Articles Posted in Start-Ups & Financing

What happens to an LLC member’s membership interest in the LLC if the member files bankruptcy? How does the member’s (the debtor) bankruptcy filing impact the LLC and its other members? Does the bankruptcy trustee (or the debtor in possession in a chapter 11) step into the debtor’s shoes contrary to an express provision in the LLC’s operating agreement restricting transfers by members and prohibiting a transferee or assignee of a member from becoming an LLC member without the other members’ consent? Is the bankruptcy trustee bound by the terms of the LLC’s operating agreement, or does the trustee acquire the debtor’s membership interest free and clear of any transfer or other restrictions imposed by the LLC’s operating agreement? To answer these questions, the Bankruptcy Court in the debtor’s bankruptcy must first determine whether the LLC’s operating agreement is an “executory” contract under Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code.

What is an Executory Contract?contract-300x200

The Bankruptcy Code does not define “executory contract.” However, many circuits, including the Ninth, have adopted the “Countryman Test,” which provides that a contract is executory if ‘the obligations of both parties are so far unperformed that the failure of either party to complete performance would constitute a material breach and thus excuse the performance of the other.’ Determining whether a contract, including an operating agreement, is executory therefore requires a case-specific examination of the contract in question.

The United States Department of Labor recently announced a new rule on white collar overtime exemption regulations. This new rule will affect an estimated 4.2 million white collar workers who will no longer be exempt from Fair Standards Labor Act guidelines and must be paid for overtime work. The new rule will go into effect on December 1, 2016. The employment lawyers at Structure Law Group, LLP are experienced in ensuring that their clients follow all federal and California employment rules and regulations.

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Previously, qualifying employees with an annual salary of more than $23,660 (or $455 per week) were generally exempt from the federal requirement that employees are entitled to overtime if they work over forty hours in one week. Under the new law, the minimum salary threshold for exemption has been raised to $47,476 annually, or $913 per week. This amount will be automatically revised every three years by a formula that takes into account wages across the country.

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Corporate officers, partners in a partnership, and members of a limited liability company owe a fiduciary duty to the principal, i.e., the business entity, to act in the best interest of the organization. Failure to act in the principal’s best interest or actively competing against the principal to which a fiduciary duty is owed exposes the fiduciary, the agent of the principal, to civil liability. Care must be taken by the fiduciary not to compete against the organization to which they owe their duty of loyalty. The Silicon Valley Business Attorneys’s at Structure Law Group, LLP are highly experienced in preventing and resolving corporate disputes that may arise from a breach of fiduciary duty.

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The foundational tenet of agency law is the duty of loyalty owed by the agent, or fiduciary, to the principal or business entity. The duty of loyalty obligates the fiduciary to act in the best interests of the principal. The duty of loyalty extends to “all matters connected with the fiduciary relationship.”  Thus, the duty of loyalty prohibits fiduciaries from obtaining a benefit from others as a result of the fiduciary relationship. This prohibition extends to all dealings in which the fiduciary is involved on behalf of the principal. The duty to act with loyalty is not limited to financial matters.

The fiduciary’s duty of loyalty encompasses situations involving parties adverse to the principal. The fiduciary has an absolute duty not to act on behalf of a third party whose interests are adverse to those of the principal.  The fiduciary is duty-bound not to compete, either personally or on behalf of, another entity. The agent’s obligations last for the entire duration, and in some instances depending on contract language, last beyond the termination of the fiduciary’s relationship with the principal. However, agency law does provide for the fiduciary to plan and prepare to leave the principal, even to then compete with the principal.  Notwithstanding, the action taken by the fiduciary must not violate any other duty owed to the principal.

Public policy in California dictates that businesses should be free to compete against each other in the marketplace. Competition among businesses greatly benefits consumers. At the same time, competition engenders higher quality goods and higher service quality at price points advantageous to the consumer. Toward that end, California’s antitrust law, known as the “Cartwright Act,” prohibits a wide variety of conduct designed to restrain competition in the marketplace.

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The San Jose business lawyers at Structure Law Group, LLP dedicate their practice to helping business owners grow their company while insulating them from harm.  Unfair competition has a negative effect on consumers and businesses. Business entities should avoid structuring agreements which arguably cause unfair competition. Failure to do so could subject those businesses to lengthy and costly litigation and expose them to potential damages.

According to California business, trusts are unlawful and against public policy. California law defines a trust as a “combination of capital, skills, or acts by two or more persons” to:

The exchange of cash for payment for a goods or services is rare these days. We have certainly become a digital society. Business make advances daily to make transactions more efficient and convenient. However, businesses engaging in e-commerce must not compromise security for expediency. Additionally, businesses store infinite amounts of personal data about their customers. These businesses, such as health care providers and health insurance companies, not only must safeguard their electronic transactions but must also secure sensitive information and proactively combat data breaches. Failure to do so can lead to a huge economic loss for the customers and the company. The savvy business attorneys at Structure Law Group, LLP advise businesses on the best practices to prevent data breaches and counsel them on the necessary steps to take if such an unfortunate event occurs.

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In California, people have a constitutional right to the safety and integrity of their personal information. California’s information security act defines personal information as any information that could identify or describe a person. Personal information is also an individual’s name, address, social security number, license number, medical information, and the like. A business in possession of such information must take reasonable steps to prevent disclosure of private information. California law obligates businesses to implement security measures reasonably designed to protect the integrity of the private information. Every business entity, from a sole proprietorship to a multi-national corporation is subject to the information security act.

California law broadly defines “data breach.” Data breach includes any “unauthorized acquisition of computerized data that compromises the security, confidentiality, or integrity of personal information maintained by the person or business.” The information may be used in good faith for the benefit of the person whose information is disclosed, provided that such disclosure is authorized.

Businesses must endeavor to guard their trade secrets jealously. Failure to do so can wreak havoc upon development and growth. It will also give competitors a leg-up in the marketplace. Knowing and understanding California’s trade secret law is therefore critically important. Implementing multiple safeguards to prevent trade secret disclosure is necessary. If a business fails to implement reasonable safeguards to prevent trade secret misappropriation, then the business may be without recourse in court. Working closely with experienced business attorneys to develop the appropriate security measures to prevent trade secret theft could prevent disaster from striking. The San Jose San Jose business attorneys at Structure Law Group, LLP (in San Jose and Oakland) have extensive experience counseling businesses on how to best protect their trade secrets and defending businesses against trade secret misappropriation in court.

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California’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”), which follows the Uniform Trade Secrets Act adopted in 48 states, defines a “trade secret” as “information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process, that: (1) derives independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to the public or to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use; and (2) is the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstances to maintain its secrecy.” (Ca. Civil Code §3426.1.)

In order to assert a claim for misappropriation of trade secret information, the owner of the trade secret information must identify its trade secret with sufficient specificity so that the information is separate from areas of general knowledge. For example, customer lists, marketing plans or pricing concessions are examples of broad categories of trade secret information. Or, the trade secret can be highly specific, such as a newly designed manufacturing process or the recipe for some sugary carbonated beverage, such as the recipe for Coca-Cola.

A partnership is created whenever two or more people agree to do business together for a profit. Additionally, partnerships should ensure that they follow sound business practices once they begin their new venture.

Steps in Forming a Partnership

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The first step to forming a partnership is choosing its name.  In California, a partnership may use the last names of the individual partners or any fictitious names. If a fictitious name is used, it must be distinguishable from the name of any business name that is currently on record.  Before choosing the name, a search should be run in the following databases such as California Secretary of State or The United States Patent & Trademark Office.   If a fictitious name is used, the state of California requires that a fictitious business name statement is filed in the office of the county clerk where the partnership intends to do business.  The fictitious business name must also be published in the county newspaper for four weeks.

Contracts are an integral part of conducting business and the necessity for certain contracts can arise from the very start of your company. The following are only some examples of important contracts for startups in California.

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Founders’ Agreement — If you are going into business with one or more people, having a comprehensive and clear founders’ agreement is imperative. This agreement can be likened to a premarital agreement: it foresees and addresses potential issues that may arise and sets guidelines for dealing with those issues. A solid and enforceable founders’ agreement can prevent a lot of legal conflict and costs down the road.

Nondisclosure Agreements — If you have the idea or formula for a unique product or process, you want to keep information confidential so others do not try to misappropriate your idea. However, it will be necessary to share information with co-founders, employees, investors, contract developers, and others involved in the project. In such cases, you may have others sign a nondisclosure agreement to ensure they will not disclose confidential information to other parties.

Issuing equity in a company is a popular form of employee compensation. This trend is especially popular here in Silicon Valley, where startup companies often defer cash compensation to their employees in exchange for a share of future growth through the issuance of equity. If you own a non-public company, you may wish to compensate your employees partially by issuing them equity in the company. Equity aligns incentives between employers and employees while enabling employees to build up wealth over a longer term. Equity issuance can be done in different ways, including by issuing restricted stock grants or by issuing stock options. Each of these forms of compensation can have its own pros and cons and you want to make sure you carefully analyze the decision and decide which is best for your circumstances.

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Restricted Stock

Restricted stock is a stock award that will not fully transfer to the employee until certain conditions have been met. These conditions can include a certain length of time working for your company, meeting certain performance or financial goals or milestones, and more. These restrictions can be helpful for owners to ensure that employees do not simply walk away from your venture and that they must wait for the award to vest before they receive the stock benefits. In addition, by making an 83(b) election with the IRS within a certain period of time after the restricted stock grant, employees can save significantly on the tax burden once the stock vests. If no election is made, however, employees may face hefty tax liability at the time of vesting depending on the value of the shares. Restricted stock is less risky and easier to manage in comparison to regular stock.  However, restricted stock has less favorable tax treatment than options.

Starting a business with a partner can be highly beneficial: collaborations offer many benefits and are particularly popular with startups and firms providing professional services. When you start a business with another person or people, the last thing you expect is to end up in a disagreement about business ownership. Unfortunately, these kinds of disputes arise on a regular basis and can have a significant impact on the success of your business as well as your personal bottom line.

Fotolia_71517132_Subscription_Monthly_M-300x200Business disputes can arise in a variety of contexts – here are some of the most common situations:

  • A party may attempt to assert authority which he or she does not have