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.

Brief Overview of Texas and Federal Whistleblower Laws

All employers must respectfully interact with employees who report alleged wrongdoings in the workplace. Often referred to as “whistleblowers,” these individuals are trying to correct illegal practices or behaviors they believe are harmful to many. Although some whistleblowers may have improper motives, you always ignore them at your own peril – especially since there are Texas and federal laws designed to protect them under certain circumstances.

The following information about whistleblower laws and related activities can help you better understand why an employer must obtain timely legal advice from a Houston business law attorney once any employee threatens to file this type of complaint.

The Texas Whistleblower Act

This statute is found in Sections 554.001 (and following) of the Texas Government Code. It only provides protection against employer retaliation for public employees – not private ones. The law expressly forbids public employers from suspending, terminating or otherwise imposing adverse personnel actions employees who report alleged legal violations by the employer or co-workers.

However, the complaining party – who must report the alleged wrongdoings to the appropriate law enforcement authority – must undergo (exhaust) all employer grievance or appeals processes before being allowed to sue the employer. Under the Texas statute, all whistleblower lawsuits must be filed within 90 days of the reported wrongdoing.

Damages may include obtaining a legal injunction against the employer – as well as receipt of all back pay owed if the employee was terminated (or demoted) in a retaliatory move. Successful whistleblowers (who meet all statutory requirements), are also entitled to receive full reinstatement, all fringe benefits owed, full seniority rights, actual damages, reasonable attorney fees, court costs and a set maximum of possible other compensatory damages.

Furthermore, a supervisor found to have violated the complaining employee’s rights under this Texas statute (Section 554.008) can be forced to pay up to a $15,000 civil fine.

While the burden of proof is on the whistleblower, the possible penalties can be formidable.

Federal laws often relied upon by various whistleblowers

  • The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (passed shortly after all the illegal Enron activities). It mainly addresses the penalties available in the wake of fraudulent accounting practices.
  • The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
  • OSHA violations. Many construction workers and other employees file “whistleblower” complaints based on these Occupational Safety and Health Administration statutes and regulations.
  • Various Department of Energy laws and statutes.
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laws and regulations.
  • Federal airline regulations.
  • The False Claims Act (as recently updated).
  • The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009.
  • Hazardous waste regulations.
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — and other government statutes related to the provision and receipt of proper medical care.

While this list isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it provides a general overview of the types of statutes and regulations often referenced in many whistleblower complaints.

The following information reviews the most common types of illegal retaliation some employers take upon learning that a whistleblower complaint has been filed.

Forbidden, retaliatory actions taken by some employers

  • Job termination. Far too many employers look for “clever” ways to fire complaining employees once they learn a whistleblower complaint may be filed.
  • Demotion. An aggrieved employee may be called in and told that there have been long-standing complaints about his/her performance – requiring demotion to a lower position with considerably lower pay.
  • Thinly disguised harassment on the job.
  • Retaliatory discipline. This may include the placement of highly negative performance reviews in an employee’s file – making it much harder for the workers to receive any future promotions or favorable recommendations upon leaving the job.
  • Blacklisting. Some employers will “discreetly” contact their peers throughout the same industry, purposefully designating the specific, complaining employee in hopes of preventing that person from every landing another job in that same field.

Two high-profile whistleblower events help explain how such actions often unfold

One of the best ways to gain a stronger understanding of whistleblower activities is to read all you can about how former Enron employee Sherron Watkins reported her concerns about her employer. You may also want to learn more about all the late FBI agent W. Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) did to expose President Richard Nixon’s illegal activities tied to the Watergate scandal.

As one Texas Monthly article puts it, the Enron scandal involved highly questionable financial practices that included the creation of financial entities to help Enron conceal the company’s growing debt from Wall Street, regulators and the general public. The book Power Failure provides an in-depth look at how all of Enron’s troubles began and how its illegal activities ruined the lives of so many.

Conclusion

Always make sure your company (or government office) provides all supervisory personnel with comprehensive training on the proper ways to respond once a whistleblower complaint has been filed (or is referenced by an employee). And remember that retaliatory acts must be avoided since they’re illegal and often very costly.

If you believe an employee is preparing to file a “whistleblower” complaint against you, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys right away. We can explain your legal rights to you and help you take the proper steps to respond appropriately. Timely intervention can prevent critical misunderstandings and unnecessary litigation.

Why It’s Often Wise to Moniter Employee Computer Usage

While all employees benefit from believing that their companies trust them, they must still accept the modern workplace reality that certain privacy interests must be carefully weighed against protecting valid business interests. Furthermore, employers have a need and a duty to make sure that all employees are putting in their fair share of time while completing assignments. No one should be allowed to waste valuable work time surfing the Internet or responding to personal emails while others are shouldering their proper tasks.

Do many employers regularly monitor computer and Internet usage?

At present, about 80% of large companies carefully monitor how their employees use workplace computers. They also routinely review all company website and social media postings and randomly review email exchanges and software downloads. Internet usage is also closely monitored. These practices can often help businesses avoid future lawsuits and financial losses.

Once your company decides to begin monitoring practices, you really should talk with your Houston business law attorney about all the legal concerns that can develop.

Before addressing other key issues involved with monitoring your employees, it will be helpful to note how many companies provide notice to their workers that their computer usage and Internet activities will soon be regularly reviewed.

When and how do employers bring up computer and Internet monitoring to employees?

  • At the time of hiring. You can make this a condition of accepting employment;
  • When all periodic performance evaluations are conducted. At the end of these sessions, you can produce a carefully worded document, asking for the employee’s written consent for monitoring their computer usage and business communications. It may be helpful to note how this can help protect some of their own interests — and limit the harassment that some employees might otherwise engage in if no such monitoring existed;
  • Include several paragraphs on the topic in your employee handbook. Always be sure that you later ask each new employee if they have any questions about this policy;
  • Place a warning above the company’s computer network sign-in page. This warning might reference the employee handbook – or the written consent form you should have already obtained from each employee;
  • Include a very clear and obvious “Notice” paragraph at the bottom of each outgoing email. This is an attempt to provide notice to third parties (such as non-business contacts who may include workers’ friends and family members who write to them at work – that any or all such emails are subject to monitoring and review).

Your signed consent forms should remind employees (along with the company employee handbook) that certain types of improper communications and usage of the Internet can result in disciplinary actions – and even firing.

As the following information indicates, your careful review of how employees are using their computers can prevent many serious workplace conflicts.

Harmful activities pursued by some using company computers, email and the Internet

  • Harassing behaviors. Making illegal and damaging statements in emails may constitute sexual, racial – or other forms of harassment;
  • Likewise, some types of email (or typed letters) may contain defamatory comments or illegal threats against others. No employee has the right to make serious threats against other employees or outside email recipients. These negative communications may simply imply that a specific person may lose his or her job if certain improper demands aren’t met;
  • Critical company information (like trade secrets and intellectual property) may be stolen and then shared with others;
  • Employees may download and then share copyrighted material or software, allowing others to make additional copies. This can also include the illegal download of porn materials — that are then sent off to others – or stored on your business databases;
  • Workers may accidentally share harmful email and general computer viruses while using their computers in unauthorized ways;
  • Employees may spend lengthy time periods surfing the net — unrelated to legitimate work assignments. Many companies wind up paying significant amounts of money each year for time that employees spent playing online games or enjoying other unauthorized Internet activities;
  • Some workers may maliciously sabotage company files and data for no apparent purpose;
  • Other employees may use their work computers and printers to complete tasks for their separate, private business needs.

Do employers have broad rights to monitor all employee activities at work?

Federal, state and even global laws can limit these rights. Also, most employers do not have the right to invade employee privacy by placing intrusive cameras or audio devices in restrooms or lunchrooms. However, they do have some specific rights to monitor how employees use equipment provided to them. And under certain circumstances, companies can even monitor how employees use their own personal computers while logged on to company networks and databases.

In general, any efforts you make to monitor employee communications must agree with the provisions of the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Fortunately, it does allow certain types of monitoring that fall within an acceptable “business purpose exception.” In other words, your monitoring efforts must have a direct tie to protecting a “legitimate business purpose.”

As already noted above, it’s crucial to discuss all these matters with your attorney to be sure your approach to computer monitoring will not subject your company to any employee or third-party privacy lawsuits.

What global, federal and Texas laws address all these various legal topics?

Keep in mind that companies regularly interacting with international clients or companies must be prepared to observe all the following types of governing laws.

  • The European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – and the laws passed by many of its members’ individual states;
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)
  • The Stored Communications Act
  • Various federal wiretapping laws
  • Texas statutes and case law that your lawyer can review with you

Some general guidance is also available on the Texas Workforce Commission website.

Conclusion

Companies of every size must give all these issues considerable thought before buying any types of computer monitoring software. You’ll also need to decide which DLP (data loss prevention) solutions or strategies are most likely to meet your company’s unique needs. For example, do you want to prioritize software that helps with network traffic monitoring, keystroke logging, natural language processing – or other methods? You’ll also need to consider what types of data encryption practices may be useful to you.

Fortunately, there are many outside consultants who can help you carefully evaluate all the current computer monitoring software that’s available – so you can find the best products that fall within an affordable price range for your company.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can address your current questions about monitoring your employees’ business communications and usage of the Internet. We can also help you draft the types of privacy consent forms and other paperwork that can help you more proactively safeguard your company’s business interests.

General Steps to Take While Preparing to Sell Your Business

Selling your company at the proper time can provide you with greater freedom and added income as you pursue other business or personal goals. Whether you’re a sole proprietor who can move forward alone — or someone who must confer with business partners or a corporate board of directors, there are basic steps you can follow that can help streamline the process.

As you further contemplate this move, give serious thought to timing and be ready to explain why you’re making specific choices to prospective buyers; They’re sure to ask why you’re selling your company now. Also think about whether you should hire a professional business broker, especially if you don’t want to manage the sale on your own and are concerned about locating the best potential buyers.

Each of these key topics are discussed further below.

Are you prepared to tell qualified buyers why you want to sell your business now?

If sales are dropping or you’re currently losing a sizable portion of your customer base, you may want to postpone the sale for six months or a year. During that time, you may be able to rebuild the company and make it more viable.

Of course, business owners often want to sell their companies for many other reasons, including the following ones.

  • They’re eager to retire and simplify their lives – letting go of business activities.
  • They have current disputes with partners, co-owners or corporate board members, so they would just like to move on. Obviously, you’ll need to reference these issues in a very tactful yet honest manner if you have no other reasons for selling.
  • The sole owner (or another party) is facing a serious illness or impending death.
  • You want to keep working — but in a less stressful capacity. Be ready to share this in as upbeat a manner as possible – while being open and honest about the pressures of running the business.
  • You’ve developed a keen interest in a different business field and are eager to get your new venture up and running.

These are just a few of the reasons why people often choose to sell a business. Whatever you decide to tell prospective buyers – be as honest as possible since a failure to disclose current problems is unethical and could damage your reputation in the community.

If your business is losing value, be prepared to tell potential buyers (after carefully qualifying them) how they might reverse that trend. You can also explain why they may still want to simply purchase all your valuable vehicles and equipment.

Decide whether you should sell the business yourself – or hire other professionals

  • Legal advice can prove crucial. You’ll also need help drafting the various legal contracts and documents required to support a sale.
  • You’ll want to work closely with your accountant. All your business and tax records must be fully updated.
  • A business appraiser can prove very helpful. This individual can help you determine a fair asking price for your company.
  • Even a brief consultation with a business broker can benefit you. This person knows how to locate a healthy pool of potential buyers. This process can prove extra challenging if you do not want to run any public advertisements.

Be prepared to locate or create various documents while trying to complete a viable sale

You must be prepared to share all your basic financial statements and records for the past three or four years. It’s also crucial to create a comprehensive list of all your company equipment and fixed assets tied to your business accounts. (Be prepared to spend the necessary fees to repair all valuable vehicles, equipment and other goods involved with the final sale).

It’s also important to create a detailed list of your ongoing sales transactions and the names of the companies that currently provide all your company’s most critical supplies. Copies of all current contracts and leases should also be made available so qualified buyers can review them.

Be prepared to carefully decide which buyers may be the most dependable ones

Many business owners prefer to sell their companies to close family members, trustworthy employees, friends or current customers. You’ll need to choose wisely, especially since this type of sale often takes from six months to two years. 

Of course, never disclose private information about your business to potential buyers until after they’ve each agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements and qualified for financing plans that meet your requirements.  Be prepared to negotiate carefully – or ask your attorney to handle the negotiations on your behalf.

If you’re ready to sell a business – or just want to learn more about all the various legal and practical steps referenced above, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We look forward to answering all your questions.

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.

The Basic Steps for Forming a Texas Corporation

Although running a business can be very challenging, it’s often invigorating to reach a point when you may need to incorporate your company. This process is often begun by discussing what can be gained or loss by making this move with your business partners. You should also consider speaking with your Houston business lawyer so you’ll fully understand all the legal implications of making this decision.

The following material reviews the main reasons that many companies choose to incorporate their businesses. It then notes the most common steps that must be taken prior to filing a certificate of incorporation with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

Potential advantages that are often acquired by incorporating a business

  • Improved legal liability status. Creating a corporation can provide each individual business partner with added protection against personal liability for the actions of all other executives or employees. It can also offer greater protection for business assets;
  • Critical, everyday activities can be simplified. Upon incorporating, it can become easier to add new owners and investors while still maintaining the same level of control over your company;
  • The company can more easily transact business all around the world. It’s often easier to conduct business in a corporate form in many other countries;
  • It can help you one day take your company public. While your corporate executives and employees may always want to conduct business privately, a time may come when it may be to your financial advantage to take the company public and sell stock.

Those are just a few of the main reasons why many business executives decide to incorporate their current companies or partnerships.

Common steps you must take when you’re ready to incorporate your business

  1. Name the corporation. Try to choose a name that suits your business and helps raise your profile. You and your lawyer will need to conduct a formal search to see if any of the names you’d like to choose are currently available in Texas;
  2. Select a registered agent and office. Be prepared to designate a trustworthy party to serve as your registered agent and name the city where that person will keep his or her office;
  3. Choose which parties will be named as the corporation’s organizers or incorporators. The names and addresses of each of these individuals must be listed within the certificate of formation;
  4. Designate your corporate directors. After the certificate of formation has been filed, the directors take over running your business. These highly knowledgeable executives must also have strong management and interpersonal skills that will help them successfully negotiate all future decisions and transactions;
  5. Draft a brief statement, indicating the corporation’s official business purpose. While this may sound rather straightforward, it’s often wise to run this description by your lawyer to be sure you’ve fully covered all key aspects of your intended business transactions;
  6. Consider obtaining professional help with the completion of your official certificate of incorporation. Like other states, Texas has specific expectations for the precise information that must be included. Since these requirements can change periodically, it’s often wise to ask your lawyer to review the contents of your certificate of incorporation;
  7. Pay the required fees. These should normally be posted on the Texas Secretary of State’s online website. If you prefer, your lawyer can submit your fees and certificate of incorporation for you.

While this list of common steps isn’t intended to be fully comprehensive, it should clearly indicate the basic steps that you and your business partners should take if you decide that it’s time to incorporate your business.

Please feel free to contact the lawyers at Murray Lobb so we can answer any specific questions you may have about this process. We’ve helped many clients incorporate their businesses over the years – and we’re ready to put that experience to work for you.

Administering the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Prior to the passage of the FMLA in 1993, American workers had few options when they needed extra time off from work due to their own serious medical conditions and accidents – or those of immediate family members. In fact, workers often had to use up all their vacation and sick leave benefits, if entitled to any, and then worry about their job security if they needed more time off. (However, eligible women could seek the special help offered by the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act). 

Fortunately, the Family Medical Leave Act is still helping many 21st century workers address critical family caregiving duties and remains one of the signature pieces of legislation from the Clinton era.

Here’s a brief overview of specific provisions of the act that can help your qualified workers.

What basic opportunities does the FMLA offer qualified employees?

If a worker meets the minimum qualifications referenced below, it’s possible to take up to twelve (12) weeks of unpaid leave during a calendar year to take care of seriously ill family members, new children or the individual’s own major medical condition.

In 2008, the Family Medical Leave Act was updated so that qualified workers could also take time off work to take care of immediate family members who became very ill (or were seriously injured) while serving in the military.

The FMLA guarantees that qualified workers can take the extended time off work without having to worry about losing their jobs, their seniority or their employer-provided health care insurance.

Which types of employees are qualified to use the FMLA?

  • Those who have employers with 50 or more workers on the payroll for at least 20 workweeks during the preceding or current calendar year. A worker may still qualify even if all the 50 workers aren’t working at the same site – if they work within a 75-mile radius of one another;
  • Those who have worked for their employer for a minimum of 12 months, for a total of at least 1,250 hours. This means that many part-time workers may not qualify for FMLA leave. However, there are special rules that may apply to workers who are teachers, are highly paid – or are flight crew members of airlines;
  • Employees taking time off from jobs to handle their own “serious health conditions” – or those of covered family members. This time may also be used to take care of a new child or a servicemember in the immediate family who has been wounded.

Note:  Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) individuals can also qualify like other workers to take care of their family members.

General questions often raised about the FMLA by employers and employees

Question 1:   Can the leave time requested be intermittent during a calendar year?

Answer 1:     Yes, if all the time that’s taken is counted toward the maximum amount of time off

                     allowed (12 weeks).

Question 2:  What government agency oversees and administers the FMLA for all federal

                     employees – as well as all state and local government workers and private

                     employees?

Answer 2:   The U. S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. This is noted in Fact

                   Sheet #77B entitled, “Protection for Individuals Under the FMLA.”

Question 3: Are all workers qualified to take time off from their jobs under the FMLA entitled

                     to receive pay while away from work?

Answer 3:    No. The FMLA doesn’t require employers to pay qualified employees while they’re

                    taking this type of leave. However, it’s up to your employer to let you make a claim

                    for regular vacation time, sick leave or annual time off.

Question 4: Can a qualified worker ever be granted more than 12 weeks of paid or unpaid

                     FMLA leave in one year?

Answer 4:   An exception only exists for qualified family caregivers of wounded

                    servicemembers. They’re allowed to take up to 26 weeks off from their jobs in a

                    given calendar year.

Question 5: Can a qualified worker request more than 12 weeks off under the FMLA to take care

                    of a newborn – or a newly adopted child?

Answer 5:   In general, the answer is “No.” However, individual states can pass their own

                   versions of the FMLA and provide somewhat different benefits. To date, the Texas

                   Workforce Commission says that Texas has not passed such legislation.

Although the Family Medical Leave Act is a straightforward piece of legislation, it’s been updated with new rules and regulations and interpreted by the courts. Therefore, it’s usually wise for employers to ask their Houston employment lawyer for help if they have any specific questions about properly handling FMLA issues.

Please feel free to contact Murray Lobb so we can help explain any specific aspects of the FMLA to you as you provide its benefits to your employees. We’re always available to research any questions you may have.

Most Common Hiring Discrimination Complaints

In a work world where the average tenure with any given employer is declining, many companies must routinely advertise and fill both new and established jobs. Yet as common as this process has become, every employer must periodically stop and re-evaluate how all job applications are being reviewed, skills tests are being administered and interviews are being granted and conducted.

After all, implicit bias (discriminatory hiring) remains a constant threat to maintaining an even playing field for all job applicants. And though most Texas employees are hired on an “at-will” basis, (allowing them to leave when they choose – and be fired without notice or cause), certain federal, state and local laws forbidding hiring discrimination must still be obeyed.

The most critical laws protecting employees against discrimination are set forth below, followed by examples of the types of hiring questions employers should avoid. Finally, the roles played by the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) regarding employee complaints are also briefly noted.

Federal, state and local laws provide many anti-discrimination protections to Texas workers

Both federal laws and Texas statutes have been passed providing job applicants and employees with protections against discrimination on the following grounds.

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (including various medical conditions directly related to pregnancy)
  • Age (40 and older)
  • Genetic testing information
  • Disability

Federal law also provides specific employment discrimination protection to applicants who may not be actual U. S. citizens.

Federal laws and related regulations designed to protect workers against discrimination

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). This law was later amended to include The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
  • The Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA)
  • The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)
  • Sections 102 and 103 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991
  • Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • GINA – The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

Many of the legal rights guaranteed to Texas workers under the federal laws referenced above are also protected (and set forth) in Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code. Various Texas cities, including both Houston and Austin, have passed additional anti-discrimination laws to protect their residents with unique sexual orientation and gender identity issues. (Additional information about protecting employee rights is set forth on our Texas Governor’s website.)

Here’s some additional, pragmatic information for handling the job application process.

Company interviewers must carefully avoid asking job applicants these types of questions

While the following list is not intended to be comprehensive, it should heighten your awareness of how careful you must be when trying to learn more about applicants who may have certain special needs or limitations that are not directly related to legitimate job requirements.

  • Do you have any disability? (However, if the applicant has a visually obvious disability — or has voluntarily disclosed one – you can normally ask if any special job accommodations are necessary or required);
  • Are you currently taking any medications that might impair your ability to perform the assigned tasks as described?
  • Have you needed to file any workers compensation claims in the past?
  • Are you pregnant – or planning to have a child during the coming year?
  • Have you obtained the results from any genetic tests during the past 10 years that indicate your likelihood of developing cancer (or another debilitating condition)?
  • Have you ever suffered a heart attack or stroke? Do you have any close blood relatives who have suffered from either of these medical problems?
  • Do you currently suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – or do any immediate family members have these medical conditions?

Under some circumstances, once you’ve hired a new employee, you may be able to inquire about certain disability-related medical conditions. However, you should discuss all the specific conditions that must exist before asking these questions with your employment law attorneys to avoid violating any of the employee’s legal rights.

The TWC and EEOC help current (and prospective) employees with discrimination concerns

When individuals believe that they’ve endured discrimination while applying for work with your company – or while employed by you, they usually contact the Texas Workforce Commission and the EEOC while deciding whether to file a formal complaint.

Should you learn that such a complaint has been filed, be sure to immediately contact our law firm so we can help you prepare a thorough response, detailing all that your company did to fully respect all employee (or job applicant) rights. We can also discuss with you various proactive steps your company can take to try and decrease the chances of having any further complaints filed against you.

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.

How Wage Garnishment Laws Affect Many Texans

Although wealthier Texans may build up significant savings and retirement accounts by middle age, most residents must keep working far longer to meet their individual and family needs. And if unexpected family or medical crises occur creating new financial emergencies, some people may face wage garnishments. Fortunately, Texas offers strong protection against many types of creditors.

Here’s a brief review of the most common types of wage garnishments pursued in Texas, basic terms you’ll need to know regarding this field – and references to special concerns you may need to discuss with your Houston business law attorney to fully protect your rights.

Important terminology related to attaching employee wages

  • Wage garnishments. In Texas, this term is often used interchangeably with “wage attachments” and refers to court orders directing employers to withhold certain amounts of money from employee paychecks to satisfy certain debts;
  • Administrative garnishments. These usually refer to federal government back taxes or student loans now in default – and they do not require a court order to be activated. Once debtors have student loans in default, they’ll normally be contacted by the U. S. Department of Education and told which collection agencies will be collecting their debts. (Note: Students loans can almost never be discharged by a bankruptcy filing);
  • Disposable earnings. This refers to the amount of money you have left in your paycheck after all mandatory deductions have been made for federal taxes, disability insurance, union dues, unemployment insurance, nondiscretionary retirement deductions, workers compensation and health insurance.

Types of debts often leading to wage garnishment

Texans are very fortunate compared to citizens of other states since Texas only honors a very limited number of garnishable debts.

  1. Unpaid child support and alimony (in arrears)
  2. Current court-ordered child support and alimony
  3. Government debts owed to the IRS (back taxes) — and all related fines and penalties
  4. Unpaid student loans (in arrears)

Note:  In light of Article IV of the U. S. Constitution, Section I (requiring each state to honor the “public acts . . .  and judicial proceedings of every other state,” certain other limited creditor debts referenced in judgments obtained outside of Texas may also be garnishable.

Be sure to speak with your Houston business law attorney whenever you receive any notice of an order to garnish your wages.

Fixed garnishment limitations that benefit Texas debtors

  • Total amount that can be garnished (based on all court orders). This is equal to 50% of your disposable earnings;
  • Percentage allowed for tax debt. This varies, based on your current deduction rate, the number of your dependents and other factors;
  • Student loans. The Department of Education can normally only garnish up to 15% of your disposable income from each paycheck;
  • Spousal support. The most your wages can be attached for this obligation is either $5,000 or 20% of your average monthly gross income – whichever is less.

Priority of wage garnishment orders

Although unusual factors might be able to change the list below, employers must normally prioritize their payment of garnishment orders in the following manner.

  • Unpaid child-support
  • Spousal support
  • Back taxes
  • Student loans

Texas employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees with wage garnishments

This has long been a concern of many employees since handling wage garnishments can take up a considerable amount of an employer’s time. Texas doesn’t allow those with wage attachments to be treated unfairly when it comes to hiring, promoting, demoting, reprimanding and firing (among other actions).

How creditors can still reach your money – apart from using wage garnishment

Even if your wages cannot be reached, regular creditors can still gain access to your money by obtaining court orders to freeze one or more of your financial accounts – and place liens on certain types of real property you own.

Please contact our law firm with any questions you may have about the proper handling of court orders to garnish wages — or any other types of administrate tasks regarding employees.