CARES Act Update: Application for Paycheck Protection Program Loans And Guidelines Available Here

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We recently blogged about the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”), and the tax free gifts it can provide to careful employers. On March 31, 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department published the Application Form for PPP loans, available here. The Application is short – just two pages.

The Application requires some basic information about the business applying for the PPP loan, including certifications that the loan is necessary to address economic uncertainty in the current circumstances, and that the loan proceeds will be used for payroll, rent and utility payments. The Application invites the borrower to insert its own calculation of its average monthly payroll, which should be calculated pursuant to the limitations noted in our prior blog post, including: (1) for most businesses, calculating payroll for the one-year period prior to the date on which the loan is made; and (2) excluding costs over $100,000 on an annualized basis for each employee. Borrowers should calculate payroll cost to include salaries, tips, payment for vacation or sick leave, health insurance premiums, retirement benefits and state and local payroll taxes. The Application notes that documentation of payroll costs will be required, but is not specific about what kind of documentation will be required or when it must be submitted.

The Treasury Department has also just published an Information Sheet for PPP Borrowers with important information, available here. The guidelines indicate that only 25 percent of the amount forgiven may consist of costs other than payroll costs (e.g., rent, utilities, etc.), which is a limitation not expressly stated in the CARES Act. Other notable points from the Treasury Department’s Information Sheet are:
• Loan applications for businesses and sole proprietorships will be available beginning April 3, 2020
• Loan applications for independent contractors and self-employed individuals will be available beginning April 10, 2020
• All payments will be deferred for 6 months
• The interest rate for PPP loans will be a fixed rate of 0.50%, and will accrue during the deferral period of the loan
• The loan term is two years.

[Despite the Treasury’s published Information Sheet, on April 2, 2020 U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the interest rate would be changed to 1% to help small banks. Further changes may arise, so check all loan terms carefully.]

We expect that more specific guidance about the PPP loan application process will be forthcoming over the next few days. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay updated on legal events affecting businesses trying to manage the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. We will update our blog as more developments occur.

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Can Coronavirus be a Force Majeure to Excuse Contract Performance?

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Businesses dealing with Coronavirus developments are suddenly faced with many pressing concerns, from whether they will be allowed to continue to operate, to employee relations and supply and delivery issues. One question that may become urgent is: What are the effects of Coronavirus and COVID-19 events on your business’ existing contracts? Can you cancel that big product order you placed, when government closure orders or other disruptions will make it difficult for you to sell it? Can you be forced to deliver products when you can no longer get the ingredients due to supply chain disruptions? Who bears those risks?

First, Does Your Contract Have a Force Majeure Clause?

All contracts are in some ways a method of allocating risks between the parties. Many (but not all) contracts contain what is commonly called a force majeure clause. These clauses explain what will happen when an unexpected and uncontrollable event disrupts performance of contractual obligations. Such a force majeure event is sometimes loosely referred to as an “Act of God,” but it is more accurately an unanticipated event that the parties could not have controlled. A key element is that the parties could not have reasonably anticipated the event at the time of contracting. As a result, the contract date becomes an important consideration: In a force majeure analysis, a contract entered into during March 2020 may well be treated differently than one entered into in March 2019.

Next, Read and Comply with the Requirements of the Force Majeure Clause

The primary purpose of a force majeure clause is to allocate the risk of such unanticipated events – effectively excusing one party’s failure to perform a contractual obligation due to such an event. It is regarded as a term that is negotiable between the parties, like price or delivery time. Whether the parties have any force majeure clause, and its specific terms, will vary from contract to contract. So it is essential to read your contracts carefully and be sure to comply with their terms.

If a contract has a force majeure clause, the first question that will arise is what kind of event can trigger it? Common events identified may be floods, earthquakes, wars and terrorism. Relatively few force majeure clauses refer to “pandemic,” “epidemic” or “state of emergency,” which seem most applicable here. But some may, and others may include events that result from such occurrences, such as “government action or order.” Others may refer to inability to obtain supplies, which could also be triggered by worldwide Coronavirus effects. And some may just generally refer to “force majeure” without identifying any specific event, or include a “catch all” term of some kind. Courts tend to apply such non-specific force majeure terms narrowly, so it is important to read and understand your specific contract and how its terms are likely to be applied.

Many force majeure terms include written notice requirements. Strict compliance with such notice requirements is often required, including giving written notice of inability to perform the contract within a specified time after the unanticipated event. Here, the Coronavirus pandemic and its effects, such as new government orders, may be viewed as a series of events that have varying effects – whether any one or more triggers the required notice will depend heavily on the contract terms and the specific circumstances.

The decision about whether and when to give the required notice can be daunting: Giving notice too early may itself be a breach of the contract – an anticipatory repudiation in legal terminology – but giving notice too late may waive the force majeure excuse. In many instances, it may be advisable to have communications with the other side about the issues, without formally giving notice.

Then, Give Consideration to the Controlling Law

Another important consideration is what jurisdiction’s laws control the contract. Many contracts include an agreement on which state or country’s law will control. But when the contract does not include such an agreement, it may become a fact question driven largely by where the parties were located, where the contract was made and where the performance was required.

The law of the controlling jurisdiction can be very important because states differ in what they require to apply a force majeure excuse for non-performance. California, for example, invokes a standard of “commercially impracticability,” which is more flexible than the standards of many other states. Some states require that actual impossibility be shown. All states require some showing of causation – meaning that the alleged disruption in fact was a cause of the inability to perform. But some states require that the force majeure be shown to be the sole cause of the inability to perform, and not just one among many causes.

Some states, including California, require substantial effort to mitigate the disruption (meaning, taking all reasonable alternative measures to eliminate or limit the effects of the force majeure), but other states are less demanding of mitigation efforts. For example, if the seller has unanticipated problems getting expected supplies of required ingredients, a court may require that the seller seek other more expensive supplies, or may even require that the seller take legal action against its suppliers. Courts may also require partial performance, if the unanticipated disruption does not preclude all performance.

Be Judicious in Your Use of the Force Majeure Clause

In all instances, the focus will be on the event that caused the disruption, not on the disruption itself. Just showing that performance has become more costly, difficult or inconvenient will not usually suffice to establish a force majeure. Courts may assume that the parties allocated ordinary risks of post-contract changes in costs and profitability, although contract terms can set different standards that could control this assessment.

Business managers should readily see that a contract’s force majeure clause can be a powerful tool in this Coronavirus emergency, but it can be double-edged if not wielded carefully. Managers may also have to face the difficult position of being on both sides of this issue – on the one hand, dealing with a business partner that is unable to perform a contractual obligation, and on the other hand, being unable to perform yourself. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys routinely help clients with complex business matters, including contract terminations and force majeure disputes. In our next blog post on this subject, we will turn to what happens when your contract did not include any force majeure clause. In California, as in many states, the Uniform Commercial Code or other doctrines of Impossibility of Performance and Frustration of Purpose can come into play.

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What California Employers Must Know About Coronavirus and COVID-19

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Federal, California and other state and local governments continue to grapple with responding to and reducing the spread of Coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 
(SARS-CoV-2))
and the disease caused by it, COVID-19. In addition to grappling with the personal and family effects, employers must ensure that they have a response plan in place to address Coronavirus’ impact on their business. In doing so, employers must be conscious of responding appropriately in light of the legal and business implications. In some ways, employers are in uncharted territory, but there are guideposts in existing laws and regulations. Here are some of the important considerations for employers to keep in mind in responding to Coronavirus:

Stay Up to Date on Government Guidance

In order to make an educated decision regarding what course of action will best protect employee safety, employers need to stay informed about the latest developments regarding the spread of the virus and adhere to government guidance for responding to the virus.

The Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) has provided Interim Guidance for Business and Employers  meant to help prevent workplace exposures based on the information currently known about the virus. Given the rapidly evolving nature of this situation, employers should check the CDC’s website frequently for updates.

Employee Education to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

Some basic steps employers should take to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus and protect workers’ health and safety include:

  • > Educate employees on Coronavirus signs and symptoms and precautions to take to minimize the risk of contracting the virus
  • > Encourage employees to wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and avoid touching their mouth, nose, and eyes with unwashed hands
  • > Practice social distancing, including minimizing non-essential travel, meetings and visitors
  • > Provide employees who continue to work in the office with hand sanitizer, flu masks, disinfecting wipes and paper towels, instruct them on proper use, and direct them to diligently clean frequently touched surfaces and objects (such as doorknobs, telephones, keyboards and mice)
  • > Actively encourage employees who show any symptoms of the disease caused by Coronavirus (COVID-19) or are close to others who have, to stay home and not come to work

Formulate a Response Plan

Employers should move quickly to implement workplace policies to prevent the spread of the virus and protect employees. Some examples of potential elements of an employer’s response plan may include:

  • > Establish processes to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plan
  • > Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and existing state and federal workplace laws
  • > Increase the frequency and thoroughness of worksite cleaning efforts, particularly in common areas such as bathrooms, break rooms and kitchens
  • > Seriously consider new policies and practices to reduce congregations and increase the physical distance between employees, customers, vendors and others, to reduce the chances for exposure – for example, staggered break times, phone or video conferences instead of meetings
  • > To the extent feasible, ensure that employees have the requisite computer, phone and other technological capabilities to perform their work from home
  • > Formulate plans for suppliers and workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, such as staggered schedules and breaks, off-hours deliveries, or having some tasks performed by outside contractors
  • > Encourage employees who are feeling sick to stay home or work remotely, even if they are not showing Coronavirus symptoms
  • > Prepare to respond to employees who may be nervous or concerned about contracting COVID-19. Employers should be understanding of  employees’ concerns and evaluate each request or issue based on the individual employee’s specific circumstances.

Legal Implications of Workplace Strategy

Although there is currently no California law or regulations addressing an employer’s legal obligations relating specifically to Coronavirus, workplace safety and health regulations in California require employers to protect workers exposed to airborne infectious diseases. Therefore, it is important for employers to understand the legal issues implicated by Coronavirus and the guiding legal principles which will inform the employer’s response to the virus.

OSHA Standards for Maintaining a Safe Workplace

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees, and the best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure. The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act of 1970, 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(1) requires employers to provide workers with working conditions free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, to receive information and training about workplace hazards; and to exercise their rights without retaliation, among others.

Cal/OSHA Requirements

The Aerosol Transmissible Diseases (ATD) standard (California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5199) requires employers to take certain actions to protect employees from airborne diseases and pathogens such as Coronavirus. The regulations apply only to specific industries, such as health care facilities, law enforcement services and public health services, in which employees are reasonably expected to be exposed to suspected or confirmed cases of aerosol transmissible diseases.

The ATD requires such employers to protect employees through a written ATD exposure control plan and procedure, training, and personal protective equipment, among other things. However, the requirements are less stringent in situations where the likelihood of exposure to airborne infectious diseases is reduced. For more information, Cal/OSHA has posted guidance to help employers comply with these safety requirements and to provide workers information on how to protect themselves.

Medical Leave, Paid Sick Leave Issues and Disability Discrimination

If an employee is forced to miss work due to the need to be quarantined or the need to care for a family member for similar reasons, employers must determine whether the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other leave laws apply to an employee’s absence. If the employee has exhibited symptoms and is required to be away from work per the advice of a healthcare provider or is needed to care for a family member, leave laws may apply to the absence.

The FMLA regulations state that the flu ordinarily does not meet the Act’s definition of a “serious health condition,” it may qualify if it requires inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. In addition, eligible employees might be entitled to FMLA leave when taking time off for examinations to determine if a serious health condition exists, and evaluations of the condition, under the FMLA definition of “treatment.”

In contrast, if the employer itself implements health and safety precautions that require the employee to be away from work, an employer should proceed with caution before designating any time away from work as leave under a specific law. Doing so may require that the employee provide such leave when it otherwise would not be required to do so.

Review your sick leave, PTO (paid time off), or vacation policies. Consider reminding workers that the use of paid sick leave (PSL) is available to help workers who are sick to stay home. However, the employer cannot require that the worker use PSL – that is the employee’s choice. Employers may require employees use their vacation or PTO benefits before they are allowed to take unpaid leave, but cannot mandate that employees use PSL.

Employees in California at worksites with 25 or more employees may also be provided up to 40 hours of leave per year for specific school-related emergencies, such as the closure of a child’s school or day care by civil authorities (Labor Code section 230.8). Whether that leave is paid or unpaid depends on the employer’s paid leave, vacation or other PTO policies.

Paying Workers During a Pandemic

Depending on your organization’s business, some employees may be directed to work from home, temporarily furloughed, or work a reduced schedule.

Furloughs and Layoffs

Short-term layoffs or furloughs are generally permitted as long as the criteria for selection are not protected classes such as race, national origin, gender, etc. Exempt employees generally should continue to receive their full salary for each workweek in which they perform work. In contrast, hourly workers need not be paid for time not worked. A short-term layoff or furlough of less than six months should not implicate notice obligations under the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, but may require advance notice under the California WARN Act, which was recently interpreted as having been triggered by certain short-term furloughs.

If non-exempt employees’ work schedules are reduced due to a temporary closure, they need not be paid according to their regular schedule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, they may be eligible for state Disability Insurance (“DI”), and Paid Family Leave (“PFL”) benefits for caring for themselves or their family members. Employees receiving reduced hours because of the effects of COVID-19 may be eligible for unemployment insurance (“UI”). In California, the Governor’s Executive Order waives the one-week unpaid waiting period for DI and UI, so workers can collect those benefits for the first week out of work.

Resources for Additional Information about Coronavirus from the CDC

For more information about the Coronavirus and how businesses and individuals should best respond, refer to the below resources provided by the CDC and California’s Employment Development Department:

CDC: About Coronavirus and COVID-19

CDC: What You Need to Know About Coronavirus

CDC: Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers

CDC: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

EDD: Coronavirus 2019 and COVID-19

CK&E Can Help

During these uncertain and rapidly changing developments, employers need to be proactive and careful as to the steps they take to protect their businesses, employees, customers and vendors. Lawyers at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have decades of experience advising California employers and companies doing business in California about labor, regulatory, consumer and contract concerns. We remain available and ready to help our clients navigate these difficult times. Please contact John Conkle, Amanda Washton or any of our attorneys to discuss your concerns.

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AB 51 at a Crossroad: Can California Employers Still Compel Employees to Arbitrate Disputes?

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California Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”) has been in the news because it imposes a far-reaching ban on California employers requiring employees to arbitrate employment disputes. AB 51 was set to take effect on January 1, 2020, but its effect was temporarily stopped by a court injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller on December 30, 2019, in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce. A fuller hearing on whether the court will extend the injunction is set for January 10, 2020. If the injunction is extended, AB 51 will remain in limbo as long as that case remains pending, and very possibly permanently.

AB 51, if it is allowed to take effect, would have far-reaching implications for California employers who use arbitration agreements for resolution of disputes with employees. AB 51 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 10, 2019, and applies to “contracts for employment entered into, modified, or extended on or after January 1, 2020.” The law prohibits any person from requiring applicants and employees, as a condition of employment, continued employment, or the receipt of any employment-related benefit, to waive any rights, forum, or procedure established by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and the California Labor Code.

The Impact of AB 51
Although AB 51 was originally promoted to target the #MeToo movement and was characterized as a anti-sexual harassment law, because many sexual harassment claims against employers have been kept from public view by resolutions in private arbitrations rather than public court proceedings. But the new law covers much more than just sexual harassment claims. In practical effect, AB 51 would prohibit most employers from requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements for nearly all types of employment law claims, including any discrimination claims covered under FEHA and for any claims brought under the California Labor Code. AB 51 also precludes employers from threatening, retaliating or discriminating against, or terminating any job applicant or employee for refusing to consent to arbitration or any other type of waiver of a judicial “right, forum, or procedure” for violation of the FEHA or the Labor Code.

Nor can employers avoid AB 51 by having a standard arbitration agreement that requires applicants or employees to “opt out” to avoid. The law effectively prohibits employers from using voluntary opt-out clauses to avoid the reach of the bill. New California Labor Code Section 432.6(c) states that “an agreement that requires an employee to opt out of a waiver or take any affirmative action in order to preserve their rights is deemed a condition of employment.”

In addition, new Government Code Section 12953 states that any violation of the various provisions in AB 51 will be an unlawful employment practice, subjecting the employer to a private right of action under FEHA. Although this will presumably require an employee to exhaust the administrative remedy under FEHA, this provision would nevertheless lead to further exposure for California employers who utilize arbitration agreements with their employees. Importantly, however, AB 51 explicitly does not apply to post-dispute settlement agreements or negotiated severance agreements.

Federal Preemption of AB 51?
Generally, the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq., (“FAA”) preempts state laws like AB 51 that attempt to regulate or restrict arbitration agreements. Under the FAA, a state may not pass or enforce laws that interfere with, limit, or discriminate against arbitration, and state laws attempting to interfere with arbitration have repeatedly been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as preempted by the FAA. AB 51, however, expressly states that it does not invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the FAA. Proponents of AB 51 argue that it is not preempted by the FAA because it only impacts “mandatory” arbitration agreements and does not affect “voluntary” agreements.

Impending Court Challenges
Many questions surrounding the validity and application of AB 51 remain unanswered. Therefore, legal challenges on the ground that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA were inevitable. On December 6, 2019, the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA. The complaint seeks a permanent injunction to halt enforcement of AB 51 until its legality is determined. The January 10, 2020 hearing of the preliminary injunction may give strong indication which way the Court will turn on the issue for the time being, but the ultimate determination will likely take years to wend its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Should Employers Do In Response to AB 51?
As this challenge to AB 51 makes its way through the courts, employers with ongoing arbitration agreements (or those interested in implementing arbitration programs) face a difficult choice starting in 2020: Play it safe and strike all mandatory arbitration agreements, or maintain the status quo until the litigation plays out. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every employer.

Employers currently using arbitration agreements should consider either staying the course based on the assumption that AB 51 will be held preempted by the FAA and therefore unenforceable, or suspending their arbitration programs until more clarity on AB 51 is provided. Employers implementing arbitration programs after January 1, 2020 should consider including in their arbitration agreements specific language to conform with Labor Code 432.6 and emphasizing the voluntary nature of the agreement.

The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel remain vigilant on employment law developments to advise businesses on all aspects of employee legal relations, including updates on the use of arbitration agreements as uncertainty looms.

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Common Legal Mistakes Made in Social Media Influencer/Brand Relationships

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With over 2.5 billion social media users worldwide, it is no surprise that social media marketing is booming and partnerships between brands and social media influencers (i.e. individuals with large followings on social media platforms) are becoming increasingly popular.  These partnerships can be great opportunities for both parties – on the one hand, the brand gets promoted to the influencer’s thousands or millions of followers by a person they admire and trust, while the influencer gets compensated for this promotion.  However, these brand/influencer relationships can also expose both parties to lawsuits and fines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  Although social media may seem like an informal marketing platform, the FTC has determined that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising apply to social media marketing, just as they apply to other forms of marketing.  This article outlines how to avoid a few of the common legal issues that arise in the course of a brand/influencer relationship.

Disclose the relationship between the influencer and brand. Part of the appeal of hiring an influencer for a marketing campaign is the authentic feel of the endorsement.  However, the FTC’s the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising require influencers to disclose “material connections” that they have with the brand they are endorsing.  A connection is deemed “material” when the relationship between the influencer and brand may materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement from the influencer. 16 C.F.R. § 255.5 (2009).  An obvious example of a material connection is one where the brand is paying the influencer to endorse or review a product, but even friendships or familial relationships between the influencer and brand are material, as the influencer may be more likely to give a product a positive review because of this relationship.  

The disclosure of the material connection must be clear and conspicuous.  For example, a disclosure that consumers can only see if they click to see more of a post, or ambiguous hashtags such as “#ambassador” or “#collab,” are insufficient to meet the FTC’s disclosure requirement.  On the other hand, the FTC has stated that “#ad” close to the beginning of a post is a sufficient disclosure.  Both the influencer and the brand may be liable for the influencer’s failure to disclose a material connection, so brands must be sure to inform influencers of the duty to disclose and monitor the influencers’ posts to ensure compliance with the FTC Guides.

The claims in the endorsement must be truthful.  Claims made by a social media influencer in an endorsement must be truthful and substantiated.  This means that advertising claims cannot be misleading to the average reasonable consumer, and any statements made about a product or service must be supported by evidence.  Even if the influencer makes a misleading or unsubstantiated claim about a product without consulting the brand, the brand will still be liable the influencer’s statements. Again, this highlights the importance of monitoring the influencer’s posts and providing the influencer with guidelines about what claims he or she can legally make about the product or service being advertised.

Determine who owns the intellectual property rights in the content.  In a typical company/influencer relationship, the influencer will post a photograph and accompanying text exhibiting the brand’s products or services on the influencer’s social media account.  If the influencer created this content, the influencer owns the copyrights to it, and the brand could be liable for copyright infringement if it reuses this content without the influencer’s permission.  To avoid this issue, the brand should ensure that there is an agreement in place between with the influencer assigning the copyright to the brand.

Obey the reposting rules from each social media platform.  It’s a common misconception that all of the social media platforms have the same rules regarding reposting content from another user.  The reality is that reposting user content on some platforms is perfectly acceptable, while on others it constitutes infringement.  For example, on Twitter you may freely repost Tweets from other Twitter users.  By becoming a Twitter user, you agree to Twitter’s Terms of Service, which permit you to “Retweet” the content of other Twitter users and allows other Twitter users to Retweet your content.  Instagram, on the other hand, does not include any such provision in its terms of service, and even requires users to “agree to pay for all royalties, fees, and any other monies owing any person by reason of Content you post on or through the Instagram Services.”

Make sure the content does not infringe a third party’s rights.  Even if the brand and influencer have reached an agreement regarding the ownership of the content in a social media endorsement post, the post may infringe the rights of a third party if it includes a third party’s image or artwork.  If someone’s image is used in the endorsement, this person may claim a violation of his or her publicity rights.  Similarly, the use of another’s artwork in the content of the endorsement may constitute copyright or trademark infringement, subject to the fair use defense (which is less likely to apply to a social media post that is clearly an advertisement).

To learn more about the formation of and legal pitfalls to be avoided during the course brand/influencer relationships, contact Heather Laird-Vanderpool or Aleen Tomassian.

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CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Often, contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors include post-termination non-competition clauses that can be problematic in several respects.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is often possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former representatives from working with competitors.  Further, reps and principals often work across state lines, and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.  To help reps and principals understand issues that they face, CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The October 2016 article, Limiting the Risks of Restraint of Trade, is the first of two parts addressing the enforceability of restraints of trade in various states, and methods to assure that a favorable venue is available if a dispute arises. Next month’s article will focus on the intersection of restraints of trade and trade secret protection.

 

 

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Conkle Firm Article Explains Special Protections for Sales Representatives

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The Conkle firm published an article in the June 30, 2015 edition of the Electronics Representatives Association Southern California’s member newsletter to explain to ERASoCal members the special protections that California law provides for independent wholesale sales representatives.  Among other points, the article describes the requirements for a signed written contract, the types of information that manufacturers and distributors are required to provide to their independent sales reps, and the potential for treble damages (three times the actual damages) plus attorney’s fees for violations.

The article was written by Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Eric S. Engel and CK&E’s summer law clerk Ryan Fisher, a student at University of California, Irvine Law School.  CK&E is proud to be a member of ERASoCal, which is a trade association of independent manufacturers sales representative firms in Southern California’s vibrant electronics industry.  Eric has significant experience in sales commission claims, and he was lead trial counsel in the case that resulted in the first published decision in California applying the special protections of Civil Code Section 1738.10 et seq., including treble damages and attorney fees for unpaid sales commissions: Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

 

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Timed Out vs Youabian: The Conkle Firm Establishes that the Right of Publicity is an Assignable Property Right

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It is virtually impossible to get through a day without seeing the “right of publicity” in action.  Everywhere, there are advertisements featuring photographs of professional models and celebrities of every variety published to sell all types of products and services.  It is strange, then, that no statute or case precedent in California specifically established that models and celebrities have the ability to assign or license those publicity rights for proper use and for enforcement if their likenesses are misused.  Until now.

On September 12, 2014, the California Court of Appeal agreed with the arguments of Eric Engel of the Conkle Firm (working with co-counsel at Hall & Lim), and established the first published precedent in California that explicitly holds that the right of publicity is assignable.  In Timed Out, LLC v. Youabian, Inc., Case No. B242820, the Second District Court of Appeal finally settled a long-simmering dispute that had confused many lower courts:  Whether the right of publicity is a “personal right” that can only be exercised during lifetime by the individual owner, or whether the right of publicity is a form of intellectual property that can be freely assigned and licensed to others for use and enforcement.

The dispute had its origin many years ago, when an influential tort law treatise by famed Professor Prosser observed that the right of publicity historically derived from the “right of privacy.”  The classic form of the “right of privacy” is protection against hurt feelings and injury to personal reputation that can occur when personal information about a private individual is published without her consent.  That type of injury is considered personal in nature and cannot generally be assigned.  But, as the Timed Out decision observed, the right of publicity has evolved away from its origin into a distinctly commercial and non-personal interest.

The right of publicity is now virtually the opposite of the original right of privacy:  The right of publicity is the ability of a person to control the commercial value of the use of her image and information.  Timed Out recognizes that a person’s likeness, voice, signature or other identifying characteristics can have substantial commercial value, regardless of whether the person is a celebrity and regardless of whether the commercial value of the identified person’s “persona” is created by happenstance or by investment of great time and effort.  Timed Out finally establishes that the value created is a form of property, freely assignable by the person who owns it.

The Court of Appeal also resolved a separate important issue that is frequently in dispute in right of publicity actions:  Whether federal copyright law subsumes and preempts right of publicity claims.  Timed Out v. Youabian established that the right of publicity is distinct from copyright interests in a photograph or image, and that right of publicity claims generally are not preempted by federal copyright laws.

The effect of Timed Out LLC v. Youabian, Inc. for models, celebrities, manufacturers, advertisers and resellers is to finally establish that the right of publicity can be licensed and assigned to third parties, and enforced by third parties such as Timed Out, and that such rights are independent of federal copyright interests.  That means models and celebrities no longer have to make the difficult decision whether it is worth their time, expense and effort to pursue claims when their publicity rights are violated – they can assign the affected publicity rights to agencies such as Timed Out to pursue the claims.  Manufacturers, advertisers and resellers will no longer waste effort and time attempting to determine whether the publicity rights were assignable.  They can and should instead focus on establishing whether they had the necessary rights to use the image, photograph, likeness, voice or other identifying characteristic of the “persona” of the model or celebrity.  This puts a premium on making sure that any “model releases” obtained prior to advertising are well-written and appropriate for each particular use of the model or celebrity’s photograph, image, likeness or other identifying features.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel counsels and helps clients avoid these kinds of issues with effective model releases, licenses and assignments.  Timed Out v. Youabian demonstrates that CK&E is also at the forefront of enforcing the right of publicity when model and celebrity rights are violated.

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You Shook Hands – But Do You Have a Deal?

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Courts have held that, in business negotiations, “Handshakes are significant. When people shake hands, it means something.”  Unfortunately, they have also held that when people shake hands, “several meanings are possible.”

In Rennick v. O.P.T.I.O.N. Care, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal considered a party’s contention that a deal was struck when, after months of discussion and a 4-hour negotiating session, the parties “got up and circulated around the room and shook hands with each other on having made the deal.”  The Rennick case observed that a jury could reasonably find that “the handshake was confirmation of a contract, or that it was an expression of friendship and the absence of ill will after a day of hard bargaining.”  So, given the uncertainty of its meaning, should we stop shaking hands when discussing business?  Of course not.  Indeed, the Court noted that, “By custom, it is a rude insult to reject an outstretched hand in most circumstances, and to do so at the end of a long business meeting would likely prevent a future deal.”

The issue of the parties’ intent upon shaking hands is not a small one.  In August 2014, Charles Wang, the owner of the New York Islanders was sued by a hedge fund manager who claimed that the parties had shaken hands on a deal to buy the NHA hockey team for $420 million, and that Wang had breached their agreement by demanding more money.  The frustrated purchaser sued to either enforce an apparently unsigned 70-page agreement to conclude the sale of the team, or recover a $10 million break up fee that he claims was among the terms agreed upon with a handshake.

Courts struggle with this kind of issue, with or without handshakes.  In contract disputes, courts try to enforce the parties’ expressed intentions. For example, where the parties clearly express that they do not intend to be bound until they sign a formal written contract, courts will try to honor that intention by finding that no contract exists unless a written agreement was fully signed.  Indeed, negotiating parties usually can express almost any manner of requirement before an agreement becomes enforceable.  Quentin Tarantino’s civil war era film Django Unchained featured a climactic scene in which the odious character Calvin Candie extorted Dr. King Schultz into signing an outrageous contract, and then insisted that the signed contract was meaningless unless Dr. Schultz also shook his hand.  As a general point of law that was a doubtful proposition even in Mississippi in 1858, but if the parties had been careful to express that intention in their written agreement it probably would have been an enforceable prerequisite to the validity of the contract.

In reality, too often there is no such clear delineation.  If the parties do not eliminate such possibilities by an express statement of their intentions, oral expressions or an exchange of emails or text messages might create an enforceable agreement.  That is because, when the parties aren’t careful about expressing their intentions, courts are left to divine whether the parties intended an agreement with or without signatures on paper.  Courts consider testimony about what was said and evidence of what was written and the activities that took place before, during and after the time of the purported agreement to draw conclusions about what the parties’ intentions really were. Often, the parties’ contemporaneous correspondence is the most important evidence of whether the parties intended to have a binding agreement immediately, or whether the parties intended only to express their good will or intention to negotiate further.

To avoid unnecessary disputes, a cautious businessperson should make a point to express clearly his or her intentions.  The best approach is to plan ahead and be as clear as possible in a written expression as to when the deal is considered enforceable.  The Conkle law firm counsels and represents businesses in negotiations to achieve those ends, or in disputes that can arise when the businesses handled negotiations themselves and come to Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys only after things did not turn out as intended.

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National Article Profiles the Conkle Firm’s $6.2 million Judgment for Unpaid Sales Commissions

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s $6.2 million judgment against an electronics manufacturer is the subject of a feature article in the monthly publication of Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The article, Fallout From an Oral Contract, appears in the January 2014 issue of Agency Sales Magazine.

The article profiles Plaintiff Peter Reilly, a sales representative who was denied his commissions.  Author Jack Foster chronicles how CK&E lawyers Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim marshaled the facts and developed the law of the California’s Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act to win a treble damages judgment for Mr. Reilly.

The Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act is a little-known statute that requires a signed written contract containing specific terms in some commission agreements between manufacturers and sales representatives.  A willful failure to have a written contract that complies with the Act, or to account for and pay commissions as required by the written contract, can result in an award to the sales rep of three times the amount proved at trial, in addition to attorney fees.  In the Reilly v. Inquest case, the jury awarded the sales representative $2.1 million for unpaid commissions, which was trebled by the Court to more than $6.2 million.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed the award in full.  The Reilly v. Inquest Technology decision was unprecedented, because it is the first published decision to endorse the full scope of remedies available under the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act.

The Agency Sales Magazine article follows an article about Reilly v Inquest that appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

CK&E’s lawyers are well versed in issues affecting manufacturers and sales representatives.  CK&E lawyers litigate and resolve disputes over sales commissions and terminations, and use that knowledge to help manufacturers and sales representatives draft more effective contracts.  CK&E is a member of MANA and the Electronics Representatives Association (ERA).

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