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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.

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.”

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.