Liquidated Damages in Texas Contracts

When a party to a contract breaches, the fundamental goal of the law is to place the non-breaching party in the same position it would have been had there been no breach.  This does not always mean the non-breaching party gets what he sought under the contract. More often, the non-breaching party is awarded money (damages) for adequate compensation.

Penalty or Damage Provisions?

In some instances, the parties to a contract might wish to insert a provision in the contract which specifies the damages the non-breaching party may be entitled to recover.  These provisions are called liquidated damage provisions.  However, liquidated damage provisions can be found to be unenforceable, when the breaching party seeks to avoid the provision on the ground that it is a penalty.  Typically, a penalty is one which greatly exceeds amount of damages actually sustained by the non-breaching party.  Court will examine whether the actual damages incurred were much less than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.

A liquidated damage provision is not a penalty when it reasonably estimates the harm that would result from a breach.  But a provision not designed to be a penalty can nevertheless operate as one.  The universal rule that damages for breach of contract are limited to just compensation for the loss or damage actually sustained. Accordingly, courts carefully review liquidated damages provisions to ensure that they adhere to the principle of just compensation.  A damages provision that violates the rule of just compensation, however, and functions as a penalty, is unenforceable. Liquidated damages must not be punitive, neither in design nor operation.

Courts will enforce liquidated damage provisions when:

  1. “the harm caused by the breach is incapable or difficult of estimation,” and;
  1. “the amount of liquidated damages called for is a reasonable forecast of just compensation.”   In applying the first prong, courts examine the circumstances at the time the agreement is made. The party seeking liquidated damages bears the burden of showing that the provision, as drafted, accounts for these two considerations.

A properly designed liquidated damages provision, however, may still operate as a penalty due to unanticipated events arising during the life of a contract. Courts must also examine whether “the actual damages incurred were much less” than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.  When a contract’s damages estimate proves inaccurate, and a significant difference exists between actual and liquidated damages, a court must not enforce the provision. When an “unbridgeable discrepancy” exists between “liquidated damages provisions as written and the unfortunate reality in application,” the provisions are not enforceable.

Enforcing Liquidated Damage Provisions

To be enforceable the liquidated damage provision, at the time the agreement was made, must meet a two-part test:

  1. The harm that would result from a breach must be difficult to estimate, and;
  2. The liquidated damages provision must reasonably forecast just compensation. Parties to a contract containing a liquidated damage provision are expected to negotiate a reasonable, not perfect, forecast of just compensation in the event of breach.  A forecast that is inordinate when compared with actual damages will not prevail to a challenge when there is proof of a large variance between the actual damages and those sought under the liquidated damage provision.

A recital in the contract proclaiming that a liquidated damage provision is not a penalty will not save a provision that operates as one. Careful thought must be applied in determining a reasonable forecast of damages that would be sustained in the event of a breach.  If damages, at the time of contracting are capable of calculation or can be fairly estimated, the provision cannot meet the first prong of the test.

Please feel welcome to reach out to our Murray-Lobb Attorneys if you have any further concerns or questions regarding a contract breach or liquidated damage provisions.

What Employers Should Cover in Their Sexual Harassment Policies

Providing employees with a carefully drafted sexual harassment policy communicates respect and helps everyone stay focused while doing their best work. To make sure you include the most critical legal passages, it’s always best to meet with your lawyer — who can also help you address any special needs of your workforce.

Here’s a brief overview of the most crucial components of this type of policy. As you read over the list, jot down any questions that come to mind since they may help you have a more productive meeting with your Houston employment law attorney.

Key information that should be included in most sexual harassment policies

  • A general statement about why you’ve created the policy. It’s important to note that your company recognizes that every employee has the right to work in a safe environment. No employee should ever be coerced into developing a sexual relationship in order to keep a job. Likewise, sexually suggestive or offensive behavior should never be inflicted on anyone;
  • A detailed definition of sexual harassment – preferably one that also provides specific examples of the different types of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that are covered. Clearly indicate that sexual harassment always involves unwelcome behavior that tends to offend, intimidate or upset others. It can even include something as simple as posting sexually suggestive cartoons and other materials in the workplace. Also note that your company will not tolerate any sexually harassing behavior between parties of the same sex;
  • A statement that your policy also provides protection against third-party harassment. Your company’s customers, clients, contractors and others will never be allowed to sexually harass your employees;
  • There must be a detailed description of your complaint procedures. Employees must be told that you’ll respond to all complaints in a private, confidential manner – and will conduct all necessary investigations in as professional manner as possible. It’s also important to note that you’ll try to have at least two senior staff members trained (and available) to handle these complaints – one woman and one man. Workers should be extended the courtesy of being able report their complaints to someone of their own gender.

Offer your employees both an informal way of processing complaints – and a more formal approach. After all, some employees aren’t interested in filing a legal claim against the alleged abuser – they’re mainly interested in stopping the abuse and returning to work (perhaps in a new department). However, you must provide clear information to each complaining party that s/he has the right to file a more formal complaint with the EEOC. Finally, you must also state that your company will not tolerate any type of retaliation against the alleged victim – regardless of the position held by the party who has been accused of the sexually inappropriate behavior;

  • Provide a commitment that your company will try to expedite the complaint process as much as possible, recognizing the needs of all involved. However, you should also explain the different types of interviews that may need to be conducted so that all parties have the chance to be fully heard. Employees must also be told that if the complaint involves unusually aggressive behavior – or if multiple complaints have been recently received regarding the same alleged offender, it may be necessary to turn over part or all of the investigation to an outside, objective party hired for that specific purpose;
  • Name some of the specific disciplinary steps that will be taken if the company’s investigation finds that harassment has occurred.
  1. The offending party will receive a written or verbal reprimand
  2. A negative performance evaluation will be placed in the wrongdoer’s personnel file
  3. There may be a reduction in wages
  4. A demotion or transfer may be imposed on the wrongdoer. In some instances, the victim may be allowed to obtain a transfer;
  5. The offending party may be forced to accept an immediate suspension — or just be fired. (Make sure all these possible forms of discipline are noted in your company’s employee handbook).

Be sure your company has a policy of requiring every new employee – regardless of rank – to undergo sexual harassment training as part of their initial company orientation. Furthermore, all employees should be required to take an annual refresher course on this topic. (You may want to include a statement about this training requirement in your sexual harassment policy).

When designing or choosing a sexual harassment training program for your employees, always make sure it includes a “question and answer” segment since employees often need to ask questions to be sure they fully understand the different behaviors that co-workers may consider offensive.

Our lawyers always welcome inquiries from both new and established clients seeking advice on employment law matters. We’re also fully prepared to draft the many contracts you may need to run your business as your clients obtain the many goods and services you currently offer. Feel free to contact us so we can schedule an appointment at your convenience.

Important Legal Tips for Communicating with Disabled Employees

Since everyone deserves to be treated with respect, employers must make sure that they’re communicating professionally and politely with all their disabled workers. Careless employers who speak callously with their disabled workers not only set a poor example for everyone else in the workplace – they also increase their chances of being sued for unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here are some other important tips that can help you create a more pleasant work environment for everyone – that’s also fully compliant with the ADA.

Examples of workplace situations that may require special communication skills

  • When someone present in a meeting has a hearing disability. Should there be an employee present with a known hearing impairment, always remind everyone to speak one at a time – and never “over” one another. That will help everyone more easily follow the conversation and possibly take notes. Of course, never refer to the person by name who may need this simple accommodation.
  • Always speak directly to the disabled person. Even when someone has a sign language interpreter, always turn and speak to the disabled person – and not their helper or other companion – whenever possible.
  • Be honest with the disabled during regular workplace evaluations. This is important so they’ll have the chance to improve their performance – and request any new accommodations they may need. They deserve an honest appraisal like everyone else. This will also limit the chances of painful misunderstandings in the future. Be willing to give them concrete ideas for how they can improve the quality of their work.
  • Be prepared to shake the hand of a disabled person – even if this means shaking their left hand and not their right one. This is a simple gesture that communicates respect and equality. You don’t need to shake the person’s hand for an extended time period.
  • Always introduce yourself when speaking with someone who is sight impaired. Be sure to also identify everyone else who is present during the conversation.
  • Never pat anyone who is very short (or in a wheelchair) on the head or shoulder. This makes all adults – and even older teens – feel a bit demeaned. We all have a right to have our “personal body space” fully respected by others.
  • Should you decide to offer a disabled person your assistance – wait briefly to find out if they would like to accept it. For example, it’s possible you may want to help someone transfer from a wheelchair or walker to a nearby chair. However, be aware that many disabled people want to move about on their own as much as possible, to maintain their sense of independence.
  • Be sure you’re addressing the disabled person in the same manner as everyone else present. Far too often, well-meaning bosses or employers may refer to the new department head who’s disabled as “Johnny” – while calling everyone else in the room by his or her last name. Be consistent with how you refer to all who are present.
  • Don’t lean on, move, or play with a disabled person’s crutches, wheelchair or walker. You may think you’re just being lighthearted – but when you do this, you’re calling attention to the person’s disability when that person may simply want to blend in with everyone else. However, if you believe it’s a safety hazard to leave a wheelchair or other assistive device where the disabled person left it, always politely ask that person if you can move it to a different location to make it easier for everyone to walk in that area. Also, be sure to tell the disabled person that you’ll personally retrieve the device when the meeting or seminar is about to end. Finally, never lean on someone’s wheelchair for support – that often makes disabled people feel like you’re violating their personal body space – and that can make them feel very uncomfortable.
  • Be very respectful when listening to a disabled person talk who has a speech impediment. Never assume you’re helping them by suddenly announcing a “translation” or “clarification” of what was just said. Instead, if you think you and others were left a bit confused by what was stated, calmly wait until the person finishes talking and say something like, “So, if I understood you correctly, you’re asking or suggesting that we start handling this account differently in this manner” – repeating what you think you heard. If you misunderstood what was said, then give the person a chance to repeat what they said earlier – or allow them to present it to you in a different way.
  • If someone you need to speak with is in a wheelchair, respectfully pull up a chair so you can speak with that individual at eye level. This conveys both respect and equality.
  • Never assume that all hearing-impaired people can read lips. Should you need to gain the attention of a hearing-impaired person who is looking off in a different direction, very lightly tap the person on his/her shoulder to gain their attention (assuming you’re not interrupting another conversation). If you’re certain someone can lip read – stop eating, drinking or smoking – so it will be easier for that person to follow what you’re saying.
  • Try to interact naturally with the disabled. Should you accidentally say something like “Did you hear that there’s an extra meeting next week?” – only to realize you said that to someone who is hearing impaired, forgive yourself. You can then point to a flyer about the meeting or write the information down on a piece of paper and hand it to the disabled person.

Always remember to stay calm and polite, even if you’re finding it hard to communicate with the disabled worker – and realize that the situation may be far more frustrating for that individual. If you’ll be speaking with one or more disabled people during a meeting, try to let them know, in advance (through a medium they can easily access like email), that you’ll be supplying everyone with a complete summary of the meeting’s highlights in a follow-up email.

If one or more workers are sight-impaired and read Braille, let them know that you’ll get a copy of the meeting notes to them in that format (if you have that capability) within one to two business days. Also, tell them that you’ll be happy to answer any questions they may have prior to their receiving their copy of that summary. Finally, whenever possible, use such terms as “hearing impaired” instead of deaf – and “sight impaired” in the place of blind.

Please feel free to get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with any guidance you may need when relating to your disabled employees. We’re also available to provide you with legal advice concerning many other general business, estate planning or employment law topics. And we can draft a wide variety of legal documents on your behalf or help you revise an outdated employee handbook.