Administering the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Prior to the passage of the FMLA in 1993, American workers had few options when they needed extra time off from work due to their own serious medical conditions and accidents – or those of immediate family members. In fact, workers often had to use up all their vacation and sick leave benefits, if entitled to any, and then worry about their job security if they needed more time off. (However, eligible women could seek the special help offered by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act). 

Fortunately, the Family Medical Leave Act is still helping many 21st century workers address critical family caregiving duties and remains one of the signature pieces of legislation from the Clinton era.

Here’s a brief overview of specific provisions of the act that can help your qualified workers.

What basic opportunities does the FMLA offer qualified employees?

If a worker meets the minimum qualifications referenced below, it’s possible to take up to twelve (12) weeks of unpaid leave during a calendar year to take care of seriously ill family members, new children or the individual’s own major medical condition.

In 2008, the Family Medical Leave Act was updated so that qualified workers could also take time off work to take care of immediate family members who became very ill (or were seriously injured) while serving in the military.

The FMLA guarantees that qualified workers can take the extended time off work without having to worry about losing their jobs, their seniority or their employer-provided health care insurance.

Which types of employees are qualified to use the FMLA?

  • Those who have employers with 50 or more workers on the payroll for at least 20 workweeks during the preceding or current calendar year. A worker may still qualify even if all the 50 workers aren’t working at the same site – if they work within a 75-mile radius of one another;
  • Those who have worked for their employer for a minimum of 12 months, for a total of at least 1,250 hours. This means that many part-time workers may not qualify for FMLA leave. However, there are special rules that may apply to workers who are teachers, are highly paid – or are flight crew members of airlines;
  • Employees taking time off from jobs to handle their own “serious health conditions” – or those of covered family members. This time may also be used to take care of a new child or a servicemember in the immediate family who has been wounded.

Note:  Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals can also qualify like other workers to take care of their family members.

General questions often raised about the FMLA by employers and employees

Question 1:   Can the leave time requested be intermittent during a calendar year?

Answer 1:     Yes, if all the time that’s taken is counted toward the maximum amount of time off

                     allowed (12 weeks).

Question 2:  What government agency oversees and administers the FMLA for all federal

                     employees – as well as all state and local government workers and private

                     employees?

Answer 2:   The U. S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. This is noted in Fact

                   Sheet #77B entitled, “Protection for Individuals Under the FMLA.”

Question 3: Are all workers qualified to take time off from their jobs under the FMLA entitled

                     to receive pay while away from work?

Answer 3:    No. The FMLA doesn’t require employers to pay qualified employees while they’re

                    taking this type of leave. However, it’s up to your employer to let you make a claim

                    for regular vacation time, sick leave or annual time off.

Question 4: Can a qualified worker ever be granted more than 12 weeks of paid or unpaid

                     FMLA leave in one year?

Answer 4:   An exception only exists for qualified family caregivers of wounded

                    servicemembers. They’re allowed to take up to 26 weeks off from their jobs in a

                    given calendar year.

Question 5: Can a qualified worker request more than 12 weeks off under the FMLA to take care

                    of a newborn – or a newly adopted child?

Answer 5:   In general, the answer is “No.” However, individual states can pass their own

                   versions of the FMLA and provide somewhat different benefits. To date, the Texas

                   Workforce Commission says that Texas has not passed such legislation.

Although the Family Medical Leave Act is a straightforward piece of legislation, it’s been updated with new rules and regulations and interpreted by the courts. Therefore, it’s usually wise for employers to ask their Houston employment lawyer for help if they have any specific questions about properly handling FMLA issues.

Please feel free to contact Murray Lobb so we can help explain any specific aspects of the FMLA to you as you provide its benefits to your employees. We’re always available to research any questions you may have.

Most Common Hiring Discrimination Complaints

In a work world where the average tenure with any given employer is declining, many companies must routinely advertise and fill both new and established jobs. Yet as common as this process has become, every employer must periodically stop and re-evaluate how all job applications are being reviewed, skills tests are being administered and interviews are being granted and conducted.

After all, implicit bias (discriminatory hiring) remains a constant threat to maintaining an even playing field for all job applicants. And though most Texas employees are hired on an “at-will” basis, (allowing them to leave when they choose – and be fired without notice or cause), certain federal, state and local laws forbidding hiring discrimination must still be obeyed.

The most critical laws protecting employees against discrimination are set forth below, followed by examples of the types of hiring questions employers should avoid. Finally, the roles played by the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) regarding employee complaints are also briefly noted.

Federal, state and local laws provide many anti-discrimination protections to Texas workers

Both federal laws and Texas statutes have been passed providing job applicants and employees with protections against discrimination on the following grounds.

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including various medical conditions directly related to pregnancy)
  • Age (40 and older)
  • Genetic testing information
  • Disability

Federal law also provides specific employment discrimination protection to applicants who may not be actual U. S. citizens.

Federal laws and related regulations designed to protect workers against discrimination

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). This law was later amended to include The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  • Sections 102 and 103 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • GINA – The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

Many of the legal rights guaranteed to Texas workers under the federal laws referenced above are also protected (and set forth) in Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code. Various Texas cities, including both Houston and Austin, have passed additional anti-discrimination laws to protect their residents with unique sexual orientation and gender identity issues. (Additional information about protecting employee rights is set forth on our Texas Governor’s website.)

Here’s some additional, pragmatic information for handling the job application process.

Company interviewers must carefully avoid asking job applicants these types of questions

While the following list is not intended to be comprehensive, it should heighten your awareness of how careful you must be when trying to learn more about applicants who may have certain special needs or limitations that are not directly related to legitimate job requirements.

  • Do you have any disability? (However, if the applicant has a visually obvious disability — or has voluntarily disclosed one – you can normally ask if any special job accommodations are necessary or required);
  • Are you currently taking any medications that might impair your ability to perform the assigned tasks as described?
  • Have you needed to file any workers compensation claims in the past?
  • Are you pregnant – or planning to have a child during the coming year?
  • Have you obtained the results from any genetic tests during the past 10 years that indicate your likelihood of developing cancer (or another debilitating condition)?
  • Have you ever suffered a heart attack or stroke? Do you have any close blood relatives who have suffered from either of these medical problems?
  • Do you currently suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – or do any immediate family members have these medical conditions?

Under some circumstances, once you’ve hired a new employee, you may be able to inquire about certain disability-related medical conditions. However, you should discuss all the specific conditions that must exist before asking these questions with your employment law attorneys to avoid violating any of the employee’s legal rights.

The TWC and EEOC help current (and prospective) employees with discrimination concerns

When individuals believe that they’ve endured discrimination while applying for work with your company – or while employed by you, they usually contact the Texas Workforce Commission and the EEOC while deciding whether to file a formal complaint.

Should you learn that such a complaint has been filed, be sure to immediately contact our law firm so we can help you prepare a thorough response, detailing all that your company did to fully respect all employee (or job applicant) rights. We can also discuss with you various proactive steps your company can take to try and decrease the chances of having any further complaints filed against you.

The Key Stages of Buying a Home in Texas

Even if you’ve bought a home in the past, it’s always wise to hire an experienced lawyer and real estate agent to help you buy a house in Texas. Contract clauses often change and you’re likely to need special provisions added to your formal offer and purchase agreement to fully protect your interests.

After contacting your Houston real estate lawyer, you’ll need to select a qualified real estate agent. When searching for one, ask close friends for recommendations if they’ve recently bought a home in one of your target areas. You can also search for an agent by visiting the Texas Real Estate Commission website —  and Trulia.com and realtor.com.

What follows is a general overview of the key stages of finding and purchasing a home in Texas when you’ve hired qualified professionals to help you.

Determining if it’s the right time to buy – what your needs are — and what you can afford

Always take time to decide if it’s really the right moment for you to purchase a home. You must be able to afford a monthly mortgage, homeowner’s (and title) insurance and the other expenses that go with buying a home and making repairs. Once you’re sure you want to buy now and know what you can afford to pay, contact several highly recommended real estate agents (who have brokered properties in your preferred area) and interview them over the phone or in person.

After checking each candidate’s references and hiring the most knowledgeable and pleasant one, you’ll be ready to start conducting your search for the right home.

You’ll first need to discuss your preferred price range and the preferred parts of town where you would like to buy a home. Be sure to note the property features that are “must haves” or “deal breakers” for you. Of course, remaining flexible is important so you can avoid missing the chance to buy one of the best homes available.

Where will you and your agent find the listings that you’ll want to see?

In addition to visiting publicly advertised “open house” events in your target areas, you and your agent can also view many available properties online. Savvy sellers often offer online visual tours of their homes to help attract prospective buyers — who can then request showings.

You can also visit the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) online and then discuss the properties that you like most with your agent. If your agent is well established in the area, you may even become privy to some private listings before others learn about them. Websites like trulia.com and realtor.com should also provide lists of many homes still on the market.

What other initial tasks can a realtor help you handle?

After you’ve met with a mortgage broker and located several properties that meet your needs, your realtor can prepare a written offer for the seller. Prior to making an offer, be sure to ask your agent if the seller has any recent home inspection reports to share with you. If none are available and you still want to make an offer on a house, your agent can make obtaining an acceptable home inspection report one of the contingencies in the home purchase agreement that must be met before you’ll purchase the house.

You’re now ready to go over the legally required disclosures that Texas requires property owners to make to parties offering to buy a home. Repairs currently needed must be detailed – along with notes about all recently completed ones. If you haven’t already received a thorough (recent) home inspection report, you really should obtain one now — so you won’t be suddenly surprised by major plumbing or other serious home repairs in the future.

Should certain repairs be needed – and you’re still willing to buy the house – your real estate agent can negotiate these matters with the buyer on your behalf. Also, you must have a title search run on the house. You don’t want to buy property with any troubling liens, easements or other encumbrances that can greatly limit your ability to fully enjoy the use of your new home.

At this point (if not already done), you should purchase title insurance so that if any future claims are made against the property by third parties, you’ll be able to properly protect all your legal interests.

Once all these matters have been fully negotiated between your agent and the seller, you’re ready to move forward into escrow.

What basic, final tasks should be handled right before — or during — escrow?

Your lawyer will make sure that the home purchase agreement contains all the necessary clauses required to protect your interests before escrow closes. If it hasn’t already been done, you should also have the home appraised to make sure your offered purchase price is reasonable and fair.

Next, all new home inspection reports should be carefully analyzed, and all financial arrangements finalized. On closing day, you’ll go to the title agent’s office to sign all the documents and pick up the keys to your new home. As the buyer, you’re not responsible for paying your real estate agent’s fees – they are covered by the seller.

After closing day, your Houston real estate attorney can check to be sure that the title to your new home has been properly recorded in the correct local government offices – and then provide you with official copies of the newly recorded title deed for your records.

Please contact Murray Lobb so we can provide you with the clear advice you’ll need while buying your new home. Since we have the necessary experience to address any problems that may arise, we should be able to minimize any stress for you. Your lawyer will remain available to answer all your questions as you prepare to move into your new home.

Tenants: Beware and Negotiate

In a matter of first impression before the Texas Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a Residential Lease provision that obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault” was not void and unenforceable.

The background facts:  A young lady, Carmen White, got her first apartment and signed a standard Texas Apartment Association (“TAA”) lease.  Her parents gave her a washer and dryer set as a gift.  While using the dryer, it caught fire and burned her apartment and others nearby.  The damages to the apartment complex exceeded $83,000.00.  The source of the ignition was unknown and no fault was placed on White or the Landlord.  The landlord’s insurance company paid the claim, subrogated, and demanded reimbursement from Ms. White.  When she refused to pay the insurance company brought suit against her. 

The Procedural facts:  The case was tried to a jury.  After trial, the jury answered “no” to a question asking if White’s negligence proximately caused the fire.  However, the jury answered “yes” to the question whether White breached the lease agreement by failing to pay the casualty loss.  The jury awarded the landlord $93,498.00 in damages.  White moved for judgment not withstanding the verdict which was granted and the trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling holding that that the Reimbursement Provision was void as against public policy.  The Appeals Court found a fatal conflict between the Reimbursement Provision’s broad language and Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code restricting a Landlord’s ability to contractually allocate repair responsibilities.

The Supreme Court ruling:  The Supreme Court was to determine, as a matter of first impression, whether public policy embodied in the Texas Property Code precludes enforcement of a residential lease provision imposing liability on a tenant for property losses resulting from “any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault”.  In so holding the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) repeatedly stated the well known legal axiom that “Parties in Texas may contract as they wish, so long as the agreement does not violate the law or offend public policy, recognizing the the Legislature has limited the freedom of a landlord and tenant to contractually allocate responsibility for repairs materially affecting health and safety.  Interestingly in footnote 4, the court acknowledged that above the signature block, the lease prominently states that the lease can be modified by agreement of the parties, but neither party requested modifications to the Reimbursement Provision. 

The Lease contained a reimbursement provision standard in the TAA lease which obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault”.

As we all know it is almost impossible to get a Landlord to revise any provision in a standard form lease, but if you are to avoid the tragedy that happened to Ms. White, you must negotiate a modification of the Lease.

Be aware that the TAA Lease is a legal document and forms a binding contract.  You should consult an attorney for help revising the Lease. 

We would first add a sentence to Section 10, Special Provisions.  We would write in the blanks a sentence to limit my liability.  For instance, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, Tenant shall never be responsible for repair, or liable for damages to Landlord’s property, including other units in the complex, unless such damage is proximately caused by the negligence of Tenant, Tenant’s guests, or invitees.”

Secondly, we would strike out certain language contained in Section 12. We would strike out “or any other cause not due to our negligence or fault”, at the end of the first sentence of Section 12.

We firmly believe that no residential Tenant should be held responsible to repair other units damaged or for property losses “resulting from any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault.”  Do not let this happen to you.

Creative Planning for Your Senior Years Should Begin Now

Creative Planning for Your Senior Years Should Begin Now

Just as most younger people make detailed plans before entering college or starting their careers, older Americans must also carefully plan how they want to live out the last decades of their lives. If you’ll start this process early, you’re much more likely to have many positive options and choices available.

Yet before older Americans or “seniors” start thinking about vacations and other pleasure pursuits – it’s crucial to first address such basic needs as finances, housing and medical care. A good way to start this process is by asking yourself each of the following questions.

  • What family, financial and legal resources do I currently have?
  • When – and in what order — should I begin drawing upon those resources in the most efficient manner?
  • If I’m short on all or most resources – how can I immediately begin creating a supportive community of friends, relatives and others to help me?

Your financial and legal resources require immediate planning and regular oversight

You’ll always need to know more than just how much money you have and how quickly you can liquidate it in case of an emergency. Although it’s important to be able to access large amounts of money should you or your spouse require immediate medical care that isn’t readily covered by insurance, there are other more critical issues you should address first.

Stated simply, everyone needs to secure Medical Power of Attorney documents, a Will and other supporting documents. You can easily acquire this paperwork by meeting with your Houston estate planning lawyer long before you reach your senior years. This will help you obtain the best medical care available – in keeping with your preferences.  You can also inquire about other documents that can grant trusted individuals the right to handle your finances (especially if you’re single without adult children) if you become temporarily incapacitated.

Given how many older Americans now live alone, these matters should never be postponed. As of 2010, about 12% of women between the ages of 80 and 84 were unmarried and childless. By 2018, some experts predict that about 16% of women in that age group will fit that description.

Of course, many men may also have similar needs since the average woman only outlives the average male by a few years.

Once you and your attorney have created all this legal paperwork, be sure to give copies to trusted relatives or friends so that they can make sure you obtain the care you need right when you need it the most.

If you’re age sixty and single (or even if married) – start proactively deciding where you’ll live Afraid to face the reality of eventual death, too many people refuse to move into proper housing before their health seriously deteriorates. When this happens, helpful family members or friends are often greatly inconvenienced by your avoidable tardiness.

Give serious thought to moving into a place now that offers different levels of care. Otherwise, if a sudden emergency develops, you might not wind up where you want to be. Try looking for unique living arrangements where seniors can blend in with others of all ages. Places like Hope Meadows are often a blessing to many.

Think positive if you have little money – consider part-time work – and keep socializing

Stay active pursuing activities that are meaningful, useful and fun. As you get to know others better, you may want to suggest becoming part of each other’s support network. Friendships with others of all ages can prove very beneficial to everyone involved.

If you currently have a tech-savvy friend or family member — and want to live at home as long as possible — be sure to check out the newest “apps” that can help keep you and your financial world safe.

Always be kind to yourself. If current media articles make you feel that you made poor choices in the past regarding marriage and children, keep in mind that married couples (and older singles) with children don’t always “have it made” regarding help while growing older. Many of these people have adult children who: (1) live far away, (2) are estranged from them, (3) are coping with serious addictions – or are (4) barely staying afloat in their own busy family and work lives.

Finally, since so many entrepreneurs are now rushing into the “longevity market,” you must make sure you’re interacting with reputable people and not scam artists. Just because someone is financially “bonded” to do their work, doesn’t mean they’ll do what’s best for you. Stay in touch with your lawyer and always have at least one trusted friend help you make critical decisions.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you prepare all the estate planning legal paperwork that you need. We can also review any contracts you’re being asked to sign regarding a continuing care retirement community (CCRC). We look forward to being of service to you.

IRS Clarifies “Employee” Versus “Independent Contractor” Test

The IRS recently issued clarifying guidelines to help employers determine which workers should be treated as independent contractors or employees. The government naturally wants accurate decisions to be made since they determine when it’s paid certain taxes on each worker’s wages.

The main deductions that should be subtracted from all employees’ paychecks include those for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and income taxes. When a business has work done by an independent contractor, that person must pay all those taxes in the form of self-employment tax.

What remains the general standard for deciding if a worker is an independent contractor?

If an employer reserves the right to only direct control over the result of the work – and cannot tell a worker exactly what to do and how to handle the assignment – then that worker will usually be legally viewed as an independent contractor.

However, deciding what constitutes specific directions for completing a given task can still fall into a gray area.

Fortunately, there are three basic analytic categories that can help employers accurately determine when workers are properly classified as “employees” or “independent contractors.”

What are the three main categories of analysis for deciding a worker’s correct status?

The IRS indicates that employers should carefully examine the following three aspects of how they relate to workers to determine their proper work status.

  1. Behavior control. An employer may have behavior control over a worker even when it does not exercise it. For example, when such control is involved, it may include telling a worker which specific tools to use and where those supplies should be purchased. Under those circumstances, the worker should be considered an employee. Conversely, the less control over a worker’s behavior, the greater the chance that the person is working as an independent contractor.

If there are strict guidelines for determining the quality of the work provided, there’s a strong chance that the worker is an employee. When the worker is provided a bit more leeway in terms of quality control – there’s a stronger chance that the person is an independent contractor.

Of course, the two parties will usually need to agree to some basic quality standards, regardless of whether the worker is an employee or independent contractor. Finally, if periodic training or ongoing training is required of a worker – that increases the chances that the worker should be treated as an employee.

  1. Financial control. Does the worker have to personally cover the majority (or all) of the expenses tied to completing the work? These might include the purchase and maintenance of proper computers, printers, fax machines, scanners and other required equipment. If the worker is covering all those expenses, he or she should probably be classified as an independent contractor.

Stated differently, when a worker has many unreimbursed expenses, that person is usually an independent contractor — not an employee. Independent contractors are also those who retain the right to continue obtaining additional work from other parties. As for the payment for services, independent contractors are usually paid a flat fee – although that arrangement can vary in some cases.

  1. How the employer and worker each perceive the nature of their relationship. When the parties have not negotiated any employee benefits like vacation pay, sick pay, a pension plan and stock options – the worker is usually an independent contractor. While a written contract signed by the two parties can indicate how they view their interactions, it’s not always the only evidence the IRS and the courts will review when classifying the work relationship. All relevant documents and communications may need to be examined.

The main consequence for an employer who misclassifies a worker is that the employer may be required to pay all employment taxes currently owing for that worker – as opposed to requiring the worker to cover them.

What unique emphasis is placed on these three categories in the updated guidelines?

As for behavior control, employers really shouldn’t be telling the independent contractor the exact sequence of events for all tasks to be performed or exactly how they should be handled.

Regarding financial control, only independent contractors can experience a profit or loss while handling assigned tasks. Employees whose expenses are generally covered will usually not experience any profit or loss while completing assigned tasks on a given schedule.

As for how the parties view their work relationship, a fully executed contract can be controlling when other conclusive details aren’t available. However, as briefly noted above, the parties’ communications can usually provide clear indications of whether they’re interacting as employer-employee or employer and independent contractor.

The key bottom line for employers who don’t want to only work with employees – is to allow their independent contractors considerable flexibility while completing tasks – while respecting professional standards acceptable to both parties.

Please give our law firm a call if you need any help determining which workers are employees or independent contractors. We can also help you better understand the many different types of classifications that govern a wide range of employees you may want to hire – and the tax consequences for hiring those who fit in each group.

Our firm always remains available to help you draft many different types of contracts that can serve all your business needs.

Final Rule on Overtime Released by Department of Labor

May 18, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Labor has released its final rule on overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Administration estimates that the new rule will extend overtime protections to 4.2 million Americans who are not currently eligible under federal law. Once effective, the rule will raise the salary level from its previous amount of $455 per week (the equivalent of $23,660 a year) to $913 per week (the equivalent of $47,476 per year) in 2016. The rule will also raise the compensation level for highly compensated employees from its previous amount of $100,000 to $134,004 annually. The final rule also establishes a mechanism for automatically updating the salary level every three years, with the first update to take place in 2020. These changes take effect on December 1, 2016. The final rule may be viewed here:  https://s3.amazonaws.com/public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2016-11754.pdf.

The final rule does not make any changes to the duties test for executive, administrative and professional employees, which affects the determination of who is exempt from overtime. Administrative employees who do not meet the special provision for administrative employees will be eligible for overtime if they earn below the salary level set in the final rule and they work more than 40 hours in a week. 

In response to the new overtime rule, employers have the option of:

A. Paying time-and-a-half for overtime work;

B. Raising the workers’ salaries above the new threshold;

C. Limiting worker’s hours to 40 per week; or

D. Some combination of the above.

A Review of Basic Texas Landlord-Tenant Laws & Interests

When Texas leases successfully balance the rights and privileges that landlords and tenants most desire, they often help minimize future disagreements and legal challenges. However, before such leases can be drafted, all contractual parties must try to better understand the primary interests of those countersigning the required documents.

In general, stable and responsible tenants want to extend their leases with landlords who provide quality property, respect tenant privacy rights and make all promised repairs promptly. And good landlords want to attract and retain tenants who pay their rent on time, get along well with other tenants — and keep the rented or leased property in good condition. If respectable landlords will also provide all required legal disclosures to prospective tenants, few problems may arise.

Here’s additional information both Texas landlords and tenants should bear in mind while trying to build and maintain good relationships with one another.

Federal laws forbid discrimination and other wrongful practices

Whether renting commercial or residential properties, landlords must avoid violating all

federal statutes and regulations. Perhaps the most important law is the Fair Housing Act that forbids treating anyone unfairly who’s looking for a place to live.

Stated simply, property owners cannot discriminate against prospective tenants based upon their gender, race, color, national origin, disability, family status (regarding whether they have children under age 18 living with them) or religion. This law extends to all sales, rentals and financing of dwellings. Furthermore, as your Houston real estate attorney can explain to you in greater detail, there are Texas state, county, city and municipal laws that also define and extend these rights and obligations. In addition to forbidding discrimination, all these laws are designed to overcome past efforts to segregate society based on poverty and the seven factors named above.

Other federal laws affecting prospective property tenants include the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and specific Environmental Protection Agency laws and regulations. After obtaining an FCRA “background check” on a prospective tenant, landlords must allow people to formally dispute negative material in their credit reports with pertinent legal documents.

While respecting all federal, state, local and municipal laws – Texas landlords must also be prepared to provide tenants with numerous disclosures – including those set forth below.

Property information, equipment & disclosures all Texas landlords must provide

Since these can be quite numerous, the following list is merely representative of the more common ones.

  • Name and address of the property owner or property management company that can be contacted about ongoing needs or concerns;
  • All specific, defining rental lease terms. With renters, this must include information about the monthly “final” due date for rent and the acceptable ways to make all payments;
  • Information about the required security deposit – and when it will be returned after a tenant moves out (unless the tenant is no longer qualified to receive it);
  • Special rights of domestic violence victims. They must be informed about their right to withdraw from a lease when being subjected to abuse. While specific procedures must be followed, they should not further jeopardize these tenants;
  • Adequate security devices including window and door locks must be already installed upon move-in. Many state and local laws may also require the presence of fully functional fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and other safety equipment;
  • A clear and firm commitment to make all crucial repairs in a timely fashion. The most critical repairs are those that directly affect the health and safety of tenants;
  • Tenant parking and pet deposit information;
  • Detailed information on how all move-out matters must be handled.
  • Disclosures regarding the possible presence of lead-based paint or asbestos in the units. Likewise, recent bedbug infestations and other similar problems must be disclosed.

While this list isn’t entirely comprehensive, landlords who meet all these basic legal standards are likely to create harmonious relationships with tenants.

Please contact our law firm so we can answer your questions and prepare any rental contracts that you may require. Our experience in this field should allow us to fully meet your needs.

 

How Wage Garnishment Laws Affect Many Texans

Although wealthier Texans may build up significant savings and retirement accounts by middle age, most residents must keep working far longer to meet their individual and family needs. And if unexpected family or medical crises occur creating new financial emergencies, some people may face wage garnishments. Fortunately, Texas offers strong protection against many types of creditors.

Here’s a brief review of the most common types of wage garnishments pursued in Texas, basic terms you’ll need to know regarding this field – and references to special concerns you may need to discuss with your Houston business law attorney to fully protect your rights.

Important terminology related to attaching employee wages

  • Wage garnishments. In Texas, this term is often used interchangeably with “wage attachments” and refers to court orders directing employers to withhold certain amounts of money from employee paychecks to satisfy certain debts;
  • Administrative garnishments. These usually refer to federal government back taxes or student loans now in default – and they do not require a court order to be activated. Once debtors have student loans in default, they’ll normally be contacted by the U. S. Department of Education and told which collection agencies will be collecting their debts. (Note: Students loans can almost never be discharged by a bankruptcy filing);
  • Disposable earnings. This refers to the amount of money you have left in your paycheck after all mandatory deductions have been made for federal taxes, disability insurance, union dues, unemployment insurance, nondiscretionary retirement deductions, workers compensation and health insurance.

Types of debts often leading to wage garnishment

Texans are very fortunate compared to citizens of other states since Texas only honors a very limited number of garnishable debts.

  1. Unpaid child support and alimony (in arrears)
  2. Current court-ordered child support and alimony
  3. Government debts owed to the IRS (back taxes) — and all related fines and penalties
  4. Unpaid student loans (in arrears)

Note:  In light of Article IV of the U. S. Constitution, Section I (requiring each state to honor the “public acts . . .  and judicial proceedings of every other state,” certain other limited creditor debts referenced in judgments obtained outside of Texas may also be garnishable.

Be sure to speak with your Houston business law attorney whenever you receive any notice of an order to garnish your wages.

Fixed garnishment limitations that benefit Texas debtors

  • Total amount that can be garnished (based on all court orders). This is equal to 50% of your disposable earnings;
  • Percentage allowed for tax debt. This varies, based on your current deduction rate, the number of your dependents and other factors;
  • Student loans. The Department of Education can normally only garnish up to 15% of your disposable income from each paycheck;
  • Spousal support. The most your wages can be attached for this obligation is either $5,000 or 20% of your average monthly gross income – whichever is less.

Priority of wage garnishment orders

Although unusual factors might be able to change the list below, employers must normally prioritize their payment of garnishment orders in the following manner.

  • Unpaid child-support
  • Spousal support
  • Back taxes
  • Student loans

Texas employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees with wage garnishments

This has long been a concern of many employees since handling wage garnishments can take up a considerable amount of an employer’s time. Texas doesn’t allow those with wage attachments to be treated unfairly when it comes to hiring, promoting, demoting, reprimanding and firing (among other actions).

How creditors can still reach your money – apart from using wage garnishment

Even if your wages cannot be reached, regular creditors can still gain access to your money by obtaining court orders to freeze one or more of your financial accounts – and place liens on certain types of real property you own.

Please contact our law firm with any questions you may have about the proper handling of court orders to garnish wages — or any other types of administrate tasks regarding employees.

How the Texas Business Opportunities Act Seeks to Help Consumers

One the main goals of the Texas Business Opportunity Act is to protect consumers interested in starting their own businesses from scam artists eager to defraud them out of their money. When ads appear on TV or via email — promising large profits in exchange for a small, initial investment – it’s never wise to assume a valid offer is being made.

Some of the most common business opportunity ads often claim that you’ll need to do very little work before you’ll start receiving your first profits. That’s rarely an honest offer since running a business is often hard work. Now that so many older Americans (and others) have been laid off from their jobs, it’s critical to carefully review each offer and look for “red flags” warning you of possible fraud.

The following information will help explain some of the different ways that the Texas Business Opportunity Act tries to regulate the way that many programs go about seeking investors and operating in this state.

Types of business offers governed by the Texas Business Opportunity Act

  1. Those that require the buyer to pay at least $500 to begin setting up the business that’s being sold;
  2. Where the seller claims that you’ll earn back your initial investment (or more) in profits; and
  3. The seller promises to do one or more of the following acts to close the deal:

a). Provide you with a location – or help you find one (that’s not currently owned by you or the seller) where you can use or operate the goods or services being leased or sold by the seller;

 b.) Help you create a marketing, sales and production program (unrelated to a formal franchise business governed by separate laws);

 c.) Promises to buy back products, equipment or supplies (or goods made from them) provided to you so you can run the business.

To further protect the public from dishonest business offers, the Attorney General of Texas requires parties making offers that meet the description above to first register with the Secretary of State and provide any applicable bond or trust account required.

Whenever you become interested in investing in any business opportunity that even vaguely appears to be covered by the Texas Business Opportunity Act, it’s always best to review the matter with your Houston business law attorney. Our firm can check to be sure the seller’s company has formally registered with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office and posted all required funds.

As a potential investor, you should also be provided with key information (required by law) about any company – before ever tendering any money.

Legal disclosures companies must provide

When a business offer is made in Texas and is covered by the Texas Business Opportunity Act, the seller must provide specific information to the buyer ten (or more) days before any contract is signed by the parties and before any money is paid to the seller.

Here are some of the disclosures that must be provided.

  • Names and addresses of all parties directly affiliated with the seller in the business being marketed;
  • A specific listing of all services the seller is promising to perform for the buyer (such as setting up a product marketing program);
  • An updated, current financial statement covering the seller’s finances;
  • All details covering any training program being offered by the seller;
  • How all services will be provided by the seller regarding the products and equipment being sold – and all key terms involved with the leasing agreements covering business locations being provided to the buyer;
  • Information pertaining to any of the seller’s bankruptcies (or civil judgments obtained against the seller) during the last seven years.

The importance of distinguishing multi-level marketing offers from pyramid schemes

Make sure the business you’re interested in requires you to do some type of work (such as selling products or services) before paying you any profits. If you are only being urged to solicit additional participants in the business, there’s a strong chance that you’re being “tricked” into building a pyramid scheme that may earn you short-term gains before the entire investment program collapses.

Always obtain legal advice regarding any business that sounds too much like a quick way to earn a lot of money. Attractive shortcuts to huge profits – especially those promoted in many weekend hotel and restaurant seminars – are often sham operations.

Please contact our law firm so we can provide you with the legal advice you’ll need before investing in any new business opportunities.