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  • Dominos Can Be Held Liable For Franchisee’s Harassment Case

    Because of a recent decision by California’s Second Appellate Division, Taylor Patterson, a 16 year-old victim of sexual harassment is now able to proceed against Domino’s Pizza, Inc. in court.

    Patterson was an employee of Sui Juris, LLC, a franchisee of Domino’s Pizza. In a complaint filed under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, she alleged that her supervisor, Renee Miranda, sexually harassed and assaulted her while she was at work. And when she complained about the harassment, the owner of Sui Juris, Daniel Poff, forced her to quit.

    The complaint named both Sui Juris, LLC, and Domino’s Pizza, Inc., as responsible for Miranda’s actions, and claimed failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery and constructive wrongful termination.

    Domino’s denied responsibility for, and control over, their franchisee’s actions.

    As a minor employee under the direct control and supervision of Miranda, Patterson’s claim has great weight, and the vicarious liability of the employer for the employee’s actions could attach. Isolated incidents are generally insufficient to establish employer liability when the harasser is a co-worker instead of a supervisor, however. A sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County can give you more information.

    But while Sui Juris, LLC could have been held vicariously liable for Miranda’s actions, because Miranda had direct supervisory control over Patterson, they filed for bankruptcy during the proceedings rendering themselves effectively judgment proof.

    Patterson’s only recourse for monetary damages was left with her claim against Domino’s Pizza. But the Superior Court held that Domino’s could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of their franchisee because by the terms of their contract, Sui Juris, LLC was an independent contractor, and as a result, no principal-agency relationship existed by which liability could attach.

    Fortunately for Patterson, the California appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision holding that Domino’s can be held liable for the sexual harassment of their franchisee’s employee. While not the first of its kind, this is an important decision because it reminds franchisors that they cannot hide behind a cleverly worded contract in California.

    The determinative factor as to whether a principal-agent relationship exists, and whether there can be liability, is the actual level of control the franchisor has over the franchisee. A contract will be relevant, but not dispositive on the issue.

    While Domino’s argued that they had no role in the employment decisions of Sui Juris, LLC, other evidence of control emerged. Owner of Sui Juris, Daniel Poff testified at his deposition that he was instructed to fire Miranda by a Domino’s area leader and that he complied because it was known that if a franchisee went against company orders, the franchise would go out of business quickly. Domino’s was also shown to have “substantial control” over the franchisee’s employees by dictating the method in which personnel files are maintained, and also their grooming and dress codes.

    For Patterson, this represents a chance for her day in court, for California employees of franchises it means greater protections against harassment. If you or anyone you know is being harassed in the workplace consult a sexual harassment lawyer in Orange County for guidance.