the franchisor provides financial performance information to the prospective transferee, the franchisor would be required to provide the transferee with its disclosure document.”

 Likewise, in the case of an existing franchisee that purchases one or more additional outlets from the same franchisor for the same brand, the franchisor is not required to provide a disclosure document to such a franchisee exercising a right under the franchise agreement to establish any new outlets.

Finally, the franchisor is not required to provide a disclosure document to a franchisee who chooses to keep its existing outlet post-term either by extending its present franchise agreement or by entering into a new agreement, unless the new relationship is under terms and conditions materially different from the present agreement.  In the case of a materially different franchise agreement, the franchisor must abide by state and federal franchise registration and disclosure laws.

 

Types of Relationships Covered by Federal and State Franchise Laws. [Part 3]

Written by Raymond McKenzie on April 28th, 2011

The Payment Requirement.

 The last of the three definitional elements of a franchise covered by the FTC Franchise Rule is that purchasers of the business arrangement must be required to pay to the franchisor as a condition of obtaining a franchise or starting operations, a sum of at least $500 at any time prior to or within the first six months of the commencement of operations of the franchised business.

 Here is what the FTC Franchise Rule states on the “Required Payment” element, directly from the FTC website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/franchise/bus70.pdf

As to what constitutes a payment, the term “payment” is intended to be read broadly, “capturing 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, and begin operation of the business. Often, required payments go beyond a simple franchisee fee, entailing other payments that the franchisee must pay to the franchisor or an affiliate by contract – including the franchise agreement or any companion contract. Required payments may include: initial franchise fee, rent, advertising assistance, equipment and supplies (including such purchases from third parties if the franchisor or its affiliate receives payment as a result of the purchase), training, security deposits, escrow deposits, non-refundable bookkeeping charges, promotional literature, equipment rental and continuing royalties on sales.  Payments which, by practical necessity, a franchisee must make to the franchisor or affiliate also count toward the required payment. A common example of a payment made by practical necessity is a charge for equipment that can only be obtained from the franchisor or its affiliate and no other source.”

 

Types of Relationships Covered by Federal and State Franchise Laws. [Part 2]

Written by Raymond McKenzie on April 28th, 2011

Here is what the FTC Franchise Rule states on the “Significant Control or Assistance” element, directly from the FTC website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/franchise/bus70.pdf

“The FTC Franchise Rule covers business arrangements where the franchisor will exert or has the authority to exert a significant degree of control over the franchisee’s method of operation, or provide significant assistance in the franchisee’s method of operation.”

 The relevant question is when does such control become significant.  “The more franchisees reasonably rely upon the franchisor’s control or assistance, the more likely the control or assistance will be considered “significant.” Franchisees’ reliance is likely to be great when they are relatively inexperienced in the business being offered for sale or when they undertake a large financial risk. Similarly, franchisees are likely to reasonably rely on the franchisor’s control or assistance if the control or assistance is unique to that specific franchisor, as opposed to a typical practice employed by all businesses in the same industry.

 Further, to be deemed “significant,” the control or assistance must relate to the franchisee’s overall method of operation – not a small part of the franchisee’s business. Control or assistance involving the sale of a specific product that has, at most, a marginal effect on a franchisee’s method of operating the overall business will not be considered in determining whether control or assistance is “significant.”

 For the sake of the Rule, significant types of control include: site approval for unestablished businesses, site design or appearance requirements, hours of operation, production techniques, accounting practices, personnel policies, promotional campaigns requiring franchisee participation or financial contribution, restrictions on customers, and locale or area of operation.

 Significant types of assistance include: formal sales, repair, or business training programs, establishing accounting systems, furnishing management, marketing, or personnel advice, selecting site locations, furnishing systemwide networks and website, and furnishing a detailed operating manual.

 The following activities will not constitute significant control or assistance:  promotional activities, in the absence of additional forms of assistance, (this includes furnishing a distributor with point-of sale advertising displays, sales kits, product samples, and other promotional materials intended to help the distributor in making sales. It also includes providing advertising in such media as radio and television, whether provided solely by the franchisor or on a cooperative basis with franchisees;), trademark controls designed solely to protect the trademark owner’s legal ownership rights in the mark under state or federal trademark laws (such as display of the mark or right of inspection), health or safety restrictions required by federal or state law or regulations, agreements between a bank credit interchange organization and retailers or member banks for the provision of credit cards or credit services, and assisting distributors in obtaining financing to be able to transact business.”

 

Types of Relationships Covered by Federal and State Franchise Laws. [Part 1]

Written by Raymond McKenzie on April 28th, 2011

Often times I have prospective franchisor clients, that is, clients who believe they have a business concept that can be expanded possibly through licensing or franchising, ask me to explain the differences between licensing and franchising from a legal perspective.  Inevitably, the conversation turns to an explanation from the client as to why the concept is not truly a franchise after all.  As I have explained on this blog previously, while there certainly are relationships that are true licenses, more often than not, many licensing relationships are indeed nothing more than disguised franchises.

 Here is what the FTC Franchise Rule states on the issue, directly from the FTC website found at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/franchise/bus70.pdf.  The FTC Franchise Rule covers the offer and sale of franchises. As under the original Rule, a commercial business arrangement is a “franchise” if it satisfies three definitional elements.

 “Specifically, the franchisor must: (1) promise to provide a trademark or other commercial symbol; (2) promise to exercise significant control or provide significant assistance in the operation of the business; and (3) require a minimum payment of at least $500 during the first six months of operations.”

 Be aware that the name given to the business arrangement is irrelevant in determining whether it is covered by the amended Rule.

 “With regard to the trademark element, a franchise entails the right to operate a business that is “identified or associated with the franchisor’s trademark, or to offer, sell, or distribute goods, services, or commodities that are identified or associated with the franchisor’s trademark.” The term “trademark” is intended to be read broadly to cover not only trademarks, but any service mark, trade name, or other advertising or commercial symbol. This is generally referred to as the “trademark” or “mark” element.

 The franchisor need not own the mark itself, but at the very least must have the right to license the use of the mark to others. Indeed, the right to use the franchisor’s mark in the operation of the business – either by selling goods or performing services identified with the mark or by using the mark, in whole or in part, in the business’ name – is an integral part of franchising.

 In fact, a supplier can avoid Rule coverage of a particular distribution arrangement by expressly prohibiting the distributor from using its mark.”

 

Legal Differences Between a Stock Purchase and an Asset Purchase

Written by Raymond McKenzie on February 8th, 2011

A Stock Purchase refers to the sale and purchase of an ownership interest in an entity like a corporation, partnership or limited liability company. The Seller sells, and the Buyer purchases, all or part of the outstanding shares of stock in a corporation, or all or part of the membership interest in an LLC or partnership, as well as all of the existing assets and liabilities of the entity. This includes the name and goodwill of the business, which oftentimes can be valuable. The existing entity itself does not change. Rather, the owners of the stock or membership interest in the entity change from Seller to Buyer, while the entity itself continues uninterrupted.

In a Stock Purchase, unless agreed otherwise, the Seller is absolved of any obligations or liabilities stemming from its prior ownership interest in the entity, as the Purchaser becomes the owner of not only the assets of the entity, but likewise the debts and obligations as well. For this reason a Seller will generally prefer a Stock Purchase over an Asset Purchase, as a Stock Purchase allows the Seller to walk away from the business without the fear of future debts, liabilities or obligations of the business. For the Purchaser of stock in such a transaction, I cannot stress how important it is to perform the maximum amount of due diligence it can, in order the possibility of assuming any unintended or unknown liabilities and obligations, since such liabilities should have or could have been known.

Unlike a Stock Purchase, an Asset Purchase involves, as the name implies, the purchase and sale of only the assets of a particular business, without the purchase or sale of any stock or other ownership interest in the company. The Purchaser buys, and the Seller sells, only the specific assets identified in the governing document, named the Asset Purchase Agreement. Any assets not included in the Asset Purchase Agreement remain the property of Seller. The Buyer must create a new entity that will own the purchased Assets, or use an already existing entity for the transaction.

The Seller of assets retains ownership of the shares of the stock or other membership interest in the business, and as a result the Seller also retains any existing or future obligations and liabilities of such business, except those specifically transferred to the Buyer as part of the sale. For this reason a Purchaser will normally prefer an Asset Purchase to a Stock Purchase. This way, the Buyer obtains only the specific assets which it desired to purchase, and which debts, obligations and liabilities it is assuming, if any.

An additional cost that may be necessary in an Asset Purchase is the need to possibly transfer ownership of certain assets used in or by the business, and/or assign leases and other third party contracts to which Seller was a party.

There are many tax issues that must be addressed when deciding between a Stock Purchase an Asset Purchase. I advise my clients to see the advice of an accountant for such issues.