Small Businesses Often Make Crucial Legal Mistakes

Even highly competent employees sometimes make serious legal errors while handling human resource, management, accounting and other business tasks. Since federal, state and local laws are constantly being updated, you must regularly speak with numerous employees to be sure they’re making timely and lawful decisions.

Should the feedback you receive concern you, it’s always best to consult with your Houston business law attorney to be sure you know how to promptly correct any possible errors. Lawsuits are often filed over very basic legal mistakes.

What are some of the most common legal errors that businesses keep making?

Most mistakes are made when employers try to be flexible with their rules. While compassion can go a long way toward helping you get along better with your employees, clarity and consistency are crucial. Always exercise caution when addressing the following issues.

  1. Each employee must be properly classified. You need to look at each position separately, based on all pertinent state and federal laws. If you simply decide to treat everyone as an “exempt” employee, you might be sued if you fail to provide proper overtime pay or adequate rest periods.
  2. Lunch breaks must be provided when required by law. Some employees may be entitled to a meal break after completing a specific number of hours during a shift.
  3. Make sure you’re properly labeling workers as either employees or independent contractors. You may hear from the IRS if you make this type of mistake. Take the time to speak with your lawyer about how you should carefully interact and communicate with independent contractors. Once a worker has strong legal grounds for believing that “employee” status has been conferred, you can be sued for specific benefits.
  4. You must be sure all employees understand what constitutes “sexual harassment.” If you’re sued in this field, one of your strongest defenses will be that you promptly trained all new managers and employees to help create a healthy work atmosphere. You must also develop a secure way for employees to submit complaints before problems escalate.
  5. You cannot punish or fire an employee for simply taking a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). To protect yourself, keep accurate records of all employee evaluations being conducted at routine intervals. If you’re particularly concerned about the behavior of someone taking FMLA leave, ask your attorney when you should sit down with that employee to discuss why you’re carefully monitoring their work performance – before letting them go.
  6. Be sure to issue final paychecks on a timely basis to all employees who are leaving. Find out if you’re required to provide this type of check even before an employee has returned all employer-provided equipment, vehicles or other materials.
  7. You must handle making loans to employees in a very careful manner. While this is often a kind gesture, you must set up a formal repayment schedule. Never simply deduct a portion of what’s owed from each future paycheck.
  8. Be sure to properly handle all employer obligations under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). You may need to make appropriate work accommodations and should always treat such workers fairly. Most disabled workers take great pride in being highly dependable and productive workers.
  9. COBRA healthcare coverage must be offered and administered properly. Give serious thought to creating a comprehensive package of this medical insurance paperwork so that it’s immediately ready to be given to qualified employees when they leave. Timing is critical so potential coverage won’t lapse.
  10. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) must be explained and handled appropriately. Employees have a right to privacy regarding their medical data and information – be sure you’re adequately protecting it while processing claims.
  11. Pension concerns must be addressed in a timely and proper manner. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a complicated law that requires extreme attention to detail. Always request legal advice when uncertain how to administer it.
  12. You must carefully handle all responsibilities under the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). You may need expert help calculating all your employees’ paycheck deductions for lawful wage garnishments – including those for child support and student loans. Look for highly respected software that may help your most experienced workers.
  13. Equal Pay Act. This law must be carefully followed since too many businesses keep failing to pay men and women fairly when handling similar work.
  14. Title VII concerns. Your company must avoid discriminatory practices when hiring, laying off and firing employees. Many businesses are learning to use multiple interviewers with highly diverse backgrounds so that fairness can be readily achieved.
  15. OSHA laws. You must make sure to keep adequate records covering all workplace accidents and injuries for an appropriate number of years — if you employ ten or more workers.

Should you have any questions about these topics, please contact your Murray Lobb lawyer to discuss your concerns. We have extensive experience providing legal advice to our clients so they can can readily comply with all federal, state and local laws.

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.

Does the Issuance of a 1099-C Discharge Debtors from Liability?

Does the issuance of a 1099-C discharge debtors from liability? The answer is no, the issuance of a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability from the subject debt. The filing of a Form 1099–C is a creditor’s required means of satisfying a reporting obligation to the IRS; it is not a means of accomplishing an actual discharge of debt, nor is it required only where an actual discharge has already occurred.

The fact situation is simple and straightforward. A creditor who has loaned money to a debtor makes an internal decision to “write off” of the debt on its books. At that point in time, the creditor is required by IRS regulations to report the write-off.

While only a handful of courts across the United States have addressed this issue, most have arisen in the context of a bankruptcy. Almost every court that has addressed the issue and the few reported decisions in Texas have concluded that the issuance of a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability of the subject debt.

The most thorough analysis of the issue and most cited opinion is In re Zilka, 407 B.R. 684 (Bankr. W.D. Pa. 2009), a bankruptcy decision from Pennsylvania. The Court in In re Zilka found four separate independent legal basis upon which to hold that the issuance of a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability. The four legal bases are as follow:

1. The IRS requires the issuance of a 1099-C. 26 U.S.C. § 6050P(a) provides, in pertinent part, that “[a]ny applicable entity which discharges . . . the indebtedness of any person during any calendar year shall make a return . . . setting forth . . . the name, address, and TIN of each person whose indebtedness was discharged . . .  [as well as] the date of the discharge and the amount of the indebtedness discharged.” The information return just referred to is a Form 1099–C.

However, “a discharge of indebtedness” is “deemed to have occurred . . . if and only if there has [been] an identifiable event described in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, whether or not an actual discharge of indebtedness has occurred on or before the date on which the identifiable event has occurred.” 26 C.F.R. § 1.6050P–1(b)(2) sets forth eight identifiable events that can trigger the filing and issuance of a Form 1099–C, among which is “(G) [a] discharge of indebtedness pursuant to a decision by the creditor, or the application of a defined policy of the creditor, to discontinue collection activity and discharge debt.”

2. The IRS does not view a Form 1099–C as an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection. In an IRS Information Letter issued in October 2005 it addressed concerns regarding the impact of a creditor’s compliance with the Form 1099–C reporting obligation and the continuing liability of a debtor on the subject debt. The IRS assured a concerned creditor that filing a Form 1099–C satisfies the reporting requirements of the statute and implementing regulations, neither of which “prohibit collection activity after a creditor reports by filing a Form 1099–C.”

3. That a Form 1099–C does not constitute an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection thereon is consistent with the fact a creditor can issue a corrected Form 1099-C if a recovery of some or all of the monies owed by the debtor subsequently occurs. In another IRS Information Letter issued in October 2005, the IRS responded to a creditor that it “does not view a Form 1099–C as an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection.”

4. The issuance of a Form 1099–C does not constitute one of the means of discharging debt pursuant to the Uniform Commercial Code, § 3.604 governs Negotiable Instruments. Section 3.604 of the Tex. Bus. & Comm. Code, Discharge by Cancellation or Renunciation provides that:

• A person entitled to enforce an instrument, with or without consideration, may discharge the obligation of a party to pay the instrument:

(1) by an intentional voluntary act, such as surrender of the instrument to the party, destruction, mutilation, or cancellation of the instrument, cancellation or striking out of the party’s signature, or the addition of words to the instrument indicating discharge; or

(2) by agreeing not to sue or otherwise renouncing rights against the party by a signed record.

The most recent Texas court to address the issue was Capital One, N.A. v. Massey, No. 4:10 CV–01707, 2011 WL 3299934 (S.D. Texas Aug. 1, 2011) wherein the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas “adopt[ed] the view that a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability” because the form is “issued to comply with IRS reporting requirements” and the IRS does not view it “as a legal admission that a debtor is absolved from liability for a debt.”

Lasting, pursuing collection of a debt that has been written off and reported on a 1099-C does not violate Tex. Fin. Code § 392.304(a)(8) which prohibits the collection a debt that was “discharged and/or extinguished against them.”