Last night I reviewed a franchise agreement and found a surprising, and illegal, provision buried deep in the contract. If ever there was a compelling case for being careful when you are choosing legal counsel, I just found the provision that makes it.
But first, some background. My law practice involves representing both franchisors and prospective franchisees. For franchisors, I primarily draft franchise disclosure documents ("FDDs") and franchise agreements; I assist my clients in obtaining franchise state registrations; and I assist them with day-to-day issues that arise in running their businesses. For prospective franchisees, I will review their proposed franchise agreements and FDDs and help them understand what they will be committing to do if they decide to buy the franchise. If the franchise company is willing to negotiate, I help prospective franchisees through that process.
I find that reviewing other companies' FDDs and franchise agreements also helps me in my practice for franchisors; it's always instructive to see what other industry leaders are doing. I have noticed that, in a small minority of systems, some franchisors go well beyond what is legally permitted to be included in the franchise agreement and include provisions that unquestionably violate the FTC Franchise Rule (the "Franchise Rule") as well as various state franchise laws.
If you're on either side of the franchise relationship, you should know if your contract has a provision like this one. Pull out your franchise agreement now. Go ahead, I'll wait.
You have it now? Good. Here's the provision we're looking for:
Release of Prior Claims. By executing this Franchise Agreement, Franchisee, and each successor of Franchisee under this Franchise Agreement forever releases and discharges Franchisor and its Affiliates, Its designees, franchise sales brokers, if any, or other agents, and their respective officers, directors. representatives, employees and agents, from any and all claims of any kind, in law or In equity, which may exist as of the date of this Franchise Agreement relating to, in connection with, or arising under this Franchise Agreement or any other agreement between the parties, or relating In any other way to the conduct of Franchisor, its Affiliates, its designees, franchise sales brokers, if any, or other agents, and their respective officers, directors, representatives, employees and agents prior to the date of this Franchise Agreement, including any and all claims, whether presently known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected, arising under the franchise, business opportunity, securities, antitrust or other laws of the United States, any stale or locality.
In plain English: "you, the franchisee acknowledge that we, the franchisor, may have lied to you and might be lying to you right now. Our entire FDD might be one of the greatest works of fiction sinceMoby Dick. You agree, however, that you waive all your legal rights to take action against us based on those lies, even if you have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of your hard-earned money in this phony business." Wow.
Do you have that one in your franchise agreement? You might have to do a bit of hunting for it. You would think something like that would be on the first page, bolded, in caps, with a box around it and perhaps accompanied by a self-lighting sparkler that draws your attention directly to the provision when you open the contract. But no, in the case of the contract in which I found this provision, it was buried on page 36 of a 39-page franchise agreement, with no particular emphasis placed upon it.
I will never include a provision like this in a franchise agreement I draft, nor will I ever recommend that a prospective franchise buyer sign a contract when it includes this provision. Why? It's not only unfair, but it's also illegal under the Franchise Rule and under various state franchise laws.
The Problem with Having the Provision
Now, I highly doubt that in most situations, the franchisor even knows this provision is in its franchise agreement. Most start-up franchise companies trust their franchise counsel to draft the agreement and don't necessarily carefully consider each provision in the contract. This sort of provision is typically created by counsel, who is seeking to protect his or her client. An admirable goal, to be sure.
The problem is that this provision is impossible to justify to a prospective franchisee that notices it and understands its implications. If you're a franchisor, imagine trying to explain that to a potential buyer: "we're not lying to you. But you have to agree as a condition of buying this franchise that we might be and that you won't ever do anything about it if we are."
A franchisor may be able to slip this one by a franchisee unnoticed, but a franchisee that notices and understands this provision is always going to have a problem with it. A franchisee that has experienced franchise legal counsel review the agreement for them will certainly flag the term and warn the franchisee against agreeing to it. That could cost you a sale.
To make matters worse for the franchisor, the types of franchisees that actually read the agreement before signing it and have legal counsel review it for them are exactly the type of franchisees the franchisor wants: franchisees that take their commitments seriously and are willing to put their time, effort, and money into understanding commitments before they make them.
Now, I have my doubts that this type of provision will be enforceable in any event because, as I said, including a provision like this one is an explicit violation of the Franchise Rule, which "prohibits franchise sellers from disclaiming or requiring a prospective franchisee to waive reliance on any representation made in the disclosure document or in its exhibits or amendments." This provision does exactly that - and, as a result, the franchisor that included it in its agreement is in violation of the Franchise Rule (and various state laws) just for having the term in the contract.
Violating the Franchise Rule and state franchise laws leaves the franchisor exposed to lawsuits by franchisees that may have a state law "unfair trade practices" cause of action against the franchisor because of it. When those legal claims exist, a franchisor could face claims for damages or rescission. Moreover, state franchise administrators could refuse to register the franchise offering with a provision like this one (if they notice it) or worse, later take administrative action against the franchisor based on its violation of franchise law.
The better practice for franchisors that want to protect themselves, but do so within the bounds of the law, is to use exculpatory provisions and "compliance questionnaires" as part of the agreement signing process. A well-drafted exculpatory provision will provide a measure of protection to franchisors for unauthorized statements made by a renegade sales person, but will not seek to disclaim statements made by the franchisor in its FDD (and therefore is permissible under the Franchise Rule and many state laws).
The Lesson for Franchisors and Franchisees
If you are a franchisor, inclusion of a provision like this in your franchise agreement should make you question your legal counsel. Ask yourself: are you willing to risk losing a potential sale to a qualified, savvy, and ideal franchisee because you have a provision in your franchise agreement that probably isn't enforceable anyway? Are franchisees that sign your contract without even reading or understanding it really the type of franchisees you want? And is "sneaking something past" your unwitting franchisees who don't review every term of your contract really the way you want to do business? As I explain above, there are better (and legally-enforceable) ways to protect yourself in your franchise agreement, anyway.
If you are a prospective franchise buyer, this situation highlights the importance of: (1) reading your franchise agreement, cover-to-cover; and (2) hiring legal counsel experienced in franchise law to review your contract before you sign it. Contrary to the opinion of some, franchise agreements aren't all boilerplate, and not all franchise contracts are created equally. Don't assume that your franchise agreement doesn't contain something objectionable just because other franchisees signed it.
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