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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.

“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.

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.

 

 

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 1]

Thursday, 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.”

New York Franchise Act Inapplicable Where Franchisee Resides Outside New York

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

In the recent case of JM Vidal, Inc. v. Texdis USA, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 93564 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), the New York District Court held that the New York Franchise Sales Act is inapplicable to the sale of franchises by a franchisor based in New York where the franchisee resides outside of New York and the franchised business is based outside of New York. In Vidal, a franchisee located in Washington State brought an action against a franchisor that was incorporated in Delaware and maintained its principal place of business in New York.

The franchisee alleged that the franchisor violated the New York Act by: (i) selling a franchise before it registered the UFOC; (ii) failing to timely deliver the UFOC at or before the initial meeting; and (iii) misrepresenting the estimated future earnings of the franchised unit, among other claims.

The Court dismissed the franchisee’s New York Act claim by holding that the New York Act is inapplicable and unavailable in an action by an out of state franchisee in a claim against a New York-based franchisor. The Court determined that the principal place of business of the franchisee is the essential element in the analysis – so that if the franchisee is not based in New York, then the New York Act is not applicable.

In making this determination, the Court relied on previous New York decisions, including Century Pac, Inc. v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 2004 U.S. Dist. Lexis 6904 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 21, 2004) and Mon-Shore Mgmt., Inc. v. Family Media, Inc., 584 F. Supp. 186 (S.D.N.Y. 1984). Vidal stated that “only the franchisee’s domicile matters for the purposes of determining whether the statute applies.”

This case should be reviewed carefully by Maryland franchisors and franchisees, and their lawyers, since the specific jurisdictional language of the New York Franchise Act that was at issue in this case is nearly identical to that contained in the Maryland Franchise Act.

How Does a Franchisor Prove Damages in Litigation Against a Franchisee?

Friday, July 9th, 2010

In representing franchisor clients against defaulting franchisees, it is imperative to give adequate thought to how the franchisor is going to prove its damages that resulted from a franchisee’s breach of the franchise agreement. When confronted with this issue, I most often utilize a financially competent representative of the franchisor to testify with regard to that amount of monetary damage suffered by the franchisor. The franchisor’s representative must be able to prove the damage by evaluating the franchisee’s financial statements, including revenues and/or profits, expenses, and royalties paid to the franchisor, and then determine what sums the franchisor would have earned either during and/or after the franchise term had it not been for the franchisee’s breach.

In order to testify convincingly and thoroughly, the franchisor’s representative must be able to analyze the franchisee’s financial numbers and draw a conclusion from such numbers. Therefore, a chief financial officer of a small franchisor, or an auditor or accountant of a larger franchisor, is an ideal representative in these instances, provided that the representative has been with the company long enough to be able to testify knowledgeably with regard to the details of the franchisor’s system.

Generally, a well-prepared franchisor representative will be permitted to testify as to the value or the projected profits of a franchised business provided the representative has a sufficient foundation for the analysis and opinion, including particular knowledge of the financial issues presented by virtue or his or her position in the franchisor company. This simply means that a franchisor representative may opine on the issue of lost profits where they know the franchisor and franchisee’s business and financial system intimately, and have the professional ability to analyze the franchisee’s financial statements.

To see how a franchisor SHOULD NOT approach the issue of proving its damages against a franchisee, see Lifewise Master Funding v. Telebank, 374 F.3d 917 (10th Cir. 2004), which in essence holds that a company’s witness as to damages must have personal knowledge of all items factored into his opinion in order for the opinion to be admissible. The court concluded that a business owner or executive may give “a straightforward opinion as to lost profits using conventional methods based on [the company’s] actual operating history.” However, because in this case the witness lacked personal knowledge of the factors used in the damages analysis, the opinion was inadmissible.

Franchise Law and Future Royalties

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Case law on the subject of a franchisor’s ability to collect future royalties, that is, royalties for the remainder of the term of the franchise agreement, is conflicting. Courts across the country have been unable to agree on when a franchisor may collect future royalties.

While guaranteeing the collection of future royalties from a terminated franchisee is impossible, there is one obvious but often overlooked way to increase the likelihood that a court or arbitrator will find in the franchisor’s favor when faced with the issue. That is, to disclose to the franchisee in the FDD, and include language in the franchise agreement, stating with specificity the franchisor’s policy on collecting future royalties. State for what period of time the franchisee willl be responsible for such royalties, ie for a certain number of months, or until the end of what would have been the franchise term. Also include what amount the franchisee will be expected to pay, for instance the average royalties paid by the franchisee over the past 6 or 12 months, or whatever time period the franchisor seeks to use.

Including specific and detailed language in the FDD and franchise agreement will not guarantee that a franchisor prevails with regard to a future royalties claim. However, NOT including such language will in my view guarantee that the franchisor loses such a claim.