CARES Act – Government Economic Relief Package for Businesses

Last week the United States Government passed what is known as the CARES Act to provide economic relief to businesses (including sole proprietorships!) impacted by COVID-19.  There are a few different avenues and programs to receive help under the CARES Act, one of which is the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  The Paycheck Protection Program is specifically designed to help small businesses keep their workforce employed. Visit SBA.gov/Coronavirus for more information on the Paycheck Protection Program and the other available avenues and programs for assistance.

The new PPP loan program will be available retroactive from Feb. 15, 2020, so employers can rehire their recently laid-off employees through June 30, 2020. 

 Loan Terms & Conditions

  • Eligible businesses: All businesses, including non-profits, Veterans organizations, Tribal concerns, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors, with 500 or fewer employees, or no greater than the number of employees set by the SBA as the size standard for certain industries.
  • Eligible Purposes: payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.
  • Maximum loan amount up to $10 million
  • Loan forgiveness if proceeds used for payroll costs and other designated business operating expenses eligible purposes in the 8 weeks following the date of loan origination (due to likely high subscription, it is anticipated that not more than 25% of the forgiven amount may be for non-payroll costs)
  • All loans under this program will have the following identical features:
    • Interest rate of 0.5%
    • Maturity of 2 years
    • First payment deferred for six months
    • 100% guarantee by SBA
    • No collateral
    • No personal guarantees
    • No borrower or lender fees payable to SBA

Murray | Lobb has contacts with multiple lending institutions who are already approved SBA lending processors and can help you navigate the process.  Give us a call at 281-488-0630 or email sgriffin@murray-lobb.com and we will be happy to provide you with these contacts.

Liquidated Damages in Texas Contracts

When a party to a contract breaches, the fundamental goal of the law is to place the non-breaching party in the same position it would have been had there been no breach.  This does not always mean the non-breaching party gets what he sought under the contract. More often, the non-breaching party is awarded money (damages) for adequate compensation.

Penalty or Damage Provisions?

In some instances, the parties to a contract might wish to insert a provision in the contract which specifies the damages the non-breaching party may be entitled to recover.  These provisions are called liquidated damage provisions.  However, liquidated damage provisions can be found to be unenforceable, when the breaching party seeks to avoid the provision on the ground that it is a penalty.  Typically, a penalty is one which greatly exceeds amount of damages actually sustained by the non-breaching party.  Court will examine whether the actual damages incurred were much less than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.

A liquidated damage provision is not a penalty when it reasonably estimates the harm that would result from a breach.  But a provision not designed to be a penalty can nevertheless operate as one.  The universal rule that damages for breach of contract are limited to just compensation for the loss or damage actually sustained. Accordingly, courts carefully review liquidated damages provisions to ensure that they adhere to the principle of just compensation.  A damages provision that violates the rule of just compensation, however, and functions as a penalty, is unenforceable. Liquidated damages must not be punitive, neither in design nor operation.

Courts will enforce liquidated damage provisions when:

  1. “the harm caused by the breach is incapable or difficult of estimation,” and;
  1. “the amount of liquidated damages called for is a reasonable forecast of just compensation.”   In applying the first prong, courts examine the circumstances at the time the agreement is made. The party seeking liquidated damages bears the burden of showing that the provision, as drafted, accounts for these two considerations.

A properly designed liquidated damages provision, however, may still operate as a penalty due to unanticipated events arising during the life of a contract. Courts must also examine whether “the actual damages incurred were much less” than the liquidated damages imposed, measured at the time of the breach.  When a contract’s damages estimate proves inaccurate, and a significant difference exists between actual and liquidated damages, a court must not enforce the provision. When an “unbridgeable discrepancy” exists between “liquidated damages provisions as written and the unfortunate reality in application,” the provisions are not enforceable.

Enforcing Liquidated Damage Provisions

To be enforceable the liquidated damage provision, at the time the agreement was made, must meet a two-part test:

  1. The harm that would result from a breach must be difficult to estimate, and;
  2. The liquidated damages provision must reasonably forecast just compensation. Parties to a contract containing a liquidated damage provision are expected to negotiate a reasonable, not perfect, forecast of just compensation in the event of breach.  A forecast that is inordinate when compared with actual damages will not prevail to a challenge when there is proof of a large variance between the actual damages and those sought under the liquidated damage provision.

A recital in the contract proclaiming that a liquidated damage provision is not a penalty will not save a provision that operates as one. Careful thought must be applied in determining a reasonable forecast of damages that would be sustained in the event of a breach.  If damages, at the time of contracting are capable of calculation or can be fairly estimated, the provision cannot meet the first prong of the test.

Please feel welcome to reach out to our Murray-Lobb Attorneys if you have any further concerns or questions regarding a contract breach or liquidated damage provisions.

What Employers Should Cover in Their Sexual Harassment Policies

Providing employees with a carefully drafted sexual harassment policy communicates respect and helps everyone stay focused while doing their best work. To make sure you include the most critical legal passages, it’s always best to meet with your lawyer — who can also help you address any special needs of your workforce.

Here’s a brief overview of the most crucial components of this type of policy. As you read over the list, jot down any questions that come to mind since they may help you have a more productive meeting with your Houston employment law attorney.

Key information that should be included in most sexual harassment policies

  • A general statement about why you’ve created the policy. It’s important to note that your company recognizes that every employee has the right to work in a safe environment. No employee should ever be coerced into developing a sexual relationship in order to keep a job. Likewise, sexually suggestive or offensive behavior should never be inflicted on anyone;
  • A detailed definition of sexual harassment – preferably one that also provides specific examples of the different types of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that are covered. Clearly indicate that sexual harassment always involves unwelcome behavior that tends to offend, intimidate or upset others. It can even include something as simple as posting sexually suggestive cartoons and other materials in the workplace. Also note that your company will not tolerate any sexually harassing behavior between parties of the same sex;
  • A statement that your policy also provides protection against third-party harassment. Your company’s customers, clients, contractors and others will never be allowed to sexually harass your employees;
  • There must be a detailed description of your complaint procedures. Employees must be told that you’ll respond to all complaints in a private, confidential manner – and will conduct all necessary investigations in as professional manner as possible. It’s also important to note that you’ll try to have at least two senior staff members trained (and available) to handle these complaints – one woman and one man. Workers should be extended the courtesy of being able report their complaints to someone of their own gender.

Offer your employees both an informal way of processing complaints – and a more formal approach. After all, some employees aren’t interested in filing a legal claim against the alleged abuser – they’re mainly interested in stopping the abuse and returning to work (perhaps in a new department). However, you must provide clear information to each complaining party that s/he has the right to file a more formal complaint with the EEOC. Finally, you must also state that your company will not tolerate any type of retaliation against the alleged victim – regardless of the position held by the party who has been accused of the sexually inappropriate behavior;

  • Provide a commitment that your company will try to expedite the complaint process as much as possible, recognizing the needs of all involved. However, you should also explain the different types of interviews that may need to be conducted so that all parties have the chance to be fully heard. Employees must also be told that if the complaint involves unusually aggressive behavior – or if multiple complaints have been recently received regarding the same alleged offender, it may be necessary to turn over part or all of the investigation to an outside, objective party hired for that specific purpose;
  • Name some of the specific disciplinary steps that will be taken if the company’s investigation finds that harassment has occurred.
  1. The offending party will receive a written or verbal reprimand
  2. A negative performance evaluation will be placed in the wrongdoer’s personnel file
  3. There may be a reduction in wages
  4. A demotion or transfer may be imposed on the wrongdoer. In some instances, the victim may be allowed to obtain a transfer;
  5. The offending party may be forced to accept an immediate suspension — or just be fired. (Make sure all these possible forms of discipline are noted in your company’s employee handbook).

Be sure your company has a policy of requiring every new employee – regardless of rank – to undergo sexual harassment training as part of their initial company orientation. Furthermore, all employees should be required to take an annual refresher course on this topic. (You may want to include a statement about this training requirement in your sexual harassment policy).

When designing or choosing a sexual harassment training program for your employees, always make sure it includes a “question and answer” segment since employees often need to ask questions to be sure they fully understand the different behaviors that co-workers may consider offensive.

Our lawyers always welcome inquiries from both new and established clients seeking advice on employment law matters. We’re also fully prepared to draft the many contracts you may need to run your business as your clients obtain the many goods and services you currently offer. Feel free to contact us so we can schedule an appointment at your convenience.

Important Legal Tips for Communicating with Disabled Employees

Since everyone deserves to be treated with respect, employers must make sure that they’re communicating professionally and politely with all their disabled workers. Careless employers who speak callously with their disabled workers not only set a poor example for everyone else in the workplace – they also increase their chances of being sued for unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here are some other important tips that can help you create a more pleasant work environment for everyone – that’s also fully compliant with the ADA.

Examples of workplace situations that may require special communication skills

  • When someone present in a meeting has a hearing disability. Should there be an employee present with a known hearing impairment, always remind everyone to speak one at a time – and never “over” one another. That will help everyone more easily follow the conversation and possibly take notes. Of course, never refer to the person by name who may need this simple accommodation.
  • Always speak directly to the disabled person. Even when someone has a sign language interpreter, always turn and speak to the disabled person – and not their helper or other companion – whenever possible.
  • Be honest with the disabled during regular workplace evaluations. This is important so they’ll have the chance to improve their performance – and request any new accommodations they may need. They deserve an honest appraisal like everyone else. This will also limit the chances of painful misunderstandings in the future. Be willing to give them concrete ideas for how they can improve the quality of their work.
  • Be prepared to shake the hand of a disabled person – even if this means shaking their left hand and not their right one. This is a simple gesture that communicates respect and equality. You don’t need to shake the person’s hand for an extended time period.
  • Always introduce yourself when speaking with someone who is sight impaired. Be sure to also identify everyone else who is present during the conversation.
  • Never pat anyone who is very short (or in a wheelchair) on the head or shoulder. This makes all adults – and even older teens – feel a bit demeaned. We all have a right to have our “personal body space” fully respected by others.
  • Should you decide to offer a disabled person your assistance – wait briefly to find out if they would like to accept it. For example, it’s possible you may want to help someone transfer from a wheelchair or walker to a nearby chair. However, be aware that many disabled people want to move about on their own as much as possible, to maintain their sense of independence.
  • Be sure you’re addressing the disabled person in the same manner as everyone else present. Far too often, well-meaning bosses or employers may refer to the new department head who’s disabled as “Johnny” – while calling everyone else in the room by his or her last name. Be consistent with how you refer to all who are present.
  • Don’t lean on, move, or play with a disabled person’s crutches, wheelchair or walker. You may think you’re just being lighthearted – but when you do this, you’re calling attention to the person’s disability when that person may simply want to blend in with everyone else. However, if you believe it’s a safety hazard to leave a wheelchair or other assistive device where the disabled person left it, always politely ask that person if you can move it to a different location to make it easier for everyone to walk in that area. Also, be sure to tell the disabled person that you’ll personally retrieve the device when the meeting or seminar is about to end. Finally, never lean on someone’s wheelchair for support – that often makes disabled people feel like you’re violating their personal body space – and that can make them feel very uncomfortable.
  • Be very respectful when listening to a disabled person talk who has a speech impediment. Never assume you’re helping them by suddenly announcing a “translation” or “clarification” of what was just said. Instead, if you think you and others were left a bit confused by what was stated, calmly wait until the person finishes talking and say something like, “So, if I understood you correctly, you’re asking or suggesting that we start handling this account differently in this manner” – repeating what you think you heard. If you misunderstood what was said, then give the person a chance to repeat what they said earlier – or allow them to present it to you in a different way.
  • If someone you need to speak with is in a wheelchair, respectfully pull up a chair so you can speak with that individual at eye level. This conveys both respect and equality.
  • Never assume that all hearing-impaired people can read lips. Should you need to gain the attention of a hearing-impaired person who is looking off in a different direction, very lightly tap the person on his/her shoulder to gain their attention (assuming you’re not interrupting another conversation). If you’re certain someone can lip read – stop eating, drinking or smoking – so it will be easier for that person to follow what you’re saying.
  • Try to interact naturally with the disabled. Should you accidentally say something like “Did you hear that there’s an extra meeting next week?” – only to realize you said that to someone who is hearing impaired, forgive yourself. You can then point to a flyer about the meeting or write the information down on a piece of paper and hand it to the disabled person.

Always remember to stay calm and polite, even if you’re finding it hard to communicate with the disabled worker – and realize that the situation may be far more frustrating for that individual. If you’ll be speaking with one or more disabled people during a meeting, try to let them know, in advance (through a medium they can easily access like email), that you’ll be supplying everyone with a complete summary of the meeting’s highlights in a follow-up email.

If one or more workers are sight-impaired and read Braille, let them know that you’ll get a copy of the meeting notes to them in that format (if you have that capability) within one to two business days. Also, tell them that you’ll be happy to answer any questions they may have prior to their receiving their copy of that summary. Finally, whenever possible, use such terms as “hearing impaired” instead of deaf – and “sight impaired” in the place of blind.

Please feel free to get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with any guidance you may need when relating to your disabled employees. We’re also available to provide you with legal advice concerning many other general business, estate planning or employment law topics. And we can draft a wide variety of legal documents on your behalf or help you revise an outdated employee handbook.

Minimizing Chances of Violence When Terminating Difficult Employees

Although some angry former employees who’ve been fired have tried to physically harm or kill their former employers and co-workers, there are constructive steps you can take to greatly lower the chances of any workplace violence. After all, most workers don’t suddenly begin doing poor work or behaving rudely to others. There is usually an extended time period when a person’s work starts to deteriorate.

If you’ll conscientiously conduct regular employee job evaluations that put each worker on notice of any deficits in their productivity or demeanor, being let go should rarely come as a surprise (unless there’s been a sudden, violent outburst or you’ve recently discovered illegal activity).

Here’s some specific advice about how your company or office manager should interact with employees once you’ve decided to fire them.

Workplace practices that may help a dismissed employee cope better when terminated

  • Privately inform the employee that you need to meet with him/her in your office.

No one likes to be embarrassed in front of others, so be discreet. Plan to have at least one other management employee present to witness the event. Once you start this meeting, be sure to briefly reference the other person present and then immediately tell the worker being fired that this is a permanent decision that’s been made after great consideration of all the relevant facts. (These words can help prevent an anguished exchange during which the employee may beg to stay on the job – or even unwisely threaten those s/he blames for the firing.)

Give serious thought to creating a folder with all the materials the employee will need inside of it. Then, tell the employee you’d like to go over the different forms, possibly including any severance agreement that your company may need signed and dated in your presence. If you employ 20 or more employees, be sure to include adequate information about how the employee can apply for (and most likely) receive health insurance through the COBRA program. (COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation law.) And be sure to check with your Houston employment law attorney to see if Texas requires that you provide the person with any other health insurance information.

Remember to always speak in a calm and pleasant tone, even if the employee becomes a bit agitated or excited. Consider always having a company (or building) security guard on hand in the outer office, just in case an upset employee becomes unruly.

Be willing to stop and answer questions. After all, most people have many questions they need to ask at such an upsetting time in their life — even if they “should have known” this event was likely. Carefully explain exactly when a final check will be cut and explain how you will deliver the funds to the person being dismissed.

  • Obtain all remaining property that must be returned. When providing the employee with notice of the meeting, you should always give the individual a clear list of all proprietary equipment, keys and other materials that you expect to have returned to you in good condition. If the person has been entrusted with extremely important security codes, you might want to note that those are always changed when any employee leaves the company.

If any major piece of equipment is not returned, be prepared to discuss a reduction in the final sum of money owed to the person – unless you failed to state that policy in your employee handbook. If no prior notice was provided, you should speak to your attorney about the wisdom of deducting any amount of money from that final paycheck or payment of benefits owed.

In addition to all company vehicles, be sure to collect all ID badges, security parking tags not currently affixed to vehicles, beepers, cell phones and confidential company publications.

Finally, you should calmly allow the employee to express some moderate anger about the decision. Sit quietly – and at most, simply restate that the decision is final. By listening to the person, you’re affirming them to some extent, and that’s important to having the individual leave in a calmer state of mind.

Unless the employee becomes verbally abusive (not just angry or a little flippant), ask them to be prepared to leave with all their belongings right after the meeting. (Of course, you should have already conducted a thorough investigation of any reported wrongdoings by the employee – and given that person a chance to explain his/her side of any alleged wrongdoing.)

Note: Always be sure that the person has time to collect his/her belongings and remind them to check the employee lunchroom or any locker that may have been assigned. It’s also wise to state that you will not be discussing the dismissal further with any of the departing employee’s co-workers. As for references, try to state (if true), that your company normally only provides confirmation of employment dates, without further comments or explanations. (Be sure that’s already set forth in your employee handbook). If the person has remained calm, brief goodbyes to co-workers should also be allowed.

  • One other key point: always be specific during the dismissal process. Employees being let go really want to know why their work wasn’t satisfactory. Since people often feel completely out of control of their lives when they’re being fired – specific feedback helps them feel empowered and like they can bounce back with a new job. It can help to have copies of all recent job performance evaluations handy when meeting with any employee who is leaving.

If you liked the person but found their work unacceptable, you’re always free to tell them that you wish them well and hope they can find another position more in keeping with their most highly developed talents;

  • Decide in advance whether your company believes it should ever allow someone being fired to “resign” their position instead. This helps some people feel less angry and like they have retained some degree of self-respect. Of course, if you do choose to allow this approach, you should remind the departing employee (in writing) that s/he might still be legally viewed as having been fired.

However, be sure you avoid making any promises about the receipt of unemployment benefits when someone chooses to resign. To protect yourself, it’s probably best to tell the person (in writing) that they will need to check with the Texas Workforce Commission about such benefits, noting that all dismissals are usually handled on a case-by-case basis.

  • Formal outplacement services. While these are most frequently used by large corporations when laying off groups of employees, it’s wise to check on all the services that they provide. However, if you’re a smaller company or a solo office with a relatively small group of employees this probably won’t be practical. If nothing else, try to include a form in the “separation” or dismissal packet that provides the address of the nearest Texas Workforce Commission office, its website address, and the phone number for that office. People will usually be calmer if they have an idea about how they can immediately begin looking for a new job;
  • Provide clear information about what you’ll be including in the employee’s final paycheck. In Texas, an employer normally has six days to provide the departing employee with his/her final paycheck. However, if someone insists that they’re quitting the job, you can wait to issue their final paycheck at the time of the next scheduled payday.  See Texas Code Annotated, Labor, Section 61.014.

If you fail to pay a fired employee on time, you might be required to pay that person damages – and possibly even a penalty to the employee and the state.

And remember that in most states, you’re usually required to pay the employee for any accrued vacation time.

Gray areas can easily occur during dismissals

A bit too often, people get very angry when being fired. In some cases, they will storm off during your meeting, claiming that you can’t fire them – because they’re quitting. While you do not have to put up with rude or antagonistic behavior, you might want to calmly note that being fired might be the better option, if they prefer to sit and think about it for a few minutes.

However, you have no duty to try and counsel the person on this issue. Just be aware that when any employee says s/he is walking off the job, the law may not treat that person as fired – causing the individual to lose access to unemployment benefits.

If the departing employee really tried hard to do good work for many years and may just no longer be able to keep up with new job technologies, your company always has the option of covering the fee so that individual can go to a local personnel agency and receive one formal placement in a new position.

Final tips for carefully handling employee dismissals

  • As the Texas Workforce Commission notes, try to avoid dismissing or firing any employee “during the heat of the moment.” All future interactions will go much more smoothly if there are clear reasons for firing a person that have been documented over time – even though Texas doesn’t require warnings for at-will employees. Just try whenever possible, to treat anyone you wish to fire with dignity.
  • Make sure all your actions are backed by clearly stated company policies and procedures. The last thing any company needs is to be sued by an angry former employee who can reference an employee handbook that clearly indicates that you failed to properly handle his/her dismissal.
  • Be sure you always responded to all legitimate complaints made by the person you’re about to fire. The Texas Workforce Commission is often sympathetic to people seeking unemployment benefits who can document that certain workplace problems – that were formally reported and negatively impacted the person’s performance – were never properly addressed.
  • Try to only fire people early in the morning or late in the day – when few other workers are still present. And be sensitive enough to not provoke someone by firing them on their birthday or the day before a major holiday.
  • Check ahead of time with your accountant to be sure the employee doesn’t owe the company for any loan made against future paychecks.
  • While it was suggested above that you may rarely want to try and help a worker meet with a personnel agency, keep in mind many workers may try to abuse that privilege.
  • Never allow any employee who was just dismissed to log back into the company computer system. Irate people with moderate skills can easily wreak havoc on your database or other sensitive files.
  • Always have each staff person present during the termination meeting prepare a memo documenting what took place. This information can prove very useful later if your company is sued for wrongful termination.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you need to ask any questions about specific issues involved with terminating an employee. We can also help you (re)draft your employee handbooks so that all procedures involved with firing employees are set forth clearly.

Unintentional Partnership in Texas

Question: Can two or more persons create a partnership even though they did not intend to do so?

Answer: Yes, under certain circumstances.

   Generally, under Texas law an association of two or more persons to carry on a business for profit as owners creates a partnership, regardless of whether (1) the persons intend to create a partnership, or (2) the association is called a “partnership”, “joint venture”, or other name.  Partnerships are governed by Chapter 152 of the Texas Business Organizations Code.

   What this means is that two or more people could in fact cause the creation of a partnership even though they did not intend on doing so.  The consequences of being partners is the fiduciary duty which arises between partners. The Texas Business Organizations Code also sets forth factors indicating that persons have created a partnership. These factors include:

(1) Receipt or right to receive a share of profits of the business;

(2) Expression of an intent to be partners in the business;

(3) Participation or right to participate in control of the business;

(4) Agreement to share or sharing:

       (A) losses of the business; or

       (B) liability for claims by third parties against the business; and

(5) Agreement to contribute or contributing money or property to the business.

Interestingly, an agreement by the owners of a business to share losses is not necessary to create a partnership.

   On January 31, 2020, the Texas Supreme Court held that parties can conclusively negate the formation of a partnership under Chapter 152 of the Texas Business Organizations Code through contractual conditions precedent. The condition precedent was that the “venture” would not come into effect until the respective parties’ board of directors approved the deal.  The boards of the companies never approved the venture and thus that one provision saved one of the parties almost half a billion dollars:

Texas Supreme Court upholds Court of Appeals reversal of FIVE-HUNDRED-MILLION-DOLLAR trial court verdict. In Energy Transfer v. Enterprise, the high court dealt with a clause that contained conditions precedent to forming a partnership. Enterprise and Energy Transfer, two of the top ten largest energy companies in the United States, sought to re-purpose an existing pipeline or build a new one to transfer crude oil south as opposed to north. The two companies expressly rejected creating a partnership until two conditions precedent were met: 1) execution of definitive agreements memorializing the terms and conditions of the pipeline transaction that 2) received approval from each party’s board of directors. Subsequently, when the companies failed to get shipping commitments to cover the potential costs of the pipeline, Enterprise ended talks with Energy Transfer. Enterprise would eventually go into business with ConocoPhillips. Energy Transfer, believing Enterprise and Energy Transfer entered into a partnership agreement, sued Enterprise claiming breach of fiduciary duty. (Fiduciary duty is putting the wellbeing and interest of the person for whom they are responsible above their individual interests; the duty commands exceptional loyalty of the party owing a fiduciary duty.) The trial court awarded Energy Transfer damages totaling $535,794,777.40. Enterprise appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling and found for Enterprise. As a result, Energy Transfer filed for review with the Texas Supreme Court. Enterprise continued to argue no fiduciary duty existed because no partnership was entered into between the parties. The Texas Supreme Court agreed. The Court, applying long-standing freedom to contract law, held that parties could require conditions precedent to the formation of a partnership notwithstanding the Texas Business Organizations Code’s five factor partnership test.

   It is the general rule that when an agreement provides a condition precedent to the formation of a partnership, it will not come into existence until the condition has been met. However, such condition precedent may be waived and, if the parties actually proceed with the business, they may be held as partners even though the condition precedent has not been satisfied.

   Chapter 152 is not the sole source of rules for determining partnership formation. The determination of formation of a partnership should “include” the five factors listed in the section. Those factors are not exclusive. Principles of law and equity supplement the statutory partnership provisions unless otherwise provided by this chapter or the other partnership provisions.

What should persons do when looking into a business venture?

   First, the parties should enter into a written agreement, which can be informal, clearly stating that the parties are contemplating a business venture, or exploring the feasibility of a business venture; and that despite negotiations with third parties, expenditures of funds towards investigating the venture, reimbursement or sharing of expenses between the parties, no partnership shall be created “unless …….” (clearly and specifically stated).

   That “unless” is the condition precedent.  The condition can be approval of a formal agreement by the board of directors of corporations, by the manager or managers of an LLC, or the signed agreement for the formation of a partnership.  The condition could be the enactment of a trade agreement with another country, or even a minimum price making up the subject matter of the venture, such as the price per bushel of corn must be “$$$” before any business venture shall be formed, or as simple as requiring the respective wives of the parties to approve the venture in writing.

   Make sure oral agreements are disclaimed and a provision that the parties disclaim any reliance upon any representation made by, or information supplied by, the other party, and waives any claims for fraudulent inducement.

Should you need help understanding the laws surrounding General Partnerships, please contact one of our Murray-Lobb Attorneys.

Inter Vivos Gifts: Transferring Property or Wealth While You’re Still Alive

Stated simply, inter vivos gifts are those given by a donor to a beneficiary during the donor’s lifetime. Many families and individuals enjoy passing property or wealth on to loved ones, friends or charities in this manner. The term “inter vivos” is a Latin one that can be translated as “between living people.”

One of the chief reasons a donor makes this kind of gift is to help a beneficiary avoid paying unnecessary probate taxes after the donor passes away. Another motivation is to give the donor the personal pleasure of seeing the beneficiary enjoy the gift or funds. While other reasons may exist, those are among the most common ones.

The following material reviews some key legal terms you’ll want to know while working with your Houston estate planning attorney. There’s also a list of key factors required for a valid transfer of an inter vivos gift.

Legal terms often used when conveying wealth or property as inter vivos gifts 

  • Donor/grantor. Both these terms are used to describe the person making the inter vivos gift;
  • Beneficiary. The party designated as the recipient of the funds or property;
  • Settlor.  This term is often just used to refer to someone who creates a trust;
  • Advancement. When making a formal inter vivos gift, you should tell your lawyer if you want to treat a gift as an “advancement” against future gifts you’ve already designated for a beneficiary in your estate plan. That will mean that the value of the current gift will reduce the size or value of your later bequest to the specific beneficiary.  You can also just state that you do not want your current, inter vivos gift treated as an advancement against what you’ve designated for a person or group in your estate plan; 
  • Capital gains taxes. Keep in mind the tax consequences that can occur if you currently give someone an inter vivos gift like stock shares. For example, if you give someone an inter vivos gift of stock shares that originally cost you less than $3,000 – but are now worth over $10,000 — your beneficiary will likely have to pay a capital gains tax on that gift. To prevent this burden from being passed on to a beneficiary, you may just want to give the person cash to buy stock shares — or anything else they prefer;
  • Gift taxes. At present, every beneficiary who receives an inter vivos gift worth more than $15,000 must pay a gift tax on the amount to the IRS. Therefore, most people who give these gifts keep them under $15,000 for each recipient. You’ll need to ask your attorney what the limits are on the size of the inter vivos gifts that spouses may want to give each other.

Choosing to create a trust when transferring wealth as an inter vivos gift

Some grantors may not want to make direct cash or property gifts. Instead, they make want to make this type of gift by creating either a revocable or irrevocable trust. As may now be clear, these types of trusts take effect while the settlor is still alive. In contrast, testamentary trusts don’t take effect until the settlor dies.

Here’s additional information about both revocable and irrevocable inter vivos trusts.

  • The revocable inter vivos trust. This can go into effect (or become operative) during the settlor’s own lifetime. This type of trust can also be referred to as a living trust – one that is drafted so that it won’t have to go through the probate process;
  • The irrevocable inter vivos trust. This type of conveyance is designed to go into effect while the settlor is still alive. However, it cannot be revoked after the settlor has finalized it. People normally use this type of trust to help reduce the beneficiary’s potential tax debt.

Key information about making inter vivos gifts to minors

Since minors cannot receive large gifts of money or property directly, inter vivos gifts made to them require the use of a trust. A party must be named as the guardian of the trust to manage its contents (under court supervision) on behalf of the child – until s/he reaches the age of majority.

Conditions that must be met for a valid inter vivos gift to be made

  • The donor must have capacity. As a donor, you must be at least 18 years old when you make this type of gift;
  • The donor must have the proper intent. This requirement usually means that the donor intends for the gift to be transferred during his/her lifetime;
  • Receipt of the gift by the beneficiary. You must arrange a reliable form of delivery to the beneficiary. This means the donor/grantor (or settlor) will then no longer have control over the funds or other property;
  • Acceptance. The beneficiary must accept the gift. While most of us would readily accept an inter vivos from someone else – that’s not going to be true of everyone. In some cases, high taxes might be due on the gift — or the recipient may simply not want to accept any gift from the grantor or settlor.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys with any questions you may have about making legal gifts to others for current delivery – or to be received later as part of your personal estate plan.

Understanding the Purpose and Benefits of HB 4390

Texas and many other states have recently been passing new data breach protection laws to be sure that consumers receive timely notification after their most sensitive personal information has likely been breached or stolen. In June of 2019, HB 4390 was signed by Governor Greg Abbott. It became effective on January 1, 2020.

What HB 4390 is designed to accomplish – in general terms

Known as the Texas Privacy Protection Act, this legislation amends pertinent portions of the Texas Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act (“TITEPA”) set forth in the Texas Business & Commerce Code. In addition, the Texas Privacy Protection Act creates the Texas Privacy Protection Advisory Council that’s currently studying the data privacy laws of other states and countries.

HB 4390 requires this council to report its findings to the legislature by September 1, 2020 – so more comprehensive consumer privacy legislation can be considered during the next session of the Texas Legislature, beginning in January 2021.

New notification duties after suspected data breaches in the future

Now that the Texas Privacy Protection Act has gone into effect, the following new rules must be obeyed by all companies doing business in the state.

  • HB 4390 has added a new deadline. Consumers must be timely notified when there’s been a definite or suspected data breach (of sensitive personal information). This notification must be made within 60 days of the date when the apparent breach was discovered.
  • As amended by HB 4390, the TITEPA requires businesses to provide notice of certain types of data breaches to the Attorney General of Texas. More specifically, notice is mandatory when a breach has compromised the data of 250 or more Texas residents. This notice to the AG’s Office must also cover the following topics.
  1. The nature and circumstances of the breach must be described – and information must be provided about how the compromised data has been used (if known);
  2. There must be a statement about the number of Texas residents who were affected by the breach and when notifications were sent out;
  3. The reporting party must describe any measures taken to address the consequences of the breach;
  4. The AG’s Office must also be told whether any additional, corrective measures (regarding the suspected breach) are planned in the future; and
  5. There must be a statement about whether any law enforcement agency is currently involved in investigating the reported breach.

At present, at least 17 other states have established similar timeframes for reporting data breaches, usually between 30 to 90 days after the breach was discovered.

The Texas Privacy Protection Act also created the TX Privacy Protection Advisory Council

As was briefly noted above, this council will be meeting regularly until it tenders its required report to the Texas legislature by early September 2020. It’s hard to know if the group’s recommendations will be very comprehensive since some legal experts are concerned that Texas is rather hesitant to pass the full panoply of data breach protections that may be necessary. Far stronger measures were rejected – when HB 4390 and another bill were first proposed in Texas.

Better protection for victims of data breaches will likely be affected by the views of those currently sitting on this council. Here’s a look at the membership of this group.

  • Three of those who are on the council are members of the current Texas House of Representatives;
  • Three others are Texas senators;
  • Nine seats on the council were reserved for representatives of a wide number of industries including: consumer banking, technology, internet, medical profession, retail and electronic transactions, telecommunications, cloud data storage and social medial platforms;
  • Just two members of the Texas Privacy Protection Advisory Council are either members of a nonprofit organization that regularly evaluates data privacy issues from the viewpoint of consumers – or are professors at a Texas law school (or other higher educational institution) who have had important work published regarding data privacy.

Hopefully, most Texans will be pleased with the legislation that will eventually be passed based on this group’s recommendations.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any additional questions about how this new legislation may affect your company either before or after you experience a data breach. We’re also available to address any of your other general business law needs — and we can readily draft the contracts and other legal documents you need to run your company each day.

Workplace Evaluations: Skills, Aptitude, Psychological and Lie Detector Tests

Ideally, every job applicant should be fully tested and evaluated before being hired for any position. However, state and federal laws impose certain restraints on the specific types of tests that can be given to job seekers. While skills tests are usually the most critical and widely accepted exams, care must be taken to administer them fairly and accurately.

Here’s a general overview of the types of job applicant rights you must respect while using any of the types of tests referenced above. As will be referenced below, all tests must be given in full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Skills and aptitude tests – evaluating clerical, computer software and other job skills

A general rule of thumb that can guide you about many tests is that they must be specific to the types of skills that a job requires on a regular basis. Therefore, it’s usually fine to find out how fast a potential clerical employee can type or how much someone knows about repairing and maintaining computer systems if you’re hiring a computer help desk employee.

While you can usually test most the job skills of the disabled, you may need to make some accommodations in how you administer such tests. Cornell University’s publication entitled, Pre-Employment Testing and the ADAis well worth reviewing to gain a better understanding of job testing requirements. Just keep in mind that certain timed tests may need to provide slightly longer completion times and accommodations may need to be extended to applicants who’ve made their special testing needs known to you, in advance.

Although general aptitude tests can still be given using multiple choice tests, great care must be taken to avoid formats that may mainly reward test-taking skills over a job candidate’s ability to properly handle future job tasks. Short-answer questions based on factual job topics may provide greater insights into a person’s capabilities.

Psychological testing of job applicants

Although some employers still place great value on these types of tests, they are no longer highly favored. Two of the chief reasons that employers are thinking twice about administering these types of tests is that they can sometimes illegally discriminate against certain job applicants or invade their privacy regarding their moral and religious beliefs.

Employers should only administer psychological profile tests that have been scientifically validated, indicating direct correlations with a worker’s job performance. Another potential problem with psychological testing is that the ADA does not allow medically oriented tests to be administered to applicants who are disabled — if it might help discern their disabilities.

In certain situations, the ADA may also require you to revise a psychological or other test if an applicant claims it tests skills related to his/her disability (such as hearing capacity) – that are not regularly required for the job.

Lie detector or “honesty” tests for job applicants and employees

In general, the federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act – with only limited exceptions – prevents employers from requiring job applicants or employees to undergo lie detector tests. While certain types of unique applicants or employees may have to take such tests – including those wanting to provide armored security services (or dispense pharmaceuticals) – restrictions must still be honored as to how such tests are administered and evaluated.

Most of the time, in the few instances when a larger employer might want to administer this type of test, it’s normally only used when there’s reasonable suspicion that an employee may have embezzled from the company or committed other workplace theft.

At present, experts on this topic indicate that it’s nearly always best to restrict the use of any type of “honesty” test to situations where an employee may need to handle cash.

Always remember that in order to protect your company or business from any possible future claims of discrimination, you must make sure that all job applicants take the required tests at the same basic time in the hiring process.

Every employer may want to create a copy of this EEOC document designed to help determine the best job candidates — while fully complying with all federal laws.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers if you need legal advice about administering specific tests to any of your job applicants or employees. We also remain available to discuss any other legal concerns you may have – and can readily draft a wide range of contracts and other documents you may need while conducting daily transactions with your business customers and other parties.

Crafting Effective Job Descriptions and Ads

Creating the type of job ads that attract large pools of highly qualified candidates takes careful thought and planning, like every other important business task. Besides providing an accurate job title and listing the main duties of a position, you need to let job applicants know if a specific job will fit in with their current lifestyle and priorities.

Of course, you must also describe the minimum job qualifications and what you require in the way of prior experience and training. And all of this must be done in a manner that carefully avoids discriminating against anyone.

While drafting a proper job description may sound a bit intimidating, it can be done with relative ease if you’ll start by making a list of the key facts you need to communicate – while still making the job sound highly desirable. The job ad itself should be considerably shorter, in keeping with the online or print forum where you’ll be placing it.

Here’s a closer look at some of the broad topics and details you should always try to include.

After picking an appropriate job title — add a clear list of essential job duties

Since all jobs tend to change a bit over time, it’s a good idea to visit briefly with the person who recently supervised the worker in the vacant position. This will let you know if your old job description needs to be updated or expanded. Next, make a list of the most common tasks the person hired will need to handle on a regular basis. Always start by listing the most time-consuming job assignments.

Also, be sure to indicate if the open job is an entry-level, mid-level or senior-level job. And you’ll need to note whether the position involves training or supervising other employees —

and what percentage of the employee’s time may be devoted to such tasks.

What type of academic background – and prior job experience – are you seeking?

To avoid potentially discriminatory language, it’s wise to indicate that you’re looking for someone with either a college degree “or equivalent experience.” Be sure to also specifically list any professional licenses or certificates that the person must have already earned. Likewise, you should clearly state whether it’s a job that may frequently require over-time, weekend shifts or travel.

When you fail to mention such factors, you’ll likely end up interviewing people who would never have applied had you provided that crucial information.

Make one list of all the required skills – and a separate list of all desired skills

If the work requires clerical skills, you might indicate a minimum typing speed and then list the specific types of software program skills required. If you need someone who is bilingual, make it very clear if you’ll expect complete fluency.

Should you believe the job requires the ability to work well under pressure while meeting strict deadlines, it’s always wise to include that information, too.

Provide a brief description of the job culture, if possible

If your company is in start-up mode, be sure to share that since there are people who know that they usually do their best work in more stable or established work environments. Likewise, if you’ll be expecting this person to always work in-house – or remotely on one or more days – try to indicate that as well since some workers either strongly prefer that lifestyle or know that they do their best work in an office setting where they can readily consult with others on a regular basis.

Consider indicating the desired new hire’s personality type and work traits

If the person you want to hire needs highly developed interpersonal skills – perhaps because it’s a receptionist or job training position — you may want to mention that as a desirable strength. Likewise, if the new employee will be conducting considerable research for your firm, it’s fine to say that you’re looking for someone with strong analytical skills and keen attention to detail.

Unique job demands or requirements

In order to avoid creating problems for yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation designed to protect specific job applicant and employee rights, it’s best to note unique requirements in your job ad so applicants will clearly know what’s required in advance.

Here are some job demands that should always be noted in your full job description provided to all selected applicants prior to job interviews.

  • Night shifts. Let applicants know if the new person may have to regularly tackle night shifts, in keeping with your company’s changing needs;
  • Ability to lift and/or carry small or large objects of a certain weight. People deserve to know in advance if they’ll need to lift heavy boxes or other objects on a regular basis. When possible, try to provide an accurate range of weights involved;
  • Use of personal vehicle. Be sure to note this and indicate that any job offer will be conditional, based on an applicant providing a recent copy of an acceptable driving record;
  • On-call work shifts. If this employee must be available on an on-call basis during certain days or weeks – on a regular schedule — be sure to note this since it lets those with unique family obligations (or physical limitations) know whether the job is still a desirable one for them.

If your company does federal contracting work – keep EEOC requirements in mind

When a business does this type of work, it must always note in any job ad that all applicants will receive full consideration, regardless of their color, race, sex, national origin or religion. Many companies simply note this at the end of their ads by indicating that they’re an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Employer. 

Even some companies who aren’t required to include an EEOC statement include one so that their applicants will be fully aware that they’re encountered an employer dedicated to fair hiring from a fully diverse group of applicants.

Additional comments about legally risky, outdated jargon & online “keywords”

Remember to use gender-neutral labels like “salesperson” as opposed to salesman and “server” in place of waiter. Likewise, “general repair person” is better than “handyman.” It’s also preferable to indicate you’re seeking to fill a “part-time position” than to indicate that you’re looking for a college student.

Finally, give thought to obtaining direct advice – or even job-writing templates – from one of the major online job boards like Monster.com, Indeed.com or Careerbuilder.com. They can also help you with selecting the most useful “keywords” that you’ll want to include in your ad.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys whenever you need any advice about how to properly attract and interact with job applicants – or if you need help with any employee management issues that may arise. Our firm can also supply you with any employee contracts and other general business documents.