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Isolated Sales Exemption in the New York Franchise Act

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

N.Y. CLS Gen. Bus. Law § 684(3)(c) of the New York Franchise Act provides an exemption to franchisors from the general registration requirements of the Act for what is deemed an “isolated franchise sale.”  Under this exemption, no franchisor is required to register its FDD/UFOC in New York where:

(1)   “The transaction is pursuant to an offer directed by the franchisor to not more than two persons . . .

 (2)   if the franchisor does not grant the franchisee the right to offer franchises to others,

 (3)   a commission or other remuneration is not paid directly or indirectly for soliciting a prospective franchisee in this state, and

 (4)   the franchisor is domiciled in this state or has filed with the department of law its consent to service of process on the form prescribed by the department.”  N.Y. CLS Gen. Bus. Law § 684(3)(c).

 New York courts have interpreted § 684(3)(c) to mean in essence that  the sale of the first franchise unit is exempt from registration if the unit was only offered to a maximum of two people (See BMW Co., Inc. et al. v Workbench Inc. et al. (No. 86 CIV 4200 1988 WL 45594 (S.D.N.Y. April 29, 1988); CCH Business Franchise Guide ¶ 9104, at 18,850). 

This exemption is well settled law in New York:  “This isolated franchise sale exemption is potentially useful for new U.S. franchisors or foreign franchisors that are new to the United States. It permits them to sell one franchise in New York without having to register a disclosure document with the state.”  LJN, Law Journal Newsletters, Franchising Business & Law Alert, Volume 18, Number 4, January 2012, by George J. Eydt. 

Further, in a recent New York case, Burgers Bar Five Towns, LLC v. Burger Holdings Corp., 897 N.Y.S. 2d 502 (2d Dep’t 2010), again upheld the existence of the isolated franchise sale exemption under § 684(3)(c) provided the franchisor is able to meet the four prongs of the statute.  In reversing a summary judgment that had been entered by the trial court against a franchisor that had failed to register its UFOC/FDD, the appeals court stated that the matter be remanded back to the trial court to determine whether the franchisor indeed met the exemption factors.  Further, the appeals court held that even if the exemption was not available, the franchisee had to prove that it sustained damages as a result of the failure to register and that the failure to register was willful.

There is some support for the proposition that not only does § 684(3)(c) exempt a franchisor from the registration requirement of the New York Franchise Act for the isolated franchise sale, the franchisor is also exempted from the disclosure requirements of the Act.

§ 683(8) of the New York Franchise Law provides that:  “A franchise which is subject to registration under this article shall not be sold without first providing to the prospective franchisee, a copy of the offering prospectus, together with a copy of all proposed agreements relating to the sale of the franchise.” 

No New York Court has yet delved this deeply into the disclosure exemption question.  The few Courts that have addressed the issue, BMW Co., supra, The National Survival Game of New York, Inc., supra, and Burgers Bar Five Towns, LLC, supra., have either failed to examine the relationship between the two statutes, or resolved the merits of their cases on other grounds.

Nevertheless, a franchisor faced with a registration and disclosure violation in New York for an isolated franchise sale would be smart to argue that both registration and disclosure are exempted.

The Legal Standard for Fraud in Maryland

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

To prevail on a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation in Maryland, a plaintiff must establish, by the heightened evidentiary standard of clear and convincing evidence:

“(1) that the defendant made a false representation to the plaintiff, (2) that its falsity was either known to the defendant or that the representation was made with reckless indifference as to its truth, (3) that the misrepresentation was made for the purpose of defrauding the plaintiff, (4) that the plaintiff relied on the misrepresentation and had the right to rely on it, and (5) that the plaintiff suffered compensable injury resulting from the misrepresentation.”  VF Corp. v. Wrexham Aviation Corp., 350 Md. 693, 703 (1998), quoting Nails v. S&R, 334 Md. 398, 415 (1994).

The defendant must actually be aware of the falsity, or atleast the potential for falsity.  The requirement concerning knowledge of the falsity or reckless indifference as to the truth of the representation means either the defendant’s actual knowledge that the representation was false or the defendant’s awareness that he does not know whether the representation is true or false. Ellerin v. Fairfax Savings, 337 Md. at 231, 652 A.2d at 1124.  

Negligence or misjudgment, “‘however gross,'” does not satisfy the knowledge element. Ellerin, 337 Md. at 232, 652 A.2d at 1125, quoting Cahill v. Applegarth, 98 Md. 493, 502, 56 A. 794, 796 (1904). See also VF Corporation and Blue Bell, Inc. v. Wrexham Aviation Corp., 350 Md. 693 (1998).

A defendant must have the intent, the scienter, to cheat another: “It is well recognized under Maryland law that an action for fraud cannot be supported … without any design to impose upon or cheat another.”  VF Corp. v. Wrexham Aviation Corp., 350 Md. 693, 703 (1998).  

The complaining party though, must have reasonably relied on the defendant’s representations.  To determine whether one party’s reliance upon the allegedly fraudulent statements of another party is reasonable, a court looks to all the facts and circumstances present in the particular case.  “In determining whether reliance is reasonable, a court is required to view the act in its setting….” Parker v. Columbia Bank, 91 Md. App. At 361-362. 

The One of the most important circumstances in this regard is the plaintiff’s background and experience.  For example, a complaining person who is knowledgeable in the commercial real estate realm could not be said to have reasonably relied on another’s false representations in that realm, as the complainant would have the requisite knowledge and resources to determine whether such statements were true in the first place.

 

 

“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.

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

Thursday, 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]

Thursday, 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]

Thursday, 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.”

Excellent Franchise Article from the Gazette

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

For those of you interested in franchising, see the below link from the Gazette newspaper. It is a recent article on the state of franchising in Maryland, specifically, how local restaurant franchise chains like California Tortilla, Buffalo Wings & Beer, and Wings to Go are contemplating expansion due to a rebounding economy.

http://www.gazette.net/stories/11252010/businew172254_32545.php

Must Read: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Franchise Consumer Guide

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Below please find a link to the FTC “Buying a Franchise: A Consumer Guide,” which is a must read for all prospective franchisees. Here is the link: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/invest/inv05.shtm.

While the information contained in the FTC Franchise Guide is no doubt basic to a franchise professional or franchisor representative, the Franchise Guide unquestionably provides useful information to prospective franchisees who often times know very little about the franchise sales process, federal and state franchise registration and disclosure laws, or the franchisor/franchisee relationship. Without a doubt it is an excellent foundation for a prospective franchisee’s due diligence.

Some topics addressed in the FTC Guide are: where to look for franchise opportunities, what makes up the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD), to be aware of unauthorized financial performance representations/earnings claims from a franchisor if not found in the FDD, and where to obtain additional sources of information during the due diligence phase, including obtaining the assistance of experienced franchise counsel.

I strongly encourage any prospective franchisee reading this blog to click on the above link and download a copy of the FTC Guide.