Claims that employees have been misclassified as independent contractors remain a focus for private plaintiffs and government agencies. Contracts that exert control over the business of another company may be a particularly fertile source of misclassification claims by plaintiffs seeking unpaid wages.

Two recent suits arising from franchise agreements with Jani-King, described by the Third Circuit as “the world’s largest commercial cleaning franchisor,” demonstrate the potential liability that can arise under these circumstances.

Wage Hour Division Sues Based on Misclassification of Franchisees

Last week, the Department of Labor filed suit claiming that franchisees of Jani-King of Oklahoma Inc. are actually employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The DOL alleges that the franchisees typically have no employees of their own, but rather are individual who are required to pay Jani-King a franchise fee, royalties, and other payments to receive cleaning assignments.

The suit contends that Jani-King, among other things, sets customer cleaning rates; negotiates with customers over the cleaning contracts under which franchisees work; reassigns cleaning contracts from one franchise to another; handles “all aspects of how and whether cleaners are paid for the work they perform;” and collects payments from customers.

Notably, the only claim in the DOL’s Complaint is for an injunction requiring Jani-King to begin keeping records of the wages and hours its alleged employees. The fact that the DOL has chosen to pursue injunctive relief in the absence of any other remedy suggests a strong interest in the principles at issue in the case.

Third Circuit Affirms Class Certification Based on Franchise Agreement & Manuals

The DOL suit was preceded by a September 21, 2016, decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. That decision upheld a district court’s order certifying a Rule 23 class action of approximately 300 Philadelphia-area franchisees who claim to be Jani-King employees.

In determining whether an employee has been misclassified as an independent contractor under Pennsylvania law, the Third Circuit stated that “the paramount factor is the right to control the manner in which the work is accomplished.”

The District Court’s opinion had pointed to specific provisions in the Jani-King franchise agreement, policy manual and training manual through which Jani-King (among other things) mandated how often a franchisee communicated with customers and dictated how franchisees addressed customer complaints, maintained their records and solicited business.

The District Court stated that “[t]hose documents also demonstrated that Jani-King controlled the franchisees’ work assignments, has the right to inspect the franchisees work, and has the ability to change the policies and procedures as it sees fit.”

Because the Jani-King franchise agreement, policies manual, and training manual were common to the class, they supported the conclusion that common issues would predominate in misclassification cases by franchisees. Therefore, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court’s class certification order. The plaintiffs will therefore be able to pursue class claims against Jani-King under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law.

The sometimes-rigid nature of franchise relationships can not only be evidence of the level of control characteristic of an employment relationship, but can also provide a basis for arguing that claims should joined in a Rule 23 class action. Companies, therefore, should consider whether the controls imposed by franchise agreements (or any other contracts) are justified by their potential to create unwanted employment relationships.