10 Ways to Minimize Liability When Providing Employee References

Although it was far simpler twenty years ago to provide references for most departing and former employees, it now requires careful planning. Employers must take deliberate steps to protect themselves against possible lawsuits brought by disgruntled former employees who may claim that they’ve been harmed by defamatory or negative job references.

All companies should now consider requesting (as a hiring condition) that each new employee sign a release form granting permission for the company to provide future job references without threat of liability. As noted below, that paperwork can then be supplemented by new, signed and dated authorization forms for each future reference requested.

Before sharing ten ways your company can reduce its potential liability when providing job references, this article will first briefly review common legal arguments advanced by former employees when they sometimes sue claiming a reference harmed their future job prospects.

Types of arguments past employees advance when alleging harm due to a job reference

Keep in mind that defamation does not have to produce actual harm – it’s enough that the negative reference was published or communicated to a third party and might reflect poorly on a past employee’s good name or overall reputation. Courts will normally review all the surrounding circumstances to determine whether a reference was truly damaging.

  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress. An angry former employee may claim that the person who issued the reference used unjustified and inflammatory language. While this isn’t asserted often, it’s a reminder to create a clear and distinct policy for how all references should be handled – free of unsubstantiated opinions or undocumented gossip. For example, it’s always wise to avoid alleging that a former employee demonstrated clear signs of struggling with some form of substance abuse on the job;
  • Invasion of privacy. Your company must avoid publicizing private information about an employee. For example, if you investigated why an employee was late to work on several occasions, you should never publicly disclose that the person was repeatedly jailed overnight due to arrests for drunk driving;
  • Interference with contract. A business should never knowingly provide false or misleading information about a former employee that could reasonably bias a prospective employer against hiring the person. Be as honest as possible and rely on neutral, documented information in the employee’s personnel file whenever possible;
  • Title VII discrimination. You must never provide a negative reference because a past employee was a member of a protected class. So, do not claim you fired someone because of their disability or alleged problems due to their gender. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids this type of discriminatory behavior.

Ten practices that can help you provide safe and proper references

  1. Always obtain employee consent. You should require a written request from all past employees asking you to provide a reference to a specifically named individual. This is very important since references should only be provided to proper parties;
  2. Designate only one or two company officials to handle all employee references. Centralizing this operation can help your company avoid releasing poorly drafted forms or letters of reference. It’s usually best to forbid all supervisors and other employees from providing their own references. You may want to create your own simple form for providing all references;
  3. Maintain accurate personnel files for all employees. Furthermore, be sure to conduct regular employee evaluations – and have employees sign the bottom of all written evaluations. This information should provide the basis for future letters of reference. It must be free of any biased or highly negative comments whenever possible;
  4. Avoid providing references over the phone. This is important since phone requests can be placed by nearly anyone. You must always be sure you’re only providing information to legitimate parties. Secure, written communications are always best. And never provide a reference until after you’ve received a new, written authorization form signed and dated by the former employee. (It should state that your company will not be held liable for providing the requested reference.) You can email or fax this form to the past employee when you receive a new request;
  5. Only provide information to proper parties. Be aware that private investigators and others may contact you and just pretend to be potential employers. Your company could be sued if you release a reference to someone who is not a prospective employer;
  6. Try to stick to the scope of the requested information. Don’t volunteer opinions or offer unsubstantiated data. Depending on your firm’s established policy for providing references – just stick to basic facts. (However, be sure to review the last paragraph of this article about providing references for past employees who exhibited violent workplace behavior – made serious threats – or sexually harassed other employees);
  7. Keep detailed records regarding all reference requests. If you fail to keep all written data involved with these requests and copies of the information your company provided, you may have a very difficult time mounting an effective defense if you’re sued for defamation – or on the other grounds named above – by a former employee;
  8. Be careful and provide about the same amount of information about all employees. While it may be tempting to provide lengthy praise for some former employees, it’s best to only comment on factors that may apply to all employees. If you’re going to provide negative information, be sure to first check with your Houston employment law attorney to be certain you’re not being too harsh – or revealing too much;
  9. Try to avoid requiring or compelling self-publication. If you fired someone because they were recently convicted of a serious crime or are no longer qualified to maintain a certain level of a security clearance, be careful what reason you give for firing that person. Otherwise, you may be forcing that person to later “self-publish” negative facts about themselves. Ask your lawyer if there are other valid legal grounds you can state as the basis for the firing of an employee when controversial issues were also involved. This can cause complex problems — yet honesty is always crucial; and
  10. Only share objective information. Never tell a prospective employer about any workplace gossip tied to the past employee’s personal problems. You should only be sharing data that can be easily verified by reviewing the employee’s personnel file.

While all these tips should help you reduce your chances of being sued based on a claim of defamation (or the other grounds stated at the beginning of this article), you must remain aware that providing too little information about a past employee can potentially render you liable in a lawsuit brought by the new employer. More facts about that problem are provided below.

Can you be sued for negligent referral, fraud or misrepresentation due to your reference?

Those types of lawsuits are becoming more common. If you had knowledge that a past employee behaved violently in your workplace, made serious verbal or physical threats against others – or sexually harassed one or more workers, you might need to disclose some of that information. This is a topic you must discuss in much greater detail with your Houston employment law attorney since Texas law may or may not provide you with adequate protection from liability.

If you’re uncertain how to provide a reference for a past or departing employee, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with sound legal advice regarding such topics. Our firm can also help you create employee release and authorization forms. Should you be sued by a former employee, we’ll be available to defend you through every stage of any proceeding.

Should My New Texas Business Be Formed as an “S” Corp or an LLC?

While deciding which business structure will best serve your needs, always consider several key factors. For example, look at how many employees you plan on hiring and how much time you want to spend managing the company. You should also make sure you’re fully protecting your personal assets against future lawsuits and not incurring any excess taxes.

One excellent way to choose the best structure for your company is to meet with your Houston business law attorney. The two of you can discuss all that you might gain (or lose) by starting your company as either an LLC (limited liability company) or an “S” corporation.

Before noting some of the basic steps involved with forming an LLC and an “S” corporation, here’s a brief overview of the unique offerings and drawbacks of both structures.

What are some chief advantages and drawbacks of starting an LLC?

Depending on the size of your business and the types of goods or services you’re selling, you may prefer an LLC for the following reasons.

  • It offers a less formal structure. An “LLC” is also often easier to manage than an “S” corporation, especially when you have few employees. And you’ll never need to have any board meetings to tackle problems tied to issuing stock certificates;
  • You can readily change this business structure (once all proper paperwork is filed). If

you’re running an “S’ corporation, you’ll first have to arrange a formal board meeting before trying to change the business structure);

  • All members of an “LLC” do not have to be permanent residents or U. S. citizens;
  • You can more easily divide up who handles most of the daily work – while allowing others to just be investors. You can also simply divide up the profits based on each person’s initial investment and daily work contributions;
  • Disadvantages of an “LLC” compared to an “S” corporation. These can include having all the company profits subjected to self-employment taxes. Your growth may be limited since your business cannot issue any stock shares. Always ask your Houston business law attorney about any other potential disadvantages that may apply to your unique situation.

Why do some entrepreneurs prefer forming “S” corporations – despite the limitations?

  • Formality is viewed more favorably by some. Outside businesses often prefer interacting with companies that employ a more formal corporate structure;
  • You can often use this structure to avoid double taxation of income;
  • Profits are passed on to the shareholders (by way of their paid dividends). Therefore, the company does not have to pay taxes on those profits;
  • Possible drawbacks. All shareholders must be permanent residents or U.S. citizens. There can be no more than 100 shareholders. Added state filing fees may apply. Also, the IRS

tends to monitor “S” corporations very closely since some people try to improperly avoid certain taxes by wrongfully using this business structure.

What are some basic issues that must be addressed while forming an “LLC” in Texas?

  • Membership. You’ll need to decide how many owners or members you’ll have and if they’ll share all the managerial duties;
  • Naming your business. You must choose a unique name to avoid confusion with already existing companies;
  • File all required forms. You’ll need to start with a certificate of formation (Form 205) that must be filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office;
  • Registered agent. You must name a registered agent who can accept the service of process on behalf of your company;
  • You’ll need to create an operating agreement. It’s usually best to ask your Houston business law attorney to draft this document for you after you’ve

discussed the precise nature of your new business;

  • Fully satisfy all state and federal paperwork requirements;
  • Obtain all required state and local business licenses that may be required for your industry.

(Note: Some of these same steps may also be required while forming an “S” corporation below, regardless of whether they’re listed).

Here’s a brief review of key issues involved in starting an “S” corporation in Texas

  • The drafting of Articles of Incorporation. These must be filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office;
  • Stock certificates must be issued to all initial shareholders;
  • All applicable business licenses and certificates must be obtained in a timely manner;
  • You’ll need to file Form 2553 with the Internal Revenue Service. (Your lawyer can first check to be sure you meet all the qualifying terms for creating an “S” corporation).

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer your questions about each of these business structures. We can also help you draft all the documents you’ll need to transact business throughout the year.

How Texas Estates Are Often Handled When Wills Cannot Be Found

Given how hard most people work to pay their bills and save up for their retirement years, you would think all of us would want to maintain strict control over who will inherit from us. Yet statistics reveal that only about forty percent (40%) of Americans have faced their mortality and asked their lawyers to help them create Wills.

When we make this error, we increase the chances that relatives we don’t know very well – or perhaps even like – may one day receive all our wealth. That’s regrettable since most of us have specific family members who would benefit the most from an inheritance. And great charities and faith-related beneficiaries can always use our funds to bless many others.

Hopefully, this article will help you see the advantages of meeting with your Houston estate planning attorney to create a first Will — and then later update it as your estate grows.

What are the five ways Texas wealth is often distributed when there is no Will?

  1. Under the state’s intestate succession laws. While these are useful, they do not let you determine who will inherit from you. Furthermore, if you own any of the following types of accounts or property, you must make sure that you’ve provided an updated list of beneficiaries to those who maintain these accounts (or other forms of wealth) on your behalf.
  1. Proceeds from a life insurance policy
  2. Retirement account funds that may include a 401k, IRA — or another, similar type of account
  3. Property that you and another person own together
  4. POD or payable-on-death account funds
  5. Property that’s already held in some type of living trust
  1. Through the filing of an Affidavit of Heirship. This approach can normally only be used when the assets requiring a title transfer are real estate. However, you can sometimes use this type of affidavit for non-property assets – depending on the rules of the institution that currently manages those items. Be prepared to discuss this topic in detail with your lawyer since there are certain limitations involved with using this type of affidavit.

For example, some title companies will not accept these types of affidavits when you’re trying to establish a legally valid chain of title for property. In addition, since no personal representative will be appointed, there won’t be anyone who can manage the estate’s assets and pay all required debts. Also, two witnesses must sign this type of affidavit and both are liable for any false statements that may be contained in it.

  1. By filing a Small Estate Affidavit. If your attorney takes this approach, he’ll first have to determine if the estate is solvent and if it’s worth $75,000 or less. In addition, the affidavit can only be used to transfer title to a homestead. Furthermore, there will be no appointed personal representative to collect all the assets, pay all required debts and deal with necessary third parties. Financially responsible witnesses must also sign this type of affidavit.
  1. Using a probate court proceeding called a determination of heirship. The advantages of this approach include having a hearing, the presentation of evidence and a court issuing a judgment accepting or rejecting all submitted affidavits of heirship. However, some relatives eager to settle an estate may find this approach less appealing since it can be rather costly – mainly due to the need to file various pleadings with the probate court. You must also coordinate everything with the court appointed attorney ad litem who will investigate whether there’s any possible fraud regarding the filed affidavits of heirship. However, obtaining a court ruling that specific parties are lawful heirs is very useful;
  1. Handling the matter as either an independent or dependent administration of the estate.

The difference between these two types of administrations is based on the degree to which the probate court must be involved in the proceedings. The term “independent administration” simply means that the court has minimal involvement.

Whichever approach is chosen, there will need to be an appointment of a personal representative who is qualified to receive letters of administration provided by the probate court. These “letters” allow the personal representative to collect all the assets and pay all the debts. The biggest drawback of this approach is that it’s often the most expensive way to handle the estate of someone who died without a Will.

Hopefully, this general information has helped you see that creating a Will is one of the best ways to move forward into a more stable financial future.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer any questions you may have about settling someone else’s estate — or drawing up a Will (or full estate plan) of your own. We appreciate the opportunity to help our clients handle these types of matters and look forward to hearing from you soon.

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.

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.

Starting a New Business: Avoid These common Mistakes

Starting a New Business: Avoid These Common Mistakes

Few activities in life are more challenging and exciting than starting a new business. So, if you’re determined to succeed, always accept advice from those who’ve been where you are now and know what often works best. Careful early planning can pay you back many times over later when your properly marketed goods and services motivate satisfied customers to tell others about your unique offerings.

By making the hard choices described below during your start-up phase, you can avoid many errors that often prevent hard-working people with great ideas from carving out a highly profitable niche in today’s marketplace.

The Key Early Decisions New Business Owners Must Make

  • Choose your co-owners wisely. Always look beyond each person’s academic degrees and decide if their experience is strong enough to withstand the challenges of running a business. Clearly define each owner’s responsibilities and how you’ll regularly monitor each other’s performance. Consider requiring every major stakeholder to undergo professional personality testing so you’ll know if you can each offset the specific strengths and weaknesses of one another that high-stress situations often reveal.
  • Fully track all money being spent and coming in. Be sure to hire a competent, in-house accountant. Agree in writing how all funding will be spent.
  • Have your lawyers draft one or more standard form contracts that fully protect your company’s rights. They should be thorough, but not so burdensome or one-sided that customers will refuse to sign them.
  • Meet early on with your trustworthy Houston business law attorneys. Carefully listen as they describe the various business structures that might best suit your company and the different tax consequences that accompany each one. Learn all you can about the state and federal employment laws and regulations you must follow. Ask for help drawing up your first employee handbook (spelling out all employee benefits) and decide if your employees should all sign “at-will” employment offer letters. Obtain advice on choosing the best available name for your company. Inquire about having everyone sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) protecting company secrets. And learn all you can about properly handling sexual harassment issues and claims of discrimination;
  • Create a flexible business plan with reasonable goals. This should normally be drawn up after you’ve decided on your business structure (such as a “C” corporation or “LLC”) and created a written operating agreement that clearly defines all key partners’ general duties and responsibilities, financial contributions, and liabilities. Be sure everyone knows that added responsibilities may be added to each person’s assigned tasks as unexpected needs arise. You should also agree in writing whether you must obtain help through arbitration or mediation services when internal problems cannot be readily resolved;
  • Hire the best employees you can afford. Just as you need to choose co-founders with proven records of making ethical business decisions, you also need highly flexible employees who are told up front that they may need to “wear many hats” as new duties must be assigned.
  • Check out your competition ahead of time and properly fund adequate marketing of your goods and services. Never assume all your company’s offerings are completely unique. Fully handle all due diligence tasks in a timely manner so you can hopefully determine how your competitors have been successfully reaching the very customers you hope to win over. Be sure the market (or location) you’re targeting can handle all the current competition – and make adequate plans to distinguish your brand from all the others.

While the suggestions shared above should help you, always be ready to consult with others as you broaden your web of industry experts and colleagues. If you need to raise more capital for your business, keep in mind that it’s often wise to befriend employees at companies currently funded by the specific venture capitalists you hope to meet with in the future.

Always Place a High Value on Customer Feedback – Readily Making Changes as Needed

No matter how good your in-house experts may be, your customers can often offer you invaluable information about how you may need to periodically change specific products or services. You should also ask them for their ideas on how you might improve your marketing efforts. Consider offering fee discounts to current customers if they’ll undergo brief interviews about your company. You might also simply ask customers to complete brief online surveys about your products and services.

If you’ll meet regularly with your co-founders and openly discuss problems as soon as they arise, chances are your new business will succeed.