California Court Allows Domino’s Sexual Harassment Claim To Proceed

A California appeals court has just ruled to allow a Domino’s sexual harassment claim to proceed, finding that claims against a franchisor for a franchisee supervisor’s actions are not barred by an independent contractor designation. The case in question, Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, is an example of the greater protections afforded to employees in California working at franchise restaurants against harassment and intimidation at the workplace.
Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza was brought by a 16-year old former employee at a Domino’s franchise in Ventura County, California. The franchise, Domino’s Sui Juris LLC, was among one of the 9,000 such stores making up one of the largest franchise systems in the world. The employee alleged sexual harassment and assault by one of her supervisors at Sui Juris, bringing suit against the Sui Juris franchise, her supervisor and Domino’s Pizza, Inc. Sui Juris declared bankruptcy, leaving Domino’s Inc. the only defendant able to sustain a potentially massive award. The lower court entered summary judgment for Domino’s Pizza Inc., finding that as a franchisor it could not be liable for the torts of its independent contractor franchisee Sui Juris LLC. Patterson appealed, and the California appeals court reversed, finding there to be a triable issue of fact as to whether Domino’s could be liable for the torts of its franchisee Sui Juris LLC.
In finding that franchisor Domino’s Inc. could be liable for the torts of employees at its franchisee store, the California court relied on its earlier precedent for determining vicarious liability for franchisors in the state. California is unique in the nation for its flexibility in determining an independent contractor relationship for franchises. California courts will not rely on a franchisor agreement, but will instead look to the actual control a franchisor has over its franchisee in determining whether the franchisee is an independent contractor.
In this case, the court found that Domino’s Pizza Inc. could be held liable for the sexual harassment and assault that occurred at the Sui Juris store because of the degree of control it had over the franchisee’s day-to-day operations. The California court considered a number of factors in finding that Domino’s Inc. exercised a considerable degree of control over the Sui Juris store. First, and most importantly for the court was the fact that an area manager for Domino’s had directed the Sui Juris manager to fire the supervisor in question who had harassed and sexually assaulted the minor-plaintiff. Affidavits from the Sui Juris manager alleging that any refusal to do what the area manager said would have put his franchise in jeopardy was evidence of substantial control over the hiring and firing of the franchise. The court also considered the fact that training of workers was supervised and had to conform with Domino’s Inc. regulations as evidence of the control the company had over its franchises. Other evidence for substantial control of the company over the franchise’s actions included Domino’s Inc.’s regulations for employee grooming, uniforms and conduct, which if the franchise did not adhere to would put them into jeopardy. The California court found that this evidence, along with other considerations, put into question the validity of the claimed independent contractor status of the Domino’s franchisee.
While the California court’s ruling was only a reversal of summary judgment, it still bodes well for those interested in employee rights in California. California with this decision remains one of the most protective of employee rights in the country, regardless of the attempts of companies to avoid their employment responsibilities by hiding behind the independent contractor designation. At least in California, courts will look behind the mere designation of independent contractor status in determining employer vicarious liability for employment torts.

In the Media