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Woodland Hills Business Law Blog

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Strategies to Prevent Business Litigation

A Stitch in Time … Strategies to Prevent Business Litigation

A lawsuit can damage more than just the bottom line of your business.  In addition to costing money that could be put to better use, a lawsuit is also an unwelcome distraction for the owner, managers and employees.  It can also do irreparable damage to business relationships and reputation.

It may not be possible to avoid any and all legal conflict during the life of your business, but by considering the following advice, you should be able to minimize the resources you have to devote to litigation – which means more time and money available for your business operations and investments.

  1. Don’t rely on a handshake.  Reduce all business agreements to writing, even if they are with your oldest and dearest friend.  Be clear about terms and expectations.
  2. Keep a written record of all communications.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open, especially when a business relationship starts to sour.  Aggressive communication may be able to cure the damage before a lawsuit becomes necessary.
  4. Don’t put your head in the sand.  If a threat appears that could lead to litigation, respond quickly, thoughtfully and thoroughly.
  5. Check your compliance with relevant government regulations.  Import/export? Check the laws.  Using hazardous materials? Check the regulations. Don’t allow shortcuts.
  6. Create a business culture that rewards employees for reporting violations of any laws or government regulations.  Your employees on the ground can be your best resource for uncovering potential hazards that could lead to litigation.
  7. Put cure provisions and mediation provisions into your contracts with vendors.
  8. Complete a business succession plan to minimize or eliminate disputes over exit strategies.
  9. Conduct regular safety checks of the physical premises, including vehicles used for company business.
  10. Conduct criminal background checks on prospective employees that comply with the law.
  11. Provide regular health and safety training for employees.
  12. Provide ongoing training for human resources personnel.
  13. Review whether your employees are properly classified as hourly or salaried workers to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  14. Review whether any independent contractors should be reclassified as employees to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  15. Respond promptly and thoroughly to complaints from employees, customers or vendors.
  16. Use email, the internet, your company website and social networking media with caution.  Assume that any information shared via these platforms will be publicly accessible until the end of time.
  17. Seek outside advice when necessary.  Don’t let your ego be your downfall.  If you don’t understand your legal obligations and rights in a particular circumstance, consult a qualified commercial law attorney.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Can My Employer Enforce a Covenant Not to Compete?

Can My Employer Enforce a Covenant Not to Compete?

Many employers require their employees to sign agreements which contain covenants not to compete with the company.  The enforceability of these restrictive provisions varies from state-to-state and depends on a variety of factors. A former employee who violates an enforceable non-compete agreement may be ordered to cease competitive activity and pay damages to the former employer.  In other covenants, the restrictions may be deemed too restrictive and an undue restraint of trade.

A covenant not to compete is a promise by an employee that he or she will not compete with his or her employer for a specified period of time and/or within a particular geographic location. It may be contained within an employment agreement, or may be a separate contract. Agreements which prevent employees from competing with the employer while employed are enforceable in every jurisdiction. However, agreements which affect an employee’s conduct after employment termination are subject to stricter requirements regarding “reasonableness,” and are generally disallowed in some states, such as California which has enacted statutes against such agreements except in very narrow circumstances.

Even in states where such covenants are enforceable, courts generally disfavor them because they are anti-competitive. Nevertheless, such agreements will be enforced if the former employer can demonstrate the following:
 

  • The employee received consideration at the time the agreement was signed;
  • The agreement protects the employers legitimate business interest; and
  • The agreement is reasonable to protect the employer, but not unduly burdensome to the employee who has a right to make a living.

Consideration

Under the principles of contract law, all agreements must be supported by consideration in order to be enforceable. The employee signing the covenant not to compete must receive something of value in exchange for making the promise. If the agreement is signed prior to employment, the employment itself constitutes consideration. If, however, the agreement is signed after employment commences, the employee must receive something else of value in exchange for the agreement to be enforceable.

Legitimate Business Interest

Legitimate business interests can include protecting and preserving confidential information (trade secrets) and customer relationships. Most states recognize an employer’s right to prevent an employee from taking advantage of information acquired or relationships developed as a result of the employment arrangement, in order to later compete against the employer.

Reasonableness

Based on the circumstances, a covenant must be reasonably necessary. If the covenant is overly broad, or unduly burdensome on the employee, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement. Therefore, the covenant must be reasonable in both duration and scope. If a covenant is overly broad, the court may narrow its scope or duration and enforce it accordingly. But if a covenant is so broad that is clearly was designed to prevent lawful competition, as opposed to protecting legitimate business interests, the court may strike down the agreement in its entirety.

To enforce a covenant not to compete, the employer can file a court action seeking an injunction against the employee’s continued violations of the agreement. The company can also seek monetary damages to cover losses resulting from the employee’s breach.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tenant-in-Common Investments

The Risks of Tenant-in-Common Investments

Historically, tenant in common (TIC) projects were owned by a relatively small group of investors who knew each other, such as long-time friends, business partners or family members. Strategies to maximize tax savings and preserve equity typically guided investors to this type of structure, rather than creating a limited liability company or partnership to own the property.

In the late 1990s, real estate sales in the form of tax-deferred 1031 exchanges created a new industry. Promoters began soliciting and pooling funds from investors to purchase real estate. Participation in the pool helped investors find replacement property to guarantee their capital gains tax deferment continued.

In 2002, the IRS clarified when this type of pooling is considered a partnership interest as opposed to a TIC interest, a critical distinction for investors using funds from a 1031 exchange transaction. Following that, investments in TIC interests grew considerably due to the numerous advantages. For those who needed a place to invest their 1031 exchange funds quickly, TIC interests provide a relatively simple way to ensure the funds are spent within 180 days of the sale of the previous property, without the hassle of researching, investigating, negotiating and financing a property in less than six months. TIC investors do not have to burden themselves with the day-to-day management of their investment property. Finally, TIC investors can pool their resources to purchase fractional shares of investment-grade property which would otherwise be out of reach.

With all of its advantages, the TIC interest also carries its share of risks. For example, many TIC promoters charged fees that were excessive, or sold the property to the investors for more than it was worth. If property values decline or purchase loans mature, it may be difficult to refinance, forcing the property into foreclosure and taking the entire investment with it.

Other promoters failed to maintain reserve funds separate for each property. If a promoter filed for bankruptcy and did not properly use the reserve funds, TIC investors were left with no recourse and were forced to cover the reserves out of their own pockets or risk losing their investment.

Further risks are caused by the investors themselves and the nature of their relationship to one another – or lack thereof. Owners of TIC typically do not know each other. Decisions regarding TIC governance often require unanimous agreement by all owners, and just one objection can grind the action to a halt. When owners don’t know each other, or are spread across many states, it can be difficult to communicate and obtain a unanimous agreement.

Despite the risks, TIC interests can still be a good place to park your money – but you must be a cautious, diligent purchaser. Visit the property, seek information from sources other than the promoter, and carefully review the past and projected financial data.
 


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to Avoid Piercing the Corporate Veil

Many business owners establish corporations to shield themselves from personal liability for business debts and protect their personal assets from creditors of the company. When established and maintained properly, a corporation is treated under the law as an independent entity, with many of the rights afforded to individuals. Such rights include the ability to own and transfer property, enter into contracts, obtain funding and to initiate legal action. A corporation is a separate, distinct entity, apart from its shareholders; as a result, only the corporation’s assets can be seized to pay judgments or satisfy other debts owed by the company.

However, the liability protection afforded by the corporate business structure is only available if the integrity of the corporation as a separate entity is respected by the courts and taxing authorities. Certain corporate formalities must be observed in order to preserve the corporation’s status as a separate entity apart from its owners. Failure to comply with these requirements may permit creditors to “pierce the corporate veil” and seek payment from the individual shareholders directly. To ensure the corporate veil remains intact, the corporation must act like a separate and distinct entity, and the shareholders must treat it as such. If certain corporate formalities are not consistently observed, a court may find that the corporation is merely an “alter ego” of the individual owner(s), and the corporate structure may be “disregarded”. When this occurs, the corporate veil is pierced and the individual shareholders can be held personally liable for the debts of the company.

Formalities that must be observed in order to preserve the integrity of the corporation and ensure the protection afforded by the corporate veil remains intact include:

Corporate Records
The corporation’s financial and corporate records must be documented. Most states also require that the shareholders and the directors meet at least once per year. A record of these meetings, in the form of minutes or written resolutions must be properly executed and maintained by the company.

Commingling of Assets
The corporation and the shareholders must treat themselves as separate entities. The corporation should have its own bank and credit card accounts.  Business owners should clearly document and account for expenditures made from corporate accounts if they were for personal benefit.

Capitalization
The corporation must be fully capitalized, or funded. This is typically accomplished by selling shares. Even in a one-person corporation, that individual shareholder must purchase his or her shares of stock in the company.  The corporation should also avoid becoming intentionally insolvent by transferring assets to the shareholders if it is likely that such transfer will inhibit the corporation’s ability to meet its financial obligations.

Failure to Pay Dividends
Payment of dividends is neither required, nor appropriate in every situation. However, if the payment of dividends is appropriate, or required, and the corporation fails to pay them, this could suggest that the corporation is actually an alter ego and not a separate legal entity.
 


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Do You Need Meeting Minutes?

Regardless of the size of the business, corporations (including those organized under Subchapter S) must observe all of the required formalities in order to maximize the benefits of a corporation. Corporate meeting minutes document the decisions made by the company’s board of directors, and are necessary to preserve the “corporate veil” in the event of a lawsuit or other claim against the company. If corporate formalities are not observed, your own personal assets may be at risk.

One such formality is the maintenance of a corporate record book containing minutes of meetings conducted in accordance with the company’s bylaws. Even in a one-person corporation, board resolutions must be drafted, signed and kept in the corporate records. Every major decision that affects the life of the business must be ratified by a board resolution contained in the corporate records.

There is no specific required format for meeting minutes, but the document should include any important decision made regarding the company, its policies and operations. Minutes should include, at a minimum:

  • Date, time and location of the meeting
  • Names of all officers, directors and others in attendance
  • Brief description of issues discussed and actions taken
  • Record of how each person voted, whether the vote was unanimous and whether anyone abstained from voting
  • Vote and approval of the prior meeting’s minutes

How do you know whether a decision needs to be documented in the meeting minutes? Generally, if a transaction is within the scope of the company’s ordinary course of business, it need not be addressed in the minutes. On the other hand, major decisions should be documented in the minutes, such as:

  • Significant contracts
  • Leases
  • Loans
  • Marketing campaigns
  • Reorganizations and mergers
  • Employee benefit plans
  • Elections of directors or officers

Non-incorporated entities such as limited liability companies are generally exempt from performing such formalities.
 


Thursday, July 18, 2013

No Longer Spouses, But Still Partners

Workplace romances are never advisable, but sometimes co-workers and business partners fall in love and get married. Unfortunately, they also sometimes fall out of love and get divorced. What happens next?

For some couples, the end of the marriage parallels the end of their working relationship—and possibly the end of the business itself. There are a number of options in such cases. The couple can sell the business and split the proceeds as part of the divorce settlement, or one partner can buy out the interest of the ex-spouse.  Or they can try to split the business, with each taking half. Speak with an experienced business lawyer about the pros and cons of these options for your situation.

However, some former spouses do figure out a way to maintain their business partnership after the divorce. The personal relationship may have hit a dead-end, but the investment involved in building and growing a successful company can make it hard to walk away—and unless the business is wildly successful, with plenty of prospective buyers waiting in the wings, it is feasible that neither party can afford to walk away.

Overcoming the Challenges

There are challenges in every business partnership and ex-spouses can adopt some basic business strategies to cultivate and maintain a healthy working relationship:

  • Sign a partnership agreement. Be clear about your separate and joint responsibilities, and matters of liability. Make a contingency plan outlining how assets will be divided in case either partner decides to leave.
  • If necessary, divide up responsibilities or tasks you once did together so you each have more autonomy.
  • Establish a board of directors. Trustworthy business people may have valuable perspectives about the direction and goals of your company.
  • Keep the company finances transparent. Money is often one of the most difficult issues in a divorce. Get help if necessary to streamline your accounting processes.
  • Be professional around other staff members and employees. It is not fair to put employees in a position where they feel pressured to take sides or respond to inappropriate complaints about their other boss. A toxic work environment is never good for business.

Thinking Outside the Box

Even with the best intentions, a divorced couple may keep falling back into their old patterns at the workplace. If you still think that the business is viable and worth the effort to make a go of it, get professional help. A good marriage therapist is trained to help couples understand the point of view of the other person and gain insight into their dynamics, and this can be valuable information post-divorce, as well. 

Most entrepreneurs have a knack for thinking outside the box. Maybe you and your ex- can alternate day and night shifts for a few months.  Build a partition between your desks. It might take a while before you move from being unhappy exes to friendly partners - but it just might be worth it.
 


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Family Business: Preserving Your Legacy

Family Business: Preserving Your Legacy for Generations to Come

Your family-owned business is not just one of your most significant assets, it is also your legacy. Both must be protected by implementing a transition plan to arrange for transfer to your children or other loved ones upon your retirement or death.


More than 70 percent of family businesses do not survive the transition to the next generation. Ensuring your family does not fall victim to the same fate requires a unique combination of proper estate and tax planning, business acumen and common-sense communication with those closest to you. Below are some steps you can take today to make sure your family business continues from generation to generation.

  • Meet with an estate planning attorney to develop a comprehensive plan that includes a will and/or living trust. Your estate plan should account for issues related to both the transfer of your assets, including the family business and estate taxes.
  • Communicate with all family members about their wishes concerning the business. Enlist their involvement in establishing a business succession plan to transfer ownership and control to the younger generation. Include in-laws or other non-blood relatives in these discussions. They offer a fresh perspective and may have talents and skills that will help the company.
  • Make sure your succession plan includes:  preserving and enhancing “institutional memory”, who will own the company, advisors who can aid the transition team and ensure continuity, who will oversee day-to-day operations, provisions for heirs who are not directly involved in the business, tax saving strategies, education and training of family members who will take over the company and key employees.
  • Discuss your estate plan and business succession plan with your family members and key employees. Make sure everyone shares the same basic understanding.
  • Plan for liquidity. Establish measures to ensure the business has enough cash flow to pay taxes or buy out a deceased owner’s share of the company. Estate taxes are based on the full value of your estate. If your estate is asset-rich and cash-poor, your heirs may be forced to liquidate assets in order to cover the taxes, thus removing your “family” from the business.
  • Implement a family employment plan to establish policies and procedures regarding when and how family members will be hired, who will supervise them, and how compensation will be determined.
  • Have a buy-sell agreement in place to govern the future sale or transfer of shares of stock held by employees or family members.
  • Add independent professionals to your board of directors.

You’ve worked very hard over your lifetime to build your family-owned enterprise. However, you should resist the temptation to retain total control of your business well into your golden years. There comes a time to retire and focus your priorities on ensuring a smooth transition that preserves your legacy – and your investment – for generations to come.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Crowdfunding

Financing and Growing Your Small Business Through Crowdfunding

What is crowdfunding? Part social networking and part capital accumulation, crowdfunding is simply the collective cooperation, attention and trust by people who network and pool their financial resources together to support efforts initiated by others.

Inspired by crowdsourcing, this innovative approach to raising capital has long been used to solicit donations or support political causes. This method has also been successfully implemented to raise capital for many different types of projects, including art, fashion, music and film.

Entrepreneurs can also tap the internet as a way to raise financing from a broad base of investors without turning to venture capitalists. With crowdfunding, you can raise small amounts of capital from many different sources, while retaining control over your business venture. Crowdfunding for business ventures, however, is not without its risks, and likely requires advice of an attorney.

In the traditional crowdfunding model, donations are pledged over the internet to fund a particular project or cause. The contributors are supporting the project, but receive no ownership interest in return for their monetary donation. This type of arrangement can exist with non-profit ventures and political campaigns, as well as start-up businesses. The person or entity soliciting the funding utilizes existing social networks to leverage the crowd and raise contributions in exchange for a reward, which is typically directly related to the project being funded, such as a credit at the end of a movie. With this type of arrangement, the contributor does not receive any ownership interest in the venture in exchange for the donation.

However, when for-profit companies solicit funds from a large number of individuals to raise capital in exchange for shares of ownership in the company, care must be taken to ensure the arrangement does not run afoul of federal and state securities laws.

Various companies and websites have popped up to assist entrepreneurs in raising capital through crowdfunding. Some operate on a flat fee, others charge a percentage of funds raised.  Keep in mind that any securities in a company sold to the public at large must be registered with regulatory authorities, unless they qualify for a specific exemption from the registration requirement. Selling shares of ownership to low-net-worth individuals (“unaccredited investors”) can trigger numerous registration and disclosure obligations. Additionally, state laws may also affect the transaction. As the number of investors and states involved increases, so do the cost and complexity of obtaining this type of capital financing. The various rules can be difficult to navigate, and missteps can result in significant penalties.
 


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Real Estate Tips for Small Businesses

Top 3 Real Estate Tips for Small Businesses

For the vast majority of small businesses, the company’s first and only real estate transaction is entering into a lease for commercial space. Whether you are considering office, manufacturing or retail space, the following three tips will help you navigate the negotiation process so you can avoid any unpleasant surprises or costly mistakes.

“Base Rent” is Not the Only Rent You Will Pay
Most prospective tenants focus their negotiation efforts on the “base rent,” the fixed monthly amount you will pay under the lease agreement. You may have negotiated a terrific deal on the base rent, but the transaction may not be the best value once other charges are factored in. For example, the majority of commercial lease agreements are “triple net,” meaning that the tenant also must pay for insurance, taxes and other operating expenses. When negotiating “triple net,” ensure you aren’t being charged for expenses that do not benefit your space, and that you are paying an amount that is in proportion to the space you utilize in the building. Another provision to watch for is “percentage rent,” in which a tenant pays a percentage of revenue in excess of a specific amount. This may not be a bad thing, as it provides the landlord with an incentive to help ensure your company is successful.

There’s No Such Thing as a “Form Lease”
Most commercial property owners and managers offer prospective tenants a pre-printed lease containing your name and various terms. They often present these documents and adamantly explain that it is the landlord’s “typical form lease.” This, however, does not mean you cannot negotiate. Review every provision in the agreement, bearing in mind that all terms are open for discussion and negotiation. Pay particular attention to the specific needs of your business that are not addressed in the “form lease.”

Note the Notice Requirements
Your lease agreement may contain many provisions that require you to send notification to the landlord under various circumstances. For example, if you wish to renew or terminate your lease at the end of the term, you will likely owe a notice to the landlord to that effect, and it may be due much earlier than you think – sometimes up to a year or more. Prepare a summary of the key notice requirements contained in your lease agreement, along with the due dates, and add key dates to your calendar to ensure you comply with all notice requirements and do not forfeit any rights under your lease agreement.
 


Monday, May 27, 2013

Which Business Structure is Right for You?

Which Business Structure is Right for You?

Which entity is best for your business depends on many factors, and the decision can have a significant impact on both profitability and asset protection afforded to its owners. Below is an overview of the most common business structures.

Sole Proprietorship
The sole proprietorship is the simplest and least regulated of all business structures. For legal and tax purposes, the sole proprietorship’s owner and the business are one and the same. The liabilities of the business are personal to the owner, and the business terminates when the owner dies. On the other hand, all of the profits are also personal to the owner and the sole owner has full control of the business.

General Partnership
A partnership consists of two or more persons who agree to share profits and losses. It is simple to establish and maintain; no formal, written document is required in order to create a partnership. If no formal agreement is signed, the partnership will be subject to state laws governing partnerships. However, to clarify the rights and responsibilities of each partner, and to be certain of the tax status of the partnership, it is important to have a written partnership agreement.

Each partner’s personal assets are at risk. Any partner may obligate the partnership, and each individual partner is liable for all of the debts of the partnership. General partners also face potential personal legal liability for the negligence of another partner.

Limited Partnership
A limited partnership is similar to a general partnership, but has two types of partners: general partners and limited partners. General partners have broad powers to obligate the partnership (as in a general partnership), and are personally liable for the debts of the partnership. If there is more than one general partner, each of them is liable for the acts of the remaining general partners. Limited partners, however, are “limited” to their contribution of capital to the business, and must not become actively involved in running the company. As with a general partnership, limited partnerships are flow-through tax entities.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)
The LLC is a hybrid type of business structure. An LLC consists of one or more owners (“members”) who actively manage the company’s business affairs. The LLC contains elements of both a traditional partnership and a corporation, offering the liability protection of a corporation, with the tax structure of a sole proprietorship (if it has only one member), or a partnership (if the LLC has two or more members). Its important to note that in certain states, single-member LLCs are not afforded limited liability protection.

Corporation
Corporations are more complex than either a sole proprietorship or partnership and are subject to more state regulations regarding their formation and operation. There are two basic types of corporations:  C-corporations and S-corporations. There are significant differences in the tax treatment of these two types of corporations, however, they are both generally organized and operated in a similar manner.

Technical formalities must be strictly observed in order to reap the benefits of corporate existence. For this reason, there is an additional burden of detailed recordkeeping. Corporate decisions must be documented in writing. Corporate meetings, both at the shareholder and director levels, must be formally documented.

Corporations limit the owners’ personal liability for company debts. Depending on your situation, there may be significant tax advantages to incorporating.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How Par Value Affects Start-Up Businesses

Many entrepreneurs are unclear about the “par value” of a stock, and what par value they should establish for their new corporation. Generally, par value (also known as nominal or face value) is the minimum price per share that shares can be issued for, in order to be fully paid. In the old days, the par value of a common stock was equal to the amount invested and represented the initial capital of the company; but today the vast majority of stocks are issued with an extremely low par value, or none at all.


Read more . . .


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