Must you disclose notes from an HR investigation?

An employee complains about discrimination or harassment, and you conduct an investigation. The employee is still unhappy and sues. Can you be forced to turn over all your notes from the investigation as part of the court case?

The answer is not always clear – and it’s an important issue you should be aware of.

As a general rule, any relevant documents that are created in the normal course of business are fair game to be turned over in a lawsuit. That includes documents that are created as part of a routine investigation by human resources personnel. [Read more…]

Government steps up audits of health care privacy

The federal government has begun a much more intensive program of auditing health care providers for violations of HIPAA, the federal law that protects patients’ privacy.

For the first time, the government will be auditing not only health care providers but also related businesses to whom patients’ information might be disclosed – including third-party administrators, accountants, attorneys, consultants, clearinghouses, transcriptionists and pharmacy benefits managers.

For this reason, it’s important for all providers to understand the relevant obligations and take steps to minimize risks – and make sure their vendors do so as well. [Read more…]

Employee gets away with keeping confidential info

Anthony Leness was an executive at a company called EventMonitor. His contract stated that he couldn’t disclose confidential information and that he would return all such information if he left the company.

After six years, Leness was terminated. Shortly afterward, the company discovered that he had subscribed to an online data storage service and had uploaded a large number of the company’s files to the service, including confidential data.

The company changed the status of his termination to “for cause,” and cut off his severance payments. [Read more…]

‘Tip pools’ are limited by federal law

Businesses can require their tipped employees to participate in “tip pools,” in which they contribute all their tips to a pot and then share them according to some formula.

As a general rule, a tip pool can only include employees who regularly receive tips. So for instance, a restaurant can require all its waiters to share tips among themselves, but it can’t require them to share their tips with prep cooks and dishwashers.

You should also know that a business can pay its tipped employees less than the federal minimum wage, as long as the employee makes at least the federal minimum once tips are taken into account. [Read more…]

New threats to online retailers

As more and more companies sell things online, especially to far-flung customers, it can be difficult to keep track of the ever-changing legal rules that apply. Here’s a look at just some of the issues on the horizon that online retailers should be aware of:

Is your website accessible to the disabled? You might be surprised at the idea that the federal Americans With Disabilities Act applies to online stores, but the U.S. Department of Justice has taken the position that it does, and is planning to issue rules soon for how retailers should comply.

It’s likely the government will soon require retail websites to do some or all of the following: [Read more…]

‘Gender identity’ discrimination claims on the rise

Transsexuals and other employees who identify with a different gender than the one they were born with are beginning to bring job discrimination lawsuits.

While the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination doesn’t specifically mention “gender identity,” the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission believes that gender identity is covered by the law, and has begun bringing claims against businesses. One company in Minnesota has already paid a settlement in a case brought by the EEOC over its refusal to allow a transgendered worker to use a preferred restroom, and a federal appeals court has ruled that a transgendered individual could sue for wrongful termination. [Read more…]

Another ‘close call’ on who gets overtime

One factor in deciding whether employees are eligible for overtime is whether they exercise judgment and discretion in the course of doing their work. Employees who are empowered to make independent decisions typically don’t qualify for time-and-a-half.

When there’s a dispute about overtime eligibility, this sometimes leads to an ironic situation in which bosses claim in court that their workers are highly skilled decisionmakers, while the workers themselves argue that they’re just mindless drones. [Read more…]

Federal contractors must provide paid sick leave

Starting next January, companies that have federal contracts must allow employees to earn up to seven paid sick days per year, under new regulations issued by the Labor Department.

Employees can earn one sick day for each 30 hours spent on work related to the federal contract, up to seven days per year. These days carry over from one year to the next, although an employee who quits or is fired without using them doesn’t have to be compensated for them. [Read more…]

Worker could be fired even if boss discriminated

An employee could be legally fired for misconduct even if his supervisor “got the ball rolling” toward his termination as a result of racist attitudes, according to a federal court in Philadelphia.

The case involved a black school janitor and a female black principal who strongly disapproved of the janitor’s dating white women. The principal made inappropriate comments to the janitor, made false accusations against him, and told co-workers that he had “a target on his back.” [Read more…]

Cutting workers’ hours to avoid Obamacare may be illegal

The Affordable Care Act says that any company with more than 50 full-time employees must offer health care benefits or pay a penalty. A full-time employee is defined as someone who works at least 30 hours a week.

Some businesses have tried to get around this requirement by cutting workers’ hours to just below 30 hours a week. The idea is to avoid paying for their employees’ medical care while also avoiding the penalty. [Read more…]

Company sued for not protecting worker from ex-boyfriend

In a recent case in Missouri, a woman left work and got in her minivan in the parking lot to go home, only to find that her estranged boyfriend was hiding in the back with a gun. They had an argument and he shot her, causing a serious injury. She sued her employer, arguing that better security measures could have prevented the incident.

It turned out that a different employee had been kidnapped from the same parking lot a decade earlier, and in response, the company installed security cameras around the property. However, the company later disregarded advice to reposition the cameras to provide better coverage. [Read more…]

What rights do employees have to talk about politics at work?

This year’s presidential election has produced one of the most colorful and contentious political seasons in recent memory. It’s not surprising that employees want to talk about the candidates and the issues. For this reason, it’s important to know what everyone’s rights are – both those of employees who want to express their opinions, and those of employers who want to minimize disruptions and avoid having their staff members offend co-workers or customers.

While many people talk about “free speech,” it’s important to know that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t protect every type of speech. All it really says is that the government can’t punish you for your speech. It doesn’t say that a private employer can’t punish people for their political opinions. [Read more…]

Survivor’s benefit counts as a marital asset

When Courtney Carr got divorced, he had a right to a large military pension. He and his wife Beth agreed that he would elect a survivor’s benefit. This would give him a smaller pension payout, but if he died first, Beth would begin collecting $2,750/month as his survivor. An expert calculated that the present value of the survivor’s benefit was about $226,000.

The divorce judge decided that the couple’s assets should be split with 60% going to Beth and 40% going to Courtney (to reflect the fact that Courtney had more income potential). However, in splitting the assets 60% – 40%, the judge didn’t count the $226,000 value of the survivor’s benefit as an asset. [Read more…]

Future Social Security couldn’t be divided in divorce

A divorcing spouse’s future Social Security benefits can’t be divided at divorce, says the Illinois Supreme Court.

In this case, the husband was participating in a government pension plan in lieu of Social Security, and a judge divided up his future pension payments so that his wife would get a share. The husband responded by arguing that if the judge could split his future pension benefits, the judge should also split the wife’s future Social Security benefits. [Read more…]

Stepparent ordered to pay child support

In a very unusual case, a stepparent has been ordered to pay child support for two stepchildren.

The mother in this case was a lawyer who gave birth to twin boys in 1998. The biological father wasn’t a part of the boys’ life and never tried to claim custody. The mother married another man in 2005 and moved to Pennsylvania. The mother and the stepfather separated when the twins were 11 years old; they divorced two years later, but they informally shared custody while the divorce was pending. [Read more…]

Father must help pay for daughter’s car insurance

When Tom and Deirdre Fichter divorced, Tom was ordered to pay the amount required by the New Jersey child support guidelines for the couple’s daughter Megan.

Years later, Megan turned 16 and began driving. Deirdre went back to court and asked that Tom start contributing extra to cover the cost of adding Megan to her auto insurance policy.

Tom complained that he was already paying the guidelines amount, and it wasn’t fair to add an additional expense on top of that. [Read more…]

Reconciling with your ex might not undo your divorce

When Robert and Jamie Semulka got divorced, Robert agreed to pay Jamie $40,000 in installments. He also agreed to contribute to their children’s college education.

Two years after the divorce, the couple moved back in together. They stayed together for nearly a year before once again separating.

After the second separation, Robert refused to abide by the divorce agreement. He claimed that the couple’s reconciliation had nullified the divorce proceeding, and that by moving back in with him, Jamie had given up her right to enforce the agreement. [Read more…]

Be careful if you buy a house with someone before you remarry

A growing number of divorced people are buying a house with a new partner to whom they’re not yet married.

In some cases, the couple plan to marry, but as a result of the divorce and other complications, they’re not able to arrange wedding bells as quickly as they would like. In other cases, people get into a new, serious relationship, but they’ve just come from a bad experience and are cautious about re-tying the knot.

Sometimes, a person simply moves into a new partner’s house and becomes a co-owner. [Read more…]

Time to renew Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers

Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) are nine-digit numbers issued by the IRS so certain taxpayers who do not have a social security number can file a tax return. According to the IRS, approximately 11 million people have received an ITIN. Now, some of these numbers may need to be renewed. ITINs that have not been used on a federal income tax return for three consecutive years will expire on December 31 of the third consecutive year. Under current rules, ITINs not used on a tax return during 2013, 2014, or 2015, will expire on December 31, 2016. In addition, ITINs issued before 2008 will expire on December 31, 2016, even if they have been used on a tax return.

Stay ahead of the deadline for 2016 required minimum distributions

If you’re over 70½ and are required to take distributions from your IRA or other retirement account, remember that you must take your 2016 required minimum distribution by December 31. Due to year-end holidays and transfer time constraints, getting the process started now can avoid a last-minute rush, as well as a steep penalty of 50% of the amount not taken.

If this year’s distribution is your first, you have a one-time option of waiting until the beginning of April 2017 to start taking withdrawals. Just remember, waiting means you’ll have two taxable distributions next year.

Can your business survive these seven potential disasters?

Disasters, natural or otherwise, could ultimately lead to your company’s demise. Fortunately, advance planning can keep you on track. Here are seven scenarios to be prepared for. [Read more…]

Insurance enrollment begins this month

Beginning this month, you can sign up for a new 2017 health insurance policy on the health insurance Marketplace. You can also change or renew the policy you purchased during the last enrollment period. Even if your current policy has an automatic renewal feature, you’ll want to verify that you’re getting the best deal, and that you are still eligible for the federal premium tax credit.

What if you didn’t sign up last winter and didn’t have health insurance coverage in 2016? You may owe a penalty on your 2016 federal income tax return. The penalty is calculated in one of two ways: as a percentage of your income, or on a per-person basis. You pay whichever is higher.

For 2016, the penalty is 2.5% of your annual household income, up to a maximum of the national average premium for a Bronze plan. The per-person penalty is $695 per adult and $347.50 per child under 18 (up to a maximum per-family penalty of $2,085).

Save yourself some stress. Start your year-end tax review now

An important part of our service to you is to help identify actions you can take before year-end to minimize your personal 2016 federal income tax bill. Accelerating or delaying income and deductions, contributing to retirement plans, and taking investment losses are just a few of the strategies you might want to consider. Here’s a checklist to help you get started.

  • Max out your 401(k) before year-end. For 2016, you can set aside $18,000 if you’re under age 50. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute $24,000.
  • Get your investment planning in order. Year-end sell decisions, either to rebalance your portfolio at the lowest tax cost or to offset gains and losses, are only one aspect of investment planning. Another is keeping good records for the reinvested dividends of stocks you sell in 2016. Reinvested dividends add to your cost basis and reduce taxable gain or increase the deductible loss on the sale. Finally, consider the wash sale rule. This rule disallows a current-year loss when you purchase substantially identical securities within a 61-day period. If you plan to sell stocks to secure a loss, and intend to buy the stock back, don’t wait until the last moment.
  • Make gifts before year-end. The use-it-or-lose-it tax-free gifting allowance is $14,000 per donee for 2016. Remember, gifts to individuals are not tax-deductible.
  • Contribute to your Health Savings Account. Within limits, contributions are tax-deductible and can be used tax-free to pay unreimbursed medical expenses.
  • Keep an eye on the “kiddie tax.” This tax on your dependent child’s unearned income in excess of certain limits applies when your child is under age 19 (under age 24 if a full-time student).