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Disinformation, Mob Mentality, And Federal Privacy Legislation

Will the disinformation that led to a mob surrounding the Capitol Building help drive federal privacy legislation?

Here’s why I think it will.

Disinformation

It is no secret that the internet is rife with information—some legitimate, and, inevitably, some not. In many ways, social media and the rise of new and emerging platforms on which to share information, contribute to the spread of disinformation. Disinformation is false information that is intended to mislead, unlike misinformation, which is false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead.

Disinformation can be damaging to both individuals and businesses because it can be difficult to discern the difference between evidence-backed information and disinformation. This very issue arguably resulted in thousands of people surrounding the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

The Role of the Internet and Social Media

Though many platforms likely contributed to the widespread disinformation that led to a mob storming the Capitol Building, certain platforms have a significantly greater impact. For example, with more than two billion users worldwide, Facebook has unprecedented reach, and that reach has created a near-monopoly on certain types of information and the sharing of that information. For instance, small businesses often rely on Facebook to find customers. Content creators use Facebook to create visibility for their work. Software developers seek to attract customers on the platform. Media outlets use the platform to share news articles. The list goes on.  

Platforms like Facebook employ the details of personal profiles to gauge which content it believes a particular user will find enticing. Then, the platform will calibrate the user’s feed according to this process in an effort to maximize the amount of time that the user stays online. The result is that the information that appears in our feeds is informed, to at least some degree, by what our friends and network contacts post and consume. It is shaped, by a much larger degree, by the platforms’ algorithm.

This is precisely the point at which data privacy, personal autonomy, and democracy intersect.

The Problem and Ways to Avoid the Spread of Disinformation

Disinformation can harm businesses in a myriad of ways. Incorrect news, negative social media posts, and even overtly false consumer reviews can adversely impact a company’s bottom line.

Successful companies understand their markets, their customers, and their partners. They also need to understand how their brand is perceived by users of social media. This can be achieved by using in-house technology or hiring an outside firm. By doing so, companies can get advance warning of an individual’s or group’s efforts to spread disinformation about a given brand. To the extent a business participates in e-commerce and has a social media presence, the business should aim to establish verified accounts on major platforms and use them regularly to establish their markets.

Other tools businesses can use to avoid the spread of disinformation are: self-assessing, preparing for incident response, and communicating directly with their customers. In addition, data ethics should be incorporated into decision-making along with business motivation, technological practicality, and legal compliance.

How Federal Privacy Legislation Could Help

The federal government has no organization to regulate or help quell the spread of disinformation, and there is no one particular person within the government in charge of an overall disinformation policy. The United States needs a comprehensive approach to risk generated by data. Accordingly, any effective federal privacy regime must take into account the process of data throughout the whole lifecycle of data governance.

The business industry has plenty of reasons to support federal privacy legislation. For one, a single piece of comprehensive legislation reduces confusion surrounding compliance. Second, one law to rule them all would likely preempt many of the piecemeal legislative efforts of various states. Lastly, in the wake of the Schrems II decision, passing a commercial privacy law would help the atmosphere considerably as negotiations go forward with the European Union with regard to transborder data flows.

It is also worth noting that some of the largest markets in the world are moving toward comprehensive data protection laws, such as China, India, Brazil, and Canada. The adoption of a similar comprehensive law in the United States would solidify the United States’ position as a world leader in data privacy.

The goal of any federal privacy legislation should be to preserve the most beneficial aspects of social media platforms while simultaneously protecting individuals and businesses from the platforms’ more harmful impacts. Most pending federal legislation include the basics: data access, deletion rights, and portability. The next steps will be to incorporate protections against disinformation.

Krishna A. Jani is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department focusing her practice on complex commercial litigation. She is also a member of the firm’s cybersecurity and data privacy law practice groups. She can be reached at 215.279.9907 or krishna.jani@flastergreenberg.com.

How to Make Filing Your 2020 Returns Less Taxing

How to Make Filing Your 2020 Returns Less Taxing

Unquestionably, 2020 was a year full of unforeseen challenges. As much as we may want to put last year completely behind us, we need to file our 2020 tax returns before completely letting go. Although we speak about the challenges and frustrations of the past twelve months broadly, a few specific events will present unusual tax considerations for some Americans.

Taxation of Unemployment Compensation Income

More than 25 million Americans became unemployed during the pandemic and relied on unemployment benefits. Unemployment benefits are includable in gross income and, therefore, are subject to tax. This may come as a surprise, especially to the thousands of Americans who applied for unemployment benefits for the first time this year. Withholding tax from one’s unemployment income is voluntary through the completion of a form referred to as a W-4V and submission to the agency paying the benefits. If their withholding amount is too low to cover their tax liability or if they did not authorize withholding, taxpayers can make quarterly estimated tax payments. Given the economic instability and uncertainty we are experiencing, many taxpayers relying on unemployment benefits are unlikely to have the financial wherewithal to withhold any portion of that income. Even worse, they may have no means available to pay the tax when due. If they were unaware of the tax impact when receiving unemployment benefits, they should be prepared for the unexpected tax now.

Home Offices

On the flip side of the employment coin, another tax quirk created by the COVID-19 pandemic comes in the form of working from home. Many taxpayers spent time working from home last year (and some of us still are!). Had this pandemic occurred before the 2017 enactment of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (“TCJA”), millions of Americans would be eligible for a deduction for expenses incurred creating and operating a home office. However, the TCJA limited deductions for home office expenses to those who are self-employed and whose home office areas are a “room or separately identifiable space” used “regularly and exclusively” for work. Thus those of us who have properly designated home offices as a result of the pandemic that might otherwise qualify, but receive W-2s as employees are ineligible for such deductions.

CARES Act

Similarly, many Americans received government aid in the form of stimulus checks through the CARES Act. These payments are tax-free and are not required to be included in gross income on one’s federal tax return. Rather, they are treated as advances of 2020 tax credits and must be reflected that way on our 2020 tax returns. Some tax professionals anticipate many taxpayers will have discarded or misplaced documentation related to those distributions, which, in turn, increases the likelihood that returns will be inaccurate, which may delay refunds. Additionally, some tax professionals have recommended that the IRS setting up an online portal for taxpayers to look up the exact amounts they received in government aid under the CARES Act to ensure their 1040s are accurate, but no such portal has been created as of the writing of this post. Thus, it is important for taxpayers to locate and organize their documentation relating to any stimulus check payments.

PPP Income

On top of these challenges presented to individuals filing their 2021 tax returns, some businesses face the uncertainty of whether business expenses paid for with loans received from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) will be wholly or partially deductible on their 2020 returns.  Under the PPP, certain small businesses whose operations were directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic were able to secure loans to fund specified expenses, including eligible payroll costs, payments on business mortgage interest payments, rent and utilities during a period of 8 or 24 weeks after disbursement. Borrowers may apply for forgiveness of these loans within 10 months of their issuance, to the extent they are used for these purposes in the year the expenses are incurred. It was unclear under the original CARES Act whether the expenses paid with the forgiven loan proceeds would be deductible. In December 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which finally clarified that business expenses paid with forgiven PPP loans are, in fact, tax deductible. This act supersedes prior guidance from the IRS, issued as recently as November 2020. While this came as a welcomed holiday gift to many, there may be S corporation shareholders and partners in partnerships with a lump of coal thrown in; the benefit may be somewhat less timely than anticipated given the quirks of pass-through entity taxation, effectively deferring the tax benefit another year. 


Carefulness has always been key when completing a tax return, but even more so when filing returns for tax year 2020. Any taxpayer who received a stimulus check should start looking for that piece of paper now — tax time will be here before you know it! As the COVID-19 pandemic persists while we await widespread distribution of the vaccine, the IRS has emphasized the need for taxpayers to complete their tax returns from the safety of home, and provides a number of services to assist taxpayers in doing so.  If you encounter any legal issues regarding your taxes, Flaster Greenberg can help; give us a call.

For more information on any of the information contained in this post, contact Kelly Barry or any member of Flaster Greenberg’s Taxation Practice Group

Kelly Barry is a member of the firm’s Business and Corporate Department and Taxation Practice Group assisting clients in a wide range of corporate matters, including those involving transactional law, tax, and trusts and estates.  She can be reached at kelly.barry@flastergreenberg.com or 856.382.3305.

Having A Will Is Important – Just Ask Chadwick Boseman’s Family

On August 28, 2020, the world mourned the loss of movie star Chadwick Boseman, who passed at the age of 43.  Known for his portrayals of iconic characters in films such as 42, Marshall, and Black Panther, Boseman quietly fought pancreatic cancer for four years before his untimely death.  Given Boseman’s stardom, it was surprising to learn that he did not have a Last Will and Testament in place, causing the late actor’s wife, Simone Ledmond, to petition the probate court in Los Angeles County to be named administrator of his estate last month.  According to court documents, Boseman’s probate estate has an estimated value of $939,000, which likely does not encompass the entirety of his wealth.  His non-probate assets, which include assets such as life insurance, 401ks, and other retirement accounts, would not be included in that estimate.

While it may seem shocking that such an accomplished actor (with a terminal illness, no less) would decline to create a Will and other end-of-life documents, Boseman was not alone.  Numerous other celebrities and public figures, including Aretha Franklin, Prince, and former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Warren Burger, died without properly memorializing how they wanted their estates distributed.

What can we learn from this tragic situation?  In short, it is important to prepare documents that contemplate end-of-life and incapacity, including Wills, Testamentary Trusts, and Powers of Attorney.  Doing so ensures that your family and friends can respect your final wishes, which may bring them comfort and assurance while they are in mourning.  As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, creating a Will is more important than ever.  Otherwise, your home state’s intestacy laws will determine the distribution of your estate, which may be as forgiving as Killmonger in Black Panther movie (which is to say, not at all!)

How would Boseman’s death without a Will play out in New Jersey?  Boseman is survived by his wife, two living parents and no children.  If Boseman resided in New Jersey at his death, under New Jersey law, his spouse would be entitled to only the first 25% of his intestate estate (but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000), plus 3/4 of the remaining estate.  Further, under New Jersey law, Boseman’s parents would be entitled to the final ¼ of the estate.  Assuming the probate estate is actually valued at $939,000, Boseman’s spouse would be entitled to $200,000 plus ¾ of $739,000, which is $554,250 (totaling $754,250).  His parents would receive the remaining $184,750.  This accounting does not take into consideration court fees, legal fees, or other charges that would decrease the value of the probate estate.

Could Boseman have desired this result or the comparable result under California’s intestacy laws, where he resided?  Possibly.  However, we will never know his intent and that lack of knowledge leaves his grieving family vulnerable to probate challenges from relatives, friends, or others who may be involved.  You do not need a movie star’s net worth to make an end-of-life plan; it is worthwhile regardless of the dollar value of your assets. 

Kelly Barry of Flaster Greenberg

Questions? Let Kelly know.

Kelly Barry is a member of the firm’s Business and Corporate Department and Taxation Practice Group assisting clients in a wide range of corporate matters, including those involving transactional law, tax, and trusts and estates.  Kelly earned her J.D. from Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law and her B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Management, cum laude, from The Catholic University of America.

Insurance Recovery Best Practices After a Natural Disaster: Checklist for Policyholders

Gather all applicable insurance policies.

  • Often a single loss can trigger coverage under multiple insurance policies.
  • Examine each loss through the prism of each policy to determine the potential for coverage.

Review each applicable insurance policy’s terms and conditions, including:

  • Notice requirements. Insurance policies typically require prompt notice of a loss or notice within a specified time period. 
  • Proof of Loss requirements. A Proof of Loss form is typically furnished by an insurance company and must be completed by an insured and submitted within the time limits set forth in the policy. The form requires the insured to set forth the amounts being claimed under the policy, among other things. Some policies require the submission of this information automatically (even if a Proof of Loss form is not furnished by the insurance company).
  • Coverages, Limits, Sub-limits, and Deductibles. Commercial property policies typically provide coverage for property damage to buildings and contents/business personal property, Business Income loss, Extra Expense, among other things. To the extent possible, losses should be categorized within these coverage “buckets” when they are submitted to the insurance company. Consider consulting professionals, including a forensic accountant to assist you in quantifying and categorizing losses.

Provide prompt notice.

  • It is an obligation, and it triggers the insurer’s duty to investigate and pay or deny.
  • Failure to provide timely notice could result in the forfeiture of insurance. 

Appoint a “Clerk of the Claim” to maintain a chronological record of all events pertinent to the claim (a “Claim Log”), including:

  • the date notice was provided;
  • the date and description of all mitigation efforts;
  • the date and description of all communications and events pertinent to the loss; (such as communications with insurance company adjusters), inspection dates and details (who inspected, what they inspected, when, and for how long); 
  • any admissions made by insurance company representatives.

Document the loss through photographs, documents and witness interviews. 

Mitigate. Insurance policies typically require the insured to protect property from further damage.

Seek assistance when needed. An insurance recovery attorney can help you navigate the claim process from the outset, so you can maximize recovery under your insurance policies. For more information on the contents of this alert, please contact Lee Epstein, Meghan Moore or any member of our Insurance Recovery Practice Group.

Click here for a printable one-page PDF version of this checklist

Insurance Recovery Best Practices After a Natural Disaster

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

Business teamwork and global finance blue background

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.

 

 

Tips On Protecting Your Virtual Meetings To Avoid A Cyber Security Breach

Computer Hacker

Virtual Meetings, and their Unintended Vulnerabilities

Advanced technology and the availability of online video and teleconferencing software has certainly helped ease the transition to working remotely for many businesses, schools, health care providers, and even the Courts. However, these virtual meeting platforms, while increasingly popular and essential especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, are not always completely secure.

Over the past few days, you may have seen the term “Zoom-Bombing” circulating around the news. This term refers to nefarious actors, or trolls, on the web hijacking Zoom and other virtual meetings to display a variety of disruptive, and often disturbing, behavior. This computer hacking creates serious privacy concerns as it exposes confidential and sensitive material, such as medical information, financial data, trade secrets, and other proprietary information, to these intruders and other third parties.

Protect Your Meetings from Uninvited Guests

We suggest taking the following steps to help keep your virtual meetings closed to intruders:

  • Create a random or randomly-generated meeting number for each meeting. Zoom, and other virtual meeting platforms such as GoToMeeting or Skype for Business, allow for a standing meeting number but reports have indicated that such standing meeting numbers are being sold on the dark web. In at least one instance, stolen account information such as email addresses, passwords, meeting identifications, type of account, host keys, and names were actively being sold or posted to the dark web. In other instances, sensitive information from virtual meetings was discoverable through a search engine on the open web. Even a United States healthcare provider, seven educational institutions, and one small business were targeted in such virtual meeting cyberattacks.
  • Ensure that each meeting is password-protected. For example, Zoom can automatically create a password and does with each new meeting. In the alternative, when creating the invitation, the meeting creator can assign a password in the invitation. The password will then be included in the meeting invitation that is sent out to the attendees.
  • Lock virtual meetings once they’re in session. Some virtual platforms allow for meeting creators to lock their meetings once they’re in session. To prevent unexpected attendees from joining a current session, lock your meeting or enable a virtual waiting room. You’ll be notified when an attendee attempts to join and can easily connect all waiting attendees to the meeting by unlocking.

These precautions should help keep your virtual meetings free from any unwanted “Zoom-Bombers.”

Further Guidance

To further address these emerging privacy concerns, on April 8th, Senator Edward Markey, whose priorities include telecommunications, technology, and privacy policy, urged the Federal Trade Commission to publish industry cybersecurity guidelines for online conference providers for protecting consumers’ privacy.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to Donna Urban, Krishna Jani, or any member of Flaster Greenberg’s Telecommunications or Privacy & Data Security Groups.  

Donna T. Urban is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Commercial Litigation and Environmental Law Departments concentrating her practice in telecommunications law, environmental regulation and litigation, and privacy and data security. She is a seasoned litigator, and for more than 20 years has successfully represented business clients in contract disputes, regulatory matters, and complex negotiations. She can be reached at donna.urban@flastergreenberg.com or 856.661.2285.

Krishna A. Jani is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department focusing her practice on complex commercial litigation. She is also a member of the firm’s cybersecurity and data privacy law practice groups. She can be reached at 215.279.9907 or krishna.jani@flastergreenberg.com.

To serve as a central repository of information and contributions from Flaster Greenberg attorneys on legal developments during the COVID-19 crisis, we have launched a COVID-19 Resource Page on our website.  Feel free to check back frequently for Flaster Greenberg’s ongoing analyses of important legal updates that may affect you or your business. 

 

 

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

Checklist document in laptop and working desk vector. Cartoon computer with checkmarks document or to do list with checkboxes, concept of survey. Online quiz or done test, feedback or workplace table

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.

 

What to Do When COVID-19 Impacts Your Alimony or Child Support

Word FAMILY LAW composed of wooden letters.

With the COVID-19 pandemic rattling our work, home, social, and personal lives at a rapidly-evolving pace, many families are dealing with unprecedented financial insecurity and uncertainty. This can be even more intimidating and confusing for divorced and separated families, where oftentimes there are court-ordered or contracted legal obligations that are challenged in the wake of these tumultuous financial times.

As a recipient of financial contributions incident to a divorce or dissolution, it can be daunting to worry about whether your ex-spouse or ex-partner will be able to continue to meet those obligations. Those obligations include things such as alimony, child support, or other monetary contributions to your family, such as payment towards college tuition or health insurance premiums. Unquestionably, folks rely upon those contributions in order to meet their needs and the needs of their family so it is understandable to want assurance that those contributions continue.

At the same time, an individual who is legally obligated to pay money to an ex-spouse or ex-partner may be experiencing a decline in their discretionary income as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis. In both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the governments have shut down or deeply curtailed almost all non-essential business practices, sidelining a large segment of the working class, through no fault of their own. Many individuals have taken pay cuts, are working reduced hours, have been forced to use PTO or sick time, or, in the worst case scenarios, have stopped working altogether, without pay. If this occurs, it can render it challenging, if not impossible, to satisfy all expenses in full and on time, including expenses like alimony or child support. Many folks find themselves faced with the difficult decision of choosing which bills to pay out of a limited supply of cash: Do I pay my mortgage in full, and slash my child support? Do I pay for health insurance, and skip my alimony? Should I stop paying anything to my ex until this is over? Can I just socially-distance myself entirely and hope this all goes away on its own?

These questions are valid, and there are equally compelling arguments on both sides as to how these issues should be addressed. Folks relying on the support of an ex-partner want (and need) to be paid, and folks obligated to provide support to an ex simply might not have the funds available.

If you find yourself on either side of this equation, it is important to address the situation early on before it spirals out of control. While rushing to initiate litigation might seem premature or perhaps not cost-effective, nonetheless you also don’t want to ignore the situation or engage in self-help mechanisms that do more harm than good. Below are some options for dealing with financial complications or disputes with your ex-spouse or ex-partner brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.

One good place to start is by opening the lines of communication with your ex-spouse or ex-partner. Transparency and honesty will go a long way towards understanding the situation from both sides. If you and your ex are able to reach an interim agreement about continued (but perhaps reduced) financial support on a short-term basis, you should contact an attorney who can codify that agreement into an appropriate legal document. This enables you and your ex to amicably reach an agreement without court intervention, which saves you both time and money, while also ensuring that your agreement is legally-enforceable should problems arise in the future.

If you and your ex-spouse or ex-partner are not in regular contact, have an acrimonious relationship, or simply cannot agree on a resolution, then it might be time to consult with an attorney. Your attorney can suggest interim financial arrangements that can be presented to your ex in the hopes of reaching an agreement. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge from an attorney to compel both sides to put in the effort to achieve a resolution to emergent situations. If this is successful, then the agreement would be summarized in a legal document and made binding.

If all else fails and you and your ex-spouse or ex-partner cannot reach an agreement even with the assistance of attorneys, it might be necessary to seek court intervention. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, most courts are attempting to operate as close to “normal” as possible, seeking to ensure that folks still have access to the judicial process as needed. The family courts are equipped to receive filings electronically and to schedule court appearances via telephone and video conferences.

In both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, there are laws that permit an individual to petition for a modification to their alimony or child support if that person’s financial circumstances have changed. A loss of income or cash flow due to COVID-19 could be viewed as a substantial, involuntary, and unforeseen change that would justify the court evaluating the situation to determine whether to provide appropriate relief. As the COVID-19 situation is unique as far as its widespread financial impact on New Jersey and Pennsylvania families, there is little precedential guidance to help us understand how the courts might respond to petitions regarding alimony and child support issues. However, below are some possible outcomes that might result from such litigation:

  1. The court could grant a temporary reduction to an obligor’s alimony and child support payments, with a mandatory re-evaluation to take place in 1-2 months, at which time the support figures could be increased back to their original amounts.
  2. The court could keep the alimony and child support at the same rate, but could suspend enforcement and collection efforts. Any deficiencies in payments would continue to accrue as “arrears” and the obligor would be required to pay back those arrears at a later date. Essentially, this would enable the obligor to pay less towards their obligations during the financial crisis while ensuring that the recipient of support is ultimately made whole at some point in the future.
  3. The court could look to alternative financial resources for both parties, examining each party’s respective access to alternate sources of cash. This could include exploration of lines of credit, loans against retirement assets, trust distributions, advances on inheritances, or relief to one or both parties under the Federal CARES Act. While every family’s situation will be unique, it is hoped that the courts will explore every option for getting folks through these tough times.

These are scary situations that are facing many people throughout our community right now, and it is completely understandable to worry about keeping your family financially secure while you also manage your family’s physical and emotional well-being, as well as your own. If you find that your legal rights or obligations pursuant to a divorce or dissolution have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, you should consult with an attorney today. Through diligence, advocacy, and creativity, it is possible to develop a plan that can help you and your family navigate these uncertain times with an emphasis on positive and fair results.

Know that you are not alone.

gambone_angie
As a shareholder and member of the firm’s Family Law Department, Angie Gambone concentrates her practice in the areas of complex family law, divorce and custody matters. She also focuses her practice on adoption, family formation and the family law needs of nontraditional and LGBT families. Angie can be reached at angie.gambone@flastergreenberg.com or 856.382.2217.

 

 

To serve as a central repository of information and contributions from Flaster Greenberg attorneys on legal developments during the COVID-19 crisis, we have launched a COVID-19 Resource Page on our website.  Feel free to check back frequently for Flaster Greenberg’s ongoing analyses of important legal updates that may affect you or your business. 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Trends in Arbitration Agreements

Trends in arbitration agreementsThe New Jersey Supreme Court in late November 2019 heard oral argument in Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc., 456 N.J. Super. 613 (App. Div. 2018), cert. granted, 237 N.J. 310 (2019), in which the Appellate Division boldly refused to enforce arbitration agreements that fail to identify a specific “arbitral forum.” At least one Justice hinted during the argument that Flanzman may have taken Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 447 (2014) – the Supreme Court’s landmark decision requiring arbitration agreements to waive unambiguously the parties’ “time-honored right to sue” in court – to an unintended extreme.

Atalese focused on the need for arbitration provisions to reflect, through unequivocal language, the parties’ understanding of the rights they give up by agreeing to arbitration. Id. at 443-45. Flanzman, by contrast, held they must also demonstrate they understand the process that will replace those rights. According to the Appellate Division, only a mutual assent to a specific “arbitral forum” – which it defined as the “mechanism” or “setting” for arbitration – reflects “a meeting of the minds about what rights the parties gave up and what rights they received.” 456 N.J. Super. at 624. Justice Patterson, noting this foundational gap in Flanzman’s premise, remarked, “Atalese is about what you’re giving up.”

In fact, Flanzman rested not so much on Atalese as on the Appellate Division’s decision in Kleine v. Emeritus at Emerson, 445 N.J. Super. 545 (App. Div. 2016). In Kleine, the arbitration clause named the AAA, but when the suit arose the AAA no longer arbitrated claims of that type. The appellate court, finding no mutually agreed-on forum should the AAA prove unavailable, held the clause unenforceable for lack of mutual assent; it then proceeded to ground its holding in Atalese: “As Atalese instructs, the party . . . must be able to understand – from clear and unambiguous language – both the rights that have been waived and the rights that have taken their place.” Id. at 552-53. But Atalese spoke only of the waived rights; it said nothing about an understanding of the rights that will take their place.

As for how to adequately show the parties’ mutual understanding, Flanzman stressed the need to identify an arbitral forum. According to Flanzman, different sets of arbitral rules – for example, those of the AAA and JAMS – can mean different substantive and procedural rights for the parties. Flanzman, 456 N.J. Super. at 626-27. But the significance of that identification was not obvious to the Court. “How will knowing the name of the arbitrator assist your client in knowing the rules of the game?” Justice Albin asked. Flanzman itself conceded that parties, instead of actually naming a forum, may agree to decide later on a forum when the need arises, or to each select an arbitrator who would, in turn, select a third. Id. at 629. However, the court did not explain how such a broad provision would inform the parties of their rights in the arbitral process. Nor did it say how much detail an arbitration clause must contain, insisting only that parties “generally address in some fashion what rights replace those that have been waived.” Id. at 626. “The question is, what is essential?” Justice LaVecchia asked. In reply, respondent’s counsel tried to direct the Court’s focus towards Flanzman’s larger point: “How can you waive your right to a jury trial if you have absolutely zero information?”

The Justices’ comments and questions may have shown a reluctance to broaden Atalese, itself a bold decision that stopped just short of enforcing arbitration agreements more narrowly than other contracts, which the Federal Arbitration Act forbids. Interestingly, in a 2019 unpublished decision, the Appellate Division declined an opportunity to limit Atalese to consumer and employment agreements. The court explained that Atalese’s central concern – that waiver of the right to judicial resolution must be clear and unambiguous – applies to sophisticated parties, too. See Itzhakov v. Segal, No. A-2619-17T4, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1829, *10 (App. Div. Aug. 28, 2019). That decision was in keeping with Atalese, which continues to control New Jersey courts’ enforcement of arbitration agreements. Nonetheless, the Court may well decide, under the Federal Arbitration Act and established principles of contract law, that it has gone far enough in requiring greater specificity in arbitration provisions.

Daniel Epstein Litigation Attorney
Questions? Let Daniel know.

Daniel C. Epstein is a member of Flaster Greenberg’s Litigation Department, where he represents corporate and individual clients in all aspects of litigation.

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