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Standing Up to Corporate Bullies: When the Courtroom Becomes the Playground

I have come to realize that my professional life basically boils down to standing up to bullies. The only difference is that the playground is now a courtroom instead of an asphalt lot behind my elementary school. Our practice primarily consists of representing franchisees who have been ripped off by con men and thieves disguised as franchisors who, many times, are no different from the bullies we all encountered as kids. Instead of using physical strength that childhood bullies use, these grown-up bullies use their money to try to control their prey. The vast resources these bullies have can be a very effective deterrent to those who may seek to challenge questionable business practices. However, when those victimized by such bullies stand up to these con men and thieves, the victims usually win. I use the bully analogy as a way of introduction to one of our recent cases. Beautiful Brands International, LLC, (“BBI”) is a company based in Oklahoma. They tout themselves as “premier franchise development and restaurant innovation company.” However, if recent articles in the Tulsa World and Franchise Times are to be believed, the “innovation” is failing and there are many unhappy franchisees and brand partners. I am not here to talk about the problems in the BBI system, though. This article is about the blatant bully tactics this company is taking to silence its critics.

After the article critical of BBI was published by the Tulsa World, several comments were made online about the company. A few of those comments were made by a user known as Unhappy Franchisee and Unhappyfranchisee.com. Keep in mind that there were several other comments by other posters on the site. However, BBI singled out Unhappy Franchisee and filed suit against “John Doe.” BBI used that filing to issue subpoenas to the Tulsa World and Google to obtain identifying information about Unhappy Franchisee. I was contacted by “Mr. Doe” and agreed to take the case. At first, Mr. Doe and I discussed filing motions attacking the subpoenas by asserting his First Amendment right to free speech. However, after further discussions, it occurred to us that BBI was simply using the subpoenas to bully my client and as a deterrent to others standing up to their suspicious business practices. We know that BBI already knows the identity of “John Doe” as several threatening, crude and outrageous tweets have been directed to him by this “premier” franchise development company. Reading those tweets brought me full circle back to the days on the playground. It was time to stand up to the bully.

“Mr. Doe” authorized me to disclose his identity to the attorney for BBI which I did today. Mr. Doe is a man by the name of Sean Kelly. Mr. Kelly operates a website known as www.unhappyfranchisee.com. That site is an invaluable resource for those considering the purchase of a franchise and for those having issues with their franchisor. There is power in numbers and the site gives a voice to those who have been bullied and beat down by fraudulent and failing franchise systems. Needless to say, Sean Kelly is not very popular with the bullies. Sean should be commended because by agreeing to the disclosure of his identity, he has now opened himself up to a lawsuit alleging that he defamed this “innovative” company. However, Sean Kelly not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. Sean is in the business of helping franchisees like I am. He has been in that line of work much longer than me. I can tell you that we do not do this to get rich. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. It will now be interesting to see what the bully does.

I have a 9-year-old son (actually, he’ll be 10 at the end of this month). I have always told my son, much to the dismay of his mother, that if you stand up to a bully, 99% of the time they will back down. The other 1% of the time, the bully keeps coming because they lack the intellectual capacity to see that they have lost their power. I see the exact same scenario play out in the courtroom. When those victimized by these overgrown bullies stand up to them in our playground known as the courtroom, they see that they are now on a much more level playing field. Unlike the playgrounds of our youth, the justice system operates under a set of rules that all parties must respect. Justice requires that these rules be applied in a non-discriminatory fashion without regard to the financial strength of the parties. Many times franchisors try to use the court system to further bully their victims. However, if the victims stand up for their rights, our justice system will neutralize that improper and perverted use of the system.

I am proud to represent individuals who, at one time, felt like they lacked the power to stand up to bullies. To see their joy and happiness when they are vindicated in the justice system is worth more than any amount of money I could ever be paid. I am also proud to represent Sean Kelly, a friend and a man who has inspired and given me the strength to continue these fights throughout the past several years. This is not an easy profession, but Sean Kelly, through his actions, shows me that I am not alone. If you have been victimized by a company who has taken money from you by fraud, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. We are here to guide you through the legal system and take the fear of the unknown out of the equation. We are here to use the power of the judicial system to advocate for you. Call us for a free and completely confidential consultation.

Jonathan E. Fortman

LAW OFFICE OF JONATHAN E. FORTMAN, LLC

250 Saint Catherine Street

Florissant, Missouri 63031

(314) 522-2312

jef@fortmanlaw.com