Social networking sites are a danger in divorce cases

The popularity of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites has created a can of worms in divorce: These sites often contain evidence of a person’s whereabouts, “friends,” employment status and other information that can be used as evidence against them.

People often forget that the pictures they post and the things they write about on these sites are public information. Anyone going through a divorce should be cautious about their actions online, especially on social networking sites. The same is true for people who have been through a divorce but whose ex-spouse might still want evidence against them with regard to continuing alimony and support payments, child custody issues, etc. [Read more…]

Company not liable for employee’s drunk-driving accident

A nursing home supervisor took the home’s chef out for drinks after work one night in order to discuss work-related issues. The two had a fair amount to drink. The chef left the restaurant in his car and shortly afterward struck a 70-year-old pedestrian, who suffered serious injuries. The pedestrian sued the nursing home, claiming that it was responsible for the chef’s drinking.

But the state Appeals Court shot down the lawsuit in a 2-1 decision. Under Massachusetts law, a social host can sometimes be held responsible if a guest drinks and then drives. But the court said this is true only if the host controls the supply of alcohol, which wasn’t the case here. The pedestrian argued that the nursing home controlled the employee, and the employee wouldn’t have gone drinking if it wasn’t expected of him by his boss. But the court said there was a difference between controlling the liquor supply and controlling the person consuming it.

Laid-off employee must be paid for unused vacation time

An employee who was laid off from his job is entitled to be paid for any earned but unused vacation time, according to the state Supreme Judicial Court. A longtime employee was laid off by Electronic Data Systems, and didn’t receive any vacation pay even though he had only used one day of vacation all year, and the company had a written policy saying that employees were entitled to a certain amount of vacation time based on how long they had worked for the company.

EDS also had another policy that said if an employee was laid off, he or she forfeited any unused vacation time. But the court said this policy violated the state Wage Act, which requires that laid-off employees be given any pay they have earned up until their last day of work. [Read more…]

Discrimination settlement can violate union agreement

The MBTA offered a job to a man who wears a hearing aid, conditioned on his ability to pass a physical examination. During the exam, he wasn’t allowed to wear his hearing aid, and he flunked. The man sued, claiming he was discriminated against because of his disability. Five years later, the MBTA settled the case by hiring the man and giving him five years of retroactive seniority.

However, the union objected. It said the MBTA violated its collective bargaining agreement by giving five years of seniority to someone who hadn’t worked there for five years. This would mean that the newly-hired man would have more seniority than a fellow employee who had put in four years of service. Who was right? The state Supreme Judicial Court sided with the MBTA. It said retroactive seniority is a standard remedy in discrimination cases, and the public policy behind the discrimination laws trumps the public policy behind the collective bargaining laws. Interestingly, although the MBTA agreed to settle the case, it never admitted that it violated the discrimination laws, but the court said that didn’t matter in this case.

Bankruptcies skyrocket in Massachusetts

The number of bankruptcy cases filed in Massachusetts increased by 18% in the last year, and by a stunning 72% over the past two years. The vast majority of the cases are personal bankruptcies as opposed to business bankruptcies. While some businesses are going under, the spike in cases is largely the result of people losing their jobs in the recession.

Other common causes of bankruptcy include divorce, sudden large medical bills, and an inability to meet rising mortgage payments. Personal bankruptcies can be filed under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. Under Chapter 7, the debtor’s assets are liquidated, creditors receive some percentage of what they’re owed, and the debtor gets to start over. Under Chapter 13, the debtor’s assets aren’t liquidated, but the debtor agrees to a payment plan under which creditors will be paid off over a period of time. [Read more…]

Non-compete agreement is valid even if employee leaves state

Suppose a Massachusetts employee signs a non-compete agreement, but then leaves to work for a competitor in California – a state that generally doesn’t approve of non-compete agreements. Can the agreement still be enforced against him?

Yes, according to a recent decision by the Massachusetts Superior Court. The employee was a vice president at the EMC computer company in Hopkinton, Mass. After 20 years with EMC, he quit to become vice president at Hewlett-Packard in California. [Read more…]

What happens if a seller can’t move out by the closing date?

Here’s a common scenario: Both parties to a real estate deal are ready to close, but for some reason the seller can’t move out by the closing date. Maybe the seller is moving to a new home or place of business, and the new place isn’t quite ready yet. Maybe the closing date is the last day of the month, a notoriously difficult day on which to hire a moving company.

One solution is to go ahead with the closing, but have the buyer rent the property back to the seller for a short period to give him or her time to move out. Is this a good idea? It can be … but it involves many more complexities than most people realize. At a minimum, you should have a written rental agreement that covers the most important issues. [Read more…]

Accused employee can’t sue his accuser

A manager at the Cambridge Marriott hotel who was fired after he was accused of sexually harassing a bartender can’t sue the bartender, according to the state Appeals Court. The manager sued the bartender for defamation, claiming she slandered him to the hotel and wrongly caused him to lose his job. But the court said that a person can’t be sued for defamation for statements made in relation to a court case.

In this situation, the bartender hadn’t yet filed a court case when she complained about the manager to the hotel. However, by that point she had decided to file a lawsuit and to make a complaint to the state Commission Against Discrimination, and that was enough, the court said.

Getting divorced? Be careful with tax returns

If you’re in the middle of a divorce and your spouse is preparing a joint income tax return, remember that even though you’re splitting up, you’re still jointly responsible if you sign the return and your spouse has done something wrong.

In a recent case, a couple was still married but living separately with separate checking accounts and credit cards. The husband prepared the couple’s joint tax return and gave it to the wife to sign. She checked to see if her information was correct, but didn’t question his items on the return. [Read more…]

Woman can’t be turned down for job because she has children

A company can be sued if it didn’t promote a woman because it was afraid she would have trouble balancing her job and raising four children. That’s the result of a ruling from the federal appeals court in Boston. The woman, who worked for an insurance company, was one of two finalists for a management job. She had an 11-year-old son and six-year-old triplets, and was taking one course a semester at a local college.

She claims that when she was turned down, a manager told her, “It was nothing you did or didn’t do. It was just that you’re going to school, you have the kids, and you just have a lot on your plate right now.” According to the woman, this was sex discrimination, because the company wouldn’t have had the same concerns about a man in her position. The manager (a woman) said she wasn’t discriminating and merely gave that explanation to the applicant in an effort to soften the blow. The court said the case should be decided by a jury.

Watch out for ‘business compliance’ scams

A number of Massachusetts companies have been receiving official-looking letters recently offering to file corporate minutes with the government for a fee. These appear to be scams designed to trick business owners, according to the Secretary of State’s office.

Many businesses have received letters from something called “Compliance Services” offering to file corporate minutes statements with the state and asking for payment of a $125 “annual fee.” The trick? There is no requirement to file corporate minutes in Massachusetts. And the $125 fee is confusing because it’s the exact same amount as the fee for filing an annual report. Before you respond to any such letter, make sure you know what the actual reporting requirements are and whether you’re being taken advantage of.

Resident sues condo association after slipping on snow and ice

A condo resident can file a lawsuit after he slipped on snow and ice while taking out his trash, according to the state Appeals Court. After a 16-inch snowfall, a landscaping company hired by the condo association plowed out the area. However, it plowed a large pile of snow up against the dumpster. The resident attempted to make his way through the snow in order to dispose of his garbage. He slipped and fractured his wrist, and missed five months of work as a lithographer.

He sued the condo association, the property manager and the landscaper. He claimed he had previously complained about the danger caused by the company’s method of snowplowing. The court said that while “snow falls in Massachusetts” and “it is no person’s fault,” this case was different because the resident didn’t slip on a natural accumulation of snow, but rather on an unnatural and arguably dangerous pile left by the landscaper.

Company sued for telling employees why someone was fired

Staples, the office-supply retailer, can be sued for firing an employee and then sending a mass e-mail to other employees saying why it fired him. That’s the word from the federal appeals court in Boston. The employee can sue Staples for “libel” … even if what it said about him was true.

In most states, truth is a defense to libel. But Massachusetts is unusual. In Massachusetts, it’s illegal even to broadcast the truth about someone if (1) you do it with malice or ill-will, (2) you’re not a newspaper or other traditional news source, and (3) the person is a private individual and not a public figure such as a celebrity or politician. [Read more…]

Probate law in Massachusetts is changed

A brand new law in Massachusetts will make many changes in the way people’s estates are handled.

The “Uniform Probate Code,” signed into law by Gov. Patrick, includes the following new rules for what happens if someone dies without a will:

  • In many cases, an estate representative can begin distributing assets to heirs before getting a formal court judgment.
  • If the dead person’s spouse is raising young children from the marriage, the spouse will in most cases collect the entire estate. Before, that wasn’t always true. [Read more…]

Most landlords make mistakes on their income tax

A majority – some 53% – of individual landlords make mistakes on their federal income tax when it comes to reporting rental income and expenses, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. That means that out of about 8.9 million individual landlords in the country, nearly 5 million aren’t paying the correct tax. And of those 5 million, fully a quarter paid too much tax and should have had a lower tax bill, the government says.

The agency’s figures are based on a comprehensive review of landlords’ returns that have recently been audited. While the report doesn’t cover state taxes, it seems likely that Massachusetts landlords are making mistakes on their state tax forms as well. [Read more…]

Grooming policy for employees may be illegal

Can an employer adopt a grooming policy that requires male workers who have contact with customers to be clean-shaven and have trimmed hair? Maybe … but this might amount to religious discrimination, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The worker in this case was a technician at a Jiffy Lube service station. He was a Rastafarian and his religion did not permit him to shave or cut his hair. The company told him that if he refused to abide by the grooming policy, he could only work in the lower bay and would not be allowed to have contact with customers.

 In the resulting lawsuit, the company argued that it shouldn’t be forced to make an exception for the worker because the company had a right to control its public image.  But the court ordered the case to go to trial. To win, the court said, Jiffy Lube would have to show that all conceivable accommodations of the employee’s religion would impose an “undue hardship” on its business.

Nursing home employees could be sued – despite contract

The family of a patient who died in a nursing home could sue the nurses who took care of her – even though the patient’s contract with the home said that the home couldn’t be sued and any complaints had to go to arbitration instead. The family claimed that three nurses ignored warning signs of the patient’s heart problem, and she died as a result. The contract said that the family couldn’t sue the home. However, it did not say that the family couldn’t sue the nurses individually, and therefore the suit against them is okay, the Massachusetts Superior Court decided.

Why a recession is a good time for estate planning

All of us are affected by the economic recession, but you should know that certain estate planning techniques become much more valuable when asset prices plunge – so this is a good time to take advantage of them. Some of the best estate planning strategies involve giving a partial interest in your assets to your heirs now, while retaining effective control over the assets. The idea is to get these partial interests out of your estate at today’s value, rather than later when they will presumably be worth more. And if you can get these interests out of your estate in a period when asset prices are temporarily depressed, the savings can be even greater.

So now might be a good time to pass on to your heirs an interest in a family business, real estate investments, a vacation home, or other assets. Some of the techniques that might be worth considering are a family limited partnership, a retained-interest trust, and a qualified personal residence trust.

Binding mediation: a new alternative to going to court

“Binding mediation” – a hybrid of mediation and arbitration – is catching on as an alternative to a full-blown court trial. In arbitration, a private arbitrator acts as a judge and issues a binding decision. In mediation, a mediator or “go-between” tries to resolve the dispute by working with both sides, but can’t force an outcome. Binding mediation is a combination of the two: A mediator brings the parties together and tries to negotiate a compromise, but if that doesn’t work, the mediator can issue a binding decision.

In some cases, binding mediation can achieve many of the benefits of both mediation and arbitration. Like mediation, it is relatively quick and inexpensive and may help preserve existing relationships between the parties. But it also provides the finality offered by arbitration. [Read more…]

Here’s a second chance if you elected early Social Security benefits

Did you elect to take Social Security benefits before your full retirement age? If you did and are now looking for extra income, there may be an answer. Once you reach full retirement age, you can pay back the money you have received and reapply for full retirement benefits.

Although you can collect Social Security benefits between age 62 and your full retirement age, if you do, your benefits will be lower. For example, if you were born in 1944 and decided to retire at age 62, four years before your full retirement age of 66, your total benefit reduction is 25 percent. If your full benefit was to be $1,000 a month, your reduced benefit is $750. A little-known provision of the Social Security laws allows you to withdraw your application for early benefits and reapply for your full benefits. The catch is that you must be able to pay back all the money you received so far. However, because you don’t have to pay any interest on the benefits you received, if you can find the money to repay the benefits, it may be worth it. You could think of it as an interest-free loan.

New law makes it easier to sue for wage discrimination

A new federal law signed by President Obama will make it easier to sue an employer for wage discrimination. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named after Lilly Ledbetter, who worked as a plant manager for Goodyear Tire but realized only after some years had passed that she was getting paid less than her male counterparts. When she sued for wage discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court threw the case out, saying she had filed it too late – after the 180-day limit that began when the pay decision was first made.

The law overturns the Supreme Court decision. Now, employees alleging pay discrimination will be able to file a claim within 180 days of the issuance of any discriminatory paycheck … as opposed to 180 days from the first paycheck.

Many die each year from hospital and nursing home infections

A large Boston jury verdict in the case of a woman who died from an infection while undergoing cancer treatment illustrates a growing trend across the country toward lawsuits against health-care providers for causing (or not preventing) such infections.

Nationally, more than 2 million people each year develop serious infections while they’re in the hospital being treated for something else. And about 90,000 of them die as a result. In addition, another 1.4 million people each year develop infections while in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. [Read more…]

Limo company sued for dropping off drunk passenger

A limousine company can be sued where it dropped off a drunk passenger at his car and the passenger then drove drunk and killed someone. The limo had been hired by six men attending a bachelor party. It picked them up at a Boston sports bar, drove them to a Rhode Island club, and then returned them to the sports bar. Sadly, one of the men drove off and had an accident. He killed an off-duty police officer and injured two other people.

The injured people and officer’s family sued the limo company. The court said the limo company could be sued for negligence. It said the limo driver knew the passenger was drunk and could have foreseen that he would drive, since when he dropped him off after 2:00 a.m., the bar was closed and the MBTA had stopped running. On the other hand, it’s not clear what the limo company could have done – it didn’t have a right to restrain the passenger against his will or take him someplace he didn’t want to go. [Read more…]

Child support guidelines change in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts child support guidelines have been thoroughly revised for 2009. That means that anyone who gets divorced in 2009 or after will have the amount of their child support payments calculated under new rules. If you have a child support order from a divorce that occurred before 2009, your payments won’t change. And you can’t go to court and get a new order just because there are new guidelines.

However, if you have a significant change in your circumstances and you go to court in 2009 or after and modify your award because of the change, your new award will be based on the new guidelines. One major change in the guidelines is that they now consider all income from both parties. Previously, the first $20,000 of the recipient’s income wasn’t taken into account. [Read more…]

Workers at small companies can sue for sex discrimination

Employees who work at tiny companies can sue for sex discrimination, the Massachusetts high court recently ruled. In the past, it was widely believed that a company couldn’t be sued for sex discrimination if it had fewer than six employees. That’s because the state sex discrimination law says that it only applies to companies with six or more workers. But the court said that an employee at a tiny company could sue under another law – the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act. This is an important decision because almost 60% of Massachusetts businesses have five or fewer employees.  The employee in this case claimed that when she told her boss she was pregnant, the boss became upset and demanded she take an unpaid leave of absence.

Can divorcing spouses blog about their ex?

It’s no surprise that divorce is unpleasant, and many spouses want to tell the world about how awful their ex-partner is. In the past, a spouse’s ability to do this was limited. They might want to tell the whole world, but in practice they usually just told a few friends over a drink or two.

But today, it’s easy to publish a blog that can be read by anyone with Internet access. And a growing number of spouses are taking out their frustrations by putting the intimate details of their failed relationships online for everyone to see. This can be extremely unpleasant and offensive to the other spouse. But is it legal? [Read more…]

How to leave a vacation home to your children

You might think it’s easy to leave a vacation home to your children in your will. But there are many issues that can arise. For instance, over time children might squabble over whether to sell the property or who will pay for major repairs or renovations, especially if some children use the home more than others. And there are tax, liability and asset protection issues to consider as well.

Here’s a look at some of your options:

First, you can sell the home to your children if you reach a point where you no longer want the responsibility of ownership. However, this could result in hefty capital gains taxes. [Read more…]

When buying a home, it’s not always easy being green

Homebuyers, businesses, and residential and commercial tenants are all showing interest in “green” buildings these days – those designed to save energy, use sustainable materials and have less of an impact on the environment.

Many buyers and renters are willing to pay a little more for a green building – especially if they can recoup their money through energy savings. [Read more…]

It’s easier to sue a store for selling liquor to a minor

It’s easier to sue a bar or a store for selling alcohol to a minor, under a recent decision from the Massachusetts Appeals Court. In this case a teenage boy went to a store and bought a 30-pack of beer. He shared it with some friends. One of the friends then drove away and struck another car, severely injuring someone. The injured person sued the store.

Ordinarily, a store can be sued for selling alcohol to a minor who then injures someone. But the store argued that it wasn’t responsible in this case, because the minor who bought the beer wasn’t the same person who caused the accident.  However, the court said the store could be sued anyway. If the store sold the beer to a minor, then it was responsible for all the foreseeable consequences of its actions, the court said. And it could be foreseen that a minor who bought alcohol would share it with his friends.

Mass. businesses must do more to stop identity theft

Many Massachusetts businesses will have to adopt new procedures to prevent the theft of sensitive customer information, as a result of new state regulations that take effect on May 1.

The new rules put Massachusetts in the forefront of protecting consumers’ private data and preventing identity theft. However, they also create many new hurdles for some businesses at a time when those businesses are facing larger economic challenges. [Read more…]

Disabled workers have more rights

Disabled workers in Massachusetts have more rights to request workplace accommodations and to sue for discrimination, as a result of a new federal law. The law amends the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) so that it covers more workers. It applies after January 1, 2009.

The original ADA protected people with disabilities, and defined a “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. But that left open a question – suppose a worker could treat an impairment with a drug or a medical device, such that with the drug or medical device he or she was no longer limited in a major life activity. Was that worker still “disabled”? [Read more…]