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 since Moby 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.