School of Rock franchise attorney Craig Tractenberg, a partner at Philadelphia Law Firm Fox Rothschild LLP, threatened to disclose and publicize UnhappyFranchisee.Com publisher Sean Kelly’s litigation, financial and divorce records if he did not remove unflattering content about Sterling Partners-owned School of Rock and its CEO Dzana Homan. Here’s Sean Kelly’s response.
(UnhappyFranchisee.Com) by Sean Kelly, publisher, UnhappyFranchisee.Com
In the ten years that I have published UnhappyFranchisee.Com, sellers of flawed, troubled or downright fraudulent franchises have gone to great lengths to suppress the warnings, complaints and/or negative experiences their current and former franchise owners have shared on my site.
They’ve used threats, lawsuits, defamatory attack websites, harassment campaigns, overseas hackers and more to try to get me to take down unflattering content.
Some of the unsavory tactics I’ve endured include having websites put I’m claiming (falsely, by the way) that I’m a pedophile, a cruiser of late-night truckstop bathrooms, that I’m a drunk living out of my car, that I extort franchisors (I don’t), that I’m a bitter failed franchisee (I’m not), that I’m a former franchise salesman (eeeww!) and that I’m so reviled by franchisors that I live in a compound with a moat & two full-time bodyguards.
Yet in the past decade, I had never been attacked by any of the big name franchisor attorneys or the big name expensive franchisor law firms.
Yesterday, that changed with an unscheduled call, just before noon, by attorney Craig Tractenberg of Philadelphia’s Fox Rothschild LLP.
Craig Tractenberg’s client Sterling Partners / School of Rock is evidently so desperate to hide the numerous complaints being lodged against them and the School of Rock CEO Dzana Homan that they sent Tractenberg to threaten to destroy my personal and professional reputation and sue me if I do not bow to their demands and remove their franchisees’ complaints from the public eye.
Tractenberg’s threats are an attempt to silence and intimidate School of Rock franchisees… but all franchise owners are at risk if he and Sterling Partners prevail
While Tractenberg’s threats were directed at me and the Unhappy Franchisee website, he and his client are really waging war on the School of Rock franchise owners and their right to free speech and anonymous speech.
In a broader sense, this is an attack on the rights of all franchise owners and is only the latest initiative in a long line of tactics designed to suppress the ability of franchise owners to share their experiences publicly, and to inform prospective franchise buyers of the reality behind their company’s slick sales pitches.
A bit of context: In 1979, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enacted the set of franchise regulations known as The Franchise Rule. The FTC recognized that access to the experiences, opinions and recommendations of current and recent franchisees was critical for would-be franchise owners’ to make an informed investment decision. For that reason, the Franchise Rule requires all franchisors to provide prospective franchisees with contact information for all current & recent franchisees.
In the years that followed, franchisor attorneys and franchisors with dissatisfied owners developed numerous techniques, including non-disparagement clauses, gag orders, franchisee intimidation and the threat of lawsuits, to cut off prospective franchisees’ access to candid insights into the quality of the franchise opportunity they are considering.
UnhappyFranchisee.Com is one of the only outlets where franchise owners can safely express their opinions and experiences without fear of repercussions.
Craig Tractenberg and School of Rock are now trying to suppress their franchisee’s freedom of anonymous speech by attacking me and UnhappyFranchisee.Com.
Here is the letter I emailed to Mr. Tractenberg, School of Rock and Sterling Partners in response to their threats:
Craig R. Tractenberg, Partner
Fox Rothschild LLP
2000 Market St., 20th Floor
Philadelphia PA 19103-3222
cc. Dzana Homan, School of Rock; Rick Elfman, Sterling Partners
June 7, 2017
Your surprise phone call to me yesterday morning on behalf of your clients School of Rock, Sterling Partners, and CEO Dzana Homan was both disturbing and disheartening. It also strikes me as highly unethical, and potentially illegal.
Ever since I first posted complaints I received from distraught School of Rock franchise owners on May 24, 2017, I have repeatedly invited Ms. Homan to address the owners’ complaints about (among other things) her allegedly dictatorial management style, her alleged bullying of franchisees who voice their discontent, and what many characterize as her lack of interest in franchisee input and even success. I sent Ms. Homan 4-5 separate emails (and copied her assistant to make sure she received them) offering to publish any rebuttals, corrections or clarifications she may have. After receiving no response from Ms. Homan, I sent requests for comment and invitation for a phone conference to Rick Elfman and several other executives at Sterling Partners. I received no response.
Out of the blue, I received an unscheduled phone call from you threatening that if I did not remove all content about Dzana Homan and School of Rock from UnhappyFranchisee.Com that damaging personal information about my financial history, bankruptcy, litigation and divorce history (?) would be released and promoted publicly. Additionally, I would be sued.
Craig, it seems that perhaps you have mistaken me for someone who is intimidated by bullies who believe that their financial resources, legal firepower & skill at demeaning and belittling others gives them the right to trample over the rights of the (seemingly) less powerful.
As you cut me off mid-sentence and hung up (“That’s the best offer you’re going to get. You know where to find me.” Click.), I’d like to take this opportunity to review the conversation and make some humble suggestions on how you might better serve your client’s interests. You stated that you have already racked up nearly $30,000 in billing leading up to yesterday’s phone call, so I hope you will reconsider your approach before more financial resources are diverted to your firm and away from franchisee support.
Your bullying threats are unseemly, certainly unethical, & potentially illegal.
After identifying yourself and expressing your client’s demand that I remove negative comments and content from my website, you stated you had researched my financial, bankruptcy, divorce and litigation histories and uncovered quite a bit of sensitive information that would be damaging to me and my reputation if shared publicly.
I was dumbfounded that an attorney with your supposed standing and reputation in the franchise community would make such a blatant and unseemly attempt to scare and intimidate a non-attorney who is clearly not currently represented by legal counsel.
When I asked what relevance or importance my divorce records would be in a dispute involving The School of Rock, you said something to the effect of “Wait and see when they are released on the Internet.” When I informed you that I have been happily married to the same wonderful woman for more than 36 years and never been divorced, you said flippantly “I guess we had the wrong Sean Kelly.”
You also threatened to publicize a California lawsuit in which I was represented by a “Harvey Freedenstein.” You said this name several times. I didn’t know what you were talking about until you finally mentioned the firm McNees, Wallace & Nurick (the attorney’s name is Harvey Freedenburg). The case you referenced was settled over a decade ago when I owned the IdeaFarm marketing agency. It involved allegations that one of my copywriters had plagiarized 8 words from a photographer’s website for use on an informational web page about Amish culture. The lawsuit was not franchise-related and had nothing to with UnhappyFranchisee.Com (which did not exist at the time). It certainly has no relevance to School of Rock.
I asked you directly whether threatening to smear someone’s reputation if they did not comply with your threats was not a breach of an attorney’s code of ethics and you said it was not. (I look forward to seeing how many of your colleagues in the franchise legal community will back you up on this claim).
I tried to get you to drop your misguided attempt at intimidation by informing you that I had faced threats of meritless lawsuits designed only to silence critics by draining them financially and/or emotionally. I told you I had refused to be intimidated when attacked with such a lawsuit in the amount of $35M. A California judge ruled it a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), stated that UnhappyFranchisee.Com provided a valuable service in the public interest, and awarded me attorney fees and court costs. Your response was “We’re not in California,” as if the lack of a SLAPP law in Pennsylvania makes it legal to make extortion-like threats and file a frivolous lawsuit with bad intent.
I again tried to get you to rethink your misguided approach by recounting another SLAPP lawsuit that ended in lots of bad press and a ruined reputation for a franchisor whose well-paid attorney told him he could successfully bully me into removing unflattering content. When I mentioned that he had sued for $30,000, you laughed and boasted “$30,000? I’ve got almost that much in this already.”
To be clear: you want to dispel allegations of bullying by…. bullying?
Craig, if you think that your threats of smearing my personal and professional reputation will intimidate me into removing the unflattering opinions and experiences shared by the franchise owners who built and operate the School of Rock chain, you are sadly mistaken. Your threats just reinforce the need for someone to stand up to corporate bullies like School of Rock and hired muscle like you.
If you think that I’m impressed or intimidated by the exorbitant fees that you are billing School of Rock and Sterling Partners, you are again mistaken.
It’s tragic to think how much better spent that $30,000 would be if put into supporting School of Rock franchise owners, or marketing their locations instead of mean-spirited bullying that will tarnish the once-great brand.
It’s depressing to think how many scholarships or musical instruments could have been provided to families who can’t afford to support their child’s passion for music.
And it’s distressing that you and your clients decided to attack me rather than engage openly, honestly and constructively with the franchise owners who built the School of Rock and who operate it, day in and day out.
One more invitation to address issues of substance like honorable, professional adults
While the bulk of your call was dedicated to your somewhat absent-minded and misinformed attempts at intimidation, you did mention a few issues of substance, almost in passing.
Let me address those issues.
1) You stated that information posted on the site is false
You stated that some of the statements on UnhappyFranchisee.Com are not true.
Could you please furnish me with a list of specific statements of fact that you believe are incorrect or untrue? I will be happy to investigate each one and take appropriate action.
It is our policy to give individuals and companies the opportunity to address any and all allegations made on the site, and we will represent their views with the same prominence as the initial complaint. I have repeatedly extended this offer to Dzana Homan and other School of Rock & Sterling Partners executives by including it on each post, and by sending numerous email invitations.
If Dzana Homan did not refer to an employee as a “fat Asian bitch” as one commenter alleges, she is welcome to refute that statement (or issue an apology if she DID say it).
As the CEO of a company that provides musical education to children and young adults, I would think that Dzana would want to either refute, explain or apologize for her alleged statement: “This is why you don’t hire women with kids, children are a weakness.” I will be happy to publish her rebuttal or apology.
Craig, these are not my allegations – they are the complaints and opinions expressed by your client’s employees and franchise owners. I am extending an invitation to your clients to join the conversation and dispute the overarching allegation that they are bullies who are not concerned with the well-being or opinions of their franchise owners. Perhaps engaging in respectful dialogue in a setting they don’t control might help dispel those feelings. Choosing to bully a website publisher while refusing to acknowledge seemingly legitimate complaints simply reinforces the worst of the allegations.
2) You stated that you have written proof that I recommended a “royalty strike.”
I challenge you to provide a copy of any statement in which I suggested that School of Rock franchise owners should withhold royalties or ad fund payments.
I would not give such advice. I know that franchisee attorneys strongly warn that withholding royalties or ad fund payments can put franchise owners at a further disadvantage in litigation. Whenever I am asked about withholding royalties, I advise franchisees to speak to an experienced franchisee attorney and often send links to articles warning against staging a “royalty strike.”
Perhaps it was that divorced Sean Kelly who gave the advice you claim to have documented. Or Harvey Freedenstein.
3) You stated that our use of images is inappropriate
I believe that the use of images for editorial purposes is legal and allowable under Fair Use and other doctrines.
If you disagree, there are actual legal procedures that you can follow (other than threatening phone calls).
You may send DMCA notices here:
Relentless Inc., PO Box 10232, Lancaster, PA 17605 Attn. Sean Kelly
We will be happy to review each objection on an individual basis.
If you, Fox Rothschild, School of Rock & Sterling Partners are determined to demonstrate your prowess at suppressing free speech and crushing franchisee discontent… let’s rock!
Craig, there’s a saying that’s sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
Bloggers don’t even need ink. A modern adaptation might be, “If you want to downplay negative complaints made by unhappy franchisees, don’t pick a fight with a blogger who publishes UnhappyFranchisee.Com.”
It would be worthwhile for you and your clients to Google The Streisand Effect prior to launching your promised attack.
I have seen bullying attorneys appeal to their client’s worst instincts and assure them that they can use force and intimidation to force me to delete valid complaints about them.
In each case, the bullying attorneys extracted lots of the franchisor’s money and their clients ended up with ten times more negative press and damage to their reputations than they started with.
As I have no intention of removing content due to bullying or intimidation, I will assume you, the School of Rock franchisor and Sterling Partners intend to make good on your threats.
If you and your clients decide to reconsider this self-defeating approach, as you said: you know where to find me.
President, Relentless, Inc.
Relentless, Inc. P.O. Box 10232, Lancaster, PA 17605
Franchisees: Help Me Stand Up To These Bullies
I truly believe that this act of aggression by Craig Tractenberg on behalf of private equity group Sterling Partners represents a watershed moment in franchisee rights for School of Rock franchise owners in particular but all franchisees.
Imagine if the car makers were able to prevent Consumer Reports or other agencies from sharing safety and reliability data, or publicizing dangerous flaws in design?
Craig Tractenberg & Sterling Partners are attempting to suppress the sharing of information that will impact the ability of franchise owners to gain safety and reliability data on the greatest investment many will ever make, one that could cost them their homes, their retirement accounts and their life savings. And these investments also impact American taxpayers whose tax dollars are used to repay banks for SBA loans in default.
If you would like to support me and the Unhappy Franchisee site in standing up to the corporate bullies at School of Rock & Sterling Partners who would rather spend their money and energy trying to suppress the opinions and concerns of their franchise owners rather than address them in a constructive manner, please consider making a donation here:
You may also send a check or money order made out to Relentless, Inc. to PO Box 10232, Lancaster, PA 17605. Please designate that your contribution is in support of the School of Rock franchisee initiative.
Donations received beyond what’s needed for legal expenses will be used to publicize School of Rock’s ongoing treatment of franchise owners.
Thank you for your support.
Further reading on the School of Rock / Sterling Partners Controversy:
ARE YOU FAMILIAR WITH THE SCHOOL OF ROCK CEO DZANA HOMAN, THE SCHOOL OF ROCK FRANCHISE OPPORTUNITY, AND/OR STERLING PARTNERS ? SHARE A COMMENT BELOW.
TAGS: Craig Tractenberg, Fox Rothschild law firm, Dzana Homan, CEO Dzana Homan, franchise bullying, School of Rock, School of Rock franchise, School of Rock franchise opportunity, School of Rock franchise complaints, School of Rock unhappy franchisees, School of Rock franchise dispute, Sterling Partners, education franchise, education franchise opportunity, education franchise complaints, Paul Green School of Rock Music,