FRANCHISOR 101: Franchisor Successfully Fends Off Fraud Claims
There are circumstances when a fraud claim will not succeed against a franchisor. In Dunkin' Donuts Franchised Restaurants, LLC v. Claudia I, LLC, a franchisee alleged fraud by Dunkin' Donuts, but a US District Court in Pennsylvania rejected its hardest hitting claims.
A Dunkin' Donuts franchisee purchased a franchise and subleased a deteriorating store in Pennsylvania from Dunkin'. The franchisee's owners believed they were paying above-market rent, and the sublease also overstated the size of the premises, so they believed they were overpaying common area expenses. The donut store lost money, the franchisee asked Dunkin's consent to relocate, Dunkin' declined and the franchisee stopped paying rent. The franchisor terminated both the franchise agreement and sublease and obtained an injunction requiring the franchisee to leave the store. Then, after retaking possession of the store, Dunkin' moved the store to another location.
The franchisee claimed Dunkin misrepresented the store size and that it could renegotiate the sublease. The court ruled the franchisee could not prove fraud based on misrepresented square footage because the franchisee always suspected the stated square footage was wrong. Under the law, a person who believes a representation is false cannot claim to have relied on it and cannot prevail in a claim of fraud.
The court also found that any statement by Dunkin' that the sublease could be renegotiated was also not actionable. A statement about what may happen in the future is not considered false, unless the speaker knowingly misstates his true state of mind. The court said renegotiation was a promise to do something in the future and noted that Dunkin' actually had offered the franchisee a new, more favorable sublease. Therefore any pre-agreement representations could not have been knowingly false.
The court ruled, however, that the franchisee might be able to show Dunkin breached an implied contractual duty to act in good faith and in a commercially reasonable manner since Dunkin' executives considered the store location to be bad, but had, nevertheless, sold the franchise and subleased the store to the franchisee and then, after taking back the store, relocated it itself, suggesting bad faith.
This case is a reminder to franchisors that appearances count. Here, refusing to consent to relocation, but then relocating a store after terminating the franchisee, gave the appearance of misconduct and was enough for the court to allow the franchisee's breach of contract claim to proceed. For franchisees, the case is a reminder that you cannot claim reliance and recover for fraud if you had doubts or were suspicious about what the franchisor told you, or if the claimed fraud was a franchisor's promise to do something in the future. To see the case, click Dunkin' Donuts v. Claudia I, LLC.