For retail and hospitality industries especially,  it is turning out to be a long, hot summer as franchises continue to be in the employment law spotlight.

On July 29, 2014 the NLRB’s General Counsel announced a decision to treat McDonald’s, USA, LLC as a joint employer, along with its franchisees, of workers  43 McDonald’s franchised restaurants with regard to unfair labor practices charges filed by unions on behalf of the workers and authorized charges against of both the franchisees and McDonalds. (See our July 30 blog post  and Aug. 14 blog post)

Then, on August 5, 2014 New Jersey U.S. District Court Judge Rene Bumb,  ruled in Naik v. 7-Eleven that four franchise owner-operators of Indian descent may pursue overtime and minimum wage claims against franchisor 7-Eleven under both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (“NJWHL”). In deciding 7-Eleven’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ wage claims, the court held that the complaint asserted sufficient factual allegations to establish, if proved, that the plaintiffs are employees of 7-Eleven, and not independent franchisees.  The decision has potential wide-ranging implications regarding the coverage and application of host of employment law statutes, as well as potential joint employment and labor-management issues.

The plaintiffs each entered into a 7-Eleven Store Franchise Agreement (“FA”) which characterizes the parties’ relationship as that of franchisor/independent contractor. Plaintiffs allege, however, that, they are they are actually 7-Eleven employees and entitled to overtime and minimum wage.

The court ruled that the language of the FA characterizing plaintiffs as independent contractors  was not alone sufficient to carry the day for 7-Eleven and instead applied a weighing of the factors and economic realities analysis, used when classifying individuals working directly for a business.

The court found that the factors weighed in favor of plaintiffs being characterized as employees, including the factor asking whether the services rendered by plaintiffs are integral to the defendant’s business. As to that element, the court stated, “It is unclear how Defendant could run their business at all without its franchisees [,]” this, despite the fact that franchisees are integral to a franchise business by the very nature of the business model.

The court did not accept that 7-Eleven’s alleged regulation of vendors, equipment maintenance, product supply, uniforms, and implementing a standardized store environment constitute mere quality control measures to ensure uniformity. Rather, it found that the plaintiffs’ allegations, “depict an economic reality of dependence” on 7-Eleven, which supported their classification as employees.

The motion to dismiss comes at an early stage of the ligation and the court’s decision to let  the cases proceed is not a decision on the merits.  Nevertheless the court’s legal analysis in deciding the motion, has certainly raised questions regarding intersection of franchise law and employment law that bear watching – both in terms of application of employment law statutes  and with regard to joint employment.

As a side note, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims alleging national origin discrimination and harassment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, but on reasons unrelated to the plaintiffs’ status as employees or independent contractors.