Ways to Avoid Defamation When Disciplining Employees

Every employer has the right to create a pleasant and productive workplace. Yet this goal can be elusive when a worker acts unethically or behaves poorly toward others. If the behavior was grossly unethical or offensive and the person was an “at-will” employee, you can usually fire him on the spot. However, some misconduct claims must be thoroughly investigated.

General principles to bear in mind when disciplining employees

If immediate firing isn’t appropriate, you must handle all investigatory matters in a private manner. You should also only inform those with a formal “need to know” regarding specific information you are learning. Always make sure to act in a non-discriminatory manner. You can never let anyone go in a way that violates their civil rights or unjustly defames them.

Here are some suggested steps your business should take while resolving problems with difficult employees.

Responsible ways to discipline workers

  1. Create a written policy that states how your office will interact with employees who are accused of wrongful behavior. While you should be consistent in taking certain steps, you must clearly state that your office always reserves the right to immediately fire at-will employees when circumstances justify such actions. When an exempt employee is involved, try to provide warnings and always listen to their side of the story. It’s a good idea to place this policy in an employee handbook and to reference it upon first hiring all employees – and during all periodic work evaluations;
  2. Investigate all accusations, especially when immediate firing isn’t necessary. Be sure to handle all interviews in a private setting, stressing the confidential nature of the process. If there is written or documented proof of wrongdoing, obtain copies of the materials;
  3. Create a separate investigation file for the accused employee. You should also create notes in the person’s regular personnel file – making sure only a small number of employees can review either folder. In very rare circumstances, it may be necessary to hire an outside group to handle the investigation for you. Your Houston employment law attorney can fully explain when hiring outside investigators may be necessary;
  4. Create a clear plan for each employee’s disciplinary investigation. Avoid making accusations or labeling someone as a “thief.” Let the person know that you are investigating the claims. When meeting with the individual, always take notes and have at least one other staff member present as a witness. You may want to ask the employee to sign a statement, indicating awareness of the investigation.  In order to get an employee to sign a form, you may need to note in it that his/her signature does not constitute any admission regarding wrongful behavior – only that the person knows certain claims are being investigated. Be sure to listen carefully to any defense claims the employee may offer – but do not let any meeting become confrontational. If tempers flare, note that you will reschedule the appointment for a later time;
  5. Do not publicize the investigation. Only share limited information about it with those who have a “need to know” regarding it;
  6. Once a decision is reached regarding discipline, advise the employee. Make sure your decision is based on fully objective and reasonable grounds – and note them in your files. Document what you’ve decided to do in the regular personnel file – and reference the separate investigative file where all detailed notes are kept. Do not allow anyone access to the main investigative file who doesn’t have a right to see it. Be sure to keep all investigative files for a lengthy time period in case future lawsuits are brought against your company;
  7. If you decide to terminate an employee, do so in an orderly fashion. Allow the person to gather together all personal possessions before leaving the building in a private fashion. If the fired employee was fired due to dishonesty – or any violent or inappropriate behavior – you may want security to escort the person off the premises. To protect the fired employee’s privacy concerns (and to avoid defamatory actions), you may want the exit to occur when few other employees are present;
  8. Do not share details about any firing with other employees. Unless there was documented criminal activity that all personnel may need to know about, you have a duty to maintain privacy regarding the exact reasons why you chose to fire an employee.

Always remember that you cannot discipline an employee for taking lawful advantage of any state or federal right. This can include taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act after you’ve approved the temporary departure – or taking a military or pregnancy disability leave.

Additional behaviors to avoid when disciplining employees

  • Never jump to conclusions about any claim. Don’t allow yourself to be greatly swayed by reports made by one or two individuals. Be sure to speak with all key witnesses and interview the employee concerned – to hear his/her perspective on what happened;
  • Always be/remain reasonable and flexible. Don’t ever over-penalize an employee for a minor infraction. Also, if you’re having to fire a more senior, exempt employee, make sure you have fully documented all proven reasons (or “just cause”) as to why the employee must leave;
  • Seriously consider documenting verbal warnings. While this may not be necessary, it’s usually a wise move. One way you can document them is to send yourself an email, noting in general terms (using a computer at work) why you had to verbally discipline an employee on a specific date;
  • During regular employee evaluations, be sure to note any disciplinary actions taken and how they’ve been resolved. Always have the employee sign the evaluation, noting that the person recalls all that’s happened and how all situations have been resolved;
  • Avoid telling an employee after being disciplined that you’re sure the person is likely to have a bright, long future with the company. A court might later view this type of language as reasonable proof that you were creating a new employment contract, one providing some type of guaranteed or continuing employment – as opposed to the at-will status the employee once had; and
  • Don’t punish workers for trying to improve working conditions or wages during breaks or at other times when “off the clock.” Rights like these are normally protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act.

If you’re concerned about how to handle any employee discipline or firing issue, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide legal advice based on the specific circumstances that you relate to us — and help you decide when you may need to hire outside investigators to handle a specific claim. We can also draft professional language for describing your employee discipline policy in your employment handbook.

Probating the Texas Estate of a Missing Person

At first glance, it might seem impossible to probate the estate of someone who is missing and presumed dead. However, the Texas Estates Code provides for this very process under Title 2, Subtitle J, Chapter 454 entitled, “Administration of Estate of Person Presumed Dead.”

That chapter clearly states that a probate court has the required jurisdiction to determine the likelihood of a person’s death when specific steps are followed — even if the main evidence presented is entirely circumstantial. However, the Texas Estates Code was carefully drafted to prevent fraud by requiring a lengthy delay before the assets of these types of estates can be distributed.

What are the main steps usually taken to probate the estate of a missing person?

  • Request for letters testamentary. After the probate process has begun with the filing of a request for letters testamentary, the court-appointed personal representative must serve a citation on the person presumed dead in the manner required by the court. Since the person is missing, this often means publishing a notice of the proceeding in one or more print newspapers – and in any other manner dictated by the court;
  • Contacting the proper authorities. The personal representative must then formally contact the proper authorities about the estate owner’s missing status. Among others, law

enforcement officials and state welfare agencies should be notified – along with any others suggested by the court;

  • A professional investigative agency should be hired. This must be done in keeping with the provisions of  Section 454.003 of the Texas Estates Code (requiring efforts to locate the missing owner of the estate). During this process, the investigator may encounter potential heirs who may have crucial information that can help locate the missing person – or help determine where s/he was living shortly before death.

The investigator should create a report based on all research and interviews conducted and then present it to the court – documenting that the missing person cannot be located. The cost of this investigation is normally reimbursed by the estate, after the court has had time to review the requested fees.

How quickly can the estate be distributed?

Section 454.004 of the Texas Estates Code clearly states that this can only be done after three years have passed since the date on which the letters testamentary were issued by the court to the personal representative.

What personal liabilities can arise if the person presumed dead reappears after distribution?

If the missing person returns and presents conclusive evidence that s/he was alive at the time the

letters testamentary were granted, that individual has the legal right to regain control of the estate — whatever remains of the funds or property.

However, this person who was presumed dead – yet has now reappeared – cannot get his/her property back that was sold for value to a bona fide purchaser. Instead, this person only has the right to the proceeds or funds obtained for the sale of the property to the bona fide purchaser.

In addition, Section 454.052 states that the personal representative who handled all the legal sales transactions for the estate, not knowing that the missing person was actually alive, cannot be held liable for any financial losses suffered by that individual who has now returned. And any surety who issued a bond to that personal representative cannot be held liable for anything the personal representative did while complying with approved court-ordered activities.

Should you need help probating any estate, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients and can readily answer all your questions.

Should My New Texas Business Be Formed as an “S” Corp or an LLC?

While deciding which business structure will best serve your needs, always consider several key factors. For example, look at how many employees you plan on hiring and how much time you want to spend managing the company. You should also make sure you’re fully protecting your personal assets against future lawsuits and not incurring any excess taxes.

One excellent way to choose the best structure for your company is to meet with your Houston business law attorney. The two of you can discuss all that you might gain (or lose) by starting your company as either an LLC (limited liability company) or an “S” corporation.

Before noting some of the basic steps involved with forming an LLC and an “S” corporation, here’s a brief overview of the unique offerings and drawbacks of both structures.

What are some chief advantages and drawbacks of starting an LLC?

Depending on the size of your business and the types of goods or services you’re selling, you may prefer an LLC for the following reasons.

  • It offers a less formal structure. An “LLC” is also often easier to manage than an “S” corporation, especially when you have few employees. And you’ll never need to have any board meetings to tackle problems tied to issuing stock certificates;
  • You can readily change this business structure (once all proper paperwork is filed). If

you’re running an “S’ corporation, you’ll first have to arrange a formal board meeting before trying to change the business structure);

  • All members of an “LLC” do not have to be permanent residents or U. S. citizens;
  • You can more easily divide up who handles most of the daily work – while allowing others to just be investors. You can also simply divide up the profits based on each person’s initial investment and daily work contributions;
  • Disadvantages of an “LLC” compared to an “S” corporation. These can include having all the company profits subjected to self-employment taxes. Your growth may be limited since your business cannot issue any stock shares. Always ask your Houston business law attorney about any other potential disadvantages that may apply to your unique situation.

Why do some entrepreneurs prefer forming “S” corporations – despite the limitations?

  • Formality is viewed more favorably by some. Outside businesses often prefer interacting with companies that employ a more formal corporate structure;
  • You can often use this structure to avoid double taxation of income;
  • Profits are passed on to the shareholders (by way of their paid dividends). Therefore, the company does not have to pay taxes on those profits;
  • Possible drawbacks. All shareholders must be permanent residents or U.S. citizens. There can be no more than 100 shareholders. Added state filing fees may apply. Also, the IRS

tends to monitor “S” corporations very closely since some people try to improperly avoid certain taxes by wrongfully using this business structure.

What are some basic issues that must be addressed while forming an “LLC” in Texas?

  • Membership. You’ll need to decide how many owners or members you’ll have and if they’ll share all the managerial duties;
  • Naming your business. You must choose a unique name to avoid confusion with already existing companies;
  • File all required forms. You’ll need to start with a certificate of formation (Form 205) that must be filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office;
  • Registered agent. You must name a registered agent who can accept the service of process on behalf of your company;
  • You’ll need to create an operating agreement. It’s usually best to ask your Houston business law attorney to draft this document for you after you’ve

discussed the precise nature of your new business;

  • Fully satisfy all state and federal paperwork requirements;
  • Obtain all required state and local business licenses that may be required for your industry.

(Note: Some of these same steps may also be required while forming an “S” corporation below, regardless of whether they’re listed).

Here’s a brief review of key issues involved in starting an “S” corporation in Texas

  • The drafting of Articles of Incorporation. These must be filed with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office;
  • Stock certificates must be issued to all initial shareholders;
  • All applicable business licenses and certificates must be obtained in a timely manner;
  • You’ll need to file Form 2553 with the Internal Revenue Service. (Your lawyer can first check to be sure you meet all the qualifying terms for creating an “S” corporation).

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer your questions about each of these business structures. We can also help you draft all the documents you’ll need to transact business throughout the year.

Should You Always Enforce Covenants Not to Compete?

Covenants not to compete are binding contracts that are designed to protect companies against exiting employees unlawfully sharing different types of proprietary information, “trade secrets” and intellectual property with their new employers and others and engaging in post-employment activities that can be detrimental to the company they left.

Before discussing whether it’s wise to develop an ironclad attitude toward enforcing these covenants, it’s helpful to review the basic reasons why these documents are usually drafted and what standards courts consider when deciding whether they should be upheld.

Companies must protect specific types of information

Whether your business sells cutting-edge security software or sends out consultants to advise clients in mostly rural areas, your employees often learn highly detailed information about how you help your clients. If you were to always let key employees leave and immediately put that proprietary information and knowledge to work for a competitor, your business might quickly lose its competitive edge and market dominance.

Therefore, many companies regularly require employees to sign noncompete agreements to prevent them from using what they learn while employed for a limited time post-employment. Should former employees violate these agreements, they (and their new employers) can often be sued in court.

Common types of proprietary interests you’ll usually want to protect

  • Trade secrets. Perhaps your company has invented a manufacturing process that should not be shared with any competitors. It’s also possible that you’ve designed a highly effective training program for your employees that makes them uniquely effective at handling their work. You clearly don’t want them to share those training methods with others;
  • Client databases. You’ll want to prevent all departing employees from reviewing any past buying practices, requests and needs of your clients;
  • Other highly confidential materials. These could include almost anything – perhaps you’ve implemented a specialized marketing plan that’s helped your business grow several times over during recent years.

These examples should help remind you of the many proprietary types of information you must protect by requiring your exiting employees to sign covenants not to compete.

Within such covenants, you’ll need to address various topics that may include the following ones.

  • A specific time period. Any time period must be reasonable, normally 1-3 years;
  • A description of the types activities the employee cannot engage in post-employment. You can list specific industries, customers or businesses the departing employee should not contact for a new employer;
  • A specific geographical area where the departing employee cannot work. You can state a certain region where the employee who left cannot compete with you for a set time period.

When evaluating the reasonableness of covenants not to compete, courts look to see if they are over-broad or too restrictive. While businesses have a right to protect certain information or “legitimate business interests”, they aren’t allowed to unfairly prevent a departing employee from pursuing most forms of gainful employment.

Should you always enforce your contracts containing noncompete clauses?

Although the most obvious response is to say you’ll always strictly enforce them, it’s important to recognize certain factors before suing someone for not honoring a noncompete covenant.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you draft any contracts you need containing covenants not to compete. We can that someone is currently asking you to sign – or assist you in enforcing or defending a lawsuit.

Special Estate Planning Concerns for Second Marriages

If you’ve recently married for a second time or are planning to do so, it’s important to meet with your attorney to be sure all your assets will still be properly distributed in the future. Even if you think your new spouse is very trustworthy, you must understand how Texas community property laws may affect all preferred beneficiaries when you pass away one day.

In order to minimize future misunderstandings, many spouses in second marriages enter into property agreements that help balance out the interests of all children from prior marriages – as well as those who might be born into your new one.

Before reviewing some of the basic legal documents your lawyer may need to redraft on your behalf now that you’ve remarried, it will be helpful to note some of the complications that can develop when newlyweds simply assume their current estate plans don’t need to be updated.

Careful planning can help you minimize problems with the future disposition of your estate

  • Suppose you’ve married a much younger new spouse and you have children from your first marriage. What will likely happen to your home and all other possessions upon your death? Sometimes, newlyweds just assume that all will go well once the older spouse dies first – and that older children of the deceased spouse will just wait many years until the new spouse passes dies to inherit the family home and other wealth.

Unfortunately, bitter legal fights can erupt between your adult children and your surviving spouse under this type of scenario. What’s often best is to leave an insurance policy (and possibly other funds) in a trust, so that your children can receive specific amounts of money upon your death – and then other property or wealth years later when your surviving spouse finally passes away;

  • What if your new spouse keeps insisting that if you pass away first, he’ll make sure your kids from an earlier marriage will inherit all that you wish, without stating this in newly executed documents? Can this type of arrangement ever be risky? Yes, it can. It’s always possible that you and your new spouse will experience hard times financially at some point in the future. If that happens, keeping sincere early promises may no longer seem reasonable to a surviving spouse left with only a modest amount of money.

Always update your estate plan when you remarry. And if you and your new spouse hold very different attitudes toward certain financial bequests, go ahead and meet with different attorneys to update your estate plans separately. However, make sure you both understand your responsibilities to your new spouses under the new estate plans (and ask your lawyers to review both plans to be sure they won’t precipitate any crises);

  • Will it cause unnecessary confusion for spouses in a second marriage to hold joint bank accounts in the future to pay certain mutual expenses – without jeopardizing the later disposition of assets when one spouse dies? That arrangement should work out fine, although you should both consider also maintaining separate bank accounts to help you pay expenses tied to all separate properties you brought into the marriage.

Should new spouses carefully revise named beneficiaries in POD and retirement accounts?

The answer to that question is almost always, “Yes.” Be sure to bring information about all accounts you have when meeting with your Houston estate planning attorney. You should also bring copies of any property deeds in which you’re named — and information about any trust accounts you currently have (or may desire). Your attorney will also need to see copies of your current Last Will and Testament, 401k and POD accounts, all retirement accounts and all insurance policies.

If you need any advice about your current estate plan due to an upcoming marriage – or divorce, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys at your convenience. We will look forward to providing you with the documents you’ll need to feel confident and secure about your entire family’s financial future.

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How Texas Estates Are Often Handled When Wills Cannot Be Found

Given how hard most people work to pay their bills and save up for their retirement years, you would think all of us would want to maintain strict control over who will inherit from us. Yet statistics reveal that only about forty percent (40%) of Americans have faced their mortality and asked their lawyers to help them create Wills.

When we make this error, we increase the chances that relatives we don’t know very well – or perhaps even like – may one day receive all our wealth. That’s regrettable since most of us have specific family members who would benefit the most from an inheritance. And great charities and faith-related beneficiaries can always use our funds to bless many others.

Hopefully, this article will help you see the advantages of meeting with your Houston estate planning attorney to create a first Will — and then later update it as your estate grows.

What are the five ways Texas wealth is often distributed when there is no Will?

  1. Under the state’s intestate succession laws. While these are useful, they do not let you determine who will inherit from you. Furthermore, if you own any of the following types of accounts or property, you must make sure that you’ve provided an updated list of beneficiaries to those who maintain these accounts (or other forms of wealth) on your behalf.
  1. Proceeds from a life insurance policy
  2. Retirement account funds that may include a 401k, IRA — or another, similar type of account
  3. Property that you and another person own together
  4. POD or payable-on-death account funds
  5. Property that’s already held in some type of living trust
  1. Through the filing of an Affidavit of Heirship. This approach can normally only be used when the assets requiring a title transfer are real estate. However, you can sometimes use this type of affidavit for non-property assets – depending on the rules of the institution that currently manages those items. Be prepared to discuss this topic in detail with your lawyer since there are certain limitations involved with using this type of affidavit.

For example, some title companies will not accept these types of affidavits when you’re trying to establish a legally valid chain of title for property. In addition, since no personal representative will be appointed, there won’t be anyone who can manage the estate’s assets and pay all required debts. Also, two witnesses must sign this type of affidavit and both are liable for any false statements that may be contained in it.

  1. By filing a Small Estate Affidavit. If your attorney takes this approach, he’ll first have to determine if the estate is solvent and if it’s worth $75,000 or less. In addition, the affidavit can only be used to transfer title to a homestead. Furthermore, there will be no appointed personal representative to collect all the assets, pay all required debts and deal with necessary third parties. Financially responsible witnesses must also sign this type of affidavit.
  1. Using a probate court proceeding called a determination of heirship. The advantages of this approach include having a hearing, the presentation of evidence and a court issuing a judgment accepting or rejecting all submitted affidavits of heirship. However, some relatives eager to settle an estate may find this approach less appealing since it can be rather costly – mainly due to the need to file various pleadings with the probate court. You must also coordinate everything with the court appointed attorney ad litem who will investigate whether there’s any possible fraud regarding the filed affidavits of heirship. However, obtaining a court ruling that specific parties are lawful heirs is very useful;
  1. Handling the matter as either an independent or dependent administration of the estate.

The difference between these two types of administrations is based on the degree to which the probate court must be involved in the proceedings. The term “independent administration” simply means that the court has minimal involvement.

Whichever approach is chosen, there will need to be an appointment of a personal representative who is qualified to receive letters of administration provided by the probate court. These “letters” allow the personal representative to collect all the assets and pay all the debts. The biggest drawback of this approach is that it’s often the most expensive way to handle the estate of someone who died without a Will.

Hopefully, this general information has helped you see that creating a Will is one of the best ways to move forward into a more stable financial future.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer any questions you may have about settling someone else’s estate — or drawing up a Will (or full estate plan) of your own. We appreciate the opportunity to help our clients handle these types of matters and look forward to hearing from you soon.