Key Ways to Protect Your Business Against Cybersecurity Threats

After the massive data breach involving Marriott’s Starwood hotel brands was reported in 2018, businesses of all sizes began wondering again if anyone can remain safe against hackers. About 500 million guests who stayed at Starwood properties (including Westin, Sheraton, W Hotels, and the St. Regis) had their names, phone numbers, email addresses, birth dates, encrypted credit card data and other information stolen.

What’s shocked people even more is that this breach covered a four-year time period extending from 2014 through September 2018. It’s hard to believe that any company’s computer networks could be so severely compromised over such a long period of time before being discovered.

Companies of all sizes who haven’t already done so must immediately take proactive steps to reduce their chances of having their customer data and other proprietary information suddenly stolen or compromised.

What one past study revealed about cybersecurity threats – that keep increasing annually

  • Close to half of the businesses surveyed consider themselves “very dependent” on the Internet for their daily business operations;
  • Over one-third of those interviewed said that it would be very damaging for their companies to be without Internet access for 48 hours in a row;
  • Small business employees rely on using the Internet for 75% to 100% of their daily work.

A much more recent study revealed that 58% of the victims of malware (cybersecurity) attacks are small businesses. Furthermore, cyber attacks wound up costing most targeted small companies about $2,235,000. Clearly, no one should avoid addressing this crucial issue.

Fortunately, various cybersecurity experts and business professionals are sharing their ideas about some of the best ways to prevent new attacks – as opposed to just responding to them.

You must determine your current level of risk to an attack before creating a protection plan

Even if you already have a highly qualified IT professional on your payroll, it’s often best to hire an outside cybersecurity consultant to come in and objectively assess your various levels of risk to a hacking attack. A “white-hat hacker” (someone on your side) can attempt to evaluate your code vulnerabilities and network and system weaknesses.

This expert can also evaluate how appropriately your employees are responding to suspicious emails that could easily introduce malware into your computer networks and databases. Give serious thought to having this type of outside expert audit your risk level at least once every two years – if not annually.

Keep in mind that it’s often useful to assign a risk level of low, medium or high to each system that might be compromised by a data breach. This can help you as you design a cybersecurity protection plan that prioritizes various risks.

Regularly review the FINRA cybersecurity checklist if you’re a smaller firm or business

This source is designed to help companies handle the following tasks.

  • Identify and evaluate all current cybersecurity threats to better protect all business assets against outside intrusions (or in-house security lapses);
  • Readily determine when your company software or databases have been hacked or compromised;
  • Decide (in advance) how to quickly counter attacks or threats as soon as they’re detected. It’s always wise to create several options based on the type of information or software that may be under attack;
  • Develop a plan with any in-house IT professionals and your outside cybersecurity consultant for readily recovering any company assets that are lost, stolen or otherwise compromised.

Create an employee training program that will help protect your systems and networks

Your employees must take the ongoing threat of a cyberattack very seriously. Staff members who fail to follow all in-house cybersecurity protocol often make it easier for outside hackers to gain entry. You might consider requiring a two-factor authentication password for those seeking to gain access to some of your company’s most valuable or vulnerable accounts.

Before providing this training, you must decide which parts of your computer network, systems and databases should remain off limits to various levels of employees.

It’s also important to let your employees know if you’ll be regularly monitoring their usage of all company computers. (It’s best to obtain written permission for this practice at the time you initially hire all employees). Inform everyone that each employee’s access to information will probably be restricted — based on their normal daily need to access certain information or to complete their assigned tasks.

Give very serious thought to limiting the outside Internet websites that employees can visit while at work and indicate what types of data downloads from outside sources are forbidden. Including these restrictions in your company’s formal training and cybersecurity protocol can help decrease the chances of anyone downloading threatening malware or viruses.

Always ask everyone to encrypt their attempts to access various company databases and accounts. You should also encrypt access to all email accounts. Finally, be sure all employees know the safest ways to file and store data, so it can be fully protected from hackers, while remaining easy to access again when needed.

Develop a comprehensive plan for offboarding employees (those leaving your company)

Regardless of whether someone is being fired or has accepted a new job elsewhere, you need to have a systematic way of reclaiming company property when workers leave. You must also revoke their access to all business networks. Be sure all exiting employees return all company laptops, ID badges, company credit cards, mobile devices and other equipment.

Finally, delete the email addresses of exiting employees as soon as they leave. Someone should also change the company passwords they regularly used that were not encrypted. And always try to make sure every employee has signed an appropriate NDAs (non-disclosure agreements).

Although not intended to be comprehensive, we hope this list of suggestions will help your company gain greater protection against future cybersecurity attacks.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys about how various Texas and federal cybersecurity laws and regulations may impact your company. We can also provide you with a non-disclosure agreement for exiting employees to sign and review the terms and legal limitations of any cybersecurity insurance policy that you may be looking at in hopes of limiting your business liability for future data breaches.

Why You Need to Create a Business Succession Plan NOW

Why You Need to Create a Business Succession Plan Now

Even when all owners of a company plan to work until the very end of their lives, there’s still a need for a viable business succession plan. After all, anyone can become totally or partially disabled as a result of a serious car accident or die of a deadly disease on almost any day.

When business owners hide from this reality, they often create havoc for all surviving partners or family members. Instead, it’s better to move forward at a calmer time to carefully address these types of possible future events.

Your Houston business law and estate planning attorney can help you decide on the best way to either pass your business on to others — or liquidate all the assets to meet your own needs and those of your survivors.

General questions you must answer yourself about any succession plan

  • What is the current market value of this business and all its assets?
  • Who is the best possible buyer? Do I prefer to sell the business to a co-owner, family member, employee or a third party?
  • Am I more likely to sell the business sooner rather than later? Am I interested in selling the company now due to health, retirement or other reasons?
  • Is this business tied to its current location? If not, would it be reasonably simple for the business to be moved elsewhere and successfully run by someone there?
  • What preferences do I have about how the sale should be financed? Am I willing to personally finance the loan? If so, what type of collateral should I require?
  • Which business advisors should I consult with while securing all the required contracts and other paperwork? Besides business and tax lawyers, do the specific assets of my company require me to consult with real estate agents, insurance and business brokers, bankers and financial advisors?

It’s often wise to start this process by locating and reviewing all your current business contracts and deeds. Next, give some thought to your company’s most productive and respected employees. Then, carefully determine the current market value of every business asset. Finally, schedule confidential, preliminary talks with any co-owners, family members who work for you, other key employees and perhaps one or two other potential buyers of your company.

Once these initial tasks have been handled – or while you’re completing them – it’s wise to meet with your Houston business law attorney.

Advantages and disadvantages of selling to different parties

Unless you’re the sole owner of the company and simply want to liquidate all the business assets and not sell (or transfer) the company to others, you must carefully evaluate each potential buyer and decide which one is best qualified to run the company in your absence.

  1. One or more family members. In most instances, it’s usually best to sell to only one family member, preferably one who is already involved in the business and respected by your employees. Ask your attorney about the best ways to prevent future challenges to any decision you make. One approach might involve drafting a buy-sell agreement that clearly states who is going to be running the company — and asks all others who currently work there (or own shares) — to sell their shares to the person you’ve named as your successor. This approach often helps minimize future family disagreements.

When selling a business to a family member, you may want to execute a self-canceling installment note (SCIN). Your attorney can explain why that may be useful;

  1. A key employee who is highly knowledgeable and well liked by other workers. The most common drawback to selling to a key employee is that the person may not be able to give you a large down payment in cash. Be prepared to execute a buy-sell agreement that clearly lists all the valuable collateral for any loan you may be willing to finance. You can also suggest that this employee try to obtain an SBA (Small Business Administration) or bank acquisition loan that will provide you with up to 70% or more of the purchase price upfront;
  2. You can sell your shares to your co-owners. Be sure to clearly indicate the sale’s price and all purchase terms;
  3. An outside third-party or competitor. Be very careful when selling to this type of buyer if you’re financially depending on the person to keep running the company. Due diligence is critical when evaluating every potential buyer.

Since this article only provides a broad overview of the types of issues involved when drafting a business succession plan, you’ll need to obtain competent legal help to handle this entire process. Should you already have some type of succession plan, we can help you decide if it’s time to update it.

All our Murray Lobb attorneys have the necessary experience to help you create a business succession plan that’s specifically tailored to your company’s unique needs. We look forward to helping you draft all the contracts and other documents you’ll need while selling your business.

 

Steps Required to Dissolve a General Partnership in Texas

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

Do You Need a Written Partnership Agreement in Texas?

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

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

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

First Steps to Take When Preparing to Dissolve Your Partnership

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

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

Handling Debt Payments and Winding Up All Remaining Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Tenants: Beware and Negotiate

In a matter of first impression before the Texas Supreme Court, the Court ruled that a Residential Lease provision that obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault” was not void and unenforceable.

The background facts:  A young lady, Carmen White, got her first apartment and signed a standard Texas Apartment Association (“TAA”) lease.  Her parents gave her a washer and dryer set as a gift.  While using the dryer, it caught fire and burned her apartment and others nearby.  The damages to the apartment complex exceeded $83,000.00.  The source of the ignition was unknown and no fault was placed on White or the Landlord.  The landlord’s insurance company paid the claim, subrogated, and demanded reimbursement from Ms. White.  When she refused to pay the insurance company brought suit against her. 

The Procedural facts:  The case was tried to a jury.  After trial, the jury answered “no” to a question asking if White’s negligence proximately caused the fire.  However, the jury answered “yes” to the question whether White breached the lease agreement by failing to pay the casualty loss.  The jury awarded the landlord $93,498.00 in damages.  White moved for judgment not withstanding the verdict which was granted and the trial court rendered a take-nothing judgment.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling holding that that the Reimbursement Provision was void as against public policy.  The Appeals Court found a fatal conflict between the Reimbursement Provision’s broad language and Chapter 92 of the Texas Property Code restricting a Landlord’s ability to contractually allocate repair responsibilities.

The Supreme Court ruling:  The Supreme Court was to determine, as a matter of first impression, whether public policy embodied in the Texas Property Code precludes enforcement of a residential lease provision imposing liability on a tenant for property losses resulting from “any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault”.  In so holding the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) repeatedly stated the well known legal axiom that “Parties in Texas may contract as they wish, so long as the agreement does not violate the law or offend public policy, recognizing the the Legislature has limited the freedom of a landlord and tenant to contractually allocate responsibility for repairs materially affecting health and safety.  Interestingly in footnote 4, the court acknowledged that above the signature block, the lease prominently states that the lease can be modified by agreement of the parties, but neither party requested modifications to the Reimbursement Provision. 

The Lease contained a reimbursement provision standard in the TAA lease which obligated the Tenant to pay for any damages that result from “any cause not due to Landlord’s negligence or fault”.

As we all know it is almost impossible to get a Landlord to revise any provision in a standard form lease, but if you are to avoid the tragedy that happened to Ms. White, you must negotiate a modification of the Lease.

Be aware that the TAA Lease is a legal document and forms a binding contract.  You should consult an attorney for help revising the Lease. 

We would first add a sentence to Section 10, Special Provisions.  We would write in the blanks a sentence to limit my liability.  For instance, “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, Tenant shall never be responsible for repair, or liable for damages to Landlord’s property, including other units in the complex, unless such damage is proximately caused by the negligence of Tenant, Tenant’s guests, or invitees.”

Secondly, we would strike out certain language contained in Section 12. We would strike out “or any other cause not due to our negligence or fault”, at the end of the first sentence of Section 12.

We firmly believe that no residential Tenant should be held responsible to repair other units damaged or for property losses “resulting from any other cause not due to the landlord’s negligence or fault.”  Do not let this happen to you.

Buying a New Company:  Conducting Due Diligence

Depending on the nature and size of the business you’re interested in buying, the process of completing due diligence can be straightforward or complex. Fortunately, the basic steps you’ll need to follow are rather standard.

After your lawyer has negotiated a Letter of Intent (LOI) with the seller –  covering each party’s duties and responsibilities involving confidentiality, exclusivity and other matters – you’ll be ready to begin the due diligence phase of possibly buying the company.

The Main Reasons for Performing Financial Due Diligence

This process is partially designed to help determine if the initial evaluation placed on the business is fair and if the company is both stable and viable. Time must also be set aside to review all current contracts and potential legal and regulatory liabilities.

Some of the specific aspects of the business you’ll want your Houston business law attorney and personal accountants to carefully review and examine are set forth below.

  • All accounts receivable and payable
  • At least the last three years of the company’s tax filings
  • All current payroll obligations
  • Most or all the major banking transactions for the past year or more
  • The full nature and extent of any outstanding loans on the books

As this initial list of matters indicates, this process can take many months with some businesses. Normally, the parties negotiate the timetable for completing all due diligence examinations in their Letter of Intent (LOI).

Special Inquiries You Must Include Regarding Other Financial Matters

Hopefully, your review of all the financial accounts won’t turn up any troubling questions that can’t be answered. However, since a small percentage of business sellers may be dishonest, your due diligence team must carefully watch out for certain types of “red flags” or irregularities. These can include some of the following concerns.

  • Missing funds
  • References to non-existing accounts
  • Improperly filed tax returns
  • A varying degree of bad debt that’s regularly written off
  • Unstable profit margins

Your lawyer’s due diligence inquiry must also include carefully reviewing all current contracts with other businesses or corporations.

Key Concerns Involving Executory Contracts

  • When are they each due to expire? (This is important since this information can affect the company’s current valuation and other issues). For example, if current supplier contracts are ending soon, you may soon find yourself having to pay far more for critical supplies;
  • What’s the status of all customer contracts? You need to be sure all funds owed to the company are being collected regularly and all goods and services promised are being delivered in a timely manner. Failure to carefully monitor all contract terms can cost you valuable customers and open you up to major legal liabilities;
  • Are all Service contracts being carefully monitored? Nearly every business is dependent on outside service vendors to keep their manufacturing and other equipment working properly. Likewise, contracts are often in place to secure the professional services of lawyers, accountants, computer repair technicians and others. You must make sure the company is properly honoring all these contracts and renegotiating them in a timely and responsible manner;
  • Are all current leases being properly maintained? Companies can’t afford to accidentally let leases lapse on buildings or other property that are essential to their daily operations.
  • Employee Agreements? Do current employees have employment agreements with non-compete clauses? These must be carefully examined because they cannot be assigned if you are only buying the assets.

Due diligence can also extend beyond merely reviewing key financial documents and contracts. It should also include a detailed review of all actual or threatened litigation and regulatory investigations.

Your Lawyers Must Review All Current or Likely Lawsuits & Regulatory Challenges

Each of the following issues must be examined regarding all current or anticipated litigation. They may prove crucial if you decide to still buy a specific company since you’ll probably need to request contractual indemnity for all future liability (and litigation expenses).

  • How costly might each case eventually prove to be? In other words, what potential liabilities are involved?
  • Has the business received formal notice that any of its operations may be operating in conflict with any state or federal statutes or regulations?

You must be willing to sit down with your lawyer and the target company’s current legal counsel to sort through all these legal and regulatory concerns since they directly bear on the business’ current valuation and the wisdom or folly of buying it.

While the due diligence concerns referenced above are not intended to be fully comprehensive, they should help you understand many of the critical matters that must be examined. Once you make it through this due diligence stage, you can then either decline to buy the company or move forward into the “closing” or final transactions phase.

Please feel free to contact our law office so we can help guide you through the various stages of due diligence as you try to decide whether you should buy a specific company.

How Should You Respond to Potentially False I-9 Documentation?

At present, the federal government expects companies to carefully examine all I-9 documents presented by job applicants and to ask questions about required paperwork that looks like it may have been altered. Once you receive proper documents that look valid, you must keep your copy of the completed I-9 form on file, ready to share it with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) upon request. In some cases, you may be given only three days’ notice to produce these documents for all your employees.

To help employers fulfill their duties, ICE provides general guidelines that describe how all I-9 document reviews should be handled. These guidelines are further referenced below, along with topics you should address with your human resource staff to help them avoid accidentally discriminating against applicants and employees while simply trying to obtain fully updated, accurate documents.

What federal law established the need to obtain I-9 documents from job applicants?

Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) back in 1986. It requires employers to obtain job applicant documents that validate each person’s right to work in this country. This task is handled by fully completing a Form I-9 document for each job applicant. To help establish their legal status, applicants can produce such items as:  a driver’s license, a Permanent Resident Card, a US passport, a birth certificate and a Social Security card.

Can some I-9 documents be acceptable even when they initially look questionable?

The simple answer to that question is “Yes.” However, you should always keep notes in your file concerning any odd documents that you first believed might be false – and keep a copy of them. As ICE notes on its website, there are times when a worker may show you documents indicating different last names – and that may be acceptable if the job applicant can provide you with a reasonable explanation for the varied listings.

While employers must be respectful and open-minded while handling required I-9 tasks, they should be acting in agreement with previously established, written employee guidelines clearly noting that all new hires and established employees can be fired for providing any false job applicant documents. When you haven’t already created such written guidelines and acceptable standards of employee conduct, you may later find yourself accused of discriminating against an applicant or employee based upon his or her immigrant (or special ethnic) status.

This type of scenario often unfolds when an employee informs you after being hired that one or more documents given to you before being hired was fraudulent or invalid. This tends to occur when the employee is trying to provide you with newly updated, valid documents.

This specific type of issue was presented to the Department of Justice (DOJ) back in 2015. Unfortunately, instead of issuing an advisory opinion, the DOJ simply noted that employers should already be prepared to handle these types of issues — based on established employee conduct guidelines. Otherwise, they risk being sued for one of at least four employment-related forms of discrimination.

Is it true that some employers have been heavily fined for I-9 violations?

Yes. One of the largest fines recently imposed by the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (OCAHO) involving I-9 irregularities was against Hartmann Studios. That company was required (in July of 2015) to pay $600,000 in civil penalties. (That amount had been reduced from the original penalty sought of $812,665.) When Hartmann was undergoing a new inspection back in 2011, the company employed over 700 workers.

While that large sum of money is quite high, it’s important to recognize that Hartmann Studios was unable to provide any I-9s for some of its employees who had been terminated and needed an extension of time to produce documents for others.

What steps can our office (or company) take now, to make sure were fully complying with all current I-9 document guidelines?

If you haven’t already done so, give serious thought to signing up for the US government’s
E-Verify program that can help you properly process all your I-9 documents. By visiting this government website, you can learn more about how this program works. Your usage of this service may help establish your good-faith attempt to properly handle all I-9 duties.

You may also want to ask your lawyer if you should require all newly hired (and established) employees to sign a form that clearly indicates their awareness that they may be immediately fired for their dishonesty if you ever learn that they’ve provided you with any fraudulent I-9 documents. If you do this, you’ll need to strictly apply this standard.

Please contact our Murray Lobb law office so we can answer any other questions you may have about properly handling all I-9 documents. We can also provide you with advice on drawing up a general employee handbook — that also fully alerts all employees to the possible consequences of supplying your company with fraudulent I-9 documents.

Sexual Harassment: How Should Witnesses Respond?

Victims and witnesses of sexual harassment often feel robbed of their sense of safety and peace of mind. After all, when someone is sexually harassed in an overt and physical manner, an actual assault and battery may have occurred. Sexually harassing others is a coward’s game, arguably born of narcissism or self-hatred – coupled with a desperate grab for perverse power.

However, many eyewitnesses aren’t sure what they should do. Some of them worry that if they simply turn away and pretend they didn’t see anything, they may be enabling the abuser. Yet how can safety be restored when no one will report these offensive acts? Fears of retaliation and other related issues are discussed further below.

Few people ever “win” in these situations — even employers often feel trapped since they have a duty to maintain safe work premises.

What Do Co-Workers Fear Most When They Witness Sexual Harassment?

Several studies and surveys have revealed that victims of sexual harassment – and those who witness it – often fear the same repercussions. Their most common concerns are set forth below.

  • Public or private shaming of the victim (or witness). Harassers often enjoy the turmoil they know they’re creating for others. In many ways, they’re like arsonists who take an initial pleasure in both setting a fire and then watching from afar to see everyone scurry around trying to minimize the damage.
  • Retaliation. While American laws exist to minimize the effects of retaliation, the fact remains that, once a harassing party decides to “silence” an accuser or witness, that person’s career may be permanently damaged.
  • Failing to adequately describe the offensive behavior. Since abusers often have few moral constraints on their behavior, they may have taken great pride in at least partially hiding their offensive acts – purposefully making it harder for witnesses or accusers to step forward.
  • Uncertainty about whether – as witnesses –they should first speak with the harassed victim before or after contacting human resources. Sadly, there are no foolproof steps for safely handling this type of matter. One of the most pragmatic and safest first steps forward is to consult your employer’s handbook on reporting such behavior.

You may also want to contact your Houston employment law attorney for further advice on how to proceed. If the harassing party knows that you witnessed the offensive behavior – your job and future promotions may already be at risk. It’s always wise to quickly find what your best legal options and choices are — based on your specific circumstances;

  • Concerns that retaliation may ruin your career (at least temporarily). This is a very valid concern. After all, abusers will often stop at nothing to hide their behavior since they greatly enjoy it, view it as a privilege – and think any punishment would be unfair. The true stories about how Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein went about trying to silence his accusers (and possibly, the witnesses to his abuse) are shocking. However, victims and witnesses who report most types of sexual harassment can still win major lawsuits that can compensate them for their suffering and restore their careers.
  • Uncertainty about whether reporting the abuse may take a permanent emotional or psychological toll on them. Numerous studies have indicated that women suffer extensively when they report sexual harassment at work. Since their truthful reports are often not believed, their loss of positive self-esteem can cause serious problems with both depression and even PTSD. Furthermore, if the person reporting the gross behavior has ever previously been sexually harassed or abused, the long-term psychological damage of the newest abuse can take decades to resolve.

You Must Decide Which Steps Forward Best Suit Your Circumstances

Besides speaking to a lawyer, here are some other steps you believe you should consider taking.

  • Carefully study your employee handbook sections addressing sexual harassment. Decide if you feel comfortable doing what’s advised.
  • Keep a journal. Record the dates on which you take any steps to try and address the problem, who you’ve spoken with – or met with – and their responses to you. Note all perceived acts of apparent retaliation, if any. (Be aware that you may later need to turn over a copy of this journal to others if a lawsuit is filed).
  • Make a copy of any written reports or complaints that you decide to file. You must seriously consider asking a lawyer to review anything of this nature first;
  • Confide in one or two long-term, trusted mentors about your situation – people who do not work where you do. This may prove crucial if you need to find a new job while pursuing litigation.
  • Ask your employer for an immediate copy of any reports being placed in your file about your current complaints.

Always keep in mind that if you personally do decide to report the sexual harassment that you’ve witnessed, you’re playing a critical role in trying to resolve a very serious problem.

Our firm is always available to discuss any workplace problems affecting you. These can include sexual harassment, unfair pay issues, denied promotions, various forms of discrimination, wrongful termination — or any other matter that’s unfairly denying you the right to achieve your full potential.

Shareholder Agreements Require Flexible Buy-Sell Provisions

There are many reasons why shareholders in closely-held corporations may need to quickly sell their shares to others. Therefore, its important when drafting a shareholder’s agreement to cover every basic aspect of buying and selling shares – in addition to the general administrative matters that must normally be addressed.

Depending on a corporation’s number of major shareholders and business pursuits, a flexible framework helps facilitate every goal. The following list sets forth some of the main terms that shareholder agreements should cover, separate and apart from the buy-sell provisions that will be discussed in greater detail below.

Common Administrative Topics Set Forth in Many Shareholder Agreements

  • Voting rights. Always describe each shareholder’s voting rights and when they can be properly exercised;
  • Qualifications for serving as corporate officers. Basic requirements must be stated so that only fully qualified individuals can serve as corporate officers at any level;
  • Noncompete provisions. All parties involved with a corporation must agree to avoid compromising its trade secrets or later leaving and then trying to compete for its clients for a limited time;
  • Preferred groups to consult with when internal disputes must be resolved. Include the names of specific mediation or dispute resolution services that can be contacted and how the corporation should decide when such outside help is required;
  • Inclusion of anti-dilution provisions to protect stock values;
  • A description of major shareholders’ “tag-along” rights;
  • Registration rights must be explained and how they apply to certain restricted stocks;
  • Stock valuation procedures must be described and closely followed.

Once these and other crucial topics have been covered, your and your Houston corporate law attorney should discuss the best buy-sell provisions suited to your corporate structure.

Basic Buy-Sell Provisions – Events That Often Trigger Their Use

Your shareholder’s agreement should always include a very detailed explanation of how shares should be sold when one of the following events takes place.

  • The death of a shareholder;
  • The termination of an employee shareholder – whether “for cause” or without cause;
  • The disability of a shareholder;
  • A shareholder’s retirement

When trying to draft the best buy-sell procedures to address these situations, it’s often wise to sit down and review your corporation’s main concerns and interests with your lawyer.

Should the Selling of Shares Be Mandatory — or Provide Parties with Greater Choice?

When trying to answer this question, you may want to provide different answers, depending on whether the sales are to the corporation itself, other shareholders – or to third parties.

  • Should your corporation be given the first right to purchase (or redeem) the stocks? If you and the controlling officers of your corporation wish to include this provision in your shareholder agreement, be sure to first consider the possible capital gains tax issues involved;
  • Do you want to automatically offer the available shares to other general shareholders if the corporation isn’t interested in redeeming the shares after a set deadline? If so, it’s important to indicate if majority shareholders will have the first opportunity to buy the shares;
  • Are you willing to allow outside third parties to buy the newly available shares? If so, you must decide in advance the types of criteria that such buyers must meet.

Other Key Issues Involved with Drafting Your Buy-Sell Provisions

  • Setting the proper price to be paid for the stocks. In general, if the available shares are to be purchased by the corporation or one of its current shareholders, you should have already created a clear formula in your shareholder’s agreement for determining the current, proper valuation of the stock. However, if the shares are to be sold to an outside third party, that outsider’s offer will normally be determined by the current market price for the type of shares involved;
  • How should the price be paid? Most corporations will benefit from establishing a basic buyout procedure within its shareholder agreement so that these common transactions can be handled according in a very clear, pre-determined manner. Since lump-sum payments are usually not preferred, you will need to decide if you prefer such options as:
  • A buyer-financed buyout
  • A seller-financed buyout, or
  • Some type of financing arrangement involving insurance or a trust

Since a corporation’s success is often determined by the terms and quality of its shareholder’s agreement, please feel free to contact our firm so we can provide you with our general legal advice or help you draft a new agreement.