Ways to Avoid Defamation When Disciplining Employees

Every employer has the right to create a pleasant and productive workplace. Yet this goal can be elusive when a worker acts unethically or behaves poorly toward others. If the behavior was grossly unethical or offensive and the person was an “at-will” employee, you can usually fire him on the spot. However, some misconduct claims must be thoroughly investigated.

General principles to bear in mind when disciplining employees

If immediate firing isn’t appropriate, you must handle all investigatory matters in a private manner. You should also only inform those with a formal “need to know” regarding specific information you are learning. Always make sure to act in a non-discriminatory manner. You can never let anyone go in a way that violates their civil rights or unjustly defames them.

Here are some suggested steps your business should take while resolving problems with difficult employees.

Responsible ways to discipline workers

  1. Create a written policy that states how your office will interact with employees who are accused of wrongful behavior. While you should be consistent in taking certain steps, you must clearly state that your office always reserves the right to immediately fire at-will employees when circumstances justify such actions. When an exempt employee is involved, try to provide warnings and always listen to their side of the story. It’s a good idea to place this policy in an employee handbook and to reference it upon first hiring all employees – and during all periodic work evaluations;
  2. Investigate all accusations, especially when immediate firing isn’t necessary. Be sure to handle all interviews in a private setting, stressing the confidential nature of the process. If there is written or documented proof of wrongdoing, obtain copies of the materials;
  3. Create a separate investigation file for the accused employee. You should also create notes in the person’s regular personnel file – making sure only a small number of employees can review either folder. In very rare circumstances, it may be necessary to hire an outside group to handle the investigation for you. Your Houston employment law attorney can fully explain when hiring outside investigators may be necessary;
  4. Create a clear plan for each employee’s disciplinary investigation. Avoid making accusations or labeling someone as a “thief.” Let the person know that you are investigating the claims. When meeting with the individual, always take notes and have at least one other staff member present as a witness. You may want to ask the employee to sign a statement, indicating awareness of the investigation.  In order to get an employee to sign a form, you may need to note in it that his/her signature does not constitute any admission regarding wrongful behavior – only that the person knows certain claims are being investigated. Be sure to listen carefully to any defense claims the employee may offer – but do not let any meeting become confrontational. If tempers flare, note that you will reschedule the appointment for a later time;
  5. Do not publicize the investigation. Only share limited information about it with those who have a “need to know” regarding it;
  6. Once a decision is reached regarding discipline, advise the employee. Make sure your decision is based on fully objective and reasonable grounds – and note them in your files. Document what you’ve decided to do in the regular personnel file – and reference the separate investigative file where all detailed notes are kept. Do not allow anyone access to the main investigative file who doesn’t have a right to see it. Be sure to keep all investigative files for a lengthy time period in case future lawsuits are brought against your company;
  7. If you decide to terminate an employee, do so in an orderly fashion. Allow the person to gather together all personal possessions before leaving the building in a private fashion. If the fired employee was fired due to dishonesty – or any violent or inappropriate behavior – you may want security to escort the person off the premises. To protect the fired employee’s privacy concerns (and to avoid defamatory actions), you may want the exit to occur when few other employees are present;
  8. Do not share details about any firing with other employees. Unless there was documented criminal activity that all personnel may need to know about, you have a duty to maintain privacy regarding the exact reasons why you chose to fire an employee.

Always remember that you cannot discipline an employee for taking lawful advantage of any state or federal right. This can include taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act after you’ve approved the temporary departure – or taking a military or pregnancy disability leave.

Additional behaviors to avoid when disciplining employees

  • Never jump to conclusions about any claim. Don’t allow yourself to be greatly swayed by reports made by one or two individuals. Be sure to speak with all key witnesses and interview the employee concerned – to hear his/her perspective on what happened;
  • Always be/remain reasonable and flexible. Don’t ever over-penalize an employee for a minor infraction. Also, if you’re having to fire a more senior, exempt employee, make sure you have fully documented all proven reasons (or “just cause”) as to why the employee must leave;
  • Seriously consider documenting verbal warnings. While this may not be necessary, it’s usually a wise move. One way you can document them is to send yourself an email, noting in general terms (using a computer at work) why you had to verbally discipline an employee on a specific date;
  • During regular employee evaluations, be sure to note any disciplinary actions taken and how they’ve been resolved. Always have the employee sign the evaluation, noting that the person recalls all that’s happened and how all situations have been resolved;
  • Avoid telling an employee after being disciplined that you’re sure the person is likely to have a bright, long future with the company. A court might later view this type of language as reasonable proof that you were creating a new employment contract, one providing some type of guaranteed or continuing employment – as opposed to the at-will status the employee once had; and
  • Don’t punish workers for trying to improve working conditions or wages during breaks or at other times when “off the clock.” Rights like these are normally protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act.

If you’re concerned about how to handle any employee discipline or firing issue, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide legal advice based on the specific circumstances that you relate to us — and help you decide when you may need to hire outside investigators to handle a specific claim. We can also draft professional language for describing your employee discipline policy in your employment handbook.

Probating the Texas Estate of a Missing Person

At first glance, it might seem impossible to probate the estate of someone who is missing and presumed dead. However, the Texas Estates Code provides for this very process under Title 2, Subtitle J, Chapter 454 entitled, “Administration of Estate of Person Presumed Dead.”

That chapter clearly states that a probate court has the required jurisdiction to determine the likelihood of a person’s death when specific steps are followed — even if the main evidence presented is entirely circumstantial. However, the Texas Estates Code was carefully drafted to prevent fraud by requiring a lengthy delay before the assets of these types of estates can be distributed.

What are the main steps usually taken to probate the estate of a missing person?

  • Request for letters testamentary. After the probate process has begun with the filing of a request for letters testamentary, the court-appointed personal representative must serve a citation on the person presumed dead in the manner required by the court. Since the person is missing, this often means publishing a notice of the proceeding in one or more print newspapers – and in any other manner dictated by the court;
  • Contacting the proper authorities. The personal representative must then formally contact the proper authorities about the estate owner’s missing status. Among others, law

enforcement officials and state welfare agencies should be notified – along with any others suggested by the court;

  • A professional investigative agency should be hired. This must be done in keeping with the provisions of  Section 454.003 of the Texas Estates Code (requiring efforts to locate the missing owner of the estate). During this process, the investigator may encounter potential heirs who may have crucial information that can help locate the missing person – or help determine where s/he was living shortly before death.

The investigator should create a report based on all research and interviews conducted and then present it to the court – documenting that the missing person cannot be located. The cost of this investigation is normally reimbursed by the estate, after the court has had time to review the requested fees.

How quickly can the estate be distributed?

Section 454.004 of the Texas Estates Code clearly states that this can only be done after three years have passed since the date on which the letters testamentary were issued by the court to the personal representative.

What personal liabilities can arise if the person presumed dead reappears after distribution?

If the missing person returns and presents conclusive evidence that s/he was alive at the time the

letters testamentary were granted, that individual has the legal right to regain control of the estate — whatever remains of the funds or property.

However, this person who was presumed dead – yet has now reappeared – cannot get his/her property back that was sold for value to a bona fide purchaser. Instead, this person only has the right to the proceeds or funds obtained for the sale of the property to the bona fide purchaser.

In addition, Section 454.052 states that the personal representative who handled all the legal sales transactions for the estate, not knowing that the missing person was actually alive, cannot be held liable for any financial losses suffered by that individual who has now returned. And any surety who issued a bond to that personal representative cannot be held liable for anything the personal representative did while complying with approved court-ordered activities.

Should you need help probating any estate, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients and can readily answer all your questions.

Steps Required to Dissolve a General Partnership in Texas

Even when business partners get along well with each other and succeed, a time may come when they may develop new interests, decide to retire or move elsewhere for business or pleasure reasons. While the Internet and modern communications make it possible to still run businesses with partners scattered around the globe, it’s still quite common for partnerships to break apart or take on new members when others leave.

Do You Need a Written Partnership Agreement in Texas?

Normally, Texas law doesn’t require general (or “at-will”) partnerships to create a written partnership agreement. However, it’s always best to draft one so that when the entity breaks apart (or any partner leaves), you’ll know exactly how to pay off all partnership debts and distribute the remaining assets among everyone.

When general partnerships don’t have an agreement, then Texas law expects the partners to govern their “wind-up” activities in keeping with our state’s default partnership laws.

Here’s a broad overview of the tasks that you and your partners must handle as you dissolve your partnership. Should you have any questions at this early stage, it’s always wise to schedule an appointment with your Houston business law attorney.

First Steps to Take When Preparing to Dissolve Your Partnership

Schedule a meeting so everyone can discuss how your written partnership agreement requires you to dissolve the partnership. During this meeting, you must take a vote to determine if all parties still holding majority rights (or financial interests equal to or greater than 50% of the partnership assets) favor dissolving it. Next, ask this same majority to vote whether they’re ready to draft and sign a written resolution stating that the partnership will now wind up all its affairs and be dissolved.

At this point, all partners who want to keep working together under a new partnership agreement can indicate this desire to everyone else – and offer to buy-out the partnership shares of those who are leaving.

Handling Debt Payments and Winding Up All Remaining Matters

Every current partner should expressly agree to complete certain tasks approved by all those winding down the partnership’s affairs – and to refrain from negotiating any new business that could potentially obligate all partners after the dissolution.

As referenced above, those leaving the partnership are free to sell their shares in it to others, in keeping with their original partnership agreement (or the state’s laws governing such transactions when there is no written agreement). To help the partnership pay off existing debts, all partners can vote on which current partnership assets (if any) may be sold for cash.

The laws governing the pay-off of all partnership debts are set forth in our state’s Uniform Partnership Act. It basically states that you must pay off all your creditors first – before paying back each partner for all past capital contributions to the partnership.

Are There Any Remaining Wind-Up Steps You Must Address?

  • Paperwork filing with the state. In Texas, there’s no need to file anything when dissolving an at-will (general) partnership;
  • Providing notice to all creditors, customers and other parties. It’s customary to send out notices through the mail to all your business contacts so they’ll know that your partnership is being dissolved as of a certain date. However, there’s no law which requires this to be done. You can also just simply publish a notice about the dissolution in your local newspaper;
  • Updating all out-of-state registrations. To prevent your partnership from owing any more fees to other states where you’ve registered for the right to do business, you need to formally notify the correct offices via certified mail that you’re dissolving your partnership;
  • Paying all taxes that are owed. Although Texas doesn’t require you to obtain a tax clearance before winding-up your partnership, you must make sure all taxes owed have been paid before dissolving it. This step includes filing a final federal tax return for your partnership in keeping with Texas law.

Should you have any specific questions about dissolving your partnership – or making sure that you’re handling all tax matters properly – please contact our law firm so we can provide you with all pertinent legal advice.