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From Antitrust Law Daily, March 14, 2016

Franchisor not ‘joint employer’ for discrimination, harassment suit

By Greg Hammond, J.D.

A landscaping services franchisor was not a joint employer with a franchisee for purposes of an individual’s gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal district court in Roanoke, Virginia, has ruled. In granting the franchisor’s motion to dismiss, the court concluded that the plaintiff failed to produce any evidence suggesting that the franchisor exerted any control over her employment (Wright v. Mountain View Lawn Care, LLC, March 11, 2016, Urbanski, M.).

Lisa Wright filed suit against franchisor U.S. Lawns, Inc. and its franchisee—Mountain View Lawn Care LLC—alleging gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. U.S. Lawns moved to dismiss, claiming that the plaintiff failed to allege facts sufficient to establish that U.S. Lawns was her employer for purposes of Title VII.

Joint employer. The court agreed with U.S. Lawns that the company was not a joint employer with Mountain View, finding that, based on the nine Butler factors, there was no evidence to suggest that U.S. Lawns exerted any control over the plaintiff’s employment. In particular, the court determined: (1) there was no evidence to suggest U.S. Lawns had the authority to hire and fire the plaintiff; (2) there was no evidence that U.S. Lawns played any role in the plaintiff’s supervision or discipline, and personnel records show Mountain View as the employer; (3) the uniform, trucks, and trailers that plaintiff used were required to have the U.S. Lawns’ logo under the franchise agreement, not because U.S. Lawns actually furnished the plaintiff’s equipment; (4) U.S. Lawns did not have possession of any of the plaintiff’s employment records; (5) evidence demonstrated that U.S. Lawns provided training to Mountain View, not to Mountain View’s individual employees; (6) the plaintiff’s landscaping duties were not similar to U.S. Lawns’ employees’ duties and she was not “assigned solely” to U.S. Lawns; and (7) there was no evidence that U.S. Lawns intended to enter into an employment relationship with Wright.

Single employer, agency theories. In the alternative, the plaintiff argued that U.S. Lawns and Mountain View should be considered a single employer. The court rejected this argument, finding that there was no common manager that ran the day-to-day operations and had the authority to hire and fire employees or transfer them between locations; U.S. Lawns does not control Mountain View’s employment decisions; and the evidence demonstrated that U.S. Lawns and Mountain View were “entirely separate and unrelated entities” because they filed separate tax returns, conducted separate banking operations, and operated and maintain offices in separate locations.

Lastly, the plaintiff claimed that U.S. Lawns created an apparent agency relationship with Mountain View such that the plaintiff believed U.S. Lawns controlled the operation of the business. The court rejected this claim, however, finding that the plaintiff provided no authority to support that an apparent agency theory should be applied to a Title VII case. Further, even assuming such a theory was applicable, the plaintiff failed to prove the existence of an apparent agency relationship, according to the court, because there was no evidence the plaintiff accepted the job due to her belief she was working for U.S. Lawns, and her personnel records either expressly listed Mountain View as the employer or stated that, “This U.S. Lawns ‘Franchise’ is an independently owned and operated enterprise and is a separate and distinct entity from the U.S. Lawns ‘Franchisor’.”

The case is No. 7:15-cv-00224.

Attorneys: Brittany Michelle Haddox (Terry N. Grimes, PC) for Lisa G. Wright. Michael Preston Gardner (Woods Rogers PLC) for Mountain View Lawn Care LLC. Alta Marlynn Ray (Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, PC) for U.S. Lawns, Inc.

Companies: Mountain View Lawn Care LLC; U.S. Lawns, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory FranchisingDistribution VirginiaNews

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