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Business 101: Litigation

June 20, 2014,

scale.jpgWith any luck, you or your business will never end up the subject of a lawsuit. Since this isn't a perfect world, it's best to start thinking about what to do if the unforeseen happens. Like most things, business litigation is an involved issue. We can't go through the entire process in one post, so we'll start with three basic steps to take if you find yourself in legal trouble.

Step 1: Purchase Liability Insurance

This step should happen long before trouble starts. In reality, this is one of the first things you should do as a business owner. Liability insurance protects the purchaser from the risks of liabilities imposed by lawsuits and similar claims. Say a customer slips on a wet spot in your store; your insurance would step in and handle the costs. You may want to add extra protection such as errors and omissions coverage. For businesses that have a Board of Directors it's a good idea to have directors and officers coverage. This type of coverage protects the corporation as well as the personal liabilities for the directors and officers of the corporation.

Step 2: Separate Yourself from Your Business

Sole proprietorships are a popular business structure. Unfortunately, these entities can leave you personally exposed. In this arrangement your personal property, including your home or car, are fair game in a lawsuit. To avoid this you want to create separation by forming a trust, or consider an alternative business structure. A trust is a legal entity that pays its own taxes and can own assets. Making the trust the legal owner of the business safeguards your money and property. Also, consider forming a corporation. Trusts and corporations are miles apart in terms of regulation but offer protection to the individual.

Step 3: Hire a Good Attorney

Of course it is always advisable to have an attorney on your side before any litigation to avoid potential lawsuits. If all else fails and you are served with the lawsuit, you should immediately consult your attorney. Time is of the essence. A quality attorney can help you through the initial steps.

Finally, it's a good idea to hire lawyers who specialize in specific fields. If you're served with a lawsuit or anticipating one then it's smart to hire an attorney familiar with litigation like the professionals at Structure Law Group.

About Structure Law Group

Structure Law Group is a San Jose based firm that specializes in business issues including business formations, commercial contracts and litigation.

Mergers and Acquisitions: Understanding the Difference

May 23, 2014,

A quick scan of the headlines shows come confusion about the deal between AT&T and DirecTV. Some media outlets are calling it an acquisition while others say the 48 billion dollar purchase is a merger. Mergers and acquisitions are similar with a few important distinctions. In this post we'll address the key differences between these two kinds of transactions.

What is a Merger?

One component of mergers and acquisitions is relational. Mergers are seen as the more friendly way of doing business. When two firms merge, both shed their old companies to form a new one. A good example is the merger between Daimler-Benz and Chrysler. In this scenario, both companies ceased to exist. They issued new stock as Daimler-Chrysler. Mergers are a common occurrence between two companies of equal size and standing.

What is an Acquisition?

An acquisition is when one company purchases another. The target company is absorbed by the purchaser and no longer exists. A recent example is the acquisition of Bell South by AT&T. AT&T bought Bell and reformed it as AT&T South.

Mergers and Acquisitions: The Benefits

There are several perceived benefits to merging or acquiring another company. A business can save money on labor and expand its reach into new markets. Also, bigger companies have more purchasing power. Finally, a target company might have a unique product or skill set that creates new revenue for the parent.

So is the deal between AT&T and DirecTV a merger or acquisition? The telecommunications giant is buying the satellite provider. However, DirectTV will still keep its name but will be operating under AT&T. Confused? You're not alone. The media can't seem to decide. Given the basic definitions we discussed earlier this would be an acquisition.

There are many types of mergers and acquisitions. If you're considering either one make sure to get some assistance. Legal professionals, like the ones at Structure Law Group, are needed to sort through the mess.

About Structure Law Group

Structure Law Group is a San Jose based firm that specializes in business issues including business formations, commercial contracts and litigation.

The Brinker Case: Employers Receive Clarification on Meal and Rest Breaks

May 23, 2012,

As a business litigation attorney in San Jose, I am always concerned when clients are confronted with murky or unclear regulations. For many years, employers have been awaiting clarity on California's confusing meal and rest break laws. There has been uncertainty as to whether employers must force their non-exempt employees to take their meal breaks, or whether the employer meets its obligations by simply providing employees the opportunity to take their breaks. The California Supreme Court very recently provided much needed clarification on this important employment law issue in the case of Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego County.

The Court also addressed the proper method to calculate the timing of both meal and rest breaks, putting an end to the guessing game of how many breaks must be provided, and when the breaks must be given.

Employers Do Not Need To Police Employees During Meal Breaks
The Court decided that employers, while under a legal duty to provide meal breaks at appropriate intervals, are not obligated to ensure that employees do no work while on their breaks. The employer's obligation is simply to relieve its employees of their work duties, relinquish control over the employee's activities, and permit the employee a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break. Of course, the employer must not impede or discourage the employee from taking the provided break.

Also of great importance was that the Court stated quite clearly that employers are not required to police meal breaks to ensure that no work is performed during the break. In fact, employees are free to work during their meal break, if they decide to do so.

Timing of Meal Breaks
The Court also provided clear guidance on the timing of meal breaks. The first meal break must be provided no later than the end of an employee's fifth hour of work. A second meal period must be provided no later than an employee's 10th hour of work. Meal periods can be scheduled prior to the end of the fifth hour of work, including in the first hour of work, and can occur before the first rest break.

Timing of Rest Breaks
The case also clarified when employees are entitled to rest breaks. Employees must be given one 10-minute rest break for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, two 10-minute rest breaks for shifts of more than six and up to 10 hours in length, and three 10-minute rest breaks for shifts more than 10 hours and up to 14 hours in length. Employees who work less than three and one-half hours are not entitled to a rest break. The Court also stated that there is no requirement for an employer to give a rest break before a meal break.

Overall, the business community and employer-side employment attorneys view the Brinker case as a common sense legal opinion that offers clear guidelines for handling employee meal and rest breaks. Furthermore, the case may have the effect of curtailing potential class-action lawsuits against California businesses that, prior to the Court's ruling, could have been accused of meal and rest break violations.

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Stopping Illegal Acts by Current and Former Employees

March 19, 2012,

As a business litigation lawyer in Silicon Valley, I have seen quite a few employee-related issues come up for businesses in San Jose and Santa Clara. For the purpose of this blog, I have combined issues of several clients into one hypothetical owner of a small Internet company. The owner discovered that one of her employees had started a competing online business and was attempting to staff the new business with her current employees. The owner was justifiably concerned as to whether her employee's acts were illegal, and whether she, as employer, had any recourse. This blog summarizes some of the litigation issues businesses face when employees take actions that violate California's unfair competition laws. Click here to read my previous blog on unfair competition by competitors.

The owner's biggest problem was the fact that her employees were being solicited to work elsewhere. Like many small business owners, this owner had worked hard to create a business staffed by well-trained employees who provided customers with excellent goods and services. The deliberate effort by the company's existing employee to pick up her other employees caused the owner undue stress and frustration.

The soliciting employee in this case was clearly in the wrong. Under California law, while working for a company, an employee cannot solicit fellow employees to leave that company and work for a competitor. To do so is a breach of a confidential relationship, a breach of an implied obligation, and possibly even a breach of fiduciary duty, depending on the soliciting employee's position. Where the employee is a fiduciary, liability for unfair competition may also extend to the hiring competitor if it knows of the employee's actions and benefits from them.

While the owner provided a top-notch online service with an established and growing customer base, she was also concerned about her employee's competing web site. California law permits an employee to make some preparations to establish a competing business while employed. However, the employer may have good cause to terminate the employee if the acts by that employee to establish the business are such that the employee cannot give his or her undivided loyalty to the employer. Once an employee ceases work, the employee may go into direct competition with his now-former employer.

It is also important to note that employers may also sue former employees who misappropriate their ex-employer's proprietary information or trade secrets. For example, businesses expend a great amount of time, effort, and money in developing customer lists. Such lists are often the most valuable asset a company a may have, and can qualify as both proprietary information and a protected trade secret. Under California law, an employee may not take an employer's protected customer address list and then begin directly soliciting the customers.

However, to qualify as protected information, the customer list should contain specific information not generally known to the public or competitors. This information might include names of contact personnel, history of previous dealings with the customer, price quotes provided to the customer, and other particular information. A company should also maintain its customer list in a confidential manner. The more rigorous a business attempts to maintain the secrecy of its customer list, e.g. informing employees of the confidential nature of the information, protecting the information with passwords, including notices that the information is proprietary, and other steps, the more likely the court will be to find that the customer list qualifies as proprietary information or a trade secret. A non-solicitation clause in an employment contract, restricting the employee from soliciting the employer's customers for a certain period of time after leaving, may bolster an employer's argument that the employee cannot lawfully use the customer list.

Trade secrets, of course, are not limited to customer lists, and include a wide variety of formats, such as business plans, bid specifications, software code, and other documents and information. Such documents and information should be proactively protected by businesses, in case an instance occurs where litigation arises due to an employee's misappropriation of trade secrets, or other acts of unfair competition.

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Combating Unfair Competition By Competitors

February 21, 2012,

In fiercely competitive Silicon Valley, businesses of all sizes must be on guard to prevent unfair competition. Unfair competition consists of business piracy, theft of trade secrets, and other dishonest or fraudulent acts in the course of business. As a business litigation lawyer in San Jose, I have seen companies initiate lawsuits against offending parties when unfair competition occurs. This blog focuses on unfair competition by competitors.

While corporate espionage and spying are known to occur, most businesses encounter unfair competition through less clandestine means, and from more familiar sources, such as prior business owners and trusted partners. For example, unfair competition can occur if the owner of a Thai restaurant sells his or her business with a non-compete clause, but then sets up a new competing restaurant across the street.

The key to successfully winning a lawsuit in each of these examples begins with a well-drafted non-compete agreement (or a "covenant not to compete"). So businesses should consult with a business lawyer to help them draft such an agreement. California generally disfavors agreements not to compete, and views restraints on engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business as harmful to the state's economy and the personal freedoms of its citizens. However, some agreements not to compete are recognized as valid under California law, including those relating to the sale of a business and the withdrawal of a partner.

In these instances, the key factors used to determine the validity of the non-compete agreement are its geography and duration. A business purchase agreement may include a clause stating that the seller agrees to refrain from operating a similar business within the specific geographic area that the purchased business operates. The duration of this agreement is usually limited to a number of years. The non-compete agreement protects the value of the purchased business - and serves to prevent the seller from selling his or her business today and then setting up shop next door tomorrow!

Similar rules apply to agreements not to compete as they relate to partnerships, and the courts have enforced agreements among partners in various professions, including physicians, accountants, and attorneys. In the case of professionals, non-compete agreements are typically enforced by requiring the competing partner to compensate his or her former partners to some extent at least for the business taken from them.

One of the benefits of a well-drafted non-compete agreement is that, if it is abided by the parties, it can prevent potentially costly litigation. If, however, litigation becomes necessary to enforce a non-compete agreement, the results of winning the subsequent unfair competition lawsuit can be twofold. First, the plaintiff may receive restitution for the money lost due to the defendant's unfair competition activities, and may also be awarded any of the defendant's ill-gotten gains. Second, if the plaintiff provides evidence showing a probability that the defendant will commit future violations of the unfair competition laws, an injunction may be issued ordering the defendant to curtail its unfair activities.

The injunction remedy stands in recognition of the fact that sometimes a defendant's unlawful conduct will continually harm the plaintiff unless the defendant is stopped. Rather than require the plaintiff to file lawsuit after lawsuit in an exhausting effort to seek money damages, the injunction empowers the plaintiff to put a stop to the defendant's unlawful activities once and for all.

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Catching Up On New California Employment Laws For 2012

January 23, 2012,

With the new year comes new laws, and businesses in the San Jose area should be aware of the new California employment laws that are on the books in 2012. Ensuring compliance with these new laws is good for the bottom-line, as it will make for happy employees, who will in turn make for satisfied customers. Making sure that your business complies with the new laws put on the books each January 1st may help your company avoid employment-related litigation.

Hiring Practices
Starting in 2012, employers may no longer obtain consumer credit reports about employees and job applicants. There are exceptions to this law, particularly for positions requiring access to bank or credit card information and other personal information, positions that include access to $10,000 or more during the daily course of business, positions involving signatory authority, and management positions.

Also, at the time of hire, employers must now provide notice to new nonexempt employees of the following information: pay rate; overtime rate; form of pay (hourly, salary, commission, other); a list of allowances that are included as part of the minimum wage; name, principal address, and telephone number of the employer; and the regular pay day designated by the employer. The employer must provide written notice to employees within seven days of any changes to this information.

Finally, the penalty for willfully misclassifying employees as independent contractors is now between $5,000 and $25,000. This five-fold penalty increase underscores the importance of properly classifying new hires.

Employee Leave
All employers with five or more employees must maintain and pay for a group health plan for any eligible female employee who takes Pregnancy Disability Leave for up to a maximum of four months during a 12 month time period. These benefits must remain at the same level as though the employee had been working during the leave. These requirements extend beyond those of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

The law regarding organ and bone marrow donor leave has also been clarified for 2012. During a one year period, employees are allowed 30 days of leave for organ donation and 5 days of leave for bone marrow donation, with the law now stating that the leave days are to be calculated as business days.

Discrimination Law
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) has been amended to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on genetic information, including genetic tests of an employee or his or her family members, and the existence of a disease or disorder in family members of the employee. FEHA differs from a similar federal law in that FEHA applies to employers with five or more employees, while the federal law covers employers with 15 or more employees.

FEHA has also been updated to clarify that discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression is prohibited. Previously, only the term gender identity was used. Gender expression is defined as, "a person's gender-related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person's assigned sex at birth." Employee dress codes must allow employees to dress in a manner consistent with both the employee's gender identity and gender expression.

Additionally, health care service plans and health insurance policies issued to California residents must provide equal coverage to domestic partners as that provided to spouses. While this has been the standing policy in California, the new law ensures that employers located outside California and with a majority of employees located outside of California must comply with California law as it pertains to California residents.

Wage and Hour Laws
Employees alleging violations of the minimum wage may now recover liquidated damages as a result of a complaint heard before the Labor Commissioner. Liquidated damages, which serve to punish the employer, are permitted in an amount equal to the unpaid wages owed to the employee. Put simply, for every dollar an employee is awarded in unpaid wages, the Labor Commissioner is authorized to award an additional dollar in penalties. Previously, employees could receive liquidated damages only after filing a complaint in civil court.

In the prevailing wage arena, which applies to specified state or federal public works contracts, the minimum penalty for wage violations has been raised from $10 to $40 per day for each worker paid less than the prevailing wage, and the maximum has been raised from $50 to $200.

When it comes to new year's business resolutions, some cannot fall by the wayside. Resolving to make sure that your business is in compliance with the new California employment laws for 2012 is an easy resolution to keep, and one that will help keep your employees happy and avoid costly litigation.

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