Q. As a franchisor, could I potentially be held liable for the wage and hour violations committed by franchisees of my organization against their employees?
A. On October 1, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that McDonald’s Corporation was not liable as a joint employer for any alleged wage and hour violations committed against its California franchisee’s employees because McDonald’s did not exercise enough control over them.
In Salazar v. McDonald’s Corp., a class of approximately 1,400 restaurant workers at McDonald’s franchises in California alleged that they were denied overtime premiums, meal and rest breaks, and other benefits in violation of the California Labor Code. They argued that McDonald’s and its California franchisee were joint employers such that McDonald’s should be held liable for the violations. In support of their joint employer theory, the restaurant workers conveyed that McDonald’s required the franchisees to use specific computer systems for timekeeping which allegedly caused them to miss out on receiving overtime pay, and to send their managers to McDonald’s-sponsored trainings, which included topics on wage and hour policies. On the other hand, the facts also showed that the California franchisees were solely responsible for setting wages, interviewing, hiring, firing, supervising, and paying all of its employees.
The Ninth Circuit ultimately determined McDonald’s was not a joint employer of its franchisees’ workers for purposes of wage and hour liability. Its decision narrowly focused on the California Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Martinez v. Combs, which addressed three alternative definitions for determining whether an employment relationship exists: (1) exercising “control” over employees’ wages, hours, or working conditions; (2) “suffering or permitting” employees to work; or (3) creating a common law employment relationship. Under the “control” definition, the Ninth Circuit held that McDonald’s did not have the necessary control over “day-to-day aspects” of working conditions, such as hiring, direction, supervision, or discharge; rather, McDonald’s only had direct control over quality, such as operational branding. It also found that McDonald’s did not fall under the “suffer or permit” definition, which “pertains to responsibility for the fact of employment itself. The question under California law is whether McDonald’s is one of Plaintiffs’ employers, not whether McDonald’s caused Plaintiffs’ employer to violate wage-and-hour laws by giving the employer bad tools or bad advice.” For similar reasons, the Ninth Circuit panel held that McDonald’s could not be considered an employer under California common law because its quality control and maintenance of brand standards was not evidence that it had the requisite level of control over the workers’ employment to be deemed a joint employer.
The Ninth Circuit also rejected plaintiffs’ novel legal argument that McDonald’s was liable for wage and hour violations under an ostensible-agency theory, as it noted the term “agent” under state law only applies to an employer that exercises control over the wages, hours, or working conditions of workers, which was not the case here. In addition, the Court ruled that the workers’ negligence claim based on McDonald’s alleged failure to prevent the violations failed, as the claim was preempted by California’s wage and hour statutes and plaintiffs could prove neither the damages nor the duty elements required under a negligence theory of liability.
The Ninth Circuit ruling is significant for franchisors and other affiliated companies of employers, as it clarifies that a joint employment relationship under California wage and hour laws primarily depends on whether the company exerts direct control over day-to-day working conditions, such as hiring, direction, supervision, and discharge. The decision was issued only one week after a California appellate court ruled that Shell Oil Products US was not a joint employer for purposes of California wage and hour violations based on the same test employed by the Ninth Circuit. In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed the enactment of a similar control test for determining joint employer liability under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Nonetheless, companies are advised to consult with experienced labor and employment attorneys in order to stay abreast of the evolving tests used to determine joint employment liability.