Canada: Obtaining A Release When A Franchise Has Gone Sour

Last Updated: May 16 2012
Article by Jane A. Langford, Tyler McAuley and Adam Ship

Most Read Contributor in Canada, September 2018

In March, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice released its decision on a motion for summary judgment in Dodd v. Prime Restaurants of Canada (Prime).1 The decision offers further insight into how the courts will apply the new summary judgment rules in the franchise context and raises some interesting issues regarding the interaction between Section 11 of the Arthur Wishart Act (Franchise Disclosure) (AWA) and a mutual release agreement executed by a franchisor and a franchisee in the context of a failed franchise.

The dispute in this case arose between the owner of East Side Mario's and two of its franchisees. In 2003, the parties entered into an agreement to open a new East Side Mario's franchise in Toronto. Almost immediately after opening its doors, the venture began losing money and the franchisees fell behind on rent, royalty and financing payments. After one year, the franchisees made a voluntary assignment in bankruptcy and the franchisor took over operation of the restaurant. Concurrently, the parties entered into a mutual release under which they released each other from any debts, claims or actions. The franchisor also agreed to pay the interest on the financing debt owed to GE Canada Equipment Financing G.P. (GE) and to use reasonable efforts to find a buyer for the restaurant that would assume the debt to GE.

Shortly after executing the release, however, the franchisees issued a Notice of Rescission (Notice) on the basis that they had received inadequate pre-sale disclosure contrary to Ontario franchise legislation. The franchisor responded to the Notice, advising the franchisees that the Notice was unenforceable due to the mutual release and stated its intention to meet its obligations under the mutual release.

For nearly two years thereafter, the franchisor did precisely that: it operated the restaurant, paid interest on the financing debt and found a buyer for the restaurant. The restaurant was sold and the debt to GE settled with the proceeds and some further contribution from the franchisor. But, two years after serving its Notice, the franchisees commenced an action against the franchisor claiming, inter alia, damages for breach of contract, negligence, misrepresentation and rescission of the franchise agreement. The franchisor brought a motion for summary judgement on the basis that the action was barred by the mutual release. In response to the summary judgment motion, the franchisees claimed that a trial was necessary to determine the validity of the mutual release which the franchisees' argued was not enforceable since it was both unconscionable and void pursuant to Section 11 of the AWA.

The Court refused to grant the franchisor's motion for summary judgment.

Enforceability of the Release: Unconscionability and Section 11 of the AWA

The franchisees argued that the release was not enforceable because it was barred by Section 11 of the AWA, which voids any "purported waiver or release by a franchisee of any right given under [the] Act." They also argued that it was an unconscionable agreement and therefore unenforceable at law.

With respect to the latter, the franchisees argued that the mutual release contained all four of the essential elements of unconscionability: a grossly unfair and improvident transaction, the absence of independent legal advice, overwhelming imbalance in bargaining power and intentional exploitation of this vulnerability. In response, the franchisor maintained that there was insufficient evidence before the court to establish all of these requirements and the onus was on the franchisees to do so.

The Court concluded that the conflicting evidence in relation to the value of the benefits realized and rights forgone by entering into the mutual release, whether the franchisees had legal advice at the time they executed the mutual release and whether there was in fact an imbalance of power were all matters that should be resolved at trial, with the benefit of oral evidence.

The franchisor also argued that Section 11 of the AWA cannot be used as a bar to render ineffective an agreement between the parties to a franchise agreement that was intended to settle claims arising out of an alleged breach of that statute. In support of its argument they cited the Court's decision in 1518628 Ontario Inc. v. Tutor Time Learning Centres LLC (Tutor Time). In the Tutor Time case, the franchisor had provided a prospective franchisee with a disclosure document that failed to meet Ontario disclosure regulations. Subsequently, in order to settle the ongoing dispute and with the advice of independent legal counsel the parties entered into a settlement agreement that included a mutual release of all rights and claims. Some time later, the franchisee delivered to the franchisor a notice of rescission of the franchise agreement. On a motion for partial summary judgment, the Court held that the mutual release was effective notwithstanding Section 11 stating:

s. 11 does not have application to a release given (with the advice of counsel) by a franchisee in the settlement of a dispute for existing, known breaches of the Act by the franchiser in respect of its disclosure obligations, which would otherwise entitle the franchisee to a statutory rescission.

The Court, however, declined to follow the decision in Tutor Time in this case. It distinguished the dispute before it from the Tutor Time decision on two bases. First, unlike the franchisee in Tutor Time, it was not clear to what extent the franchisees were aware of potential rescission claims at the time the release was executed. Second, there was conflicting evidence regarding the extent to which the franchisees had independent legal advice before executing the mutual release. On this basis, the Court concluded that the extent to which Section 11 of the AWA may render ineffective the mutual release as a bar to the franchisees' action was a matter for determination at trial.

Lessons From the Decision

The decision provides some useful guidance on the way in which a court will consider a mutual release in the franchise context.

First, it should be noted that the Court appeared to accept the franchisor's argument that even if Section 11 of the AWA rendered ineffective any waiver of rights under the AWA, the release would still be effective to prevent parties to the waiver from claiming common law or equitable relief such as breach of contract, misrepresentation and negligence. In the case at bar, the franchisees made numerous common law and equitable claims that will be barred unless the mutual release is found at trial to be unconscionable. Thus, there is a clear benefit from continuing with the practice of obtaining releases from franchisees despite Section 11 of the AWA.

Second, the case provides an additional reminder to franchisors that mutual releases should only be finalized with franchisees who have received independent legal advice. The Court's refusal to summarily enforce the release in Prime flowed from the factual uncertainty as to the franchisees' access to legal advice at the time the release was executed. Had the franchisee obtained legal advice prior to signing the release, it would have been very difficult for it to assert that it was unaware of the potential rescission claim. Any reasonable lawyer advising a franchisee in the context of a mutual release would need to review the previous disclosure document that had been provided by the franchisor to ensure that the franchisee is not inadvertently waiving a meritorious rescission claim without fair compensation. In most cases, careful review of a disclosure document would allow counsel advising the franchisee to identify arguable deficiencies which could ground a claim for rescission under the two-year limitations period. If the franchisee insists that it only "discovered" a rescission claim after signing the release, it would need to prove this late "discovery" with clear and convincing evidence. Franchisors should therefore encourage their franchisees to obtain legal advice and request written confirmation that such advice was received prior to entering into any agreement to resolve a dispute.

Third, franchisors must be wary of entering into agreements with franchisees at a time when the franchisees are in desperate circumstances because it leaves them vulnerable to a claim of unconscionability. Moreover, simply because a franchisor has seemingly extended itself to "bail" its franchisee out by, for example, taking over rent or debt interest payments or relieving the franchisee of royalty back payments, does not mean that the release was mutually favourable. The argument made by the franchisees in this case was innovative but not unreasonable: the franchisor stepped in to protect its brand and would have done these things whether or not the franchisees released them. Moreover, it also made the point that the franchisor would not likely have pursued the franchisees personally. As such, while the franchisees gave up the right to seek rescission and make other claims, it "received little of real value in return." While there are certainly strong arguments to counter this effort to claim that a mutual release is overwhelmingly favourable to the franchisor and not the franchisee, these arguments should be considered when approaching a franchisee to negotiate an agreement to resolve a dispute.

Footnotes

1 Dodd v. Prime Restaurants of Canada Inc., 2012 ONSC 1578

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions