FTC targets gaming influencers in first official enforcement action

The FTC is continuing its scrutiny of social media influencers who fail to disclose paid endorsements and other compensatory arrangements. In September of this year, the FTC took its first law enforcement action, settling charges with YouTube broadcasters Trevor Martin and Thomas Cassell, known on their channels as “TmarTn” and “Syndicate.”

Martin and Cassell were charged with using their platforms to deceptively endorse CSGO Lotto by failing to disclose they were joint owners of the online betting service, and with allegedly paying other influencers to promote the site without requiring disclosures. [Read more…]

Congress kills arbitration rule

Financial institutions can continue to block customers from banding together in class-action lawsuits, thanks to Congress’ decision to kill a pending arbitration regulation.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) “arbitration rule,” which would have barred companies from including forced-arbitration clauses in financial contracts such as credit card agreements and car loans, was slated to take effect in March 2018. The House passed a resolution repealing the regulation in July of 2017, followed by the Senate in late October.  [Read more…]

6 tax benefits of owning a home

If you own or are considering owning a home, you can take advantage of many tax benefits. Here are six of the most commonly used homeowner’s tax breaks:

Mortgage interest deduction. You can deduct the interest you pay on your monthly mortgage bill when you itemize deductions on your tax return. This can be a huge benefit, especially in the early years of a mortgage. That’s because typically about 80 percent of your mortgage bill in your first year of home ownership on a 30-year mortgage goes toward interest. Principal payments don’t exceed interest until year 18 of your mortgage. [Read more…]

The new small business family medical leave credit

There’s a new business tax credit that partially reimburses employers for providing paid family and medical leave for select employees. But small businesses should be informed before they try to use this new Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) tax break.

Basics of the new credit

Employers who provide at least two weeks of paid family and medical leave to employees who earn $72,000 a year or less can claim the FMLA credit to offset some of the cost of that paid leave. Some details:

  • The credit ranges between 12.5 percent to 25 percent of the cost of the leave, depending on whether it pays 50 percent salary to a full salary.
  • At least 50 percent of salary must be paid during the leave for employers to claim the credit.
  • Employees must have worked for at least a year.
  • Up to 12 weeks of leave are eligible for the credit.
  • The $72,000 salary cap in 2018 will rise with inflation every year.

[Read more…]

It’s tax-planning time

Now is the ideal time to schedule a tax-planning session. Your tax return outcome is still fresh, and it’s early enough in the year to make corrective action to take advantage of the numerous new tax law changes taking place in 2018. Here’s a brief overview of some of the new tax issues that you need to plan for now.

#1 Income

Tax rates for both individuals and small businesses have changed substantially. Income tax deductions have also changed drastically, including a near doubling of the standard deduction and the elimination of most personal exemptions and miscellaneous itemized deductions.

  • You need to review your income tax withholding schedule and see where you fall in the new income tax bracket structure. Small adjustments here could save you hundreds.

[Read more…]

Tax filing reminders

June 15 – The second installment of 2018 individual estimated tax is due.

 

Fast-food workers can’t publicly trash employer in name of organizing

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers can’t interfere with their workers’ right to engage in “protected concerted activity” ­— in other words, their right to organize and as a group push for better pay and working conditions. Employers who fail to abide by this law risk fines and other punishment.

However, a recent decision from a federal appeals court draws a line between protected concerted activity and disloyalty that an employer isn’t required to tolerate. [Read more…]

Arbitration agreement enforceable even though worker signed two months after starting her new job

An employee could be forced to arbitrate a gender harassment claim against her employer even though she didn’t sign the arbitration agreement until two months after she started her job, a federal judge in North Carolina recently ruled.

Employer Ross Stores hired the employee in question, Amy Lesneski, to work as a second-shift supervisor at its distribution center in Rock Hill, North Carolina, in October 2014. Two months later, she signed a “dispute resolution agreement” in which she agreed that she wouldn’t be able to take her employer to court over any potential disputes that might arise. Instead, any claim would be decided by a private arbitrator. [Read more…]

Miscalculating worker’s FMLA leave costly to employer

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employers of a certain size must allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year to deal with personal illness or care for sick family members. If the worker fails to come back when the leave is exhausted, he or she can be considered to have “voluntarily resigned” and the employer no longer has to keep the job open.

But a recent case from Virginia shows that employers must be very careful to calculate leave time accurately and make sure they’re acting in good faith when they decide an employee has voluntarily resigned. [Read more…]

Employees can take CVS to court over unpaid online training time

A class action lawsuit brought by pharmacy technicians in federal court against the CVS drugstore chain highlights the risks employers take by “nickel-and-diming” their workers.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed by technicians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey on behalf of themselves and other CVS pharmacy technicians, the company violated state and federal wage laws and breached their contracts by failing to pay them for time they spent taking a mandatory online training course. [Read more…]

Fitbits may be helpful tool in employment cases, but reliability issues abound

Wearable technology has exploded in popularity over the past few years as a way of monitoring fitness, athletic performance, health and alertness. Fitbits can track things like calories burned, your heart rate at different times, the steps you’ve taken over the course of a day or a week, your blood sugar levels and even your sleep patterns. [Read more…]

Arbitration agreement enforceable against spouse

If you’ve ever signed up for a credit card, a gym membership, cell phone service or any other number of services, you’ve probably signed an arbitration agreement without even realizing it. These are provisions buried deep within consumer contracts, loans and even employment agreements under which by signing the contract you’re agreeing not to take the company to court over any disagreement that may arise. Instead, you agree to have your case decided by an “arbitrator” — a supposedly neutral third party who’s chosen and paid by the company. This means you’re giving up important rights, such as the right to have a jury hear your case, the right to have the other side disclose evidence that could help you win and the right to appeal an unfair decision. [Read more…]

Valuation date is critical in property division

Sometimes a division of property in divorce is quite simple. The value of assets is very straightforward and splitting them is easy. But some assets can be much tougher to value and the issue can become quite contentious. This is particularly true when dealing with spouses’ interests in a business. That’s when the importance of the valuation date comes into play, as a recent Florida case indicates.

In that case, a couple with two children was divorcing. The husband had ownership interests in three companies that operated a number of restaurants across the state. At one point during the proceeding, a trial judge assessed the value of the couple’s marital estate as of the date the divorce petition was filed. But when the court issued its judgment, it used a later date to value the couples’ business interests. This difference mattered because the business earned significant profits between the two dates. [Read more…]

Wife’s claims from first divorce can’t be revived after failed reconciliation

When a couple takes the dramatic step of divorcing, they’re generally doing so for good reason. That’s why most couples who get divorced stay divorced. Still, some couples may decide that the divorce was a mistake and give marriage a second chance. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. But as a recent case from North Carolina indicates, the award that a spouse received or was likely to receive the first time around will not dictate the award the second time around.

The couple in the case, Beverly and Peter Farquhar, divorced in 2004 after 10 years of marriage. A year later they decided to remarry. At the time, they still had pending claims from their divorce and they voluntarily agreed to dismiss these claims. [Read more…]

Woman who got $2M in divorce still gets support

For anyone who thinks alimony and support is just for those spouses who otherwise might not be able to support themselves, a recent Virginia decision says otherwise.

In that case, a woman whose husband was the primary breadwinner during their 27-year marriage got half of their $4.5 million marital estate in the divorce. This means she was awarded more than $2 million for her share.

Considering the modest lifestyle that the comparatively wealthy couple had maintained, a lot of people would say her share of the estate would have generated plenty of income for her to live on. [Read more…]

Can a court make you maintain life insurance for your ex-spouse?

In many divorces, one spouse is ordered to make monthly payments for “alimony” or “maintenance” to the other spouse to help that spouse support him/herself. Usually, the spouse receiving the payments is entitled to keep receiving them unless he or she remarries or starts “cohabiting” or living with someone else as a partner.

But what if the spouse who’s paying the support passes away sooner than expected, leaving the other spouse without any means of support? [Read more…]

Audit rates decline for 6th year in a row

IRS audit rates declined last year for the sixth year in a row and are at their lowest level since 2002, the agency reported. That’s good news for people who don’t like to be audited (which is everybody)!

Low statistics for audit examinations obscure the reality that you may still have to deal with issues caught by the IRS’s automated computer systems. These could be math errors, typos or missing forms. While not as daunting as a full audit, you need to keep your records handy to address any problems. [Read more…]

How to handle a gap in health care coverage

Health care coverage gaps happen. Whether because of job loss or an extended sabbatical between gigs, you may find yourself without health care for a period. Here are some tax consequences you should know about, as well as tips to fix a coverage gap.

Coverage gap tax issues

You will have to pay a penalty in 2018 if you don’t have health care coverage for three consecutive months or more. Last year the annual penalty was equal to 2.5 percent of your household income, or $695 per adult (and $347.50 per child), whichever was higher. The 2018 amounts will be slightly higher to adjust for inflation. [Read more…]

Update on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA)

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was passed by Congress in a hurry late last year, and the IRS and tax preparers have been working to digest some of the more thorny issues created by the tax overhaul. Here are the latest answers to some of the most common questions:

1. Is home equity interest still deductible?

The short answer is: Not unless you’ve used the money to buy, build or substantially improve your home. [Read more…]

Home sellers relinquish control after a sale

If you sell your home, the new owners can paint the house pink, tear out the stone wall your grandfather built, and cut down the maple tree you carved your initials in. Once you sell your home, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to prevent the new owners from making changes.

Even if you try to stipulate certain provisions prior to a sale, such conditions aren’t usually enforceable in a court of law. That said, neighborhood associations can pass certain covenants and restrictions that limit changes such as house color, additions and landscaping. These conditions typically do hold up under legal scrutiny.

If you want to place a condition on the sale of your home or work around a neighborhood covenant on a house you own, consult a real estate attorney.

Zoning laws challenge tiny-home owners

Tiny-home building shows may be all the rage on TV, but these programs rarely explore one big hurdle that comes with tiny-home ownership: Where on earth should you put it?

In many areas, zoning regulations prohibit temporary accommodations such as RVs, mobile homes, and their new close cousins, tiny houses. Zoning laws may require minimum square footage for homes, may prohibit portable structures, or may limit what’s known as “accessory dwelling units,” such as small houses placed in the backyard of an existing home.

In other cases, tiny house owners may find themselves simply priced out of a home site due to zoning laws that require minimum lot sizes beyond their financial reach. [Read more…]

Landlords bound by lease agreements, too

While it’s common knowledge that a tenant must pay rent on time, keep utilities the running, and adhere to various other lease provisions (e.g. routine maintenance, limits on pets and guests), it’s also true that landlords must abide by lease agreements.

Some landlords may attempt to violate a lease agreement by asking tenants to leave prior to the contracted lease period, failing to make certain repairs, violating health and safety conditions, or otherwise making the property inhabitable.

If a landlord fails to live up to a lease agreement and provide a habitable space, tenants may find recourse by reporting violations to local housing authorities, the city building inspector, or a statewide tenant resource center. Try an online search for “tenant rights” in your state to locate possible resources.

Tenants should communicate with their landlord in writing and keep records of all violations and communication. Seek help from a lawyer before attempting any other steps, such as rent deductions, rent withholding or abandonment.

Tips for choosing your next mortgage lender

Home buyers today have a variety of options when it comes to finding a mortgage lender. They can choose a traditional face-to-face relationship with a lender at their local bank, opt for a mortgage broker who will shop the best deals for them, or go it online with a range of non-bank lenders, such as Quicken Loans, Rocket Mortgage, or Lenda.

Be aware, however, that more than a quarter of first-time home buyers regret their choice. According to a mortgage satisfaction study by J.D. Power, 27 percent of first-time buyers and 21 percent of all home buyers wish they had chosen an alternate lender.

Customers reported dissatisfaction with communication, unmet promises, and feeling pressured to choose a particular lending product.  [Read more…]

Contingencies create a way out of real estate contracts

You’ve signed the contract and transferred the earnest money, but just how binding is your real estate contract? That depends on the nature of any contingencies built into the agreement. For buyers, such contingencies provide an exit strategy if the house doesn’t live up to initial impressions.

Here are some common contingencies that could allow a buyer out of a real estate contract: 

* Financing. The buyer may be unable to get financing from his or her lender, or unable to get financing within defined terms. [Read more…]

Your mortgage is my mortgage: How parents are financing a child’s home

With all-cash offers dominating the housing market in some highly competitive cities, first-time homebuyers are finding themselves shut out of negotiations, particularly for the more affordable and in-demand starter homes.

Saving enough for a down payment and closing costs has always been a challenge for young home buyers. But in tight real estate markets, the old standby of 20 percent down with a traditional mortgage loan isn’t enough to win a home.

These kids might once have looked to mom or dad for help with a down payment, but now they’re approaching their parents with a much bigger request: enough funds to make a full cash offer. [Read more…]

Proving the hardship exception to the Medicaid penalty period

If you transfer assets within five years of applying for Medicaid, you will likely be subject to a period of ineligibility. There is an exception, however, if enforcing the penalty period would cause the applicant an “undue hardship.” This exception is difficult to prove and rarely granted, but it may be available in certain circumstances.

Under federal Medicaid law, the state Medicaid agency must determine whether an applicant transferred any assets for less than fair market value within the past five years. If there are any transfers, the state imposes a penalty period, which is a period of time in which the applicant will be ineligible for Medicaid benefits. The length of the penalty period is calculated by dividing the amount transferred by what Medicaid determines to be the average private pay cost of a nursing home in the state.

A Medicaid applicant can fight the penalty period by arguing that enforcing it will cause an undue hardship. Federal law provides that an undue hardship exists if the penalty period would deprive the applicant of: (1) medical care necessary to maintain the applicant’s health or life; or (2) food, clothing, shelter, or necessities of life. The burden is on the applicant to prove that hardship exists. A nursing home can pursue a hardship waiver on behalf of a resident. [Read more…]

Family dispute illustrates need for long-term care plan

A recent New Jersey court case demonstrates how important it is for families to come up with a long-term care plan before an emergency strikes.

The case involved two brothers who got into a fight over whether to place their mother in a nursing home. R.G. was the primary caregiver for his parents, as well as their agent under powers of attorney. After R.G.’s mother fell ill, R.G. wanted to place her in a nursing home. R.G.’s brother objected, but R.G. went ahead and had his mother admitted to a nursing home without his brother’s consent. R.G.’s brother sent angry and threatening texts and emails to R.G. as well as emails expressing his desire to find a way to care for their parents in their home. Eventually the men got into a physical altercation in which R.G.’s brother shoved R.G.

R.G. went to court to get a restraining order against his brother under New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. A trial judge ruled that R.G. had been harassed and assaulted and issued the order. But a New Jersey appeals court reversed the trial court, ruling that R.G.’s brother’s actions did not amount to domestic violence. According to the court, there was insufficient evidence that R.G.’s brother purposely acted to harass R.G. [Read more…]

Use your will to dictate how to pay your debts

The main purpose of a will is to direct where your assets will go after you die, but it can also be used to instruct your heirs on how to pay your debts. While generally heirs cannot inherit debt, an estate’s debt can reduce what they receive. Spelling out how debt should be paid can help your heirs.

If someone dies with outstanding debt, the executor is responsible for making sure those debts are paid. This may require selling assets that you would have preferred to leave to specific heirs. There are two types of debts you might leave behind:

  • Secured debt is debt that is attached to a piece of property or an asset, such as a car loan or a mortgage.
  • Unsecured debt is any debt that isn’t backed by an underlying asset, such as credit card debt or medical bills.

[Read more…]

How Medicare and employer coverage coordinate

Medicare benefits start at age 65, but many people continue working past that age. That makes it important to understand how Medicare and employer coverage fit together.

Depending on your circumstances, Medicare is either the primary or the secondary insurer. The primary insurer pays any medical bills first, up to the limits of its coverage. The secondary insurer covers costs the primary insurer doesn’t cover (although it may not cover all costs). Knowing whether Medicare is primary or secondary to your current coverage is crucial because it determines whether you need to sign up for Medicare Part B when you first become eligible. If Medicare is the primary insurer and you fail to sign up for Part B, your eventual Medicare Part B premium could start going up 10 percent for each 12-month period that you could have had Medicare Part B but did not take it.

Here are the rules governing whether Medicare coverage will be primary or secondary: [Read more…]

Four provisions people forget to include in their estate plan

Even if you’ve created an estate plan, are you sure you have included everything you need to? There are certain provisions that people frequently forget to put in in a will or estate plan that can have a big impact on their heirs.

  1. Alternate beneficiaries

One of the most important things an estate plan should include is at least one alternative beneficiary in case the named beneficiary does not outlive you or is unable to claim under the will. If a will names a beneficiary who isn’t able to take possession of the property, your assets may pass as though you didn’t have a will at all. This means that state law will determine who gets your property, not you. By providing an alternate beneficiary, you can make sure that the property goes where you want it to go.

  1. Personal possessions and family heirlooms

Not all heirlooms are worth a lot of money, but they may have sentimental value. It is a good idea to be clear about which family members should get which items. You can write a list directly into your will, but this makes it difficult if you want to add or remove items. A personal property memorandum is a separate document that details which friends and family members get which personal property. In some states, if the document is referenced in the will it is legally binding. Even if the document is not legally binding, it is helpful to leave instructions for your heirs to avoid confusion and bickering. [Read more…]

Stay prepared to sell your business

If you enjoy running your own business, selling it may be the furthest thing from your mind. But the reality is that eventually an opportunity to sell will come, whether due to your own life changes or a perfect buyer walking in the door. Planning, often years in advance of the sale date, is necessary to get the most value for the love, sweat and tears you’ve invested. Here are some tips to stay prepared:

  • Assemble a great team. Selling a business is a complex process, especially as you grow larger. You’re likely to need three kinds of professionals to help: an accountant, to help review and produce clean and easy-to-understand financial statements; a lawyer, to create the necessary legal documents and help you negotiate terms; and a trusted business broker, to evaluate the worth of your business and find buyers.
  • Develop your exit strategy. With the help of your advisory team, create a clear picture of what selling your business might look like. Outline the risks and opportunities that could affect the valuation of your business. Planning out an ideal scenario as well as a plan B will help you avoid getting backed into a corner and selling at a discount. [Read more…]

Great uses for your tax refund

Most Americans get a refund every year, with the average check weighing in at $2,895 last year. Even though it’s really money that they earned, many people are tempted to treat it like a windfall and splurge. If you can resist that temptation, here are some of the best ways to put your refund to good use:

  • Pay off debt. If you have debt, part of your refund could be used to reduce or eliminate it. Paying off high-interest credit card or auto loan debt means freeing up the money you had been paying in interest for other uses. And making extra payments on your mortgage can put more money in your pocket over the long haul.
  • Save for retirement. Saving for retirement allows the power of compound interest to work for you. Consider depositing some of your refund check into a traditional or Roth IRA. You can contribute a total of $5,500 every year, plus an extra $1,000 if you are at least 50 years old. [Read more…]

When an extension makes sense

While most people should file a tax return by April 17, you have the option of delaying your filing date until Oct. 15 with a tax extension.

When to file an extension

  • Missing or incorrect information. If one of the forms you need to file your return has an error on it, it is often better to receive a corrected form before filing.
  • Recharacterizing Roth IRA rollover amounts. If you’ve rolled funds from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, you may want to reverse it later if the investments lose value. This so-called recharacterization process can be done up to the extended tax-filing date of Oct. 15, and in many cases it makes sense to wait until then. Note that 2017 is the last tax year you can use the recharacterization process, which was eliminated for future years by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. [Read more…]

Tax filing reminders

April 17 –

  • Individual income tax returns for 2017 are due.
  • 2017 calendar-year C corporation income tax returns are due.
  • 2017 annual gift tax returns are due.
  • Deadline for making 2017 IRA contributions.
  • First installment of 2018 individual estimated tax is due.

Tax reform may impact charitable giving

As the tax reform measures were unveiled, members of the charitable community expressed alarm that the new rules could create a disincentive to donate.

With the larger standard income tax deduction ($12,000 for an individual filer and $24,000 for a married couple), fewer people will realize the benefits of itemizing.

Some charities fear that, absent the tax write-off, fewer people will give. Yet others argue a household’s higher net income will be a boon to non-profits. [Read more…]

Evaluating generation-skipping tax transfers

Your current financial plan may include wealth transfers to grandchildren, great-grandchildren or other descendants, and these gifts may be subject to a generation-skipping tax (GST). The GST was created to prevent families from essentially “skipping” a generation’s worth of estate taxes as wealth is passed down.

In 2017, the GST exemption (the amount that can be transferred to grandchildren without incurring a federal GST tax) was $5.45 million adjusted for inflation. Now, under the new tax reform law, the GST exemption is doubled to roughly $11.2 million. In 2026, however, the exemptions revert back to pre-2018 levels.

Doubling the exemption presents an opportunity for families to increase wealth transfer plans without incurring taxes. Individuals may want to take advantage of the increased GST exemption to create GST-exempt trusts. Meanwhile, those with existing trusts subject to the GST tax may want to consider early distributions to take advantage of the higher exemption. [Read more…]

‘Clawback’ concerns linger under new tax law

The new tax reform package increases an individual’s lifetime exemption from roughly $5.5 million to $11.2 million, with an expiration date of December 31, 2025.

For individuals who don’t expect to die in the next eight years, your gift strategy could include protecting assets from future estate taxes while still maintaining adequate resources for your lifetime. You may, for example, choose to max out your lifetime exemption now, while you are still alive, to minimize the tax burden on your heirs when you die.

Let’s assume you are a high-net worth individual with no surviving spouse. If you give your kids $11.2 million now, they receive those funds completely tax free. If you give them $5.5 million now, and they receive another $5.7 million when you die in 2026, your heirs would have to pay a 40% estate tax on that $5.7 million. [Read more…]

Estate planning still essential, despite increased exemptions

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduces individual and corporate tax rates, eliminates a bevy of deductions and makes a host of changes to how Americans can preserve their wealth. Although the act falls short of repealing the death tax, it doubles the amount an individual may transfer tax free, either in his or her lifetime or at death.

Effective January 1, 2018 (and expiring December 31, 2025), the combined gift and estate tax exemption and the generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax exemption amounts double from an inflation-adjusted $5 million to $10 million.

Taking into account inflationary adjustments, the actual amount for these exemptions is expected to be $11.2 million for an individual or $22.4 million for a married couple in 2018. Both exemptions will continue to increase with inflation. Both will also revert back to their current levels at the start of 2026. (Congress could also lower the exemptions before then.) [Read more…]

OSHA delaying employer filing deadline

There’s good news for employers required to electronically file injury and illness data with OSHA: You had until Dec. 1, 2017, to comply.

The rule became effective Jan. 1, 2017, with an initial requirement that employers electronically file the information by July 1, 2017. However, given the agency’s inability as of May 2017 to accept electronic submissions of injury and illness logs, OSHA has now formally proposed extending the filing deadline until Dec. 1. It also appears that OSHA is reconsidering the entire rule, which it may even modify or revoke prior to the proposed Dec. 1 filing date.

Disclosing sponsorships now easier on Instagram

Whether you accept or give sponsorships tied to Instagram posts, Instagram is making an effort to make the disclosure process easier.

The social media network is now testing and considering for widespread use allowing users to tag a brand within posts. If the brand confirms the relationship, the post will then be marked as an ad with a “paid partnership with [brand name]” tag at the top.

The Federal Trade Commission recently called out Instagram in particular in a flurry of letters reiterating that influencers and marketers must clearly disclose their relationships to comply with the agency’s Endorsement Guides. The agency noted that endorsements need to be disclosed near the top of posts so that consumers who view posts in their streams or on mobile devices will see the disclosure without having to click “more.” [Read more…]

What to avoid when signing an office lease

Unforeseen costs can crush a business that opts to sign an office lease without legal counsel. From initial construction costs to later capital improvements, the list of potential hidden costs is long and adds up quickly.

To avoid the possibility of paying several large bills down the line, ask your lawyer to help you negotiate a fair lease up front that covers the following, as necessary: a landlord-performed buildout, a tenant-performed buildout, operating expenses and end-of-lease condition.

Landlord-performed buildout

If the landlord is performing demolition and/or construction at the space you are planning to lease, crucial details need to be ironed out in advance and put in writing, including the nature and scope of the construction, a procedure for preparing and approving plans and specifications, the construction schedule and the approval of contractors. [Read more…]

Must websites accommodate blind users?

Just because the Department of Justice does not yet have new website accessibility rules for places of public accommodation doesn’t mean businesses hosting websites aren’t already at risk.

Blind or visually impaired plaintiffs have been filing federal lawsuits against companies over the accessibility of their websites, although they’re meeting with different results.

A federal judge in Florida recently handed down a verdict in the case of Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., finding that Winn-Dixie had violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act by having a website that could not be used by the blind plaintiff. [Read more…]

Beware pitfalls of cloud contracts

Think it’s just your business’ data being stored in the cloud these days? Think again. Some (or all) of the provisions of your contract with your cloud provider also may be “floating,” and can thus be changed at any time, often without notice to you.

How is this possible? Part of the blame rests with the modern-day trend of simplified contracts that include some brief general terms and conditions hyperlinked to online terms that can change at any time.

Typically, these contracts are presented on an as-is basis, and built-in protections, including service levels, generally provide only basic protection. Businesses then have little to no ability to terminate the agreement, even if key terms — including support obligations, service levels, service descriptions and performance standards — change to their disadvantage. Such key terms can change at any time, generally without notice. [Read more…]

Employer couldn’t force religious worker to use hand scanner

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for their workers’ religious beliefs. Employers who disregard this, even when the religious beliefs seem bizarre, run the risk of liability, as a mining company in West Virginia recently learned.

In that case, a coal miner refused to use a new biometric scanner that the employer had installed as an identification device. The miner apparently feared that use of the scanner would give him the “Mark of the Beast,” which according to the Book of Revelations would then brand him a follower of the Antichrist. He requested an alternative identification measure as a form of religious accommodation.

The employer denied the request. The employee resigned and sued for religious discrimination under Title VII. A jury found in his favor and a federal appeals court affirmed, rejecting the employer’s argument that the scanner neither left any kind of mark nor legitimately conflicted with the employee’s religious beliefs. [Read more…]

Supervisor can be sued individually for violating the FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees who’ve been employed for at least 12 months by a company with at least 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius to take up to three months of unpaid leave during any 12-month period in order to deal with a medical problem, care for a new child or care for a close relative with a health condition. Employers who fail to abide by the FMLA’s requirements or who retaliate against a worker for taking FMLA leave risk serious legal liability.

Further, according to a recent case out of Massachusetts any supervisor or manager who violates the FMLA can be sued individually too.

In that case, employee Elliott Eichenholz was on disability leave from security services giant Brinks, Inc., when his supervisor Gordon Campbell issued him a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) letter containing a bunch of demands he’d have to meet in the next 90 days to keep his job. [Read more…]

Illinois case highlights importance of taking harassment complaints seriously

A recent case from Illinois demonstrates just how critical it is for employers to conduct a legitimate investigation of all complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In that case, Maria Gracia, a female assembly line supervisor at electronics manufacturing services provider Sigma Tron, complained to human resources that her manager had been sending her graphic email photos, calling her late at night, repeatedly asking her on dates and sending her unwanted text messages. She repeatedly turned him down, but one day, after receiving yet another “No,” the manager allegedly suspended her for two days, claiming it was for excessive tardiness.

The HR rep brought Gracia to meet with a company vice president, who, instead of ordering a thorough investigation of the complaints, invited the alleged harasser and retaliator into the meeting to help “sort things out.” After hearing both “sides of the story,” the HR rep and the VP told Gracia to shake hands with the manager and “work together” with him to “solve their disputes.” [Read more…]

Non-disabled worker can bring action under ADA

An employer can land in hot water under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if it discriminates against a worker based on that worker’s disability. In other words, an employee can’t be fired, denied a promotion or treated negatively because of his or her disability. But did you know that an employer also violates the ADA by mistreating a non-disabled employee whom it thinks is disabled?

Take a recent case out of Virginia involving Joseph Cash, who worked as a service director for a car dealership in the town of Lexington.  He had worked for the dealership for three years when he took another job in 2013. He returned in 2015, but soon after had to take time off to deal with a bleeding ulcer and chronic anemia. While he was out, he and his wife stayed in touch with a supervisor. When Cash got back, he presented a doctor’s note requesting that he be able to work at the dealer’s location in Roanoke, which was closer to his home, or to work half days until he was better.

In response, his supervisor immediately replaced him at the Lexington location and cut his salary by a third. The supervisor also complained about Cash’s absence several years earlier for hip replacement surgery — an absence that had been covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. [Read more…]

Mishandling terminations can lead to headaches, so consider the human factor

If you’re an employer and you’re reading this, chances are you’ve had to fire an employee for one reason or another. It could have been for cause or for economic reasons. Maybe the worker was simply not a good fit. In most situations, the employee probably left peacefully, although perhaps a bit angry or hurt.

But some workers don’t leave quietly and instead come back at their employers with lawsuits, even if there were legally valid reasons for the firing. In those cases, it’s often how the employer fired the worker and not the job loss itself that triggered the employee’s response. However, a little bit of smart strategy can defuse some of the tension in an emotionally fraught situation and potentially head off a lawsuit that could be costly, distracting and stressful, even if you win.

So how do you keep a legally justifiable termination from backfiring? By handling the termination in a manner that doesn’t come across as callous and disrespectful. [Read more…]

Tax checklist for business startups

Starting your own business can be equal parts thrilling and intimidating. Complying with regulations and tax requirements definitely falls into the latter category. But, with some professional help, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can get started with this checklist of things you’ll need to consider.

  • Are you a hobby or a business? This may seem basic to some people, but the first thing you’ll have to consider when starting out is whether you really are operating a business, or pursuing a hobby. A hobby can look like a business, but essentially it’s something you do for its own sake that may or may not turn a profit. A true business is generally run for the purpose of making money and has a reasonable expectation of turning a profit. The benefit of operating as a business is that you have more tax tools available to you, such as being able to deduct your losses.
  • Pick your business structure. If you operate as a business, you’ll have to choose whether it will be taxed as a sole proprietorship, partnership, S corporation or C corporation. All entities except C corporations “pass through” their business income onto your personal tax return. The decision gets more complicated if you legally organize your business as a limited liability corporation (LLC). In this case you will need to choose your tax status as either a partnership or an S corporation. Each tax structure has its benefits and downsides – it’s best to discuss what is best for you. [Read more…]

Answers to commonly asked tax questions

With all of the headlines about the changes to tax law, you probably have lots of questions. Here are answers to some of the most common questions taxpayers have this year.

Q. I’m hearing about a lot of changes to 2018 taxes. What should I do?

A. You’re right, there are a lot of changes in 2018 due to the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), including to the income tax brackets. The simple answer to the question, “What should I do?” is to not make any major changes until you finish filing your 2017 taxes. Once you understand your 2017 tax obligation, you are in a better position to plan for 2018.

However, there are a few things you can start thinking about now. Depending on where you fall in the new income tax brackets, you may want to consider ways to lower your taxable income. This could include increasing your contributions to 401(k) retirement accounts or health savings accounts (HSAs). You’ll also want to make sure your employer has adjusted your federal tax withholding so that you don’t have to wait to receive a large refund (or tax bill) next year. You can review the IRS withholding calculator using your latest pay stub data to make sure the changes are accurate. [Read more…]