The Business Owner’s Tax Dilemma

Tax time is coming up, and it’s worth taking a look at your business records now so that you are prepared to send your 2016 records to your tax preparer come January.

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It’s also a good time to think about your tax strategy.

Conventional wisdom is to maximize deductions and business losses and to minimize income. While this strategy results in lower tax bills, it may not be the best strategy for your business. Choosing the best tax strategy involves some advance planning and goal setting.

If your personal goals include buying a home or if your business goals include courting investors or seeking funding to meet your goals, then think carefully before minimizing your business income to avoid tax liability.

You may be outsmarting yourself out of your goals.

Mortgage companies tend to view the self-employed as high risk. Self-employed mortgage seekers must jump through more hoops than their counterparts who are employed by large companies. Mortgage lenders want to see a history of income stability. If your small business has taken a loss in each of the preceding several years, it will be hard to get a mortgage.

 The same goes for financing to grow your business. Lenders are looking for credit worthiness and stable income – not a brilliant tax strategy. Don’t let your brilliant tax strategy compromise your ability to meet your goals.

 Have a frank discussion with your tax preparer in advance if your business or personal plans include getting financing in the next 2-5 years.

AUSTIN PROPOSITION 1: Moving Austin Forward or Money Pit?

We’ve all seen the competing signs urging Travis County voters to vote yes or no to Proposition 1 – $720,000,000 in transportation bonds. So, what’s Prop. 1 about? My goal is not to tell anyone how to vote but simply to assist us in making an informed choice.

If passed, the bond money would be used for three kinds of projects:

  1. improvements to roads, sidewalks, bridges, trails, and bikeways including safe routes to schools;
  2. traffic signals and traffic control systems;
  3. improving drainage systems.

Austin Roads

Improvements would be made to Loop 360, Spicewood Springs Rd., Old Bee Caves Road Bridge, Anderson Mill Rd., RM 620 at RM 2222, Parmer Lane, North Lamar, Burnet Rd., Airport Blvd., East MLK Blvd., South Lamar, East Riverside, Guadalupe St., Slaughter, William Cannon, Rundberg, East Colony Loop, South Congress, Manchaca Rd., and South Pleasant Valley Rd., Fallwell Ln., FM 1626, Cooper Ln., Ross Rd., Circle S Rd., Rutledge Spur, Davis Ln., Brush Country, Johnny Morris Rd., and Brodie Ln.

The bonds would increase the debt service part of Austin’s tax rate by 2.25 cents meaning most homeowners’ taxes would go up by $40 to $100 per year.

Supporters say that the improvements will help traffic flow and increase safety for bicyclists and pedestrians and that improvements are necessary to help the City cope with population growth. Supporters concede that the bonds will pay for only a fraction of the City’s comprehensive transportation plan but believe this would be a good start.

Opponents believe voters should be able to vote on various components of the plan rather than the comprehensive bond package represented by Prop. 1 especially since the bonds are not adequate to pay for the cost of the listed improvements. Opponents fear the City will keep coming to taxpayers for more and more bond issues.

The League of Women Voters’ election guide is here: http://lwvaustin.org/, and the City’s voter education brochure about the transportation bonds can be found here: http://austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Capital_Planning/2016_Bond/2016_Bond_Voter_Information_Brochure__English.pdf.

 

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Break Room Art A Quick List of Required Postings for Texas Employers

Ah, the employee break room – the smell of stale coffee, long-forgotten leftovers lingering in the fridge,

and… a panoply of informational posters decorating the walls?

Yesterday, the EEOC raised the penalties for failing to post required notices of employee rights under several federal laws.

At issue are the notices covered in the “Equal Opportunity is the Law” poster.

The maximum fine increased from $210 to a whopping $525 per violation.

This begs the question, “What notices are required?”

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All employers must post information regarding:

Additionally, federal law requires federal contractors and employers with 15 or more employees to post the “Equal Opportunity is the Law” poster.

There are plenty of vendors who sell the required posters; however, all required posters can be downloaded free of charge through the Texas Workforce Commission and EEOC websites.

Happy decorating!

Taking A Cue From Business: Using Technology to Help More People With Less Resources

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It’s become ubiquitous on customer service web pages: the chat box.

Searching through a site’s FAQs, a box pops up with an avatar of a person who looks eager to help encouraging you to type your question in the box.

Years ago, legal aid lawyers began wondering if we could use a chat box to help people who lived far away from the nearest legal aid office or who didn’t have transportation to their local legal aid office.

Nationally, several groups started working on the idea.

What if we could leverage internet chat to allow lawyers to help low income people from their desk?

Enter Texas Legal Services Center (TLSC) and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation. TLSC proposed and received a grant from the Foundation to start a chat service. We call it Live Help, and it’s still up and running on the Texas Law Help website, www.texaslawhelp.org.

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The site and Live Help are geared to legal issues faced by low income Texans; however, the site contains a plethora of useful information about Texas law. It’s well worth a visit.

The first chat lawyer, Elliott Fontenette, is now the project manager leading a team of paid and volunteer attorneys. I consider him to be a visionary. When we started Live Help in 2010, Elliott and I were swimming in uncharted water. Now, legal aid groups around the world are using chat to help people access legal information, and the service has proved popular here in Texas with nearly 28,000 Texans having used the service.

I was reminded of my time at TLSC and working on Texas Law Help when Elliott and I were interviewed for a recent ABA Journal article about legal aid agencies that use web chat: http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/legal_aid_agencies_are_using_webchat_to_answer_queries/?utm_source=maestro&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tech_monthly

Thanks, Elliott, TLSC and Texas Access to Justice Foundation for continuing to bring quality legal services to those who cannot afford it. Well done!

 

Holiday Gift For Salaried Workers: OVERTIME

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The Department of Labor has finally issued a long anticipated rule raising the “white collar exemptions”, that is, the salary exemption level for executive, administrative, and professional workers. Traditionally, salaried administrative workers were not eligible for overtime pay unless their salary was very, very low. Beginning December 1, 2016, the overtime eligibility threshold for salaried employees will raise to $47,476 per year or $913 per week. What this means is that salaried employees making less than $47,476 yearly will be entitled to overtime pay for working more than 40 hours in a work week.

The exemption threshold had not been updated since 2004. The new rule provides for automatic updates every three years to maintain the exemption threshold at the 40th percentile of full time salaried workers’ earnings in the lowest wage region according to the U.S. Census.

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

  • The employee is paid a salary as opposed to an hourly wage;
  • The salary must be at least $47,476 annually for a full time worker to be exempt; and
  • The employee’s primary job must be executive, administrative, or professional, e.g., management, exercise of discretion and independent judgment, or work that requires advanced knowledge.

Otherwise, the employee is entitled to overtime pay at time and a half the employee’s hourly equivalent rate for each hour worked beyond a 40 hour work week.

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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 plan to pay overtime;
  • Adjust workloads and schedules so that employees are not working overtime; or
  • Adjust wages by converting salaried employees to hourly.

Raising salaries and paying overtime is simply not financially feasible for many businesses. Employees may negatively view adjustments in workloads and schedules or conversion from salaries to hourly pay. There is another way to comply with the new rule without undertaking additional financial burdens: adopt a workplace policy mandating that non-exempt employees cannot work overtime without prior written approval from a supervisor. Enforce the policy consistently. This will help the business be able to predict and control labor costs while encouraging healthy work-life balance for employees.

Businesses have only a few months to plan for the new rule. Start analyzing your options now. A business lawyer can help your business make the 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

New Federal Law Protects Business Trade Secrets

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On May 11, President Obama signed the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 into law. The Act protects businesses from misappropriation of trade secrets and gives businesses the ability to litigate trade secret cases in the federal courts. The text of the new law can be found here:

https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1890/text.

Texas adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act in 2013. The Texas law is codified in Chapter 134A of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code. The text of the Texas statute may be found here:

http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/CP/htm/CP.134A.htm.

There are a few differences between the Texas law and the new federal law. The definition of a trade secret is essentially the same under both the federal and state statutes. A trade secret is information that is valuable because it is specific to the business and that the business reasonably tries to protect. Trade secrets typically include a company’s financial data, policies and procedures, customer lists, supplier lists, intellectual property, and other proprietary information such as formulas, techniques, processes, drawings, and the like

The new law allows a business to file a federal lawsuit to protect trade secrets “related to a  product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.” 18 U.S.C. § 1836(b)(1). Courts traditionally interpret interstate commerce broadly, so many businesses will be able to litigate in federal court. One of the most interesting provisions of the new law is a pre-emptive strike: the law allows a party to obtain a court order for seizure of property to prevent the dissemination of trade secrets in “extraordinary circumstances.” The seizure order can be obtained without notice to the opposing party. A prevailing party may get an injunction to prevent dissemination of trade secrets, an order requiring the opposing party to pay a royalty, damages for actual business losses, damages for unjust enrichment, and attorneys fees. The law also allows an award of up to two times the amount of damages if the misappropriation was willful and malicious.

Protecting trade secrets is of paramount concern when a competitor hires a former employee. The Defend Trade Secrets Act allows a court to place conditions on the former employee’s employment when there is a threat of misappropriation.

There are some circumstances when employees or former employees have immunity from disclosing trade secrets. For example, an individual is immune from liability for disclosing a trade secret in confidence to a government official or attorney solely for the purpose of reporting or investigating a violation of law. If trade secrets are disclosed in documents filed in a court, the statute requires the filing to be sealed to prevent public disclosure.

Important: The Defend Trade Secrets Act requires employers to notify employees of the immunity provisions in the law. If your business has incorporated non-disclosure language in your employee handbook, or if you require employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, you will need to revise your handbook or agreements to properly notify employees that they are protected from liability when disclosures of trade secrets are made to government agencies or attorneys solely for the purpose of reporting or investigation violations of the law. An employer that fails to provide the required notice loses the right to recover attorneys fees and exemplary damages.

The availability of both state and federal court actions to protect businesses from misappropriation of trade secrets is a welcome development; however, most businesses need to revise their non-disclosure agreements, handbooks, or policies and procedure manuals as soon as possible to avoid losing valuable rights under the new law.

8 Reasons Why Your LLC Needs a Company Agreement

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Jane, Mary, and Alice have a thriving business. They decided to operate as an LLC and handled the formation themselves by filing a certificate of formation with the Texas Secretary of State.

Everything was fine until Alice got divorced, and her ex was assigned half her membership shares.

Who’d have known their company shares were community property!

Now, the ex is making life miserable by demanding to see the books, demanding distributions, and threatening to sue. What a mess: a mess that was avoidable. Had they adopted a company agreement, the owners could have managed what happened to the company shares in divorce.

A company agreement, also called an operating agreement, describes the way a limited liability company will do business. The company agreement governs the relations among members, managers, officers, and the company. Even a sole member LLC can, and should, adopt a company agreement. Here are a few reasons why.

 

  1. Retaining control. A company agreement allows the members to determine how the company is governed and what happens to membership shares if a member dies, divorces, files for bankruptcy, or just wants out. These kinds of events can erode members’ control over the business. It is best to deal with these contingencies before they happen. A company agreement does that.
  2. If you don’t have a company agreement, the State of Texas will set the operating rules for your company through Chapter 101 of the Texas Business Organizations Code. Many of the Code provisions can be waived or modified to better suit your company.
  3. With a company agreement, you can establish different classes of ownership. For example, a you may want to retain control of the company but give others a share in ownership. This can be accomplished by having two classes of membership: voting members and non-voting members. Without a company agreement, an LLC is limited to one class of membership.
  4. A member of an LLC cannot withdraw or be expelled from the company unless you have a company agreement that describes a process for a member to withdraw or be expelled. In other words, if one member wants to leave, or if members want to kick out a non-performing member, you can’t do it unless you have a company agreement.
  5. A company agreement can limit assignment of interests. What if a member gets into financial trouble and wants to pledge membership shares as collateral for a loan? If the member defaults on loan payments, you may up with a business partner you never intended to have.
  6. A company agreement can describe the relationship between members and managers. While the certificate of formation states whether an LLC is managed by its members or managers, there is no guidance or restrictions on managers without a company agreement.
  7. A company agreement can expand or limit the duties, responsibilities, and liability of members, managers, and officers. Many members are shocked that Texas law does not impose a fiduciary duty between them. A fiduciary duty is a duty of loyalty to act in the best interest of another. If you want members to owe a heightened duty to one another or to the company, you must have a company agreement.
  8. Having a well-drafted company agreement saves money in the long run. By fully describing expectations in a company agreement, members have a means of resolving disputes without resorting to litigation. The initial investment in legal fees for drafting a solid company agreement is tiny compared to the cost of arbitration or litigation.

 

A company agreement is a valuable tool that allows LLC owners to control the destiny of their company and to manage relationships between themselves, their managers, and their officers.

They can expand or limit responsibilities and liability as they see fit.

Adopting a company agreement early can be a cost saving strategy that staves off expensive problems later, and the agreement can be modified as the company grows. It is critical to use an attorney to draft a company agreement, but it is money well spent.