In a highly publicized March 23, 2010 decision, Awuah v. Coverall N. Am., Inc., 707 F.Supp.2d 80 (D. Mass. 2010), U.S. District Judge William Young for the District of Massachusetts rocked the Massachusetts business community by ruling that a group of janitorial franchisees were improperly classified as independent contractors, and that they were instead “employees” of commercial cleaning franchisor Coverall who are entitled to statutory protection under Massachusetts’ Wage laws including, among others, minimum wage, overtime pay, meal breaks and workers’ compensation.

Massachusetts law is known to have one of the most stringent employment classification tests in the country. Commonly referred to as the “ABC Test,” G.L. c. 149, § 148B(a), putative employers must satisfy the following three conditions to establish an independent relationship with individuals who perform services for them: (a) the individual is free from control and direction in connection with the performance of service; (b) the service is performed “outside the usual course of the business of the employer,” and (c) the individual is customarily engaged in an independently established business of the same nature as that involved in the service performed.  Id.  Prong B is by far the most challenging part of the Test because, in most instances, the services to be performed fall within the employer’s usual course of business.  This requirement does not exist under most state law classification tests.     

Seizing on prong B of the Test, Judge Young rejected Coverall’s argument that its franchising business is separate and distinct from the franchisee’s individual businesses in commercial cleaning.  Judge Young instead found that:

franchising is not itself a business[;] rather a company is in the business of selling goods or services and uses the franchise model as a means of distributing the goods or services to the final end user without acquiring significant distribution costs.  Describing franchising as a business in itself, as Coverall seeks to do, sounds vaguely like a description for a modified Ponzi scheme—a company that does not earn money from the sale of goods and services, but from taking in more money from unwitting franchisees to make payments to previous franchisees.

Awuah, 707 F.Supp.2d at 84 (emphasis added).  Concluding that Coverall franchisees did not perform services outside the course of Coverall’s business, the Court held that the franchisees were not independent contractors but Coverall’s employees.  Coverall thereafter filed its notice of appeal of this decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.   

On February 3, 2014, Coverall filed its brief to the First Circuit, arguing, among other points, that its regular activities and the services it performs are entirely different from the activities and services performed by franchise owners.  As Coverall explained, its regular activities are selling franchises, promoting the Coverall® brand, soliciting customer contracts, and providing billing and collections services to franchise owners.  By contrast, Coverall argued, franchise owners independently operate commercial cleaning businesses, which include scheduling cleaning services, staffing cleaners, purchasing cleaning equipment and supplies, and supervising their own employees. 

Echoing Coverall’s argument, the International Franchise Association (“IFA”), the largest trade association in the world, argued as amicus curiae in its April 17, 2014 brief to the First Circuit that the District Court failed to recognize the significant differences between Coverall’s and the franchise owners’ regular activities and services, and instead incorrectly focused on the irrelevant fact that they both ultimately depend on the sale of commercial cleaning services. 

The IFA further argued that Judge Young’s decision will severely damage the Massachusetts franchising business, referencing staggering statistics that highlight the importance franchising has on Massachusetts’ economy.  According to the Economic Impact of Franchised Businesses, in 2007, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available, 13,676 Massachusetts franchise establishments produced 149,600 Massachusetts jobs totaling $6.4 billion in payroll.  www.buildingopportunity.com/download/Part1.pdf.  What is more, those 13,676 Massachusetts franchise establishments helped create 323,900 additional independent Massachusetts jobs supporting, but not directly tied to, the franchised businesses.  The IFA argued that Judge Young’s decision puts Massachusetts’ robust franchising business in jeopardy by, among other things, disincentivizing franchisees from supplying their own financial capital into new and existing franchises because as salaried or hourly “employees” they will not be entitled under the law to the profits they produce.  

Whether the First Circuit will agree with the IFA and thus look to narrow Judge Young’s expansive reading of prong B is an open question.  In any event, franchisors operating in Massachusetts must be mindful of the stringent ABC Test, and should consult with an attorney on compliance and best practices in the franchising business.  Franchisors outside of Massachusetts must likewise be aware of the classification laws unique to the states in which they operate to ensure utmost compliance.