Earlier this month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed when a franchisor might be liable for its franchisee’s overtime and minimum wage violations as a “joint employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Given the recent rise in the FLSA litigation and rather sizable penalties and damages awards assessed against the violators, Orozco v. Plackis serves as a reminder to franchisors that the more control they retain over their franchisees’ employees the more likely they are to share liability under the FLSA.
In this case, Craig Plackis owned several Craig O’s restaurants around Austin, Texas. In 2005, he entered into a franchise agreement with the Entjers to open a location in San Marcos. In 2011, Ben Orozco, a cook at the San Marcos location, filed a lawsuit against the Entjers and their company alleging that he was not paid overtime or minimum wages as required under the FLSA. After the Entjers settled, Orozco added Craig Plackis as a defendant alleging that the franchisor was also his employer. The jury agreed with Orozco, but the Fifth Circuit reversed after finding that there was legally insufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Plackis was Orozco’s employer.
Under the FLSA, covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009, and overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay for hours worked above 40 hours in a workweek. The FLSA defines an employer as “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” 29 U.S.C. §203(d).
Often, when an employee works for a subsidiary, a franchise, or a professional employer organization (PEO), the question arises which entity is considered the employer for purposes of the FLSA. The courts, therefore, use the “economic reality test” to answer that question. They look at “whether the alleged employer: (1) possessed the power to hire and fire the employees, (2) supervised and controlled employee work schedules or conditions of employment, (3) determined the rate and method of payment, and (4) maintained employment records.” A party need not establish every element in every case, and the dominant theme in the case law is that those who have operating control over employees within companies may be individually liable for the FLSA violations committed by the companies. In joint employer contexts, each employer must meet the economic reality test.
Did the franchisor possess the power to hire and fire employees?
Orozco testified that the Entjers, and not Plackis, hired him and had the authority to fire him. He also failed to introduce any evidence showing that Plackis ordered the Entjers to pay Orozco a particular amount or work for a specific number of hours. Furthermore, Orozco’s attorney admitted during oral argument that there was no direct evidence to support that Plackis had authority to hire or fire Orozco.
Regardless, Orozco argued that the following indirect evidence could have supported the jury’s finding that Plackis was the employer: (1) several employees worked at both the San Marcos location and the location owned by Plackis; (2) Plackis provided advice to the Entjers regarding how to improve the profitability of the San Marcos location, which resulted in the Entjers adjusting the schedule of their employees. The Fifth Circuit found such indirect evidence legally insufficient to show “power to hire and fire” on behalf of the franchisor.
Did the franchisor supervise and control employees’ work schedule and conditions?
Orozco argued that because the Entjers changed their employees’ schedule after a meeting with Plackis, the original franchisor had the authority to supervise or control employees’ work schedule and conditions at the San Marcos location. However, aside from the temporal connection between the meeting and the changes in the schedule, Orozco failed to introduce any other evidence of control. To the contrary, both the Entjers and Plackis testified that the franchisor’s advice to the franchisee was non-binding, and Orozco himself admitted that Plackis did not set his schedule and never discussed his responsibility or position.
Importantly, the Fifth Circuit explained that the mere fact that the franchisor trained the owners of a particular franchise or reviewed their employees’ schedule in order to increase the franchisee’s profitability, or met with the franchisees and their shift managers frequently, did not mean that the franchisor controlled employees’ work schedule and conditions.
The Fifth Circuit also found that the franchise agreement stating that the Entjers had to follow “policies and procedures promulgated by the franchisor for ‘selection, supervision, or training of personnel,” was insufficient to support a finding that Plackis fired or hired employees or supervised or controlled their work scheduled or employment conditions.
Did the franchisor determine the rate and method of payment?
Orozco testified that Plackis did not control his rate of pay and the Entjers set his rate and method of payment.
Did the franchisor maintain the employment records?
Orozco conceded that Plackis did not maintain his employment records.
CONCLUSION: Things worked out well for the franchisor in this case, but consider the following statement by the Fifth Circuit: “We do not suggest that franchisors can never qualify as the FLSA employer for a franchisee’s employees; rather, we hold that Orozco failed to produced legally sufficient evidence to satisfy the economic reality test and thus failed to prove that Plackis was his employer under the FLSA.” Had Plackis maintained the employment records for the San Marcos location or directed the Entjers regarding how much they should pay their employees or what work schedule they should implement at their franchise location, the outcome of this case could have been different.
Thus, to avoid a potential exposure under the FLSA as a “joint employer” with its franchisees, a franchisor should make sure that the franchise agreement makes it clear that the franchisees and not the franchisor control the hiring and firing process, employees’ work schedule and conditions, determine the rate and method of payment, and maintain the employment records for their operations. Also, the franchisor should make it absolutely clear that any type of training, advice or guidance that it provides to the franchisees is non-binding and cannot be interpreted as an expression of control over their employees.
For more information regarding minimum and overtime wage requirements, contact Leiza Dolghih.