Conkle Firm Attorneys Attend Cosmoprof Bologna to Assist Clients

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys John Conkle and Kelly Peterson have returned to Cosmoprof Worldwide Bologna to continue the firm’s longstanding practice assisting the growth and protection of personal care products businesses in U.S. and international markets.  Last year, Cosmoprof Bologna had nearly 3,000 exhibitors and 250,000 visitors in exhibition space totaling more than 160,000 square meters.  For over 50 years, Cosmoprof has been the benchmark event for companies and professionals in all sectors of the cosmetics industry, from supply chain to branding, marketing, distribution and sale of finished products.

Cosmoprof’s B2B format is well suited to connect businesses all over the world, and CK&E attorneys are experienced with what businesses in this sector need to succeed. CK&E lawyers have more than 40 years of experience with the legal issues affecting all stages of growth of personal care products businesses, from startup through acquisition. Issues such as domestic and international brand protection, regulatory compliance, contractual relations with distributors and vendors, customer relations, employment matters, partnership issues, sales representative issues, and insurance can be vexing to a growing business without the guidance of lawyers who have “been there and seen that” for decades.

On the first day of Cosmoprof Bologna, John and Kelly have already begun engaging with clients and prospective clients to help them navigate toward international growth. If you are a vendor there and have not talked with them yet, you can use the email addresses on their attorney pages to reach out to them for a consultation.

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Who Owns Your Business? The Government – and Maybe Litigation Adversaries – Want to Know

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UPDATE:  On March 1, 2024 Judge Liles C. Burke, a federal court judge in Alabama, effectively invalidated the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) by finding it unconstitutional: “The Corporate Transparency Act is unconstitutional because it cannot be justified as an exercise of Congress’ enumerated powers.”  2024-03-01 National Small Business United v Yellin, Case No 5.22-cv-1448-LCB  The decision will almost certainly be appealed, so expect further developments.  In the meantime while the federal CTA is not considered currently in effect, its state counterparts (such as the New York LLC Transparency Act) remain effective.

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ORIGINAL POST:

As we usher in the new year, individuals aren’t the only ones making resolutions. Many business entities organized in the United States must also resolve to comply with the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), a pivotal component of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. This anti-money laundering law, enforced by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), aims to illuminate the ownership and control structures of entities operating within the U.S. But there are important exceptions and potential litigation risks to be aware of.

The Beneficial Ownership Interest Rule (BOI Rule) now mandates that most private business entities file a Beneficial Ownership Interest Report. The BOI Report provides personal information about individuals who own or control the entity. “Beneficial ownership” includes anyone who owns or controls 25% or more of the ownership interests, or who directly or indirectly exercises substantial control over a company. The net was cast widely to include almost any imaginable form of agreement that can grant control to someone, including equity, profit sharing agreements, voting trusts, convertible debt, stock options, joint ownership of an undivided interest, and ownership through subsidiaries. There are certain exceptions for minor children, intermediaries, agents, individuals acting solely as employees, creditors, and individuals whose only interest is through inheritance.

“Substantial control” includes individuals who serve as a senior officer of the entity (i.e., president, CEO, CFO, general counsel, or others who perform similar functions); majority or dominant minority directors; and anyone who directs, determines, or has substantial influence over important decisions made by the entity.

The CTA applies to “a corporation, LLC, or other similar entity that is either created by filing a document with a secretary of state or a similar office under the law of a State . . . or formed under the law of a foreign country and registered to do business in the United States. . . .” This includes Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), limited partnerships and business trusts. But it does not apply to sole proprietorships, general partnerships, or non-business trusts, because those entities are not created through a filing with a Secretary of State.

The CTA of course exempts public companies that file securities reports, but it also has a notable exemption for non-public “large operating companies” as well as some specialized entities like insurance companies, accounting firms, utilities, tax exempt entities, as well as inactive entities. “Large operating companies” that do not have to file a BOI Report are those which employ at least 20 full time employees, maintain a physical office in the U.S., and received at least $5 million in gross receipts for the last fiscal year.

The BOI Reports must include the entity’s name and any fictitious names, its address, its jurisdiction of formation, its taxpayer ID number, and elaborate identification of the beneficial owners: Full legal name, date of birth, residential address, and an identification number and digital copy (this may be a driver’s license, passport, or FinCEN ID). Entities created after January 1, 2024 must provide the same information about the company applicant who filed the paperwork to register the entity.

Entities in existence prior to January 1, 2024 must file their BOI Report by January 1, 2025. New entities registered between January 1, 2024, and December 31, 2024, must submit their BOI Report within 90 days of confirmation of formation. Entities formed on or after January 1, 2025 must submit their BOI Report within 30 days of confirmation of formation. Changes concerning beneficial ownership or corrections to previous BOI Reports must be filed within 30 days. The consequences of failure to file a BOI Report may be costly. A daily fine of $500 can be imposed for non-compliance, up to a maximum of $10,000. Individuals who submit false information in a BOI Report also may be subjected to criminal penalties.

BOI Reports are filed electronically with FinCEN, a bureau of the United States Department of the Treasury that collects information to address money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes. FinCEN’s “Access Rule” generally limits disclosure of BOI Reports to Federal agencies engaged in national security, intelligence, or law enforcement activity, and state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies with court authorization, certain foreign law enforcement authorities and financial institutions with customer due diligence requirements and regulators supervising them for compliance.

Interestingly, there is no indication yet whether litigants would be able to obtain copies of BOI Reports through discovery processes in litigation such as civil subpoenas and demands for document production. For example, if a litigant alleges in a pleading that an opponent is an “alter ego” of an entity subject to the BOI Rule, will that be sufficient to require disclosure in discovery of the entity’s BOI Report? Until more specific laws are enacted, at present it seems likely that general constitutional and statutory provisions of the individual states that concern confidentiality and privacy would control such disclosures.

Companies and individuals who may be subject to the Beneficial Ownership Interest Rule would be well advised to consult counsel who can address the nuances of their situation.

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California Invasion of Privacy Act Lawsuits Challenge Website Live Chats

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Does your business use live chats to offer customer service support to your customers?  Throughout the past year, hundreds of nearly identical suits have been filed alleging that the live chat features on businesses’ websites may violate the California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA).  Most of the lawsuits have been filed by attorneys at the Newport Beach, California, firm called Pacific Trial Attorneys, but other firms have brought very similar lawsuits.

CIPA is a set of California penal statutes that are directed against unconsented wiretapping or recording of telephone communications. The CIPA complaints allege that some software vendors that facilitate customer service live chats are acting as third-party eavesdroppers or wiretappers who share sensitive customer information with entities such as Meta for purposes of targeted advertising. In order to fit their allegations of internet-based communications into the CIPA wiretapping and eavesdropping prohibitions protecting telephone communications, the lawsuits often allege that the plaintiffs accessed the defendant’s live chat through their smart phone’s web browser.

The Conkle firm attorneys believe the plaintiff law firms’ approach is a flawed legal theory that is an unwarranted attempt to extend the scope of the CIPA statute.  At present, no reported decisions have determined the merits of these types of claims, and it appears that most of the lawsuits are intended primarily to draw settlements from defendants wishing to avoid the expense and risk of defending themselves.

If your business has a web presence that involves a “chat” function, it may be prudent to take proactive measures to reduce the risk of having to defend a CIPA lawsuit.  Such measures include plain disclosures to live chat users about the involvement of a third-party software vendor, a method of documenting consent of the live chat user, and links to an appropriately-phrased privacy policy. Such prophylactic measures will not only help deter plaintiffs’ lawyers from targeting your business for CIPA violations but can also contribute to a transparent and trustworthy customer experience.

It is also important that you respond quickly and appropriately if you receive a warning letter or demand from a law firm claiming that your business is violating CIPA. A swift and appropriate response is an important part of your defense to such claims and may ward off a lawsuit that is otherwise almost sure to follow. Should you receive a demand letter alleging a CIPA violation based on the above-conduct, it is best to promptly contact experienced counsel for guidance and assistance. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are very familiar with this area of the law and can guide your business to improve website chat features to forestall such claims, respond to demand letters or, if necessary, defend CIPA litigation.

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California Employers: Do You Know When Your Furlough is a Discharge?

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To employers, it may seem like California regulates nearly everything about employment relations. Yet, surprisingly, statutes and courts in California never answered the question of when a temporary layoff becomes a “discharge” of furloughed employees. That is, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did so recently in Hartstein v. Hyatt Corporation, 82 F.4th 825. The implications of this new ruling for California employers and employees are considerable.

Under the new ruling, any temporary layoff or furlough of employees without a specific return-to-work date within the employees’ regular pay period is considered a “discharge” under California Labor Code Section 201. That in turn triggers an immediate obligation for employers to pay all laid off employees all of the wages they have earned, including any pay owed for accrued vacation or Paid Time Off (“PTO”). Failure to pay in full all accrued wages, vacation and PTO when due runs the risk of substantial “waiting time penalties” under Labor Code Section 203. That can be a huge burden and risk for employers, as the Hartstein case demonstrated.

Hartstein arose during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses were forced to greatly reduce or cease business operations without knowing when they would be able to reopen. In March 2020 Hyatt, like many employers, furloughed thousands of employees and was unable to provide any specific return-to-work date. Hyatt advised employees that vacation and PTO would not accrue during the temporary layoff, and Hyatt offered to pay any accrued vacation to employees upon request. A month later, in June 2020, Hyatt sent a letter advising employees that the temporary layoff had become permanent and employees would be paid their accrued vacation and PTO as required by Labor Code Section § 201 when a “discharge” occurs.

Hyatt employee Karen Hartstein filed a class-action and Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit, arguing that a “discharge” had occurred with the indefinite temporary layoff in March 2020, and not when employees were permanently laid off in June 2020. The key question was whether a temporary layoff, lacking a specified return date, constituted a “discharge” under Labor Code Section 201, which had no definition of “discharge.” No previous published case had addressed the issue.

The Ninth Circuit turned to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) for guidance in its previously-issued Opinion and its Policies and Interpretations Manual. DLSE had indicated that, when an employee is laid off without a specified return date within the regular pay period, the employer must immediately give the employee a final paycheck that includes vested vacation pay. DLSE reasoned that this interpretation best aligned with the statute’s purpose of protecting workers and ensuring prompt payment of earned wages.

The Ninth Circuit characterized Hyatt’s actions as “understandable given the uncertainty during the early period of the pandemic,” but remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Hyatt’s failure to issue full final paychecks in March 2020 constituted a “willful” violation, which would expose Hyatt to waiting time penalties. That question remains open and will be watched closely by employment lawyers.

Hartstein v. Hyatt provides new guidance to California employers who may need to implement open-ended furloughs or temporary shutdowns. This decision has made clear that California employers who furlough or temporarily lay off employees without specifying a return-to-work date within the same pay period should immediately issue final paychecks that include each employee’s vested and unused vacation or PTO.

Hartstein v. Hyatt demonstrates again that employment law in California is constantly evolving, and outcomes may not be as predictable as employers would hope. California employers facing such issues are well-advised to consult with qualified employment counsel to stay up-to-date on these and other important employment issues. Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s attorneys can help advise employers in navigating these complex and evolving issues.

 

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Start at the End: Planning for Termination of Sales Representative Relationships

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Evan Pitchford recently published Start at the End: Planning for Termination of the Principal-Representative Relationship in the April 2023 edition of Agency Sales, the nationwide publication of the Manufacturers & Agents National Association (MANA).  Although no one likes to think about the potential end of a business relationship just when they finally succeeded in getting it off the ground, it is wise for sales representatives and principals alike to do just that.

Thoughtful preparation for the eventual termination of the sales representatives’ relationship will greatly improve the relationship throughout its existence, by making clear the terms that will apply as it comes to an end.  To understand their ongoing duties to each other, both parties should clearly understand the consequences of a termination under the various circumstances that may apply, such as a change by the principal to direct sales, contractual breaches, or just dissatisfaction of either side.  Specialized state statutes directed to sales representative contracts sometimes limit some of the termination provisions, but such statutes typically allow the parties to establish most or all of the terms for themselves.  It is definitely not wise for either side to just assume an applicable state statute will define what happens upon termination.

There are a great many options for termination provisions, including absolute cutoffs upon termination (which may be subject to “procuring cause” post-termination sales commission claims in some states), to timed durations of sales commission tails based on when the commission is considered earned, to phased termination extending commission tale periods based on longevity or achievement.  The only limits to the terms that can be agreed upon are the requirements of each state’s specialized sales commission statutes and the imagination and negotiating leverage of the parties.  Parties considering sales commission agreements are well-advised to seek the counsel of attorneys who are very familiar with sales representatives laws and practices, such as  attorneys at the Conkle firm.

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AB51, California’s Law Against Mandatory Employee Arbitration Agreements, is Invalidated

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California employers – especially those that required employees to sign arbitration agreements – have reason to celebrate. On February 15, 2023, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chamber of Commerce v. Bonta, (Case No. 20-15291) 2023 WL 2013326 (9th Cir. Feb. 15, 2023), ruled that AB 51, a California law effectively prohibiting and criminalizing mandatory arbitration provisions in employment agreements, is invalid because it is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

This development was not unexpected, as the U.S. Supreme Court has rendered a series of decisions supporting arbitration and striking down state laws prohibiting arbitration clauses in employment contracts as violations of the FAA. Yet despite this precedent, the California legislature has tried time and time again to enact anti-arbitration laws that creatively seek to avoid FAA preemption. AB 51 was the most recent attempt to circumvent the FAA.

AB 51 added California Labor Code Section 432.6, which prohibited employers from: (1) requiring employees to waive, as a condition of employment, the right to litigate certain claims in court; and (2) retaliating against applicants for employment or employees based on their refusal to waive such rights. Id. at (a) & (b). These two prohibitions by themselves would almost surely be preempted by the FAA but the California legislature sought to avoid that result by adding § 432.6(f), providing that nothing “in this section is intended to invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the [FAA].” To give the statute teeth, AB 51 also amended other codes to impose civil and criminal liability on an employer who violates Labor Code Section 432.6. Together, these provisions had the strange effect of imposing criminal and civil liability on employers who enter into arbitration agreements that are valid and enforceable.

The Chamber of Commerce of the United States filed a lawsuit seeking to declare that AB 51 was preempted by the FAA. In 2020, the trial court granted temporary injunctions against enforcement of AB51, because the court found that the Chamber of Commerce was likely to succeed in establishing that AB51 is preempted by the FAA. For that reason, employers did not feel the brunt of AB51 while the challenge made its way through appellate court.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (after some unusual twists, including a published decision that was later withdrawn by the Court) ultimately agreed with the trial court. The Ninth Circuit held that although AB 51 does not expressly prevent the formation of employment contracts containing an arbitration provision, it clearly disfavors the formation of arbitration agreements by placing civil and criminal liability on employers who require employees to sign arbitration agreements. That kind of penalty is an exception to generally applicable law that allows employers to require agreements, such as confidentiality agreements, as a condition of employment. The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has held that “state rules that burden the formation of arbitration agreements stand as an obstacle to the FAA.” Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S.Ct. 1421, 1423 (2017). In addressing AB 51’s strange mechanism of imposing liability for the formation of valid contracts, the Court held that that “[a] state rule interferes with arbitration if it discriminates against arbitration on its face or if it covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements.” Id. The Court held that “[b]ecause the FAA’s purpose is to further Congress’s policy of encouraging arbitration, and AB 51 stands as an obstacle to that purpose, AB 51 is preempted.” Id., at *10.

California employers should welcome this decision. The decision clarifies that businesses have broader freedom to contract as they see fit, and that it is permissible, even in California, to require employees to sign mandatory arbitration provisions as a condition of employment. The overall perception is that arbitration results in faster, less expensive resolution of employee-employer disputes, and keeps employment disputes out of California courts. Still, there are other schools of thought that believe that employment arbitrations can be more expensive for employers than the courts because private arbitrators often charge high hourly rates, the fees and costs of the arbitration must be advanced by employers, and dispositive motion victories (for example, a successful motion to dismiss a frivolous claim) are less common in arbitration. As well, even if arbitration is enforceable some employees may file their claims in court in the hope that the employer fails to take action to enforce arbitration.

Moreover, there are important limitations on employment arbitration agreements in California. In Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 24 Cal.4th 83 (2000), the California Supreme Court held that employer-employee arbitration agreements may be “unconscionable” and unenforceable if they do not include provisions for: (1) a neutral arbitrator; (2) all remedies allowed under statutes; (3) adequate discovery procedures; (4) a written and well-reasoned arbitration decision; and (5) the employer’s payment of all costs unique to the arbitration process itself.

It is predictable that the same labor groups that supported AB 51 will continue to try to develop alternative measures to restrict employment arbitration agreements. Employers are well-advised to consult with well-qualified employment attorneys to stay on the right side of the rapidly changing laws. The attorneys at the Conkle firm stay abreast of developments and are well equipped to help your business navigate all aspects of wage & hour, discrimination, class actions, Private Attorney General (PAGA) claims and employment law, including the intersection of employment arbitration and litigation. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have many years of experience drafting arbitration provisions in conformance with California law and handling employment disputes—whether in arbitration or litigation.

Amanda Washton and Alec Pressly

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Changing Messages from Courts on AB 51: Now Employers Cannot Require Arbitration Agreements

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Note:  For updated developments on the long-running saga of AB 51, see our February 2023 blog post: “AB51, California’s Law Against Mandatory Employee Arbitration Agreements, is Invalidated”

For those employers who have been following the evolving history of Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”), which regulates California employers’ ability to have agreements to arbitrate any disputes with their prospective or hired employees, there is a new twist:  In a September 15, 2021 decision, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S., et al. v. Bonta, et al., Case No. 20-15291, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a District Court decision to conclude that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) did not preempt California AB 51’s ban on employment conditioned upon mandatory arbitration agreements. As explained below, this Ninth Circuit ruling may soon have a substantial impact on employers’ arbitration policies going forward.

In 2019, California passed AB 51, which added section 432.6 to the California Labor Code and section 12953 to the California Government Code to generally prohibit employers from requiring applicants or employees to agree to arbitrate as a condition of employment. AB 51 made it illegal for an employer to require applicants or 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 Conkle firm has written previously about the potential effects of AB 51.

AB 51 had been set to take effect on January 1, 2020, but on December 30, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller issued a preliminary injunction, preventing AB51 from taking effect. Judge Mueller concluded that “AB 51 placed agreements to arbitrate on unequal footing with other contracts and also that it stood as an obstacle to the purposes and objectives of the FAA.” Bonta, No. 20-15291 at 12. In other words, Judge Mueller decided that AB 51 discriminated against arbitration agreements in a manner that is prohibited by the superseding federal law of arbitrations, the FAA.

California appealed Judge Mueller’s ruling.  On September 15, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a split (2-1) decision partially reversing the District Court’s order. The Ninth Circuit held that the FAA did not preempt AB 51 with respect to its prevention of conditioning employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement. On this basis, the Ninth Circuit vacated the preliminary injunction that had stopped AB 51’s enforcement, so at present there is nothing stopping AB 51 from taking effect very soon.

For employers, this means that, unless there are further decisions by the Ninth Circuit or the United States Supreme Court, AB 51’s mandate that employers cannot condition employment or continued employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement will shortly go into effect. However, employers should be aware that AB 51 does not apply retroactively, which means that arbitration agreements previously signed by employers before AB 51 can still be enforced.  ([Proposed] Labor Code §432(f).)

A common question Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are receiving is whether, even under AB 51, an employer is allowed to request that employees or prospective employees sign an arbitration agreement. The answer is yes. However, because the Ninth Circuit’s decision is somewhat muddled on this point, there is no clear answer to the natural follow up question, “What can I do if the employee refuses?”

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the enforcement provisions of AB 51 are preempted “to the extent that they apply to executed arbitration agreements covered by the FAA.” Bonta, No. 20-15291 at 29. The dissent in Bonta attacks the majority’s reasoning as illogical:

In case the effect of this novel holding is not clear, it means that if the employer offers an arbitration agreement to the prospective employee as a condition of employment, and the prospective employee executes the agreement, the employer may not be held civilly or criminally liable. But if the prospective employee refuses to sign, then the FAA does not preempt civil and criminal liability for the employer under AB 51’s provisions.

Bonta, No. 20-15291 at 47. As the dissent argues, the majority’s reasoning could result in liability to the employer where the employer fails while attempting to engage in the prohibited conduct of forcing an employee or prospective employee to sign an arbitration agreement, but the employer would not have liability when the employer succeeds in engaging in that same prohibited conduct.

What does this ultimately mean for employers? We expect the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to be challenged by a request for an en banc review by a larger panel of the Ninth Circuit’s justices, or by a writ to the U.S. Supreme Court (which has recently been quite hostile to Ninth Circuit rulings that it has chosen to review).  Such a challenge could result in yet another “stay” that would effectively restore the injunction issued by Judge Mueller and preclude AB 51 from taking effect. However, unless a stay is issued, AB 51 is set to go into effect in the near future.

While much uncertainty remains as a result of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, AB 51 will increase potential liability for employers that condition employment on arbitration agreements, as well as provide more power to employees who do not wish to arbitrate. Employers that currently have policies conditioning employment or continued employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement should continue to monitor the status of AB 51, should prepare for the possibility that it will not be able to require arbitration agreements going forward and should reevaluate the benefits and risks related to conditioning employment on the signing of an arbitration agreement.

CK&E attorneys keep updated on developments in the law that affect employers in California, including their rights to arbitrate disputes with applicants and employees.  Stay tuned for additional developments in this saga of AB 51.

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ADA Lawsuits Attacking Website Accessibility Mount

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Over the past few months, we have seen an increase in pre-litigation letters and lawsuits charging Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) violations against commercial websites. These notice and demand letters and lawsuits allege that businesses’ websites violate the federal ADA and similar state laws because they do not give full and equal access to individuals who have disabilities (including blindness, visual impairment and hearing impairment). ADA lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts throughout the country. No state is immune from such suits, and no business is too small to receive such ADA demands and claims.

One of the factors undoubtedly is the rise of law firms, and consortiums of firms, that specialize in filing such suits. The law firms often work with repeat-plaintiffs with disabilities, much like law firms that specialize in Proposition 65 private enforcement claims in California who work with repeat plaintiffs who purchase products that are then made the subject of notices of violations and lawsuits. The subjects of ADA and Prop 65 laws differ greatly, but the common element is that liability can be fairly easy to establish under both ADA and Prop 65, and both statutes allow awards of attorneys’ fees to the law firms that can far exceed the damages awarded. Some of the law firms that commonly send ADA letters making demands and file lawsuits about website accessibility problems include Pacific Trial Attorneys (Newport Beach, CA), Nye, Stirling, Hale & Miller (Santa Barbara, CA), The Sweet Law Firm (Pittsburgh, PA), Block & Leviton, LLP (Boston, MA), and Carlson Lynch (Chicago, IL).

While there is no universally mandated standard, many large businesses and state and federal agencies follow WCAG 2.1, Level AA standards, which were created by the Web Accessibility Initiative, an internationally recognized organization. Generally, WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance requires that websites have text components for all images and videos such that assisted technology software may read this content to users. Among other requirements, the standards also require that websites have proper contrast between background images and overlapping font so that visually impaired individuals can use assisting software to be able to read and navigate the website.

To minimize the risk of receiving an ADA violation letter or being sued, we recommend you take at least the following steps:

  1. Request that your digital team ensure and confirm that your website conforms with WCAG standards and, if so, what version/level as there were several earlier WCAG standards prior to the current WCAG version 2.1. To reduce the chances of such claims being made against your company, request your digital team to make your website WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliant and keep it that way until a more updated standard comes into general use.
  2. Add a footer entitled “Accessibility” or “Accessibility Statement” to your website. The footer should preferably appear on the homepage and each webpage, preferably near your “Privacy Policy” and “Terms of Service” footers.
  3. Add a webpage that is linked to the Accessibility Statement footer (e.g. https://www.conklelaw.com/accessibility-statement). This webpage should include an Accessibility Statement discussing your commitment to ensuring accessibility to all and providing contact information to report accessibility barriers and assistance with purchasing products or navigating the website. If you want help formulating your Accessibility Statement, seek qualified counsel to assist you.
  4. Instruct your digital team to periodically review the website as it is updated to ensure there are no access barriers, that all newly uploaded content (including temporary pop-up offers, sale announcements, discount codes, rebates, etc.) complies with WCAG standards, and that all customer service representatives are trained to handle website accessibility inquiries. This training should include advising a responsible person in your digital team of any reported accessibility barriers, and being specifically trained to help disabled customers place orders.

Even if you have not taken these steps before receiving a demand letter or lawsuit from one of the ADA plaintiffs’ lawyers, it’s possible to reduce liability by taking prompt steps. If you received such a website accessibility notice of violation or legal complaint, contact qualified counsel promptly to assist in minimizing the impact and avoid similar future claims. All of the ADA violation matters that Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have defended have been resolved fairly quickly with modest settlements. Others accused of website ADA violations have not been so fortunate, with some reporting having paid tens of thousands of dollars. CK&E attorneys are well qualified to help with all types of ADA and accessibility compliance concerns, whether for websites or physical facilities.

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It’s the First of the Month – Is the Rent Due Under COVID-19 Eviction Moratoriums?

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To mitigate some of the effects of massive unemployment and pay reductions, and the business disruptions that have resulted from stay-at-home orders, a variety of residential and commercial tenancy eviction moratoriums have been imposed.

Much has been said about eviction moratoriums, but they are far more complex and nuanced than generally portrayed. It is clear that moratoriums are already having profound effects for both tenants and landlords. Reportedly about 69% of renters paid their April 2020 rent on time, down from 81% in March 2020. If the stay-at-home orders and closures of non-essential businesses continue, the percentage of renters failing to pay on time is almost sure to increase.

A moratorium is a legally authorized period of delay in the payment of a debt, such as rent. It is important to recognize that a moratorium is not debt forgiveness – the same rent remains owed, but the effects of nonpayment are modified. There are some who are currently demanding new rent forgiveness laws to permanently relieve tenants of obligations to pay rent that comes due during the COVID-19 emergency, but no such laws have been enacted anywhere in the U.S. at this time, to our knowledge.

Even during normal times, tenants are routinely evicted for nonpayment of rent. In California, the eviction process is normally accomplished by a speedy judicial action for “unlawful detainer” that can be initiated quickly, require a tenant to respond in court within 5 days, and in some circumstances can result in a judicial eviction order and a judgment for the amount of unpaid rent against the tenant in less than a month. In one way or another the moratoriums effectively slow down that process and give tenants more opportunities to pay the accrued rent to avoid eviction. To make matters more confusing, eviction moratoriums with varying requirements and terms have been enacted by the U.S. government, and by many states, counties and cities. Exactly how each moratorium applies does depends on where the rented property is located, and whether it is subject to a U.S., state, county or city moratorium.

Here, we’ll briefly examine the U.S., California state, Los Angeles County, and City of Los Angeles moratoriums as representative samples that give insight into how rent payment obligations and evictions have changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadly speaking, U.S. laws can supersede state orders, and state orders supersede county and city orders, but stricter orders will usually be enforced over broader and more general ones. For that reason, it is very important to consider where the subject property is located and which state or local order may control that location.

The U.S. rent moratorium was part of the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act passed on March 27, 2020, and signed into law by President Trump on March 28, 2020. The U.S. order applies only to residential homes and apartments whose owners have federally-backed mortgages (typically Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgages), and tenants in federally-subsidized low-income housing. The CARES Act imposes a 120-day eviction moratorium for tenants unable to pay rent due to COVID-19 effects. While the U.S. moratorium applies to nearly half of the residential housing market, as a practical matter tenants rarely know if they can take advantage of it, so state eviction moratoriums have a bigger impact.

The California eviction moratorium order (No. N-37-20) was signed by Governor Newsom on March 27, 2020, and applies throughout the state. The March 27 order was designed to strengthen a previous directive (No. N-28-20) that merely gave local jurisdictions authority to temporarily halt residential and commercial evictions due to financial reasons related to COVID-19. The California state order now extends the time for tenants to respond to an unlawful detainer lawsuit by another 60 days, in addition to the usual 5 days. To qualify for the extension of time, the tenant must have previously paid rent to the landlord under an agreement (typically a lease) and, within seven days of the rent becoming due, must have notified the landlord of the inability to pay rent for reasons related to COVID-19 (such as being sick, losing work, or missing work while caring for a child or family member). The tenant is required to maintain documentation proving the changed financial circumstances, but only needs to provide that documentation to the landlord by the time the tenant later pays the back-due rent.

Because the California state order is tied to the unlawful detainer statute, it appears that the statewide deadline to pay the back-due rent is in effect 65 days from an unlawful detainer lawsuit being filed, provided that the tenant qualifies for the COVID-19 related relief. This puts into the landlord’s hands when to start the clock for payment of back rent by initiating an unlawful detainer action to evict the tenant, but the tenant has just over two months to even respond to the suit. There does not appear to be an expiration date for the California state moratorium, which means that the unlawful detainer process could be slowed in this manner for the foreseeable future (though some commentators believe the May 31, 2020 expiration date in the preceding Order No. 28-20 might apply to the March 27 Order No. N-37-20 as well – that remains to be clarified).

But that is not the end of the analysis, because many cities and counties have stricter orders. On March 19, 2020 Los Angeles County enacted an order forbidding a residential or commercial property owner to file an eviction suit or otherwise evict a tenant before May 31, 2020, for non-payment of rent or any other no-fault scenario (such as a lease ending or the landlord removing the unit from the market). Like the state order, to qualify for this eviction moratorium the tenant must demonstrate an inability to pay due to financial impacts related to COVID-19 and must provide notice to the landlord within seven days of the rent becoming due. Under the Los Angeles County order, tenants have six months following the termination of the order – currently meaning until the end of November 2020 – to pay all back rent. But if the moratorium expires as currently scheduled, the qualifying tenants must begin paying current rent starting June 1, 2020, and have six months to make up their back rent. The order encourages payment plans but permits tenants to pay in any increments as long as the back-due rent is paid in full within the six-month window.

The City of Los Angeles enacted a series of eviction moratorium orders, on March 15, 17, 23 and 31, 2020, that similarly restrict commercial and residential evictions. Los Angeles city’s moratorium now has no expiration period other than the end of the “Local Emergency Period,” whenever that may be declared by the Mayor of Los Angeles. As finally enacted by the Los Angeles City Council, Ordinance No. 20-0147-S19 extends, for residential tenants, the time to pay back rent to twelve months after the Mayor declares an end of the Local Emergency Period. Commercial tenants have the same protections, but only three months to pay the accrued back rent after the end of the Local Emergency Period.

But wait, there’s more. Recall that the state modification of the unlawful detainer notice requirement does not have a clear expiration date. If it is determined to extend past May 31, 2020, the state order will continue to allow 65 days for a tenant to respond to an unlawful detainer eviction lawsuit, if the nonpayment was due to COVID-19 related reasons. That effectively extends for another two months the tenant’s ability to not pay rent and yet retain possession of the property.

Despite the complexity of the many jurisdictions’ overlapping orders, at present all tenants remain obligated to pay all lawfully charged rent. So tenants who maximize their withholding of rent will build up a huge debt of unpaid rent, and eventual eviction will become much more likely. For all concerned, it is best for landlords and tenants to work cooperatively to agree on a payment plan, including partial payments and deadlines. These agreements should be committed to at least informal writings in case they are needed as evidence. Landlords should be careful to specify in any writing that these are temporary agreements that are a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic and associated government orders, that the rent is not waived or reduced but rather delayed, and that the subject lease agreement is not modified or otherwise affected by the rent timing concession.

Lastly, it is very possible that the moratoriums will be extended if stay-at-home orders and workforce reductions continue, which could cause significant concerns for property owners who have mortgage payments due. Many lenders have instituted some kind of mortgage payment delay option – but caution is advisable because they too have pitfalls. Some jurisdictions have enacted limited moratoriums on mortgage payments, so it is advisable to investigate those for your areas and speak with lenders regarding mortgages. And stay tuned as popular pressure builds for new laws to provide some form of mortgage and rent forgiveness.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay abreast of Coronavirus-related issues affecting business clients, including their landlord-tenant relations. CK&E has published blogs about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and other governmental COVID-19 responses that may be useful resources for income replacement, for the benefit of both tenants and landlords.

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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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