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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Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

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On April 27, 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) passed the House of Representatives and went to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.  With that, trade secret misappropriation claims will exist under federal law and can be pursued in federal courts.

The DTSA will provide businesses with more effective new tools to protect their sensitive information from misappropriation.  In the context of trade secrets, misappropriation is generally considered the acquisition of hidden information through some improper means .  The broadly structured language of the DTSA extends its protection to “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information” so long as (1) the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep the information secret and (2) the information derives its value from that secrecy.  The DTSA largely tracks the concepts of trade secrets that have long existed in most states.  But under the DTSA, plaintiffs will be able to bring claims for misappropriation of trade secrets in federal court.

Previously, trade secrets have been an outlier in the world of intellectual property.  Unlike copyright, patent and trademark claims, which receive the wider benefit and protection of federal court jurisdiction, trade secret claims have mostly been litigated in state court.  The problem with this has been that, given the diffuse and global nature of business and commerce, state courts are often not the best venue for intellectual property claims.   If a misappropriation occurs across state or national borders, a federal court is better suited to address such jurisdictional conflicts.

To gain access to the DTSA, and federal court jurisdiction, all that is required is that the “trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  This is generally a very low threshold, as most products and services these days are used or intended for use in at least interstate commerce – only the most localized of businesses would not be able to meet this minimal requirement.

The DTSA will confer on trade secret holders a greater ability to pursue misappropriation beyond the borders of the United States, and can even pursue remedies before the International Trade Commission.  In addition, a secondary benefit gained from access to the federal court system is a potential for more uniform decisions and precedent than the more disparate and varied state courts decisions.

Another interesting development that the DTSA will usher in relates to injunction and damages.  Injunctions are often sought in trade secret cases to prevent the information at issue from being disclosed.  Previously,  under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which almost all states have adopted in some form or another, the injunction would end when the trade secret ceased to exist or after an amount of time necessary to stop any potential commercial advantage being gained from a misappropriation.  The DTSA however contains no such limitation, which presumably will give courts more discretion in applying an extended injunction.  Also, where the UTSA allows for double damages in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation”, the language of the DTSA has upped this to treble damages.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the DTSA tool belt is the ability to seek ex parte civil seizures.  What this means is that a plaintiff can, without giving a defendant notice, seek the seizure of property if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant, or someone working in concert with the defendant, is likely to “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make such matter inaccessible to the court”.  This type of ex parte seizure is a powerful new tool that will likely allow trade secret holders to better combat harm associated with a misappropriation.  And being a powerful tool, it may be subject to misuse among competitors.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay current on developments that may be important to their clients concerned about commercial and intellectual property issues.  If you have questions about the DTSA or other aspects of trade secret or intellectual property protection, we would be glad to hear from you.

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PCPC’s California Lobby Day was a Great Success

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On April 12, 2016, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney John Conkle flew to Sacramento to be part of Personal Care Products Council’s delegation for California Lobby Day. The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) advocates for the personal care products, beauty and cosmetics industry at federal, state and local levels on legislative priorities and regulatory issues.

Conferences held in the Governor’s Council Room featured presentations by Nancy McFadden (Executive Secretary to Governor Edmund G. Brown), Graciela Castillo-Krings (Deputy Legislative Secretary to Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr.), Dr. Meredith Williams (Deputy Director of Safer Products and Workplaces Program Director, Department of Toxics & Substance Control), and Elise Rothschild (Deputy Director of the Hazardous Waste Management Program, Department of Toxics & Substance Control).  John joined teams of PCPC staff and member companies who met with legislative offices to discuss the economic impact of the industry and legislation pending before the California legislature. The day’s events were capped with a reception at which PCPC staff and members were joined by California State Legislators.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel is a proud and active member of the Personal Care Products Council.  CK&E attorneys are glad to lend their legal expertise to the PCPC and its member companies by participating in PCPC conferences and industry advocacy efforts..

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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 Will Attend Cosmoprof Asia November 12-14, 2014

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys John Conkle and Kim Sim will attend the Cosmoprof event for the Asia Pacific region in Hong Kong on Nov. 12-14, 2014.  Cosmoprof Asia will feature more than 2,350 exhibitors in the beauty industry, and expects more than 64,000 visitors from all over the world.  There will be 22 national and group pavilions.  Given the prominence of California’s personal care product industry, CK&E is proud to attend the Hong Kong event in association with the California Pavilion organized by the California Trade Alliance.  CK&E will meet with clients and correspondent counsel to facilitate business between manufacturers, distributors and vendors in the Asia Pacific region and the United States, with particular emphasis on California businesses.  Brand protection and distributor relations are always a major concern when doing business between the U.S. and Asia, and CK&E attorneys are there to help.  If you will be attending Cosmoprof Asia this year, please let us know and we will try to make arrangements for a meeting at the event.

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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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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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