After spending the last few years litigating with Domino’s franchisees over wage hour violations, the New York Attorney General has filed suit contending that franchisor Domino’s Pizza Inc. is a joint employer with three franchisees, and therefore is liable for the “systematic underpayment” of franchise employees.

The New York Attorney General also claims that, regardless of whether it’s a joint employer, Domino’s is liable for misrepresentations and nondisclosures that led to the underpayment of employees at the three franchises and violated the New York Franchise Sales Act.

Background

Through settlements in March 2014 and April 2015, twelve Domino’s franchise owners paid a total of approximately $1.4 million to settle the Attorney General’s claims for violations of New York’s minimum wage and overtime laws.

After the second settlement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman accused Domino’s Pizza, Inc. of “turn[ing] a blind eye to illegal working conditions.” Mr. Schneiderman stated: “My message for Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle is this: To protect the Domino’s brand, protect the basic rights of the people who wear the Domino’s uniform, who make and deliver your pizzas.”

Domino’s was thus left to choose its poison: It could involve itself directly in addressing the alleged “illegal working conditions” at the risk of making itself a joint employer; or it could maintain a hands-off approach in an effort to avoid joint employer status, while further violations might increase its potential liability.

Nevertheless, Domino’s attempted to balance these concerns. In a March 18, 2016 letter to the New York Attorney General’s Labor Bureau Chief, Domino’s offered to fund legal compliance training for franchisees, require franchisee’s to accept a code of conduct and pay for a monitor to inspect franchisee stores for compliance. Domino’s further stated that it would “work with its franchisees in an effort to create a pool of funds to pay restitution to any underpaid franchisee employees.”

Allegations of Joint Employment

The Attorney General apparently found Domino’s proposal to be insufficient. Therefore, in May 2016, the Attorney General filed a Verified Petition in New York Supreme Court alleging that Domino’s was a joint employer with its franchisees because it had:

  • required Franchisees to purchase hardware and software for Domino’s PULSE management system;
  • maintained payroll and employment records for franchisees;
  • exerted control over franchisee hiring, firing and disciplining of employees;
  • controlled aspects of employee compensation at franchisee stores;
  • dictated staffing and scheduling requirements for franchisee stores;
  • imposed an antiunion policy on franchisees; and
  • required a franchisee purchasing existing stores to keep the prior staff largely intact and in the same positions at the same rates of pay.

Domino’s status as a joint employer in this case will be evaluated under New York law. However, it is notable that in Patterson v. Domino’s, the California Supreme Court examined Domino’s practices in 2014 and found it was not a joint employer under California law. The California Supreme Court based its decision on uncontradicted evidence that the franchisee (i) made day-to-day decisions involving the hiring, supervision, and disciplining of his employees, and (ii) ejected the franchisor’s suggestion that an alleged sexual harasser should be fired, and neither expected nor sustained any sanction for rejecting that suggestion.

Alleged Misrepresentations

In addition to joint employment, the Verified Petition alleges:

Domino’s itself caused many of the wage violations because Domino’s encouraged franchisees to use a “Payroll Report” function in the software system Domino’s required franchisees to install and use in their stores (known as “PULSE”), even though Domino’s knew since at least 2007 — yet failed to disclose to franchisees — that PULSE’s “Payroll Report” systematically under-calculated the gross wages owed to workers.

The Verified Petition further alleges that, while failing to tell franchisees about the problems with PULSE, Domino’s charged franchisees $15,000 to $25,000 for the PULSE hardware and software.

Therefore, the New York Attorney General contends that Domino’s is liable for fraud and violations of the New York Franchise Sales Act (which requires a franchisor to provide a prospective franchisee with detailed information regarding “all written or oral arrangements,” including those for the sale of goods or services, in which the franchisor has an interest).

Wage Hour Violations

Underlying these theories for imposing liability on Domino’s are the allegations that its franchisees failed to pay the proper overtime rates to tipped employees.

For example, the Verified Petition alleges that PULSE fails to properly calculate overtime pay for tipped employees under New York law. 12 NYCRR § 146-1.4 states that when “an employer is taking a credit toward the basic minimum hourly rate…, the overtime rate shall be the employee’s regular rate of pay before subtracting any tip credit, multiplied by 1½, minus the tip credit.” The regulation goes on to state:

It is a violation of the overtime requirement for an employer to subtract the tip credit first and then multiply the reduced rate by one and one half.

The New York minimum wage was $8.75 per hour in 2015, and the maximum tip credit was $3.10 per hour. Thus, the overtime rate of any tipped employee should have been at least ($8.75 per hour x 1.5 for overtime) minus ($3.10 per hour tip credit), or $10.03 per overtime hour.

However, according to the Verified Petition, the software used by the Domino’s franchisees subtracted the tip credit first, and then multiplied the reduced rate by 1.5. The Petition states: “PULSE calculates the employee’s overtime rate at $8.48 per hour ($5.65 times 1.5), which is $1.55 per hour less than the then-current 2015 legal overtime rate for tipped delivery employees.”

Accordingly, the Verified Petition contends that “PULSE systematically undercalculates the gross overtime wages owed to franchise delivery workers who were paid tipped rates.”

The New York Attorney general further contends that Domino’s is liable because the franchisees (i) did not aggregate the hours worked by employees who worked at more than one location; (ii) claimed tip credits for employees on days when they works at a non-tipped position for more than 20% of the employee’s shift or for two hours or more during the shift; (iii) did not calculate or pay the required “spread of hours” pay when a daily shift is longer than 10 hours; and (iv) required drivers to pay their own expenses for delivery vehicles in violation of New York Labor Law §193.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the franchise business model will continue to give rise to claims of joint employment. To the extent possible, franchisors should attempt to eliminate any appearance that they control the employment with a franchisee, particularly in regard to hiring, firing and the payment of wages. Where involvement by the franchisor is unavoidable, a franchisor must make every effort to comply with the law and communicate any potential concerns to franchisees.