Symposium Articles Introduction

By Shapiro, Steven G. | American University Business Law Review, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Symposium Articles Introduction


Shapiro, Steven G., American University Business Law Review


In the vast arena of American commerce, there are political decisions, regulations, and court decisions that, in compression with volatile economic forces, create a combustible mix across industries. Hints of change, expressions of public policy shifts, and exercise of political might that threaten established principles and market expectations can create instability among participants, often resulting in crippling uncertainty. At the same time, there is persistent tension with calls for policy shifts, advocating to correct perceived unfairness among participants.

The first two Articles contained within this Issue are written by two panelists who presented at the American University Business Law Review's recent symposium, Hospitality for the Employee: Where Business, Employment, and the Hospitality Industry Intersect, on March 27, 2015 at Arent Fox LLP. They look at the somewhat stunning evolution, maybe even revolution, in recent decisions on "joint-employer liability," a cornerstone of the important American franchising economic model. The shifting interpretation of what it means to be a joint employer creates a blurry line with bright consequences. That line is the demarcation of actions and consequent liability of a franchisor for the business operations of a franchisee.

Until recent rulings by the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB"), industries had fairly reasonable certainty of boundaries defining the limits of action by a franchisor. The accepted notion was that to be a joint employer the franchisor must have actually exercised direct control over the employees of the franchisee. Such essential terms of control included hiring, discipline, supervision, wages, scheduling, and work assignments.

In the new rulings, the NLRB has declared that joint-employer status can be created by the possession of authority to control essential terms or conditions of employment of the franchisee's employees. More starkly, joint-employer status can be applied even if the franchisor does not actually exercise such authority. As a result, the new analysis includes indirect as well as direct control.

Franchising encapsulates a variety of economic models, but the concept has evolved in a steady progression as a way to bring often disparate participants together and to match idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses. In hotel operations, a franchisor licenses the intellectual property of the brand name, embedded with operating manuals for guidance, plus standards for maintaining the brand. In fast food operations, the franchisor provides logos and operating manuals, plus furnishes equipment and inventory. Regardless of the type of industry, the franchisor generally seeks to be removed from routine decisions. The franchisor has selected a model so that it is entitled to earn a fee for providing intellectual capital and expertise to the franchisee operating the fundamental business, while at the same time limiting its exposure to legal liability of the operations.

To be sure, there are entrepreneurs able to create a valuable concept for a business, raise funding to develop and launch the idea, and expertly manage the many tasks of operations. To "create a valuable concept" can mean excruciating experimenting and tinkering, finally resulting in intellectual property to protect the business idea. To "raise funds" can mean equity funding and debt, often daunting tasks for a new business. To "expertly manage a business" includes management, marketing, and financial engineering, difficult tasks when a company is thriving and growing. Or, perhaps, the business owner must manage a failing operation, needing clear direction and steady guidance.

Each of these seemingly simple conceptual steps can be wildly difficult in practice, and parties are often not equipped, or do not care, to assume risks better managed by others. An investor, with access to funds and experience in a business, may look for the next idea and ways to expand. …

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