Update: Department of Labor Issues New Rule on Overtime Pay

The Department of Labor issued a final rule in September of 2019 that could allow an additional 1.3 million more American workers to become eligible to receive overtime pay. This new rule becomes effective on January 1, 2020.

One key focus of the new rule is to update the earning thresholds that exempt certain professional, executive and administrative employees from the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) minimum wage and overtime pay guidelines. The new rule is also designed to allow employers to count portions of some bonuses and commissions toward meeting the required salary level.

These adjustments are being made to recognize the increase in employee earnings that have occurred since these salary thresholds were last reviewed in 2004.

Earning levels and other specific issues addressed by the new DOL rule

  • Changes are being made to the “standard salary level.” At present, the enforced earning level is $455 per week – and that’s being raised to $684 per week (or $35,568 for an entire year);
  • There’s an increase in the total annual compensation requirements for workers categorized as “highly compensated employees.” The current enforced level of $100,000 a year is now being raised to $107,432 annually;
  • Employers can now count nondiscretionary incentive payments, bonuses and commissions paid at least once annually. These sums can now be added to help satisfy as much as 10% of what’s now known as the standard salary level – recognizing how pay practices are evolving;
  • Salary levels have now been revised for specific groups of workers. These include people who labor in U. S. territories – or individuals employed by the motion picture industry.

Some of the many earlier overtime pay guidelines that still apply

  • Unlimited overtime hours.  The FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) still allows exempt employees age 16 and older to work an unlimited number of overtime hours during any one workweek;
  • Timely payment of overtime. Employers must pay for all hours worked, including overtime, on each regular pay day;
  • When overtime pay is required. Once a non-exempt worker has put in at least 40 hours during any one calendar workweek (which can begin on any day of the week), the overtime pay rate applies.

If you have any questions about how the new DOL overtime pay rule may affect your workforce, please give one of our Murray Lobb attorneys a call. We’re also available to provide legal advice on many other important topics – and can draft any contracts or other documents you may need.

Properly Handling Background Record Checks of Potential Employees

All companies must proceed cautiously while trying to create safe, productive and pleasant work environments. The best approach is to develop standard procedures for running background checks and investigations for all applicants who will be handling similar tasks — without regard to any discriminatory traits or characteristics.

First and foremost, you must obtain each job applicant’s written permission to run checks on their job and educational records, criminal background history and financial credit status. Should any of the information you obtain make you no longer wish to consider a specific job applicant, you must inform that person about each report’s negative findings – since all potential employees have the right to refute and correct such data.

Always be sure to also treat all applicants with equal respect and remind them that you’re simply trying to learn all you can about your top applicants. And be sure to state in writing that providing false information can cause individuals to be immediately dropped from further consideration – or be fired in the future when such misinformation is discovered.

Here’s additional information about the types of errors that can appear in background checks, how you might allow job candidates to respond to negative findings — and tips on exercising special caution when sensitive data appears on either sex offender registries or terror watch lists.

Types of negative information & errors that may be uncovered during background checks

Hopefully, most of your searches will just reveal that your applicants have provided their correct names, full address histories, all job information for recent years, accurate Social Security numbers and other basic data. However, chances are that at least some of your potential employees will need to explain about one or more of the following findings.

  • Past arrests or conviction records. Always pay close attention to the types of behavior or crimes involved, when the events occurred and how (if true) that history might affect your work environment. If you still wish to hire a person with some type of negative arrest or conviction, remember that you have a legal duty to create a safe work environment for all your employees. Also, bear in mind that future claims of negligent hiring could prove very costly to your company.
  • Fraudulent or grossly misleading information about the applicant’s academic background or work history. As noted above, make sure that all your application forms clearly indicate that providing false information on such forms (or on a resume) can be immediate grounds for dismissing an applicant from further consideration. Should you believe that any applicant may have simply made a typographical or innocent error on the forms, always allow the person to provide corrected information. Just be sure to respond to the discovery of such false information in the same manner for every applicant;
  • Misleading or inaccurate driving record information. If you’re hiring someone to deliver packages or goods for you – or drive others around on your company’s behalf, you better make sure they have an excellent driving record.
  • A very poor credit score, a bankruptcy or other signs of major financial problems. Always be sensitive and careful when asking applicants to explain this type of information;
  • The person’s name turns up on a sex offender registry or a terrorist watch list. Given the number of people who are burdened with very common names, always reveal what you’ve learned to the individual in a calm manner, preferably with at least one other human resources staff member present. If you still want to hire a person whose name was on one of these lists, always first speak with your Houston employment law attorney.

Your lawyer can tell you how you should go about carefully determining a person’s correct identity and if it’s too risky to hire someone. It may even be necessary to contact the Department of Homeland Security if the person is listed on a terrorist watch list. (Do keep in mind that even the government knows that it can be very time-consuming to remove a name wrongfully added to a terrorist watch list);

It’s crucial to maintain a standard of fairness that applies to all applicants

Be sure your company’s hiring policies provide specific time limits on when applicants must provide you with corrected information after background checks turn up negative or disturbing information. Always apply that same standard to all applicants. If someone needs more time, you should only allow a one-time extension that applies equally to others.

How long must you keep all job application forms and background check information?

The EEOC (Equal Opportunity Commission), the Department of Labor and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) each provide slightly different guidelines on how long certain records should be kept. Overall, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of all application materials and background information for about two years. Of course, if any job applicant or employee files a lawsuit against your company, that person’s records should be kept until all legal proceedings and appeals have come to an end.

Make sure all employee records are stored in a restricted area where only one or two senior human resource officials have access to them. Once it’s time to destroy the records, it’s wise to carefully shred, burn or pulverize the data so that the material can no longer be read.

Of course, some employers keep all resumes and job application forms in case they later have problems with an employee — or come across information that indicates that the background check failed to disclose fraudulent claims were contained in those documents. Some firms just scan all such data into secure databases.

Since credit background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), be sure you understand the terms of that legislation and how it impacts your specific workplace. Also, always keep in mind that the State of Texas also has laws and regulations that can impact how your company handles background checks and employee records. It’s always wise to periodically touch base with your lawyer to find out if any of these laws have recently changed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the legal guidance you may need while hiring employees or simply running your business. We can also provide you with any contracts you may need — or review the contents of your current employee handbook.

The SBA Suggests 10 Key Steps for Starting a New Business

Once you’ve decided to start a new business, it can be tempting to simply moved forward with various tasks as they come to mind. While this may work for a few entrepreneurs, it’s always best to create an organized plan of action so you won’t waste time and cause problems for yourself that could easily have been avoided.

Fortunately, the SBA (Small Business Administration) provides excellent online materials that can help you plan the most useful way to start a new company – or expand the current reach of an existing one. Here’s a brief review of the ten important tasks that should normally be addressed first as you launch a new business.

The key steps for creating a solid foundation for your new business

  1. Decide where to locate your company. Prior to starting any market research, you’ll need to look at several cities to decide upon the best location for your business. This decision must be partly based on if you’ll be selling goods and services to your customers from a brick-and-mortar storefront or office – or if you’ll just be contacting potential customers on the phone or over the Internet. Be sure to select a location where many well-qualified job applicants live – as well as a city and state with reasonable business taxes;
  1. Develop a reliable market research plan. Once you’re certain about the goods or services your new business will sell, you must conduct market research to verify that there’s a definite need for what you’ll be selling in a specific location. This activity also involves identifying your potential customers and all known competitors; 
  2. Create a viable business plan. Most people starting a new business choose between a traditional business plan or a lean one for a basic start-up company. If you need to borrow money to finance your company, you’ll almost certainly have to provide a lender with a traditional business plan.

The traditional plan is normally very comprehensive – it describes your specific goods and services, provides a mission statement about what you seek to accomplish in the long run and names the initial team of professionals who will be running the company. It also states where the business will be located and how many employees you’ll need to hire. A traditional business plan should also describe the business structure you’ll be using, who will be handling specific tasks – and it should review your market analysis. Initial financial projections or earnings for the company should also be included.

In contrast, a lean start-up business plan may simply describe your goods and services, provide a statement about who will be running the company and state who you believe will be your most likely customers. It should also contain information about how you’ll initially finance the company and where it will be located;

  1. Make sure you have enough initial funding for the company. You and your business partners or advisors must determine how much money you’ll need to start your business. If you cannot raise this money among your business partners, then may have to try and obtain funds from venture capitalists or request a small business loan from a bank or through SBA resources. Other options include raising capital through crowdfunding or other online resources;
  2. Select the best business structure for your company. While many people run sole proprietorships if they’ll be handling all of the major company tasks themselves, others choose between forming such structures as partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs) — or some type of corporation or cooperative;
  3. Decide upon the best name for your company. It’s a good idea to brainstorm with your partners or investors since you want to try and choose a name that clearly reflects the nature or “brand” of your business – as well as its spirit. Be aware that one of your first tasks will be to make sure the name you select is original and that it’s not already being used by anyone else;
  1. Be sure to register and protect your business name. After you’ve chosen the best name for your company, you’ll need to take steps to protect that name by properly registering it. Keep in mind that you may also need to register any trademark you’ll be using. Since additional ways of protecting your company name may also be required, you should always discuss this topic with your Houston business law attorney;
  2. You must request state and federal tax IDs. You will need to obtain an EIN (employer identification number) for many reasons. For example, you must have an EIN to open a bank account for your company and to pay taxes (among other tasks). Depending on the different states where your company will be operating, you may also need to obtain one or more state tax IDs;
  3. Obtain all required licenses and permits. Your specific type of business activity and where you’ll be working will determine the types of permits and licenses you must obtain, if any;
  4. Be sure to open one or more business accounts for your company. These most often include checking and savings accounts, credit card accounts and a merchant services account. Depending on the nature of your business and its initial size, you may be able to simply start with a checking account and then open other accounts as the need arises.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for legal advice as you address any or all of the various steps named above while starting a new business. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients establish a wide variety of successful businesses in the past and are prepared to provide you will all the guidance you may need.

Designating a Guardian for Your Children in a Will

If you’re a parent with children who haven’t yet reached the age of majority, you need to create a Will that designates a guardian to step in and look after them if you suddenly pass away. If you fail to provide for your kids in this manner, a court will usually appoint someone to serve in this role – especially if your former spouse is deceased or incapable of handling this responsibility.

A list of traits and abilities a responsible guardian should have are set forth below. If your children have entered their teens at the time when no parent remains alive to care for them, the courts will normally consider their preferences for a guardian at that time.

What are some key considerations when choosing a guardian for your children?

  • It’s often best to choose someone already known to your kid(s) or who has a definite gift for caregiving. This might be one of your parents, a sibling or a very close and trusted friend. Always be sure to obtain this person’s advance permission to name him (or her) in your Will before doing so. If you prefer, you can also designate a married couple as co-guardians;
  • If possible, try to choose a person who already lives in the same city as you — or who is willing to relocate there in the future. It can be very comforting to children if they’re allowed to remain in their same school district. If you can’t find someone who lives nearby, be aware that it may prove a bit expensive for an out-of-state guardian to handle legal matters for the children in a different state. Choosing a local guardian can prevent this type of problem;
  • Give serious thought to choosing a guardian who will fully support your faith beliefs and core ethical values. It’s always best to appoint a person who’s eager to help your children grow up in the faith community you prefer – and who will daily enforce the moral teachings you treasure most;
  • Think about the financial responsibilities involved. Hopefully, you’ll have provided well for your children’s future with life insurance and other funds prior to your death. However, regardless of how much money you’ve put in an account for your kids, you’ll need a guardian who can responsibly handle money. If you do not know of anyone with strong financial skills, you can still choose a person to serve as the caregiving guardian – and designate a different individual to manage the children’s financial resources;
  • What should you do if you do not want your estranged spouse to become the guardian after you pass away? Your Houston estate planning attorney may advise you to write and sign a letter documenting your reasons – and to attach relevant police reports or court documents to the letter. You can then give that letter to your named guardian so that it can be presented to the court after you’ve passed away;
  • How should you proceed if you have children living with you from different marriages? It may be necessary to name more than one guardian for the children. Your main goal should be to keep as many of the kids together as possible. However, you must be realistic about how many children your named guardian can handle;
  • Give some thought to the age of the person you’d like to name. If your parent or another desired guardian is still in good health, you may decide to go ahead and name that person now and simply revisit your decision within the next five years (or when that guardian’s health suddenly declines.) If you are naming a much older person as guardian, be sure to also name a secondary guardian who is willing to step in if the first one cannot serve in this capacity after you pass away. In fact, it’s always a good idea to have a back-up guardian named in your Will;
  • Remember to name every child you want to be cared for by your guardian. It’s never wise to think that a court will assume that all your kids are covered if you only name one or two. Also, extended family members might step in and try to contest your choice if every child isn’t named individually.

Before finalizing any Will that designates one or more guardians, be sure to discuss your choices with your older children. Also, make sure each named guardian is truly interested in helping you by taking on such a demanding assignment.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can prepare a Will that designates a guardian for your children. We’ll be happy to answer any additional questions you may have about this critical task. Most parents gain a greater sense of peace once they’ve legally provided for these important caregiving needs for their children.

Handling Your Adult Child’s Estate in Texas

Losing a child of any age remains one of life’s most difficult challenges. When that child is an adult, you may often need legal advice on how to manage any estate left behind, even if it’s rather limited. Now that so many Americans are living well into their 70s and 80s, the chances of losing an adult child are growing.

One study found that 11.5 percent of people age 50 or older have lost at least one adult child. That likelihood of loss is even higher for African Americans – 16.7 percent of them have lost an adult child. Furthermore, the older you get, the sense of loss can be even harder to cope with since adult children are often the closest caregivers of their aging parents.

Here’s a look at some of the legal questions you’ll need to address after losing an adult child.

Issues Surviving Parents May Need to Face After an Adult Child Passes Away:

  • Did your son or daughter live with and leave behind a spouse or partner? If so, calmly reach out to that person to find out if there’s a Will naming the personal representative of the estate. If your child didn’t have a Will or named someone else as the executor of their Will, you’ll need to interact very sensitively with that person. When you contact your Houston estate planning lawyer, be prepared to indicate your adult child’s marital status at the time of death;
  • Did your adult child have any children? It’s important to stay on good terms with your loved one’s surviving spouse or partner since visitation rights and overall family harmony may depend upon your relationship with that person. (Note: If the surviving spouse or partner has any major substance abuse problems, be sure to share that information with your lawyer. We can explain pertinent child custody and adoption laws, if necessary);
  • Did your son or daughter own considerable land or personal property? Your attorney can help you try to prevent anyone from giving away or disposing of such property before the estate can be probated – or passed on according to your adult child’s estate plan. If you’ve been named the personal representative, obtain a copy of the Will as soon as possible. If no one is living in your adult child’s former house or apartment, be sure someone visits soon to look for pets needing immediate care, valuables that must be secured and vehicles that must be locked and placed in a garage;
  • Contacting your adult child’s employer. If you were named as your adult child’s personal representative, you’ll soon need to contact that employer to find out what employee assets may still be held in a 401k or other account. Likewise, you’ll want to find out if any other benefits are still owing to your child – and if s/he held any type of insurance policy through the employer;
  • What should you do about burial, cremation and related issues? Always try to honor the instructions in your deceased child’s Will or other legal documents. If you can’t find a Will, then work with any surviving spouse/partner and other family members to handle this matter in keeping with your family’s faith practices or general traditions;
  • Do you know what to expect under Texas law if your adult child died intestate – without a Will or some other type of estate plan?  Your Houston estate planning attorney can explain how Texas courts address this type of situation. We can also inform you about how estates are handled by probate courts and how you should manage other tasks that are often required after losing an adult child.

Please know that since our firm has worked with many clients grieving over the loss of loved ones. We’ll provide our legal advice in the most caring manner possible. When you contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys, we’ll be ready to provide you with simple steps to take so you can concentrate on obtaining comfort from family and friends.

What Types of Deceptive Trade Practices Are Forbidden in Texas?

Too many Texas consumers regularly lose money on purchases due to misleading advertising and fraudulent business practices. When those events occur – especially when large sums of money are involved – it’s often necessary to contact the Consumer Protection Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. That division is charged with enforcing the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA) that’s set forth in the Texas Business and Commerce Code.

A Consumer Protective Division lawyer must then investigate the consumer complaint and decide if any legal remedy like an injunction must be pursued. The wronged consumer should also consider hiring a Houston business law attorney to file a lawsuit seeking Texas DTPA damages from the merchant or company that allegedly violated the DTPA.

Here’s a brief look at those who may want to file these types of complaints and lawsuits, followed by a review of some of the commonly alleged DTPA violations — and the basic types of civil damages available to plaintiffs who win these kinds of cases.

The general categories of plaintiffs under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act

  • The average, individual consumer buying property or goods. When buying a home, a car, indoor furnishings or other personal property, a consumer has the right to complete such transactions without being fraudulently manipulated by false advertising or other schemes that cause the loss of hard-earned money;
  • Those seeking repairs (or other types of service) work. Consumers must be quoted fair and accurate rates. They must also be provided with correct information about the training and experience of those who will be performing the requested services;
  • Individuals or companies seeking to close expensive business transactions, within certain established financial limitations. For example, a person or company seeking to buy a business franchise worth three hundred thousand dollars will usually be covered. However, the Texas DTPA is not intended to cover any business consumer with assets worth more than $25 million or more – or a business entity with $25 million (or more) in assets that’s controlled or owned by another business or corporation that has assets valued at or above $25 million.

Types of complaints and claims often brought under the Texas DTPA

Since highly diverse claims are covered by this statute, the following list only provides a general sampling of the complaints often alleged by consumers.

  • Being sold goods or services that were not actually made by the company that claimed to have created or provided them. In other words, the seller tried to mislead the buyer as to the true maker or provider of what was being sold;
  • Buyers were intentionally misled as to where certain goods or services originated. It’s against the law to sell goods claiming they were grown or made in a specific country when the seller knew that wasn’t true. Likewise, you cannot advertise that certain services will be provided by employees or contractors from one city or region who will be coming from another location;
  • Advertising goods or services as having the approval or sponsorship of specific individuals or groups when that’s a fraudulent claim. For example, you cannot sell certain medical devices and claim they’re backed by the American Medical Association (or a local medical group) when that’s untrue. Likewise, there can be no attempt to claim that the seller had direct ties to another specific company or government entity when that’s a fraudulent misrepresentation;
  • Selling goods or services and saying that they meet certain objective standards (or are made of specific types of materials) when that’s an intentional misrepresentation. For example, a company cannot claim that a couch was made of leather when it knew it was made of Naugahyde. Likewise, a company cannot claim all service personnel have earned specific licensing credentials – or are bonded – when it knows that’s false information;
  • Making purposeful “bait-and switch” sales. It’s a deceptive trade practice to run a print ad (or an online or televised commercial) that states that a store is selling a specific brand of products – or providing a certain grade of service by specially trained personnel – when the seller knows those facts to be false. Likewise, a company cannot claim that highly experienced contractors with over 10 years of experience are being sent to someone’s home to repair a major roof leak – when the actual workers have very little experience handling such tasks;
  • Misleading the buying public as to why certain goods are being sold at a major discount. For example, a merchant cannot claim that an accidental, large shipment of goods came in and they must now be sold at a greatly reduced price – when that merchant is really trying to unload damaged goods on unsuspecting buyers;
  • Selling a car, truck or other vehicle after rolling back the odometer. When a seller has any reason to believe that someone has reset or rolled back an odometer – or has personally done so because that part stopped recording mileage – all such facts must be fully disclosed to each potential buyer;
  • Taking advantage of the buying public after a natural disaster has been formally declared by the state’s governor. The DTPA does not allow anyone to sell goods at excessive or unfair prices, especially after a natural disaster like a flood. Therefore, no store can charge inflated prices for necessities like water, food, fuel, flashlights, batteries or medicine.

While this list isn’t comprehensive, it should provide a clear idea of the types of fraud and misrepresentation that can cause lawyers with the Texas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division – and individual consumers — to pursue through DTPA litigation.

Penalties or damages that can be sought for Texas DTPA violations 

As your personal lawyer will tell you, the Texas Attorney General’s public remedies may include different types of injunctions, restraining orders and penalties. Should you file a private lawsuit, the penalties awarded to you can be influenced by whether the wrongful conduct was knowingly committed. When a violation of the DTPA was “knowingly” committed, penalties are sometimes awarded at the level of three times the sum awarded for the economic damages.

If you believe your consumer rights under the Texas DTPA have been violated, you should contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide you with the timely advice you’ll need while we help you decide whether to file a DTPA lawsuit on your behalf.

Key Provisions of the FLSA Most Businesses Must Uphold

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law governing such employee issues as the minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor restrictions and record-keeping practices. It’s the duty of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor to administer this law.

The FLSA benefits exempt and nonexempt employees somewhat differently. For example, exempt employees do not have a federally guaranteed right to overtime pay — and minimum wage provisions usually don’t apply to them. Company executives and “outside sales” employees are among those who often hold exempt positions. Human resource personnel must fully understand the different rights that apply to these distinct classifications.

Here’s some additional information on jobs not usually covered by overtime pay, the wages owed to nonexempt employees, laws designed to safeguard children and basic ways that the DOL enforces violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Workers or specific professions often exempt from overtime pay

  • Railroad and air carrier employees
  • Taxi drivers and some motor carrier workers
  • Those employed on American vessels at sea
  • Local delivery workers who are compensated under specific rate plans
  • News editors, announcers and chief engineers working for non-broadcasting stations
  • Farmworkers

Basic nonexempt employee wage rights

The current minimum wage in Texas is $7.25 an hour. However, waitstaff and other employees are governed by unique standards that are supposed to bring them up near (or equal to) the minimum wage. In addition to the wage rights set forth under the FLSA, state and municipal laws often provide somewhat higher minimum wages to nonexempt employees. Your Houston employment law attorney can update you on any recent changes in Texas law on this point.

Another important wage guarantee provided by the FLSA involves overtime pay. Nonexempt employees who work over 40 hours per week must be paid one and one-half times their regular pay rate for additional hours. Therefore, if a nonexempt employee normally earns $12 an hour – and is asked to work five extra hours one week – that employee must be paid $18 an hour for each of the additional five hours (in addition to the regular rate of pay for the 40 hours).

In some states, there are laws limiting how many hours a day a worker can be on duty. All employers must make sure they honor such provisions.

Federal job protections designed to benefit children

In most workplace settings, children must be age 16 or older to hold down a job – although they must be at least 18 years old to drive a motor vehicle for an employer – or to work in mining. However, exceptions have been made so that the FLSA does not apply to child actors, kids delivering newspapers or those making simple crafts at home.

Unfortunately, few restrictions protect children who’ve been hired as farm labor. Once a waiver has been obtained from the Department of Labor (DOL), a child as young as 10 or 11 can be hired to help with hand harvest labor.

There is also a “youth minimum wage” that applies to children (age 20 and younger) that’s equal to $4.25 an hour; it can be paid for 90 consecutive days of work. This makes summer jobs for teenagers easier to come by – although the pay isn’t very high. However, employers cannot displace any older workers receiving the standard minimum wage to simply save money by hiring teenagers at that lower pay rate.

The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division is charged with enforcing the FLSA

A complaint can be filed against businesses that violate any FLSA employee rights. While willful violations can be prosecuted in a criminal court, less serious or unintentional mishandling of FLSA duties may only result in civil liability. For example, if your office hires employees below the age of 16, you might be required to pay a fine of up to $1,000 for each underage young person on your payroll. A civil court might also impose specific changes in the way you handle certain hiring and record-keeping practices to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Should the Wage and Hour Division decide that your company has failed to fully pay all that’s owed to specific workers, it can file suit against you to recover the unpaid sums of money — or obtain an injunction that will forbid any further violations of the FLSA.

If you’re uncertain whether your office is in full compliance with all FLSA regulations and all relevant Texas employment law statutes — please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can help you review all your current practices involving the payment of a minimum wage, proper classification of all workers, the handling of overtime assignments and any other duties covered by the FLSA. A periodic review of all these workplace standards can help your business avoid any fines or lawsuits.

Be Careful When Creating a Company Policy on Moonlighting

When addressing employee management issues like moonlighting, it’s often best to seek out a middle ground. If you’ll first establish clear work standards that fully protect your company’s intellectual property and ongoing research and development efforts, you should be able to accommodate those who can responsibly handle a second job outside their regular work hours.

Perhaps the best way to create a balanced moonlighting policy is to first review your main concerns about allowing employees to do any outside work. You should then try to objectively embrace your employees’ reasons for wanting to take on another job. Although you do have greater freedom to dictate when exempt workers put in their hours, that’s not always the case when interacting with at-will employees who are paid hourly.

Here’s a look at the competing interests involved when trying to design a moonlighting policy for your unique workplace. That information is followed by some general guidelines that you’ll want to review with your Houston employment law attorney. Employees do have certain privacy rights about how they conduct their lives outside of work and those must be respected.

Legitimate reasons why employers often want to limit moonlighting

  • To protect the company’s intellectual property. No employer wants to worry about employees knowingly (or accidentally) sharing confidential, proprietary information with another employer – or using such information while starting their own companies. Non-disclosure agreements are crucial to protecting these types of rights;
  • To maintain control over employee schedules for valid staffing purposes. Many companies require employee flexibility with work schedules in order to cover the ongoing, often unpredictable nature of their work volume. For example, customer “help” or call centers often experience times of peak calling. However, these fluctuations can change from week to week – or even day to day. People hired to work in these environments can be legitimately required to forfeit or greatly limit outside work – if those unique requirements were clearly stated in writing prior to their hiring;
  • A desire to have employees provide the company with their very best efforts. When employees take on “second” jobs – they’ll often be tempted to put in too many total work hours each week. It’s completely legitimate to want every worker to show up on time each day, fully rested and able to adequately focus on their assigned tasks;
  • Safety concerns. Moonlighting frequently causes many people to lose sleep. When they show up to your workplace greatly fatigued, they can pose a serious safety threat to their own health – and that of their coworkers;
  • Loyalty and commitment. While a moonlighting employee can provide you with these desirable attribues – you have every right to expect them to demonstrate respect for your company while interacting with others.

Although these aren’t the only reasons you may want to carefully limit employee moonlighting – they do touch upon common concerns. Keep in mind that it’s your right to carefully monitor the quality of work of your moonlighting employees to be sure it doesn’t start to decline.

Some of the valid reasons many workers want to do some moonlighting

  • Additional money to support themselves and other family members. Regardless of what you’re paying each worker, everyone periodically encounters unexpected medical bills and other crises that require extra income;
  • A desire to realize their own entrepreneurial dreams. Few people can afford to simply quit their “day jobs” while trying to launch new businesses. If employees pursue this type of goal while using their own resources outside of regular work hours, there may be few issues. However, if their companies will cause them to compete for clients with your business, restrictions are fully justified;
  • An interest in taking on paid union work to improve conditions for themselves and others in their industry. Employers must tread lightly when trying to restrict such activities. While company loyalty is a legitimate concern, this isn’t necessarily violated if the workers are openly addressing key safety and health issues that affect all employees.

These are just a few of the many reasons why some workers are strongly motivated to take on moonlighting jobs.

General guidelines for drafting a moonlighting policy

  • Companies should rarely try to completely forbid moonlighting. However, as your Houston employment law attorney will tell you, it’s best to inform all “new hires” if their jobs may require sudden changes in their weekly schedules or limited overtime hours on short notice. Whenever possible, try to remain flexible with workers – or your best and brightest ones may leave so they can pursue moonlighting and other privileges elsewhere;
  • Decide if you need to specifically address this topic in your employee handbook. If you don’t wish to create a “moonlighting” policy, you can ask your attorney to provide you with hiring contracts (and/or) non-disclosure agreements. These will clearly explain to all employees that they’re legally forbidden to share any company trade secrets, research and development data – or other proprietary information – with outside parties without first obtaining express, written permission from your company. It’s also wise to have all employees sign non-compete contracts with your company before they start to work;
  • Consider requiring employees to obtain your permission before taking on “second” jobs.  Should you decide that you want to expressly forbid an employee from taking on a specific “moonlighting” job, always immediately speak with your attorney – to be sure you’re within your legal rights to do so. You’ll need to carefully document all your reasons to protect yourself from any future litigation;
  • Try to be accommodating when an employee indicates that s/he will not be competing with your company in any way. After all, it’s entirely possible that you may one day become a client of your employee’s fledgling new company. Of course, you should still periodically touch base with all moonlighting employees to be sure no conflicts of interest have developed since they started their second jobs;
  • Use periodic job evaluations to your advantage. During these, be sure supervisors ask questions that can help determine if the employee’s outside job is starting to compromise his/her ability to provide you with top-quality work.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft the various contracts you need to protect your company’s proprietary interests. We can also help guide you as you create (or update) your current employee handbook on this and other topics.

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.

You Might Need a Revocable or Irrevocable Trust

Depending on the nature of the property you own and how it’s titled, you may want to ask your lawyer to create a trust that will help you meet all your estate planning needs. To prepare for such an appointment, be sure to take along two lists – one noting all the properties you own and the other indicating the beneficiaries you want to help by naming them in the trust.

Your attorney will need to ask some general questions to help you decide which one of these trusts is best suited to your current financial situation.

Before describing some of the precise differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts, this article will note some of the general reasons why they’re often desirable.

What general benefits do trusts often confer on estate planning clients?

  • They can help maximize family privacy. Most property that passes to beneficiaries under trusts is never publicly disclosed — except to the extent that certain taxes may be owed on gifts given or received. Obviously, when property passes through probate, members of the public can learn about your estate by reviewing court records. Therefore, trusts offer greater privacy;
  • Trusts can help protect your assets from outside creditors. While this goal can be achieved if you’re not attempting to defraud others when you have the trust created, you must be prepared to answer questions if creditors sue you. If you want to put assets in a trust in hopes of getting around specific Medicaid rules and regulations, you must let your lawyer explain how the government prevents fraud in this legal area;
  • They can provide specific tax advantages. For example, since property or assets placed in an irrevocable trust account are considered owned by the trust and not by the grantor who had it created, those assets will not be treated as part of your estate (for tax purposes) at the time you pass away. (However, any assets in a revocable trust when you die will be taxed as part of your overall estate);
  • Trusts can provide added financial security to a dependent disabled person. In order to qualify for some Social Security benefits, recipients must meet certain financial criteria. If they own too much property or are too wealthy, they won’t be qualified to obtain key benefits. One legal way to get around this problem is to place assets in an irrevocable trust and name the disabled person as a beneficiary. Your Houston estate planning attorney can explain this process in greater detail. Aging parents and others often set up trust accounts like this to be sure seriously disabled family members will have enough to live on in the future – long after others have passed on;
  • At the time of a divorce, most trust funds should remain protected. However, you cannot place funds in a trust prior to a divorce to try and defeat your spouse’s community property rights;
  • Properly created trusts have long helped grantors provide for the basic needs of their loved ones.

It’s important to note that all trusts are categorized as either “testamentary” or “living” (inter vivos) trusts. The latter type become viable during the grantor’s lifetime – while testamentary trusts – which are directly linked to your Will — don’t go into effect until you’ve passed away.

What are some specific benefits of revocable trusts?

  • They can provide ongoing control over all trust assets. If you create a revocable trust, you can decide if you want to serve as the trustee and move certain assets in and out of the trust when you choose, depending on the terms you created for the trust;
  • You can change the terms of the trust when you choose. This might mean picking a new trustee or altering the list of beneficiaries;
  • They are relatively easy to handle at tax time. As the grantor (or creator) of this trust, you can simply declare your earnings from the trust in your personal tax return.

What are some specific benefits of irrevocable trusts?

  • The trust assets are usually considered safe from the reach of outside creditors. This will prove true if you didn’t have the trust created to defraud others. Courts will review all aspects of the trust’s initial drafting when checking to be sure it wasn’t set it up to defeat known debts;
  • As noted above, disabled people needing to receive special Social Security benefits can often receive critical added funds from properly drafted irrevocable trusts;
  • For tax purposes, the IRS and others don’t usually view these trust assets as being owned by the grantor at the time of his/her death. Therefore, any assets in the trust at the time the grantor dies will not be added to assets outside the trust when calculating any estate taxes that may be due.

Always keep in mind that the laws controlling the creation of trusts change periodically. Be sure to always confer with your Houston estate planning lawyer who keeps up with such changes before ever trying to create or modify a trust. Attorneys also stay abreast of all new state probate laws that may affect clients’ estate plans.

Should you need any help with creating or updating a trust account, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’re ready to provide the legal advice you’ll need to fully protect your assets in the future. Our firm can also help you revise your estate plan as your family continues to grow and new investments are added to your portfolio.