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Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza

The trial court’s granting of summary judgement on behalf of employer was improper in a employment harassment case where evidence supported a reasonable inference that franchisor had control over franchisee and where a single incident of sexual harassment could in fact be determined actionable.

In this case, plaintiff alleged that the assistant manager at a national pizza franchisee sexually harassed and assaulted her and as a result, plaintiff filed suit against the national franchise pizza company under the doctrine of respondeat superior, alleging in relevant part that such franchise was vicariously liable. At deposition the franchisee’s owner testified at his deposition that franchisee inspectors monitored his operation and their decisions determined whether he could maintain his franchise, and such decisions dictated relationships with employees In seeking to dismiss the case, the national franchise filed a motion for summary judgement setting forth the franchisee was an independent contractor pursuant to the terms of the franchise agreement, and therefore there could be no principal-agency relationship existing between the franchise company and the franchisee employee assistant manager. The trial court granted summary judgment on all causes of action, finding that the company had no role in the franchisee’s employment decisions pursuant to the franchisee agreement and as such that plaintiff could not prevail on on harassment issues on the basis of vicarious liability.

The Court of Appeals

The California Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that there existed a number of triable issues of material fact, which precluded summary judgement in favor of the national pizza franchise company. First, the Court found persuasive that the franchise agreement provided the qualifications for the franchisee’s employees and set requirements for their demeanor. Second, the agreement gave the national pizza franchise company control over franchisee in areas beyond food preparation, such as computer systems, auditing of tax returns, store hours, furniture, customer payment methods, insurance, and recordkeeping methods. As such, the Court upon reviewing the extensive employment oversight and involvement set forth in the franchise agreement determined that there existed a reasonable inference supporting plaintiff’s claim that the franchisee was not an independent contractor and as such, could be determined to be vicariously liable. Last, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in applying the sexual harassment standard for a co-worker as opposed to a manager, where although a single sexually offensive act usually does not suffice to establish liability, it may suffice when a supervisor commits the act.

Employment based claims involving a large employer requires a law firm that is experienced, competent, and knowledgeable concerning the complexities of employment injury claims and the recovery of attorney fees. If you have any employment-related injury claims and are considering contact the Orange County Employment Lawyers at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call (949) 375-4734.

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