Extra Pepperoni! Domino’s Fends Off Joint Employment Claims

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Domino’s Pizza in Russia recently had to cancel a promotion offering free pizza for life to anyone who got a tattoo of the Domino’s logo after too many people tatted up. The Russian franchisee that offered the promotion was overwhelmed by the response. It canceled the scheduled two-month promotion after just four days.

Franchise owners have to adhere to brand standards, but they have flexibility on other things, such as how vigorously to encourage their customers to ink. It can be confusing to the public, however, which decisions are made by franchisors and which decisions are made by franchisees. Not surprisingly, this confusion extends to employment situations, where claims of joint employment are frequently asserted against franchisors, even though individual employment decisions are made by franchisees.

In a delicious decision for franchisors, a New York federal court has ruled that Domino’s Pizza’s corporate entities are not joint employers of the employees who work at individually owned Domino’s franchises – at least under federal and New York State wage and hour law. (Click here for Five Things You Should Know About Joint Employment.)

Joint employment claims are a constant threat in the franchise space. Major restaurant and fast food franchisors are frequently alleged to be joint employers when plaintiffs bring employment lawsuits against individual franchisees. The franchisors (like Domino’s) are viewed as the deep pockets and, by targeting the franchisor’s corporate office, plaintiffs can try to build class actions that include groups of employees across multiple franchises. Or, by tagging a franchisee as a joint employer, plaintiffs can feel more confident that enough dollars will be available to pay any judgment.

The court’s ruling, which granted summary judgment to Domino’s corporate entities, evaluated the plaintiffs’ joint employment claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and New York Labor Law (NYLL) using a two-part Economic Realities Test.

Following guidance from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, the court looked at two sets of factors: one set to assess formal control exercised by the franchisor, and the second set to assess functional control by the franchisor. (That’s not the test used everywhere.)

As is typical in franchisor-franchisee relationships, the franchisee (store owner) signed a franchise agreement, agreeing that it – not the franchisor – “shall be solely responsible for recruiting, hiring, training, scheduling for work, supervising and paying the persons who work in the Store and those persons shall be [franchisee’s] employees, and not [franchisor’s] agents or employees.”  The agreement required the franchisee to adhere to brand standards to ensure consistency in product, but individual employment decisions were to be made at the store level, not by the franchisor.

Based on this framework, the court analyzed the facts using the formal control factors and the functional control factors.

The formal control factors included whether the franchisor:

  1. had the power to hire and fire the employees,
  2. supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment,
  3. determined the rate and method of payment, and
  4. maintained employment records.

The functional control factors for determining joint employment, some of which do not even make sense in the context of a franchise relationship, are:

  1. whether the alleged employers’ premises and equipment were used for the plaintiffs’ work;
  2. whether the subcontractors had a business that could or did shift as a unit from one putative joint employer to another;
  3. the extent to which [the] plaintiffs performed a discrete line job that was integral to the alleged employers’ process of production;
  4. whether responsibility under the contracts could pass from one subcontractor to another without material changes;
  5. the degree to which the alleged employers or their agents supervised [the] plaintiffs’ work; and
  6. whether [the] plaintiffs worked exclusively or predominantly for the alleged employers.

After evaluating the facts using these factors, the court ruled that the Domino’s corporate franchisor entities were not joint employers. The franchisor entities were therefore dismissed from the lawsuit, but the court allowed the case to continue against the individual franchise owners.

The decision is refreshing for franchisors, but not too refreshing.  As noted here, other Courts of Appeal – mainly the Fourth Circuit – apply different tests for determining whether a company is a joint employer under the FLSA, even though the FLSA is a federal law that you would think would be interpreted the same way all across the country.

The test for joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act is different too – and is likely to change again.  It is possible for a company to be a joint employer under one law or test but not under other laws or tests. There is no uniformity or consistency.

For now, franchisors should rejoice in this small victory, but the fight to protect franchisors against joint employment claims is far from over — unlike the Russian tattoo promotion, which is entirely kaput.

© 2018 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.

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