Affordable Help for Texas Identity Theft Victims

Identity theft victims have a new resource for recovering their identity and repairing their credit: www.idthefthelptx.com. The site provides a wealth of free resources as well as low cost form letters, checklists, and step-by-step instructions to guide victims through the recovery process. The website’s author, Paula Pierce, is a licensed attorney and passionate advocate for identity theft victims in Texas.

 

Most victims can repair their credit without hiring a lawyer – if they have instructions to follow. The website provides proven strategies victims can use along with forms and checklists to help organize the process. The road to identity theft recovery can be long and lonely. Texas victims now have a guide: www.idthefthelptx.com.

EX-CEO EXPLAINS WHY CORPORATE TAX CUTS DON’T CREATE JOBS

As a small business owner, I’ve always known it would take a mighty big tax cut to pay for me to hire additional help. For small businesses, tax cuts are never sizeable enough to defray the cost of a full-time employee. Interestingly, at least one CEO of a publicly traded company agrees. This Linked In article penned by David Mendels, former CEO of Brighthouse, was enlightening.

You can find the article here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/chief-economic-advisor-trump-most-excited-group-out-big-david-mendels/.

WHAT’S GOING ON WITH TAX REFORM

The tax reform bills proposed by the House and Senate contain some similar proposals, but the many differences warrant separate examination. While unknown compromises can be expected before any legislation hits the president’s desk for consideration, here are the highlights from both bills:

HIGHLIGHTS FROM BOTH BILLS
House Bill Senate Bill
Lowers corporate tax rate to 20% from 35% starting in 2018.

 

Eliminates common personal deductions: state and local taxes, personal property taxes, deduction for medical bills, unreimbursed business expenses.

 

Significantly reduces the mortgage interest deduction, and limits the property tax deduction.

 

Changes from 7 individual tax brackets to 4. People earning $500,000.00 to $1M a year get the biggest break. Some middle income earners would be bumped into a higher bracket.

 

Raises standard deduction to $12,000 for a single person and $24,000 for a married couple.

 

Eliminates personal exemptions completely. Currently, the personal exemption is $4050 per household member.

 

Raises child tax credit to $1600 from $1000.

 

Imposes a minimum tax on foreign investments of US corporations.

 

Gives an income tax deduction for income from some “pass through” businesses. Those are businesses that report income on Schedule C. Deduction is limited. Lawyers, engineers, consultants, and doctors cannot take the deduction.

 

Changes the capital gains tax structure.

 

 

Lowers corporate tax rate to 20% from 35% starting in 2019.

 

Eliminates common personal deductions: state and local taxes, property taxes, personal property taxes, home equity loan interest, unreimbursed business expenses.

 

Raises the income levels for personal income tax brackets and lowers tax rate for the highest income tax brackets. People earning $1,000,000.00 or more per year get the biggest break.

 

Raises standard deduction from $6350 to $12,000 for a single person. Child tax credit is raised to $1650 from $1000, but the dependent exemptions are eliminated completely.

 

Gives an income tax deduction for income from some “pass through” businesses. Those are businesses that report income on Schedule C. Deduction is limited to a % of the owner’s W-2 income. Lawyers, engineers, consultants, and doctors cannot take the deduction.

 

Excludes business income earned overseas. In other words, companies won’t have to pay US taxes on overseas earnings.

 

Imposes limited tax withholding on independent contractors.

 

Eliminates the 50% business entertainment deduction but keeps the 50% meals deduction.

 

Expands businesses that can use cash method accounting.

 

 

If you have concerns with how tax reform will affect your bottom line, talk to your accountant. The House is scheduled to vote on Thursday, November 16th, and the Senate plans to vote the week after Thanksgiving.  Elected officials want to know whether constituents favor or oppose these bills. Here’s a website that will give you the contact information for your elected representatives: https://whoismyrepresentative.com/.

Employer News: You Must Start Using the New Form I-9

Employers are required to keep an employment eligibility verification form (I-9) on each employee. The form documents the employee’s citizenship status and eligibility to work in the United States. In July, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services revised the form for use beginning September 18, 2017. The new form only applies to new hires; employers don’t have to fill out the new form for current employees.

Where is the new form? You can find the new form I-9 in English and Spanish as well as instructions here: https://www.uscis.gov/i-9.

What changed? The changes seem minor. The most significant change is that U.S. citizens born abroad can now use a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (Form FS-240) as proof of status. Minor edits were made to the form instructions.

Keep a copy of the completed I-9 in the employee’s personnel file. I-9 forms do not get filed with any state or federal agency.

Overtime Update

 

It seems a lifetime ago that the Department of Labor (DOL) announced changes to employee overtime rules that would raise the salary threshold for exempt employees.* The rule was to take effect on December 1, 2016. Many employees who had been exempt from overtime would be eligible for overtime pay under the new rule which raised the exemption threshold to $913 a week: $47,476 per year rather than the current $23,660. Employers scrambled to revise job descriptions and policies regarding overtime work to comply with the rule.

Twenty-one states file suit to challenge the new rule. On November 22, 2016, the U.S. District Court in Sherman, Texas granted the states’ motion to prevent the rule from taking effect. The DOL appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit. Briefing was completed last month, and it appears that the DOL has abandoned the new salary level. Instead, the DOL is seeking information. On July 26, the Federal Register published a request for information posing 11 sets of specific questions for public comment. Questions include whether there should be multiple salary levels for exempt employees based on factors such as inflation, employer size, and census region; how setting different exemption levels for executive vs. administrative employees would affect businesses; and whether the exemption test ought to be based solely on the employee’s duties rather than salary. Comments are due by September 25, 2017. The questions and instructions for submitting comments are here. Anyone can submit a comment, and so far over 65,000 comments have been submitted.

What should employers do? Nothing for now. Now, we wait for the Fifth Circuit to issue an opinion.

See our previous blogs about the overtime rule: 11/29/16 – A Lump of Coal for Admin Employees? Texas Court Blocks Implementation of DOL’s Overtime Rule Change; 11/16/16 $47,476 the Magic Number – Are You Ready?; 10/10/16 – Time’s a Wastin’ – Get Ready for the new Overtime Rule; 5/27/16 – Holiday Gift for Salaried Workers: OVERTIME.

Time’s A Wastin’ – Get Ready for the New Overtime Rule

running-payroll

 

Each year the Texas Workforce Commission and the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor investigate scores of Texas businesses for violating minimum wage and overtime laws. With the new federal overtime exemptions imminently taking effect, employers should review their payroll policies to ensure compliance. Beginning December 1, salaried employees who make less than $47,476 per year or $913 per week will be entitled to overtime pay for working more than 40 hours in a work week. Texas recognizes the federal minimum wage which is currently $7.25 an hour.

 

Plan now to be in compliance with the overtime rule on December 1. Salary alone is not the only factor for determining whether a salaried employee is entitled to overtime or is exempt:

 

  • Salaried employees are paid a salary not an hourly wage;
  • Full-time exempt employees’ salaries must be at least $47,476 annually; and
  • Exempt employees must have executive, administrative, or professional duties, e.g., management, exercise of discretion and independent judgment, or work that requires advanced knowledge.

payroll1

Nonexempt employees are entitled to overtime pay at time and a half for each hour worked beyond a 40 hour work week. The Department of Labor enumerated four options for employers to comply with the new rule:

 

  • Raise salaries to maintain the exemption;
  • Keep current salaries and pay overtime;
  • Adjust workloads and schedules so that employees work no more than 40 hours per week; or
  • Adjust wages by converting salaried employees to hourly.

 

Raising salaries and paying overtime is not financially feasible for many small businesses. Converting salaried workers to hourly pay could tank employee morale. Another way to comply with the new rule without undertaking additional financial burdens is to adopt a workplace policy forbidding non-exempt employees from working overtime without prior written approval from a supervisor. Enforce the policy consistently. This allows the business to predict and control labor costs while encouraging healthy work-life balance for employees.

The last minute has arrived. If you haven’t already adopted procedures to comply, consult a lawyer to help your business transition to the new rule. The Department of Labor has published this fact sheet for employers: https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/general-guidance.pdf

 

Ins and Outs of Online Reviews The Communication Decency Act

e4fcdb706f26100581e210145edef087

Anyone with a social media account can post online reviews of businesses, and there’s virtually no way to vet a review, that is, whether the reviewer is being truthful or whether the reviewer has an ulterior motive.

Schemes have been found where reviewers were compensated for good reviews, where reviewers blackmailed businesses into giving benefits in return for not writing bad reviews, where businesses threatened to sue reviewers for bad reviews, and where reviews were blatantly faked.

While a sudden plethora of five star reviews might be a red flag to Yelp, Google, or Tripadvisor, business owners are more concerned about the impact of fake negative reviews on their business.

amazon-consumer-reviews

When faced with a negative review that appears malicious or fake, people often respond by contacting the review site. Unfortunately, the review site has no legal responsibility for user posts.

Sites are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a little known federal law that was originally enacted to keep internet pornography out of the hands of children.

Congress passed the CDA in 1996. Most of the law focused on limiting indecent or obscene material on the internet; however, those provisions were struck down in a series of lawsuits filed by free speech advocates. Section 230 remains. In a nutshell, Section 230 says that internet providers are not the publisher or speaker of information they post when the information was created by someone else. 47 U.S.C. § 230. This means that a website generally is not responsible for content posted on it that was created by a website user. There are a couple of exceptions, e.g.,  criminal content and intellectual property infringement are not protected. So, online review sites are not responsible for the content of reviews posted by site users.

Even though they may not be legally liable, social media sites are concerned about the reliability of reviews posted on their sites. Most sites have adopted procedures for taking down fraudulent reviews. These procedures are site specific. So victims of fraudulent reviews must contact each site owner for instructions.

While the site may not be liable for fraudulent content, the individual doing the posting does not have legal protection for fraud, criminal acts, or defamation. If a reviewer did not use the business it reviewed, the review is likely fraudulent. If the review contains facts that are not true, the review may be defamatory. The basic test for defamation is that the statement is false and caused harm, is published, and is made negligently or maliciously. However, an opinion is not defamation.

So, what’s a victim to do? Look at the site’s acceptable use policy and see if the site has a procedure for taking down fraudulent content. Contact a lawyer to see whether the review contains content that is not legally protected and what recourse you may have against the individual that posted the review.

What’s The Deal With Arbitration?

It seems like every contract, service agreement, or website terms of service has a mandatory arbitration clause in it. Why is that? There are compelling reasons to arbitrate disputes, but arbitration also has its drawbacks.

Arbitration

Why arbitrate?

Arbitration is private; whereas, generally documents in court cases are public records.

So, if keeping a dispute out of the public eye is important, arbitration is preferable. In most cases, arbitration is faster. Arbitration can be accomplished in a matter of months. In smaller cases, parties can ask for fast track arbitration which is even faster. Fast track arbitration can be accomplished in a month or two.

Litigation of smaller cases will generally take six months or more. Litigation of complex cases can take years. Arbitration is informal. Because arbitration is done by agreement, it is flexible.

The rules of evidence don’t apply, so parties can either loosen or dispense with the need for testimony necessary in court that makes documents and such admissible. The investigation phase of a lawsuit is called discovery.

Discovery in arbitration is more of an informal exchange of information rather than a structured process involving asking, objecting, and getting court rulings on information requests. Arbitrators can, but do not have to, strictly follow some statutes. For example, an arbitrator can relax some of the “gotcha” procedural laws that litigants find to be unfair such as the time limits for filing suit. Arbitration is final. It is very difficult to appeal an arbitration award.

 

What are the drawbacks to arbitration?

Because the arbitrator does not have to follow laws strictly, statutory claims and defenses that may be a slam dunk in litigation may not be followed by the arbitrator. It is very, very difficult to overturn or appeal an arbitration award. Litigants have a right to have a higher court review lower court rulings.  

Because the rules of discovery and rules of evidence do not apply to arbitration, parties run the risk of not getting all of the information and evidence relevant to the case. The arbitrator may base an arbitration award on evidence that is not admissible in court. Courts and juries cannot consider inadmissible evidence.

There is no jury right in arbitration. The arbitrator is both judge and jury. If the losing party doesn’t pay the award, it will take longer to make the award collectible. If a court judgment is not appealed, it becomes final and collectible in 30 days. After arbitration, the winner must file the arbitration award in court, and the court will confirm the award making it collectible. However, the loser has 90 days to dispute the award in court.

 

Which is more expensive?

That depends. The filing fees for arbitration are higher, but overall costs of arbitration can be lower because arbitration takes less time and because preparing the case for arbitration is less expensive.

 

Mediation is an alternative.

Mediation is a means of dispute resolution that is less expensive than arbitration or litigation. Mediation is attractive because the parties agree on a resolution. If mediation is not successful, then the parties may resort to arbitration or litigation.

Many businesses prefer arbitration because it provides a private forum for resolution of disputes, and arbitration can be faster and less expensive than litigation.

In business disputes among licensed professionals such as doctors or lawyers, the privacy afforded by arbitration is preferable to public court proceedings that may expose the dispute to media coverage.

In reality, inserting arbitration clauses into business contracts has become a knee jerk almost rising to the level of boilerplate. Before inserting an arbitration clause into a contract, consider the pros and cons in light of the contract and the parties’ relationship. Rather than inserting an arbitration clause into every contract, consider requiring mediation prior to arbitration or litigation as an even less expensive means of resolving disputes.

Writing it Down: 4 A Recipe for Writing Simple & Personal Agreements

Contract

My last post explored common problems with handshake agreements.

Now that you’re convinced to write stuff down, what do you write?

A contract is no good if it isn’t enforceable. To be enforceable, a contract must be made by people who are legally able to make a contract (generally, adults who understand what they are doing), must have a lawful purpose, and must have an offer, acceptance, and consideration.

An offer is exactly what it sounds like – a promise to do something if the other person will do something else. Acceptance means both parties agree to hold up their end of the bargain. Consideration is payment. Consideration can be money, a promise, an action.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office has a handout that describes the legal elements of a binding contract: 

http://comptroller.texas.gov/procurement/pub/contractguide/LegalElementsofaContract.pdf.

Continue reading

Writing it Down: 3 Excuses, Excuses

My last post noted how writing things down supports healthy business relationships. If writing things down is so important to protecting a healthy business, why don’t people do it?

Common reasons for resisting written agreements are:

“I do deals on a handshake. It’s a matter of trust.”

“It’s too expensive; I’d have to hire an attorney.”

“My friend wouldn’t break a promise. He’d never do that to me.”

None of these are good excuses from my perspective. I’ve seen too many business relationships deteriorate as a result of otherwise savvy business owners adopting these excuses. Let’s explore the problems with handshake agreements.

  • Verbal agreements are too broad. People invariably do not remember details exactly the same way; therefore, a handshake agreement often will lack all of the necessary terms of the agreement. Example: Joanna installs tile. Bert hires Joanna to install tile in his bathroom for an agreed price payable half up front and half when the job is complete. Joanna estimates the job will take 2 days to complete. Bert selects tile from Joanna’s sample books. Joanna installs the selected tile and matching grout. Bert is unhappy because he wanted contrasting grout. The grout decision was a missing term. Bert demands that Joanna remove and replace the grout at no extra charge. Joanna believes their contract requires Bert to pay the rest of the agreed price and re-negotiate a new contract for removal and replacement of the grout. The parties have created their own mess. At a minimum, Joanna should be using a written work order or estimate that clearly lays out what work will be done, what decisions the customer will make, and how changes will be handled.
  • Verbal agreements can be ambiguous. When terms are not reduced to writing, they are subject to differing interpretations much the same way that two people witnessing the same event often describe it differently. Even lawyers are guilty. Example: Samantha cannot afford a lawyer to handle her entire divorce. She hires Amanda’s virtual law firm to provide limited scope services to aid her in handling her own divorce. Both agree that for a flat fee, Amanda will draft the divorce petition and court orders, give Samantha instructions for filing the petition, and provide a publication explaining the divorce process including how to handle the final hearing. In the interim, Samantha agrees to pay her spouse a small sum every month to cover an unexpected home repair. Samantha expects Amanda to draft an agreed temporary order since their flat fee covers “court orders.” Amanda disagrees. Her intention was that “court orders” included only the final divorce decree. “Court orders” in this context is ambiguous. A written agreement signed by Amanda and Samantha would have given Amanda the opportunity to spot the ambiguity before agreeing to provide services and, even if imperfect, writing down the parties’ expectations would have given them a starting point for discussing adding services to their agreement.
  • Oral agreements are hard to enforce, and agreements are worthless if they are not enforceable. Agreements are not enforceable if all the parties have not agreed to all the terms. Example: Ben and Dan form a partnership to start a mobile car wash service. Ben owns a panel van that he will contribute to the business. He estimates the van is worth $10,000. Dan will contribute $10,000 in cash for start-up costs. Both will work without salary for 6 months, and Dan will “manage” the business. After 60 days, the relationship starts disintegrating. It seems Ben and Dan can’t agree on anything. Ben has had enough and kicks Dan out of the business. Ben claims all of the improvements Dan made to the truck belong to him. Dan wants his $10,000 back and wants to be paid for the time he spent building the business. Since the parties never agreed to an exit strategy, Dan has no contract that provides him reimbursement for his time or his money. Dan must rely on common law theories of recovery to get his money back and soon realizes that attorneys’ fees and litigation costs will exceed his initial $10,000 investment. While he may be able to recoup attorneys’ fees after a trial, he decides a lawsuit is a risk he does not want to take.
  • Verbal agreements are susceptible to differences in memory making the proof of terms a matter of which party is more credible. Lawyers call this a “he said/she said” dilemma. Example: In the previous example, Dan visits a lawyer. He explains his agreement with Ben, and wants to know how to get his money back and get paid for his time and efforts to build the business. After a few minutes of hard questioning, Dan realizes that by not writing things down, Ben can simply deny the terms of their agreement. Whereas a written agreement speaks for itself, to enforce their verbal agreement, Dan will have to find witnesses and other evidence to prove every part of the agreement. Most of the terms were made in private conversations between Dan and Ben, so most of Dan’s witnesses are relying on Dan’s description of the agreement. Dan’s lawyer calls this hearsay and explains it may not be useful in court. A legal action to enforce their agreement will come down to who is more believable under the pressure of a court proceeding.

A trusting relationship does not cure the parties’ failure to communicate effectively. The failure to define all important terms can be fatal to any agreement. Writing things down gives people the opportunity to avoid future problems.

Continue reading