Is a Franchisor a Proper Party to a Human Rights Complaint Absent an Employment Relationship?

In Reid v. Snap Fitness Cloverdale and others, 2017 BCHRT 181, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal was tasked with deciding whether a wrongful dismissal complaint against an employer and a franchisor should be dismissed against the franchisor on the basis that it was not the employer.

The complainant, Ms. Reid, alleged that she was fired from her job as a Membership Advisor at a gym on the basis of her physical disability. She had been in a car accident before she started working at Snap Fitness Cloverdale and was unable to perform certain tasks like heavy lifting. The gym owner confirmed in a text message that she was fired because “…u can’t mop/vacuum/put away weight…the job is too heavy for u and I’m increasing the cleaning duties and with your injuries…” Ms. Reid made a complaint against the franchisee, X and A Fitness Club Inc. doing business as Snap Fitness Cloverdale (“X and A”), Tina An, the principal & owner of X and A, and the franchisors: Snap Fitness Inc. (“Snap Inc.”) and Snap Fitness of Canada Inc. (“Snap Canada”; Snap Canada and Snap Inc. are collectively referred to below as “Snap Fitness”).

Snap Fitness brought an application to dismiss the complaint against it. In its application, it argued that Ms. Reid’s employment agreement was with X and A and not Snap Fitness, which was the franchisor and was not in a contractual relationship with Ms. Reid. Although the Human Rights Tribunal did not make a decision on the merits of Ms. Reid’s case, it refused to dismiss her complaint against Snap Fitness on the basis that the BC Human Rights Code does not require that a respondent be an employer in order to be found in violation of s. 13, which prohibits discrimination regarding employment. The wording of the Human Rights Code is that “a person” must not discriminate regarding employment. The Tribunal noted that while it is typically an employer who violates this section, “any person whose actions or omissions discriminate against another person regarding employment or terms or conditions of employment will be in violation of s. 13 of the Code.” Thus, it was possible that Ms. Reid’s complaint against Snap Fitness could succeed.

The Tribunal cited multiple cases that supported its finding that discrimination can be established outside the employment relationship in the context of franchise relationships because the “subject of the complaint has the ability to interfere with or influence the employment relationship”.

Since the franchise agreement is the document that governs the relationship, it determines how much control the franchisor exerts over the franchisee and its employees. However, the Tribunal did not have the franchise agreement before it, only two pages of it. In this case, the franchisor was able to control and guide the employee’s work through its policies, and other factors such as the use of Snap Fitness letterhead and the Snap Fitness email domain were considered by the Tribunal to be relevant to the issue. With these factors in mind and without the ability to review the franchise agreement itself to make the necessary determination that Snap Fitness could not possibly be liable, the Tribunal refused to dismiss Ms. Reid’s complaint against it.

The key takeaway here is that it a franchisor cannot wash its hands of a human rights complaint respecting someone’s employment on the basis that it was not the true employer. The Tribunal will need evidence of the degree of control that the franchisor exerted over the relationship and will look first to the franchise agreement for that evidence.