Gray Areas Keep Emerging in the Field of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment cases have remained quite numerous during recent years. Lawsuits involving Fox News, the late Roger Ailes and the transportation giant Uber have kept our judicial system very busy. In fact, in early July of 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that Fox News had just fired the head of its L. A. sports programming division due to new allegations of workplace sexual harassment.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that while so many claims were being filed during the past five years, courts were being asked to evaluate some newer types of allegations. Several of them involve employees who were fired because their bosses said they were too attractive to have around or interact with on a regular basis. Equally odd are recent workplace problems caused by male employees trying to distance themselves from female co-workers who they claim harbor romantic feelings for them.

Before examining these new issues closer, it’s important to review what constitutes modern sexual harassment.

The EEOC’s Definition of Sexual Harassment

On its website, the EEOC states that it’s simply wrong to harass a person (such as a job applicant or employee) based on that person’s sex. Harassment can include someone making unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favors from another worker. While both men and women can suffer sexual harassment, statistics reveal that women file 83% of these claims. Some surveyed workers have said that they believe that this is probably true since men are often  overrepresented in positions of power in the American workplace.

Harassment doesn’t always involve any touching. In fact, offensive remarks about the opposite sex can be enough to constitute sexual harassment. What courts are often looking for is whether various workers’ words and actions have created a hostile working environment. When simple teasing and offhand comments become quite regular, they can legally be viewed as sexual harassment. Even consensual office romances can cause legal problems because when they end, one of the two participants may often wind up fired or demoted.

Relatively new sexual harassment claims involving bosses who fire employees for being too attractive provide new dilemmas for our courts. Likewise, employees distancing themselves from others because they think their co-workers harbor hidden romantic feelings for them are also uniquely troubling. These types of “gray area” claims are discussed further below.

Should It Be Lawful to Fire Someone Who Is Too Attractive – Or a Female?

Oddly enough, one or two courts have allowed bosses to simply dismiss women because they’re so attractive that the men fear they can’t control themselves if they remain in the workplace. One such case was filed by Melissa Nelson against her dentist employer in Iowa. This 33-year-old office assistant had worked for this dentist for many years. However, she was let go after he claimed that his wife had learned that her husband was sharing improper text messages with the young woman.

Of course, this type of employer claim clearly implies that the woman will make poor choices and should therefore be dismissed as some type of precaution. Perhaps the employer just wanted to dismiss her but couldn’t come up with a better excuse. Nevertheless, the Iowa Supreme Court later reaffirmed its decision, denying this fired young woman any type of compensation. The court even tried to dodge its questionable “logic” by saying that the firing was based on feelings – and not the young woman’s gender.

Unfortunately, that Iowa case is not unique. A similar case was filed due to the 2013 firing of a Manhattan yoga instructor who worked in a chiropractor’s office. She was told she was “too cute” — and that her ongoing presence in the office would make her boss’ wife jealous. A judge dismissed her case back in 2016. However, that case isn’t over. In August 2017, an appeals court ruled that the Manhattan yoga instructor can proceed with her case and sue the chiropractor.

What About Men (or Women) Who Want to Avoid Working with the Opposite Sex?

Can an employee refuse to spend legitimate work time with a woman because he believes she has a crush on him? Can this be viewed as some type of sexual harassment? This issue came up recently in an Austin, Texas workplace. William Manno, who had been refusing to work alongside a specific female — is now having to reevaluate and change his behavior.

Thomas Kochan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and co-director of the M.I.T. Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research says that when workers inappropriately refuse to interact with others due solely to their sex or presumed romantic feelings – employers may need to intervene. In fact, it can prove very useful and instructive for employees who want to isolate themselves from members of the opposite sex to begin participating in group work activities so they can develop healthier work habits.

Regardless of how one views some of these newer issues, it’s important for all workers to stand up for their rights when any serious harassment behaviors develop.

What All Workers Must Do When They Believe They’re Being Sexually Harassed

  • Keep detailed notes about the offensive incidents. Be sure to write down the specific facts, the dates and times involved — and whether there were any witnesses. Keep this log at home and not in your place of employment;
  • Carefully review any employee handbook you’ve been given. Try to follow your company’s recommended way of handling suspected sexual harassment. If reporting the incident to your immediate supervisor won’t work – you may want to confide in a senior employee you believe you can trust. However, you should first review all the steps named here – before taking any action;
  • Immediately contact your local Houston employment law attorney. Once you’ve scheduled an appointment, gather together all relevant employee handbooks, training materials and other pertinent documents regarding your sexual harassment claim. Your lawyer will tell you exactly which steps to take in the proper order to fully preserve your claim in a timely manner;
  • Be prepared to contact the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). You normally have 45 days from the date of the event to obtain help and advice from an EEOC counselor. Your lawyer can inform you how such claims are normally processed and tell you about other legal remedies you may need to pursue;
  • Seriously think about what you may lose if you don’t file an EEOC claim and consider other litigation. As most women know, some of the worst instances of sexual harassment are never reported. After all, no one wants to become the subject of office gossip if the employer fails to honor your privacy. Likewise, concerns about retaliation are common. Fortunately, there are legal remedies for retaliation. However, if you don’t file a claim, it may become much harder for you to protect your career in the future against the negative repercussions of the current sexual harassment.

HB 1974 Provides Useful New Power of Attorney Provisions

The State Bar of Texas often promotes new legislation like HB 1974 that helps people more readily use probate statutes to benefit themselves. This new statute provides changes to durable powers of attorney (POA) that were supported by the Bar’s Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section. They became effective on September 1, 2017.

In broad terms, these new provisions (1) clarify certain legal presumptions involving durable powers of attorney, (2) broaden the types of powers that principals can give to designated agents and (3) define when a party can legally refuse to accept someone’s power of attorney.

Penalties for not accepting powers of attorney are also discussed since these documents must usually be accepted as valid (unless clear exceptions set forth in the new provisions are met.)

Legal Presumptions Supporting Texas POAs

  • When properly notarized and signed by the principal who created the document, a durable power of attorney (POA) naming an agent must be considered valid;
  • A POA drafted in another state must be considered valid (once it’s certain that it fully complies with the laws of the other state);
  • The recipient of a faxed, photocopied or emailed copy of a POA can rely upon it like the original without liability.

New Powers and More Agents Can Now More Easily Be Included in POAs

  • If the principal names co-agents, they can act independently of each other – unless the POA specifically forbids such activity;
  • New rights of survivorship can be created or changed by named agents – if this right is specifically set forth in the POA;
  • The designated POA can delegate certain expressly assigned authority to others;
  • An agent can create, terminate or make various changes to an inter vivos trust;
  • Rights of survivorship and certain beneficiary designations can be changed by an agent if the principal included them in the POA document.

Specific restrictions are also set forth regarding the new parties an agent can name when making certain POA changes – they are designed to prevent the agent from naming anyone who the agent already has a legal duty to support.

Limited Facts or Known Events That Can Justify Rejecting a POA

Although this new legislation clearly states that power of attorney documents should normally be accepted and that penalties can apply if this doesn’t occur – the new statutes do list numerous situations that can justify the rejection of a specific POA. Here are some of the many exceptions that can allow someone to reject a proffered POA.

  • The party being given the POA has reason to believe that an SAR (suspicious activity report) has been filed regarding the agent or principal;
  • The person hesitant to accept the POA is aware that a judicial proceeding has already begun that was initiated to determine the document’s validity;
  • A party has a “good faith” belief that the named agent has a criminal record based on financial crimes;
  • The party handed the POA believes in “good faith” that the principal is currently being abused in some manner by the named agent;
  • The party asked to accept the POA has received conflicting instructions from one or more agents named in that same document.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it does set forth some of the new provisions justifying a person’s decision to reject a POA document. However, anyone who won’t accept a proffered POA must state this refusal in writing and give the specific reasons for rejecting it.

Since questions may always be raised regarding many powers of attorney, it’s wise to first speak with your Houston probate attorney when trying to decide whether to honor one that’s been tendered to you. Our firm is also prepared to draft any new POA that you may currently need.

Shareholder Agreements Require Flexible Buy-Sell Provisions

There are many reasons why shareholders in closely-held corporations may need to quickly sell their shares to others. Therefore, its important when drafting a shareholder’s agreement to cover every basic aspect of buying and selling shares – in addition to the general administrative matters that must normally be addressed.

Depending on a corporation’s number of major shareholders and business pursuits, a flexible framework helps facilitate every goal. The following list sets forth some of the main terms that shareholder agreements should cover, separate and apart from the buy-sell provisions that will be discussed in greater detail below.

Common Administrative Topics Set Forth in Many Shareholder Agreements

  • Voting rights. Always describe each shareholder’s voting rights and when they can be properly exercised;
  • Qualifications for serving as corporate officers. Basic requirements must be stated so that only fully qualified individuals can serve as corporate officers at any level;
  • Noncompete provisions. All parties involved with a corporation must agree to avoid compromising its trade secrets or later leaving and then trying to compete for its clients for a limited time;
  • Preferred groups to consult with when internal disputes must be resolved. Include the names of specific mediation or dispute resolution services that can be contacted and how the corporation should decide when such outside help is required;
  • Inclusion of anti-dilution provisions to protect stock values;
  • A description of major shareholders’ “tag-along” rights;
  • Registration rights must be explained and how they apply to certain restricted stocks;
  • Stock valuation procedures must be described and closely followed.

Once these and other crucial topics have been covered, your and your Houston corporate law attorney should discuss the best buy-sell provisions suited to your corporate structure.

Basic Buy-Sell Provisions – Events That Often Trigger Their Use

Your shareholder’s agreement should always include a very detailed explanation of how shares should be sold when one of the following events takes place.

  • The death of a shareholder;
  • The termination of an employee shareholder – whether “for cause” or without cause;
  • The disability of a shareholder;
  • A shareholder’s retirement

When trying to draft the best buy-sell procedures to address these situations, it’s often wise to sit down and review your corporation’s main concerns and interests with your lawyer.

Should the Selling of Shares Be Mandatory — or Provide Parties with Greater Choice?

When trying to answer this question, you may want to provide different answers, depending on whether the sales are to the corporation itself, other shareholders – or to third parties.

  • Should your corporation be given the first right to purchase (or redeem) the stocks? If you and the controlling officers of your corporation wish to include this provision in your shareholder agreement, be sure to first consider the possible capital gains tax issues involved;
  • Do you want to automatically offer the available shares to other general shareholders if the corporation isn’t interested in redeeming the shares after a set deadline? If so, it’s important to indicate if majority shareholders will have the first opportunity to buy the shares;
  • Are you willing to allow outside third parties to buy the newly available shares? If so, you must decide in advance the types of criteria that such buyers must meet.

Other Key Issues Involved with Drafting Your Buy-Sell Provisions

  • Setting the proper price to be paid for the stocks. In general, if the available shares are to be purchased by the corporation or one of its current shareholders, you should have already created a clear formula in your shareholder’s agreement for determining the current, proper valuation of the stock. However, if the shares are to be sold to an outside third party, that outsider’s offer will normally be determined by the current market price for the type of shares involved;
  • How should the price be paid? Most corporations will benefit from establishing a basic buyout procedure within its shareholder agreement so that these common transactions can be handled according in a very clear, pre-determined manner. Since lump-sum payments are usually not preferred, you will need to decide if you prefer such options as:
  • A buyer-financed buyout
  • A seller-financed buyout, or
  • Some type of financing arrangement involving insurance or a trust

Since a corporation’s success is often determined by the terms and quality of its shareholder’s agreement, please feel free to contact our firm so we can provide you with our general legal advice or help you draft a new agreement.