California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act Requires Ingredient Disclosure

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California became the first state in the nation to have a cleaning products disclosure law, after Governor Brown signed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017 (S.B. 258 (Lara)) into law in late 2017.

The Cleaning Product Right to Know Act requires manufacturers of certain cleaning products sold in California to disclose on the product label and on the product’s Internet web site certain information related to known hazardous chemicals contained in the product.  Manufacturers will have until January 1, 2020 to comply with the online disclosure requirements, and until January 1, 2021 to comply with the product label disclosure requirements.  However, any intentionally added ingredient that is regulated by California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (commonly known as Proposition 65) will not have to be listed until January 1, 2023.

The new law applies to so-called “designated products”, which are defined as a finished product that is an air care product, automotive product, general cleaning product, or a polish or floor maintenance product used primarily for janitorial, domestic or institutional cleaning purposes.  It does not apply to foods, drugs and cosmetics, trial samples, or industrial products specifically manufactured for certain industrial manufacturing processes.

The product label will be required to disclose each intentionally added ingredient contained in the product that is included on any of 22 specified designated chemical lists – including chemicals listed pursuant to Proposition 65.  Alternatively, manufacturers may list all intentionally added ingredients contained in the product unless it is confidential business information.  The Act also requires the disclosure of fragrance allergens greater than 0.01 percent (100 ppm).  Additional requirements include the manufacturer’s toll-free telephone number and Internet web site address on the product label.

As for the online disclosure requirements, manufacturers must list all intentionally added ingredients and state their functional purpose.  All nonfunctional constituents present at above 0.01 percent (100 ppm) must also be listed.  The website must include electronic links for designated lists and a link to the hazard communication safety data sheet for the product.  In addition, specific requirements apply for the disclosure of fragrance allergens online.

The Act also adds a section to the California Labor Code imposing an obligation on employers who are required to provide employees with Safety Data Sheets (SDS).  Those employers must similarly make the printable information from the online disclosure available in the workplace.

Although it is a state law, the effect of the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act is certain to be felt by manufacturers across the country who sell their products into California, as is true of many of California’s other regulatory schemes, including Proposition 65, and will most likely result in a nationwide relabeling of covered products.

Given the Act’s numerous and in some cases highly technical requirements, manufacturers of cleaning products would be well advised to determine whether any of their products are subject to the Act, and take steps now to ensure compliance by 2020.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stand ready to help manufacturers handle all that is coming their way.

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How Does Marijuana Legalization Affect Employer Workplace Policies?

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Do I have to change my drug-free workplace policy now that marijuana is legal?

On January 1, 2018, recreational marijuana became legal in California.  That raises a few questions, to put it mildly.  For California employers and employees, one of the first questions is, must employers change their drug-free workplace policies now that cannabis use is legal?

Generally speaking, the answer is no.  A California employer can still keep its drug-free workplace policy (as long as it was legally compliant before January 1) that prohibits the use of alcohol and drugs, including cannabis, in the workplace.  There is even a California Health and Safety Code statute protecting employers: The legalization of cannabis use “does not amend, repeal, affect, restrict, or preempt…[t]he rights and obligations of public and private employers to maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace or require an employer to permit or accommodate the use, consumption, possession, transfer, display, transportation, sale, or growth of cannabis in the workplace, or affect the ability of employers to have policies prohibiting the use of cannabis by employees and prospective employees, or prevent employers from complying with state or federal law.”

Does this mean I can terminate an employee who tests positive for cannabis?

Yes, if you have a zero-tolerance policy that provides for dismissal of employees who test positive for drugs.  An employer can keep its drug-free workplace policy and test employees for alcohol and drugs, including cannabis, in compliance with the law.  That means that an employer can refuse to hire an employee who tests positive for cannabis.  It also means that an employer can ask an employee to take a drug test when the employer reasonably suspects the employee is under the influence of any substances prohibited under the employer’s policy.  An employer can terminate an employee who refuses to take the test, or who tests positive for those prohibited substances, including cannabis.

What if the employee is using marijuana to treat a disability?

With all the medical leave and disability discrimination laws protecting employees with certain medical conditions, employers are also understandably nervous about terminating an employee who relies on medical marijuana.  For now, employers can rest easy.  Because federal law still prohibits cannabis use, both state and federal law refuse to protect the employee’s illegal drug use, even if the employee is using medical marijuana, with a prescription, to treat a medical condition.

Of course, cannabis law is quickly evolving.  From legalizing marijuana at the state level in parts of the country, to rescinding “hands-off policies” at the federal level that were intended to leave states to decide on the cannabis issue on their own, cannabis laws are subject to change.  Employers should keep a close eye on the interaction between federal and state laws on cannabis use, and be prepared to modify their drug policies as needed.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced with counseling employers who face a constantly changing landscape of laws, ordinances, and regulations, and resolving employment issues as they arise.

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Can Employers Ask, “So, What Did You Make?”

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A new law in California is squarely aimed at reducing historical wage disparity, particularly between male and female employees.  On January 1, 2018, a new law will take effect in California to prohibit employers from seeking “salary history information, including compensation and benefits, about an applicant for employment.”  The new law, Section 432.3 of the Labor Code, also requires employers to provide the pay scale of the position to the applicant upon reasonable request.

But even under this new law, employers can still access salary history information under certain circumstances.  Employers may review salary history information that is publicly available under federal or state law, including information that is obtainable under the California Public Records Act or the federal Freedom of Information Act.  Employers may also consider and rely on salary history information in determining the salary for that applicant, if the “applicant voluntarily and without prompting discloses salary history information to a prospective employer….”  But, even when employers can rely on voluntarily disclosed salary information to set a particular salary, job applicants are still protected by California’s Equal Pay Act.  Any prior salary information about the applicant still cannot be used as the sole justification for “any disparity in compensation” for employees of different sexes, races, or ethnicities for “substantially similar work.”

It seems likely there will be a challenge to the constitutionality of the new restriction, most likely on free speech grounds.  Other states and municipalities have passed similar laws restricting employers from inquiring about salary history.  Philadelphia has a similar ordinance passed earlier this year to prohibit employers from asking an applicant about prior salaries and from relying on salary information unless that information was voluntarily disclosed by the applicant.  The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia filed a lawsuit, challenging the ordinance on several grounds, including “chilling” the protected speech of employers under the First Amendment, and violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because of the severe penalties employers risk incurring.  While this case is still pending, the Chamber of Commerce raises questions of constitutionality that could apply as well to California’s new law.

Employment laws change constantly at federal, state and local levels.  In preparation for the new year, employers should review the documents they use in the hiring process, including job applications and new hire documents, and remove questions pertaining to salary history.  Employers should also instruct any employees who may be interviewing applicants not to ask about an applicant’s salary history.  And, for each open position, employers should ensure pay scales are readily available to disclose in response to an applicant’s request.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced at helping employers navigate the shifting maze of laws and regulations they face, and resolving employment issues as they arise.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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Fire Your Employee for His Noxious Memo? Not So Fast.

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Is an employer free to fire an employee who circulates to co-employees a memo expressing ideas that are noxious to the employer’s efforts to avoid prohibited discrimination?  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer can be, “No.”

A good example is the recent event in which Google fired James Damore, an engineer, for circulating a memo, or “manifesto,” explaining a basis for gender bias among computer engineers.  His memo, entitled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” purported to be a personal response to what he viewed as the shaming and silence of those in his field who have differing views about gender in the workplace, and whose views are inconsistent with Google’s “dominant ideology.”  In the memo, Damore provided what he called “biological” explanations for why there is a gender gap in technology, such as: women are more neurotic and thus tend to pick less stressful jobs; women are more “directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas;” and men have a higher drive for status.  Damore posted this screed to Google’s internal messaging board.  It was a message to his co-workers, and hostile to his employer’s position.

As Damore acknowledged, engineering at Google requires collaboration and teamwork.  Damore’s statement put Google’s management in a difficult place – how can Damore continue to work on any team that involves women? Further, Google’s employee review process emphasizes peer reviews, particularly by high-level engineers such as Damore.  Damore’s expressed biases could cause questions as to the fairness of his reviews, and his position as a supervisor could be argued to create a hostile work environment for the female minority with whom he works.  It is not surprising, then, that Google employees reacted by demanding Damore be disciplined or terminated.  Google agreed, and Damore was terminated.

But Damore seems to have anticipated that reaction, and took steps to protect his own interests.  As quoted by the New York Times, Damore included in his memo an unusually lawyerly statement:  “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does.”  After the termination, Damore submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming that Google’s upper management was “misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints,” and reminding Google that it is “illegal to retaliate” against an NLRB charge.

Was Google’s action defensible?  The National Labor Relations Act Sections 7 & 8(a)(1) (29 U.S.C. Section 157 & 158(a)(1)) makes unlawful violating employees’ rights to engage in “protected concerted activities.” “Concerted activities” are broadly defined to include “the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection….” Most often, “concerted activities” are associated with union activity, but the NLRB protects activity that is not specifically union oriented.  This can include communicating with coworkers regarding wages and working conditions, and expressing preferences for political candidates who support favorable labor issues such as higher wages for hourly workers.  In doing so, employees are permitted to use company bulletin boards, both electronic and physical, and company email, on non-working time.

The effect of this protection is that, if Damore challenges his termination, he will likely argue that Google’s decision to terminate him curtailed his rights to discuss his political beliefs and to engage like-minded employees about his view that the hiring and promotions practices at Google are unfair to men.

Because Damore works in California, there are additional considerations under state law.  California Labor Code §1101 provides that “No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy: (a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office; or (b) Controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.”  While this may not control an adverse employment decision by an employer against a single individual, once coworkers learn that an employee was fired based on his speech or political activities, those coworkers may perceive that action as a threat or policy.  As the Supreme Court has recognized, employees’ economic dependence on the employer can reasonably lead them to pick up even subtle signals when their jobs are at stake.  NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., 395 U.S. 575, 617 (1969).  Here, Damore’s like-minded coworkers could interpret his firing as a threat to their employment should they express views similar to his.

The unfortunate upshot for Google is that Damore’s termination seems like a retaliation claim ripe for filing.  Though many may personally disagree with Damore’s views on gender in the workplace, and he may have absolutely no factual or evidentiary basis for his position, he could argue in an action against Google that he was attempting to organize a group of like-minded workers to oppose what he believes are Google’s gender biases or an unfair reverse discrimination policy. His “manifesto” appears to structured for this very argument.

It is ironic that the policies of the NLRB and California Labor Code, which protect political organization and prohibit retaliation, are what may ultimately force Google to suffer legal liability for Damore’s termination for expressing disagreement with Google’s anti-discrimination policies.

As these events demonstrate, the application of employment law and policies in real world situations can be challenging.  Protection of one worthwhile policy can seemingly conflict with others, and well-meaning employers can find themselves having to make very difficult choices.  Employers should consult counsel experienced in the sometimes complex issues that can arise in many different employment circumstances.

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No Fooling! On April 1, Almost All Employers are Subject to New Employment Regulations in California

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Effective April 1, 2016, new regulations of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) impose stringent new anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements on almost all employers having any employees in California.  Unlike in the past, the new amendments to regulations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) apply to any employer having five or more “employees,” any of whom are located in California.  The word “employees” is important, because the new FEHA regulations count toward the minimum of five “employees” unpaid interns, volunteers and persons out on leave from active employment.  Further, it appears that this new FEHA regulation is intended to apply even to employers with headquarters outside of California if any of their employees are located in California.

The FEHA regulatory amendments require all affected employers to have written policies prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment.  The policies must apply to prohibit discrimination and harassment by co-workers, who are made individually liable for their own violations, and by third parties such as vendors in the workplace.  The regulations demand that the written policy list all currently-protected categories protected under FEHA:  Race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.  Prohibited “sex discrimination” includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and related medical conditions.  Interestingly, the regulations also prohibit discrimination against employment applicants holding a special California driver’s license issued to persons without proof of legal presence in the United States.  It is not yet clear how this will work in conjunction with the employer’s existing Federal obligation to confirm eligibility for employment.

The employer’s written policy must specify a confidential complaint process that satisfies a number of criteria.  Workplace retaliation for making good faith complaints of perceived discrimination or harassment is prohibited.  The written policy must be publicized to all employees, with tracking of its receipt by employees.  If 10% of the employer’s work force speaks a language other than English, the written policy must be translated to that language.

Further, the new regulations attempt to resolve a number of uncertainties about who is protected, specifying that both males and females are protected from gender discrimination, and requiring that transgender persons be treated and provided facilities consistent with their gender identity.  There are many other changes, such as a new entitlement to four months for pregnancy leave that is not required to be taken continuously.  If an employer has more than 50 employees, there are additional requirements, such as periodic sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors.

Employers operating in California are well advised to review their policies and practices, and to consult with qualified counsel regarding changes that may be required.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help clients remain compliant with laws, regulations and case developments affecting employers in California.

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Hot Yoga and Cold Law: Employment Retaliation Claims Can Arise Anywhere

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Most people would agree that working in a government office that supervises lawyers is quite different than working in a 104 degree “hot yoga” studio. But recent matters involving these two very different work environments show that employment retaliation claims can be asserted against any employer – whether you’re a yoga master or the master of all lawyers in California.

The California State Bar has the staid mission of regulating the admission of attorneys and investigating assertions of attorney misconduct. Yet in November 2015, the State Bar found itself charged with wrongful employment retaliation after it fired one of its top managers, John Noonen. Noonen asserted that the termination was retaliatory because, just a few weeks earlier, he submitted a 40-page internal complaint against the State Bar’s top attorney for allegedly failing to properly investigate complaints against the president of the State Bar. The State Bar has denied Noonen’s retaliation allegations and has said that Noonen’s position was eliminated as part of a cost-saving effort.

Less than two months later, the same types of claims led to a sizeable jury verdict against a completely different business run by famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury made his fortune teaching yoga instructors his techniques and allowing graduates to operate yoga studios that feature a specific yoga sequence performed in a 104-degree room. In January 2016, a Los Angeles jury found that Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal advisor and wrongfully fired her for investigating others’ claims of sexual discrimination and assault against him. Choudhury asserted he had good cause to fire his legal advisor because she was not licensed to practice law in California. The jury first ordered Choudhury and his yoga business to pay $924,000 in compensatory damages, and the next day the jury upped the ante with a further award of $6.4 million in punitive damages.

In each of these recent cases, employees alleged that their bosses improperly “retaliated” against them for investigating workplace misconduct. Most employers and employees know that laws exist to protect employees from wrongful discrimination and harassment. The same laws also provide that employers cannot punish or “retaliate” against employees for making complaints about other potentially wrongful employment conduct, such as discrimination or harassment, or for participating in workplace investigations about such potential wrongful employment conduct.

“Retaliation” is prohibited by the same federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability and gender. “Retaliation” can take many forms, including termination, demotion, suspension or other employment discipline against the employee for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting perceived employer discrimination or other misconduct. Owing to its broad scope, retaliation is a claim commonly raised by disgruntled or terminated employees. In fact, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), retaliation is the most common basis of discrimination claims in EEOC cases.

These cases illustrate some of the many circumstances in which employment issues can lead to litigation against a wide variety of employers. Conkle, Kremer & Engel regularly advises employer and individuals on workplace issues and the ramifications of retaliation and harassment claims so that all involved can take steps to resolve conflicts in a meaningful, efficient way. When circumstances do not do not allow a non-litigated solution, CK&E attorneys litigate and arbitrate employment disputes including retaliation claims, whether the claims are asserted individually or as a class action.

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California’s new Paid Sick Leave Law goes into effect July 1, 2015: Are you ready?

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Starting July 1, 2015, virtually all California employers – regardless of size – will be required to provide employees with paid sick leave.

The new “Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014” (AB 1522), California Labor Code Section 245 et seq., requires that all employees – full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal – who have worked for 30 or more days within a year from the beginning of employment, must be given paid sick leave.

Employees who are providers of in-home support services, and employees of air carriers are excluded from the new law. Also excluded are employees who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that expressly provide for wages, paid sick leave, or hours.

The Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act may have been passed with good intentions, but the Act’s complex and seemingly contradictory accrual, carryover and use requirements and broad scope of permitted use has left many employers feeling ill as they prepare for compliance before the July 1, 2015 effective date.

The paid sick leave accrues at the rate of one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. Thus, a full-time employee working 2,080 hours per year can accrue up to 69.3 hours, or 8.67 days, of paid sick leave. However, under the new law, employers can limit an employee’s use of paid sick days to 3 days or 24 hours in each year of employment. And, while the law requires accrued paid sick days to carry over to the following year of employment, an employer has no obligation to allow an employee’s total accrual of paid sick leave to exceed 6 days or 48 hours.

Fortunately, there appears to be a simple solution for employers wishing to avoid the accrual and carryover requirements. An employer can provide employees with 3 paid sick days (24 paid sick hours assuming eight-hour work days) at the beginning of each calendar year, anniversary date of employment or twelve-month basis.

The new paid sick leave law allows employees to use paid sick days for broad purposes, beyond that employee’s medical care. An employee can take paid sick days for the diagnosis, care or treatment of an existing health condition or preventive care of the employee or a family member. In addition, an employee who is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking can use paid sick days for specified purposes, including to obtain a restraining order or to obtain services from a domestic violence program.

An employee can take paid sick days either upon oral or written request. The law provides that if the need for paid sick leave is foreseeable, the employee shall provide reasonable advance notification. If the need for paid sick leave is unforeseeable, the employee shall provide notice of the need for the leave as soon as practicable.

California employers will need to take specific action before July 1, 2015 to ensure that they will be fully compliant with the Act on July 1, 2015.

Employers must provide written notice of the new law to all employees. The California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement provides electronic copies of the mandatory workplace postings for employer use on its website.

Employers are also required to provide employees with written notice that sets forth the amount of paid sick leave available, for use on either the employees’ itemized wage statement or in a separate writing provided on the designated pay date with the employees’ payment of wages.

Finally, the Act requires employers to keep for at least three years records documenting the hours worked and paid sick days accrued and used by an employee, and allow the Labor Commissioner to access these records.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys provide employers with practical guidance and legal expertise to ensure compliance with ever-changing labor laws, including wage and hour issues and successful development and implementation of a sick leave policy that complies with the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014.

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The Conkle Firm Successfully Defends Employee Wage and Hour Claim

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If you’re a California employer, how well do you keep track of your employees’ meal and rest periods?  California law requires that employees be provided at least a ten-minute rest period every four hours, and a 30-minute meal period after five hours.  Non-exempt employees who work more than eight hours in a day, and more than 40 hours in a week, must be paid overtime.  Employers are required to maintain accurate records of employees’ timesheets and pay.  It sounds simple, but the devil is in the details.  If you have employees, it is important to put policies in place to ensure that all employees are taking their breaks and being paid for any overtime work.

If an employee believes he or she was deprived of meal and rest periods or not paid for overtime hours worked, the employee can file a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner.  The Labor Commissioner’s Office, also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), is the forum for adjudication of such claims.  Often, this kind of complaint is filed after an employee is terminated.  Employers should realize that, regardless of the reasons for termination, in a wage and hour claim the deck is stacked against them from the start – it is the employer’s burden to show that the employee took breaks and was properly paid.

CK&E attorneys routinely advise clients about navigating California’s complex employer workplace requirements, and advocate for clients in disputes before the California Labor Commissioner and California state and federal courts.

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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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