Category Archives: Tips For Avoiding Litigation

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip #5 – Treat Your Employees Fairly and Consistently

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The lifeblood of every business – big, small or in-between – is its employees, aptly called its human resources or human capital. A company can have the most innovative product or service idea in the world, along with a recognized market and an excellent strategy for capitalizing on it, but, without the right people to implement the idea and the right managers to train, supervise, and motivate that staff, the idea is likely to fail. That is why your employees are your most valuable resource. At the same time, however, employees are also frequent sources of litigation for businesses, including claims for wrongful discharge, discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, failure to accommodate a disability, wage and hour violations, failure to properly pay overtime, breach of non-compete agreements, and theft of company trade secrets, to name just a few.

Employees are much more challenging to manage than any other resource your company uses to conduct its business. Your inventory, for example, is, for the most part, fungible. If one source dries up or becomes prohibitively expensive, chances are you will be able to find a replacement source. Similarly, your equipment is generally easily repairable or replaceable if something breaks. Not so with your employees. They require training, motivation, and incentives. They take sick days, personal days, and holidays. They go on vacation, care for sick or disabled family members, and sometimes they do not get along or work well with each other. And they sue their employers with increasing frequency.

In addition, studies show that the replacement of just one key employee can cost your business hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think about the down time and lost productivity associated with the departure of the former employee, internal and external recruitment costs to find a replacement, costs of training and orienting the new employee, and the down time and lost productivity involved in getting the new employee up to speed. These are just a few of the costs associated with losing an employee.

In short, you have invested a huge amount of your company’s resources in your employees. Doesn’t it make sense that you should protect that investment by implementing policies to keep your employees productive, motivated, safe, healthy a relatively happy? Here are some things you can try to help accomplish that goal.

First, always treat your employees respectfully, honestly, and fairly. This suggestion might sound obvious, and it is, but it is also frequently forgotten or ignored in the normal stress of the business world. It might also sound inconsequential, but it might just be the key to reducing claims against the company by its employees. Every employee wants to feel like his or her work is valued and essential for the success of the business. Finding ways to recognize and honor all your employees’ contributions will pay significant dividends. Even simple gestures will reap rewards in areas like better employee morale and increased productivity among your staff.

Second, don’t BS your employees. They know what is going on in the world and how outside events affect the company. They also know far more than you think about changes the company is considering, especially changes that could affect them negatively. Silence and secrecy may be necessary, but outright lying to employees is never a good idea. It is guaranteed to produce a cynical, untrusting, and equally secretive staff.

Third, have clear, well-defined company policies to let employees know what behavior you expect from them, what behavior you will not be tolerate, and the consequences of engaging in that behavior. These policies should be memorialized in a written employee manual or, even better, easily accessible to employees on the company website. You should hire an experienced employment lawyer, who is knowledgeable about the current state of constantly changing employment laws in your jurisdiction, to draft your employee manual. The manual should also contain procedures for addressing problems when they arise, and for reporting violations. Whom do you call when X happens? To whom do you report violations of Y policy?

Fourth and finally, once you have those company policies in place, enforce them as consistently as possible. One of the most difficult management tasks is balancing the goal of fairness and consistency versus the desire to be flexible and treat people as individuals rather than as interchangeable parts. Rigid, unthinking, and blind adherence to rules can not only damage employee morale by stifling creativity and employee innovation, but also lead to unsatisfactory and inappropriate results. On the other hand, any perception by your employees that you are showing inconsistency or, even worse, favoritism in your enforcement of certain policies can lead to divisiveness and be equally damaging to employee morale. Inconsistently enforced rules are, in some ways, worse than no rules at all.

The safest, but perhaps most difficult path to follow, is to treat rules as sacrosanct except in unusual and rare cases that require special empathy and flexibility. If you conclude that a large number of your employee could qualify for the same exception if they were to ask for it, then you should either deny the request for an exception or consider scrapping the rule. Before making any exception to a policy or rule, consider the potential consequences down the road. What will you do the next time someone else asks for the same exception, particularly if that person is someone you do not particularly like? Reward your best employees with raises, promotions, stock options, and the like, not with exceptions to company policies. The former will motivate your good employees to try to be better; the latter will make them cynical about following company rules.

There are other ways to enhance and retain your human resources, such as training your managers to know and follow the applicable federal, state, and local employment laws,  and minimizing the use and severity of non-competition agreements. I will cover these topics in future installments of this blog, so stay tuned!

Click here for Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business
Click here for Tip #2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family
Click here for Tip #3: Check Your Insurance Coverage Frequently to be Sure it Protects Your Business from Exposure and Risk
Click here for Tip #4: Every Significant Business Transaction Should Be Documented

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

 

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip #4: Every Significant Business Transaction Should be Documented

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There is a nostalgic notion among traditional businesspersons that the best deals are sealed by a hand-shake (or an elbow in this COVID-19 world in which we live), and you don’t need fancy lawyers and contracts to be successful in the business world. That approach to reaching agreements seems to work well in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, but it can lead to problems in the real world. Robert Frost famously said: “Good fences make good neighbors.” In the business world, good contracts make good deals.

So why should you insist on – and pay the expense of creating – written contracts to memorialize your significant agreements? Consider the myriad of psychological research studies, which show that memories fade with age and the passage of time and that, even under the best of circumstances, we tend to remember what we want to remember. The corollary to that rule is that different people will tend to remember different things, depending upon their varying interests. Next consider that, according to the natural order of the world, otherwise known as “Murphy’s Law,” if something can go wrong, chances are it will go wrong. Finally, consider what will happen when you and the other party to the deal have differing recollections about the terms of the deal but nothing in writing to confirm either party’s position.

For example, suppose you understood that your customer was going to pay shipping costs for the goods it purchased from your company. Your customer, to the contrary, is certain that shipping costs were included in the price it paid for the goods. Similarly, what if our customer thinks it is entitled to receive a 2% price discount if it pays your invoice within 20 business days of receipt. You recall discussion of a discount but swear the terms you agreed to required payment of the invoice within 10 days and a resultant 1% discount.

How will you resolve such disputes without a definitive written agreement that includes provisions for shipping, payment and price terms? To paraphrase Yogi Berra: If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there? More to the point, if you don’t have a contract, how will you know what the deal is?

Faced with such a disagreement about the terms of the deal, you will either negotiate a new deal to resolve the disputed issues, stop doing business with the other party, or end up in court. If you end up in court, without a written contract, it will be your word against your adversary’s. Unfortunately, that kind of litigation, which depends upon either a jury or judge deciding whose testimony is more credible – a so-called “credibility contest” — is one of the most expensive and unpredictable kinds of contract disputes to resolve. Moreover, even if you are fortunate to prevail in the litigation, you will most likely be responsible for your own attorney’s fees and costs, which could be enormous. Under the so-called “American Rule,” which is followed, with rare exception, by every state and federal court in this country, each side bears its own costs of litigation, regardless who wins. One exception to the American Rule occurs when the contract that is the subject of the litigation contains a “loser pays” provision. But, of course, without a written contract containing such a provision, you will be out of luck and will probably have to bear your own litigation costs.

One additional reason to insist upon a written contract to memorialize significant transactions is the good will it will buy you with your most valuable customers. The truth is that wasteful and unnecessary litigation is just as expensive, time consuming, and distracting for your customer as it is for you. Your adversary will be forced to eat its own attorney’s fees and litigation costs, just as you are, if the dispute ends up in litigation. Therefore, both parties will benefit from a well-drafted contract that resolves disagreements without the need to resort to litigation.

Finally, not every deal requires a full blown contract with all the bells and whistles, but even in those circumstances, there should be some written confirmation of the agreement. In many cases, a simple purchase order with pre-printed standard terms and conditions, sent by one party and accepted by the other, will suffice. Some simple deals will only require a confirming email or two back and forth to provide a record of the principal terms of the deal. With the convenience of electronic communications these days, there is no good excuse for not documenting every deal in writing!

Click here for Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business
Click here for Tip #2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family
Click here for Tip #3: Check Your Insurance Coverage Frequently to be Sure it Protects Your Business from Exposure and Risk

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip #3 – Check Your Insurance Coverage Frequently to be Sure it Protects Your Business from Exposure to Risk

umbrella 2Although having adequate insurance coverage is not necessarily a way to avoid litigation, I have included it on my list of litigation-avoidance tips because it is so important in protecting you and your business from financial disaster when litigation does occur. Despite the important role it plays in a business’s defenses to litigation, I can’t tell you how many times I have asked a business owner for details about his company’s insurance coverage, such as “Do you have coverage for X?,” only to be met with the response, “I don’t know.” Similarly, when I ask when was the last time you reviewed your coverage with your insurance agent, the response is frequently a blank stare. I get it; many of us would prefer a visit to the dentist to sitting with our insurance agent to discuss our coverage. But, unfortunately, your mother was right when she taught you that delaying doing something because it is unpleasant doesn’t make it go away; it only makes it worse.

First, you need to find a bright, industrious insurance agent, who has experience working with companies of your size and in your industry. You will know if your agent fits that description by the insightfulness of the questions she asks you when you meet to review your coverage. Your agent should want to know everything about your business, such as: what does it sell; how does it generate revenue; who are its customers; how many and what kind of employees and independent contractors does it use and for what purposes; does it own or lease vehicles for business use; what intellectual property does it own and does it license the use of any of that property; does it hold or invest money or other property for its customers; and numerous other similar questions about the company’s business. If your agent is not customizing your company’s coverage to your specific business needs, you should find someone else.

Second, you will know if your agent is the right agent for you if she insists on a meeting with you periodically to review your coverage and learn if there have been significant changes in your company since the last review. Your agent should also discuss with you at that meeting changes in the law that might create new risks or opportunities for your company, and that might require more or different coverage. Finally, your agent should discuss with you new types of insurance coverage (e.g., cyber security insurance) that are now available and might be appropriate for your company.

Third, you will also know if your insurance agent is right for you if she contacts you on a regular basis when there has been a change in the types of coverage available for companies like yours or a change in the law that potentially affects your company’s risk exposure. If those changes are significant, your agent should not wait until the next regular meeting to discuss them with you. You can reciprocate by letting your agent know when there has been a change in the company that might affect the amount or type of coverage you need.

If your agent does not fit the above description, then you should consider making a change. Ask competitors and your trusted business advisors whom they recommend. Or ask me. I know several insurance reps at different market levels who are on top of their game and will give you the service you deserve and get you the coverage you need.

Finally, it is an added bonus if your insurance agent is able to offer your company and its employees loss prevention training. A physician’s insurers, for example, frequently provide training on avoiding medical malpractice, wrongful discharge, sexual harassment, and hostile work environment claims. Many insurers offer this type of training free of charge to help their insured clients reduce their exposure to certain types of risks. Your agent should discuss these opportunities with you, but, if not, be sure to ask what is available.

Click here for Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business
Click here for Tip #2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Tips for Avoiding Litigation: Tip # 2: Avoid Doing Business with Members of your Family.

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This tip might sound counterintuitive to you, and, in any event, it might be unachievable, given that most of the businesses in this country start out, at least, as family businesses, but let me explain. Business people make their best decisions when they are able to be objective, analytical, and emotionally detached from the issue. Now, think about disagreements you have had with members of your family. I rest my case!

If your family is like mine, family squabbles are usually highly subjective, irrational and overly emotional. It is difficult to be emotionally detached when family members are on the opposite side of a dispute. Overlaying family issues on top of business issues can lead to very nasty conflicts. Although it can be difficult to resolve a disagreement with your business partner of 20 years, it is even more difficult when your business partner is also your brother-in-law.

When family members are involved in a business decision, remaining emotionally detached and trying to make a rational decision can be impossible.  Too often, historic personal issues and feuds between family members rear their ugly heads. “Mom always liked you better!” This makes it more difficult to make the tough decisions with which business owners are faced on a daily basis. As a result, all too often the owner avoids making tough decisions just to avoid causing domestic strife. It is difficult enough having to fire an employee. How much harder is it to fire that employee when it is your brother’s son, the slacker, and you know, as a result, your mother might never speak to you again? And, when the owner makes a decision that implicates family politics, the result can be explosive and contentious litigation that combines the worst aspects of business litigation and family court.

Another problem faced by family businesses is that owners who are not actively involved in managing the business might lack the full knowledge needed to make informed decisions about crucial management and policy issues affecting the future of the company. Often, such owners are more focused on their own short term economic interests at the expense of the future growth and health of the company. They might, for example, choose to bypass an opportunity that could be very lucrative for the company in the future, such as adding a new product line or moving into a new geographic territory, because the opportunity requires an investment today of the company’s profits.

So how do you deal with these inherent problems as the owner of a family business? First, consider clearly defining management responsibility as separate and distinct from the ownership structure of the company. Allow the ownership to continue to be spread across members of the family, but focus management responsibilities in the hands of the people who understand the challenges and opportunities that the company must address if it is going to continue to be successful. Management of the company should be viewed as distinct from the ownership structure; just because someone owns a share of the company does not entitle him or her to be involved in management. The more you can isolate management from family disputes, the better for the company.

Second, the added complications of running a family business offer one more good reason why a strong business operating agreement is essential to any company, but especially a family business. Your family business operating agreement should include a detailed description of both the ownership structure and management responsibilities of your company.

These steps will help you avoid litigation and maintain peace and harmony in your family and growth and prosperity in your company.

 

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg

Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

Tip for Avoiding Costly Business Litigation: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business

Tips for avoiding litigation

As a career commercial litigation attorney, I have been asked by several people why I would write a column advising business people on how to avoid needing my services. That’s a good question for which I do not have a good answer, other than to say I believe, in our ever-more complex commercial world, there will be plenty of commercial litigation to keep me busy. At the same time, I hope my clients will benefit from using an ounce of prevention to avoid paying a pound for a cure involving litigation.

Litigation is expensive, time-consuming, a distraction from running a successful business, and unpredictable. It is NEVER a good thing for a business to be involved in litigation; it generally means you owe someone money or someone owes you money. Either way, you are not happy, but you will be even less happy if you end up in litigation, regardless whether you are the plaintiff or defendant.

I plan to post one litigation avoidance tip per week for the next several weeks. I hope you find these tips helpful, and if you have questions or want to discuss any of them with me, I am happy to oblige. So, here is my first tip for avoiding litigation:

Tip #1: Always Have a Strong Written Agreement to Govern Your Business.

No matter what type of business you have, be it a pizza parlor or a high tech company, and regardless how your business is organized, as a corporation, partnership, LLC, or whatever, you should start your business with a well-drafted operating agreement. This is the document that governs all the important decisions and activities in the life of your business, such as ownership structure, voting rights, management responsibilities, resolution of disputes between owners, death or disability of an owner, adding new members, transfers of ownership interests, and, ultimately, dissolution of the business. For example, the death of one of the owners of the company need not automatically lead to the death of the business. A well-drafted agreement will spell out exactly how the deceased owner’s interest in the company will be distributed and valued and how the company will be managed going forward. Without such an agreement, however, an owner’s death could lead to a power struggle among the remaining owners, expensive litigation, and, eventually, dissolution of the company.

Business operating agreements are generally ignored until there is a significant event in the life of the business. When such an event occurs, however, you will be happy you have one. For example, many businesses with multiple owners reach a stage in their development where the owners develop different visions for the future of the business and how the business should be managed. They might disagree about whether to expand the company into a new line of business, take on additional debt, hire a new employee, or any number of other critical business decisions. Without a strong agreement that specifies how such disputes are to be resolved, the company could find itself in a stalemate position, requiring resort to a court to break the deadlock. The cost of a court battle alone (payment of attorney’s fees and costs of suit, plus the expenses associated with the possible appointment of a receiver to run the business while the owners and the court sort things out) is reason enough to avoid litigation. The other detriments inherent in business litigation, such as the business opportunities the company is unable to pursue, and the time spent by the business’s owners and key employees on the litigation that should be devoted to the business, reinforce the conclusion that litigation is not a desirable outcome. Finally, the litigation might very well produce a result that neither of the owners wants.

In short, every business should avoid litigation if possible, and one of the best ways to do that is to have a well-drafted, comprehensive operating agreement. Be sure to entrust this most important task in the life of your business to an experienced and able business attorney who has drafted many agreements of this kind.

Stay tuned for more tips in the coming weeks!

Phil Kirchner of Flaster Greenberg
Philip Kirchner is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ. He concentrates his practice on resolving business disputes, including complex litigation of all types of business issues in both the federal and state courts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He can be reached at 856.661.2268 or phil.kirchner@flastergreenberg.com.

 

 

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