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.