Posts under: Litigation

Pokémon No! How Pikachu Ended Up Getting Served with a Class Action Lawsuit

August 10, 2017 Law, Litigation Comments Off on Pokémon No! How Pikachu Ended Up Getting Served with a Class Action Lawsuit

Remember Pokémon Go? About this time last year, the “augmented reality” game in which players use their smartphones to capture and train various species of Pokémon was a global phenomenon, with nearly seven million daily downloads. It was sort of the “thing to do” of Summer 2016.

While Pokémon Fever has certainly subsided a bit, the game still has plenty of rabid fans. In fact, last month’s Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago drew 20,000 Pokémon Go die-hards to the city’s Grant Park. The Fest was billed as a chance for Pokémon Go “trainers” to compete against each other and bag rare Pokémon characters. Instead, as it turned out, attendees encountered hours’ worth of lines, a lack of data connectivity, problems with the game’s software, and malfunctions of the game’s servers. The Fest has been almost unanimously derided as a disaster.

In an attempt to quell the uproar regarding the fiasco, Pokémon’s parent company, Niantic, Inc., has offered to refund attendees’ the price of admission ($20) and give them $100 of in-app purchase credit. While definitely a nice gesture, that compensation isn’t cutting it for many Pokémon trainers who traveled from across the country, and the world, to attend.

One disgruntled Pokémon Go fan from California has gone so far as to file a class action lawsuit against Niantic on behalf of all who attended Pokémon Go Fest, seeking damages for, among other things, violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act, which broadly prohibits unfair or deceptive business practices. The suit seeks to have Niantic reimburse Fest-goers for their travel and accommodation costs. It also goes after punitive damages to teach Niantic a lesson.

Virtually every state in the Union has a similar “consumer fraud” or “deceptive trade practices” statute. These statutes are designed to protect the public from business activities by that are meant to mislead consumers into purchasing a given product or service.

While each state varies in how offenses are dealt with (i.e. whether a private lawsuit can be filed or a class action is available), the acts that are illegal are at least fairly uniform across state lines. They usually include:

1) False representation of the source, sponsorship, approval, certification, accessories, characteristics, benefits, or quantities of a good or service (Niantic could have a problem here);
2) Representing goods as original or new when, in fact, they are deteriorated, altered, reconditioned, reclaimed, or used;
3) Falsely stating that certain services, replacements, or repairs are needed;
4) Advertising goods or services with the intent of not selling them as advertised, or with the intent of not having enough in stock to meet reasonably expected demand (another possible problem area for Niantic);
5) Disconnecting, turning back, or resetting the odometer of a vehicle to reduce the number of miles indicated;
6) Passing off goods or services as those of another (i.e. selling counterfeit goods); and
7) Representing goods or services as having a sponsorship, approval, sponsorship, or certification of goods or services.

Many of these seem like no-brainers, but as a consumer, it is important to know your rights, and if you are aggrieved to know that you may very well have the weight of a state statute behind you, in addition to common law claims for fraudulent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.

As a business owner, it is crucial that you know when the conduct of your business may put you at odds with the consumer protection statute(s) in your state – so that you can do your best to make sure that you (as well as your employees and other representatives) DO NOT cross that line.

A little homework can go a long way in helping you protect yourself – both as a consumer and a business owner.

Estate Planning 101: 5 Tips to Avoid Mistakes

July 25, 2017 Estate Planning, Law, Litigation Comments Off on Estate Planning 101: 5 Tips to Avoid Mistakes

As I work with small business owners and investors throughout the year, I want them to see the big picture when it comes to Estate Planning. Many misunderstand what the Estate Plan is all about and think it’s simply an ‘asset protection’ strategy…that couldn’t be further from the truth.

An Estate Plan is about passing on your hard earned wealth to your loved ones, or a project/institution you love.  What a tragedy for a small business owner or investor to spend decades toiling to build wealth, only to have it crumble at the very end of their life because they don’t have an estate plan. YOUR wealth should go to what or who you love, NOT lawyers or to ungrateful and litigious family members fighting over who gets what.

Having said that, estate planning is not just for entrepreneurs or investors – anyone who has assets and/or a family should have an estate plan.  So here are 5 tips for avoiding mistakes when setting up an estate plan:

1. Putting It Off / Procrastination. Nobody likes thinking about dying.  But here’s a motivating factor to not put off your estate plan.  Imagine how you would feel if upon your death your assets went to your worst enemy (or at least someone you don’t like).  Although that’s an extreme thought, the reality is that if you don’t have an estate plan, you lose that control, that ability to decide who gets your assets upon your death.  So before you put off doing an estate plan, imagine your ex-spouse getting everything you own, and hopefully that is all the motivation you need to get your estate plan done.  The first step is to fill out an estate planning questionnaire.  Our questionnaire has all the basic questions you should be asking yourself when setting up an estate plan.  Then I would review those answers and we would schedule a consult to make sure everything is in order.

2. Making Sure the Estate Plan Fits You / Your Situation. It doesn’t make sense to have an elaborate expensive estate plan if that’s not necessary.  It also doesn’t make for a successful business owner or investor to pay $99 for a boilerplate estate plan off the internet.  The key is making sure your estate plan is a good fit for your  You don’t want it bigger and more expensive than it needs to be, but you also want to make sure it is comprehensive and custom-fitting to your circumstances.  Our office can assist with making sure it’s a good fit for your situation.

3. Not Knowing the Difference Between Creating a Trust and Funding a Trust. One of the biggest tragedies is when someone finally gets an estate plan with a revocable living trust but they fail to FUND the trust i.e. put assets into the trust.  Certainly the trust can’t own assets until it is created, but simply creating the trust without funding it is insufficient.  Creating your revocable living trust is a matter of getting the documents drafted and properly executed/signed.  Funding your trust is a matter of actually putting your assets into the trust.  The manner in which this is accomplished depends on the asset.  Some assets require having ownership re-titled into the name of the trust.  Other assets simply require having the trust listed as the beneficiary.  But if you create the trust but don’t fund it, you’re missing arguably the most important step in the process of estate planning.  If you created a trust but are unsure if it’s been funded appropriately, our office can assist with this.

Here is a video by our senior partner here at KKOS lawyers, Mark J Kohler, explaining 4 reasons why you might need a trust. Understanding the role and purpose of a trust can help you fund it and maintain it properly.

 

4. Understanding that Estate Planning is Not Just About Death. If death isn’t reason enough to have an estate plan, what about incapacity?  Imagine the impact on your business and your life if you lost your mental capacity either because of a coma or something less dramatic.  You would no longer be able to make important decisions about your business and your life.  A good estate plan will include documents that address this.  So make sure your estate plan has the appropriate documents for death AND disability/incapacity.

5. Knowing When to Make Changes / Take Ownership of Your Estate Plan. Your estate plan is meant to be a living, breathing thing that should probably be changed as your life circumstances change.  If you plan to setup an estate plan and hope to leave it alone until you die, there’s a good chance either the applicable law will have drastically changed or your intent will be completely different than it was when you first set it up.  So if you put your best friend as a beneficiary of your trust and then you guys become worst enemies, it’s a good idea to update to your trust.  If your trust was written when your kids were little and they’re now adults, it’s probably a good idea to update your trust.  If you put your brother as the successor trustee of your trust with no backup and he died 5 years ago, you need to update your trust.  Basically, if the nature of your relationship with anyone you’ve listed in your estate plan has materially changed, it’s time to update your trust.  Now if someone’s address changes or something minor, you don’t necessarily need an overhaul of your estate plan.  The other part of this tip is making sure you take ownership of your estate plan.  Hopefully you get an attorney to draft it but even so, you should know the basics of your estate plan such as who the trustee(s) is/are and who are the beneficiaries, so that as your life changes and your relationship with these people change, you know if a change needs to be made to your estate plan.  For example, I have talked to many people who obtained an estate plan previously and they don’t know who the beneficiaries are or who the trustee(s) is/are or what the trust owns.  While you don’t need to know the legal jargon you should know these basics about your estate plan.

Hopefully these tips will get you thinking about setting up your estate plan or updating it if you already have one and your situation has changed from when you set it up originally.  Our estate plans come include a one hour consultation so you’re getting sound legal advice tailored to your situation, and not just boilerplate paperwork. Please contact our office at 888-801-0010 to book a consultation with an attorney to start the process. Any retainer will be applied to the cost of setting up the entire estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney if a “Covfefe” Trademark Is Right for You

July 11, 2017 Business planning, Corporations, Law, Litigation Comments Off on Ask Your Attorney if a “Covfefe” Trademark Is Right for You

On May 31st, 2017, at 12:06 a.m. Eastern Time, President Donald Trump unleashed the following tweet: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” No one has been able to definitively crack the code (if there is one) as to what “covfefe” actually means. The President took down the tweet six hours later and replaced it with a tweet saying: “Who can figure out the true meaning of ‘covfefe’??? Enjoy!”

Predictably, the word “covfefe” immediately went viral on social media, with several twitter users encouraging their followers to “ask your doctor if Covfefe is right for you” and others thinking it’s what you’re supposed to say when someone sneezes. In the following days and weeks, covfefe has taken on a life of its own and become a bit of a cultural phenomenon. Late night hosts have debated whether President Trump had some sort of minor stroke or simply fell asleep when he typed covfefe, and Hillary Clinton was asked about what she thought it meant in a recent public appearance.

However, it’s not only comedians and 24-hour news channels that are making hay with covfefe. A Google search of “covfefe” reveals dozens of businesses ready to sell you apparel with hundreds of variations on the covfefe theme. To date, my personal favorites are “Make America Covfefe Again” and “What Part of Covfefe Don’t You Understand?”

A check of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) databases shows that in the forty days since the covfefe phenomenon began, 34 trademark applications have been filed using the term. The products and services being tied to covfefe run the gamut from “advice relating to investments” to fragrances, toys, coloring books, and even sandwiches. As you might expect, four different companies have filed applications to use covfefe for beer.

However, easily the most popular application (there are about twenty of them) is to get protection for using covfefe on t-shirts, hats, and other apparel. One applicant for a covfefe apparel trademark even appears to have access to the inner circle of Trump advisors and confidants who know what covfefe really means – after all, its application is for: “COVFEFE – Carry On Vigilantly Fighting Evil For Ever.”

So, the question becomes: which of these applicants will win the coveted “covfefe” trademark for t-shirts? The answer from this trademark attorney is: very possibly none of them! Why? Because the USPTO will generally refuse an application as “ornamental” if what is submitted to the USPTO shows that the use of the mark is only decorative or ornamental. That is, if the use of the mark does not clearly identify the source of the goods and distinguish them from the goods of others – which is required for proper trademark use.

The USPTO’s number one example of “ornamental” use is when a quote is prominently displayed across the front of a t-shirt, such as “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” The USPTO’s position is that most purchasers would perceive the quote as a decoration, and would not think that it identifies the manufacturer of the t-shirts (the source of the t-shirts could be Hanes® or Champion®, for example, as shown by the neck-tag).

Other examples of “ornamental use” put out by the USPTO are:

  1. A logo on the front of a hat. When the logo is associated with an organization, like a sports team, which did not manufacture the hat.
  2. Stitching designs on the back pocket of a pair of jeans. Purchasers are accustomed to seeing embellishments on jean pockets and would not think this embroidery design identifies the source of the jeans.
  3. A floral pattern on tableware or silverware. A purchaser would likely see this pattern as merely decorative and would not think it identifies the source of the tableware or silverware.
  4. The phrase “Have a Nice Day” or a smiley face logo. Everyday expressions and symbols that commonly adorn products are normally not perceived as identifying the source of the goods.

While there is no definitive place to affix a mark to goods to avoid an ornamental refusal, the location, size and dominance of a mark have a big impact on how the public perceives it. The USPTO has offered the following examples of proper non-ornamental trademark use:

  1. Discrete wording or design on the pocket or breast portion of a shirt. A purchaser would typically associate the small logo on a shirt pocket or breast area with the manufacturer or the source of the shirt.
  2. A tag on the inside of a hat or garment. A purchaser would associate a logo on the tag with the maker of the garment.
  3. Logo on a tag above the back pocket of a pair of jeans. A purchaser would typically associate this mark with the manufacturer of the jeans.
  4. A small logo stamped on the back of a dinner plate or bottom of a coffee mug. Purchasers are accustomed to seeing a mark used in this location to identify the source of the tableware.

Another way to get around an “ornamental use” refusal from the USPTO is to show that the mark has “acquired distinctiveness.” Long-term use in commerce, advertising and sales figures, dealer and consumer statements, and other evidence can be used to show that consumers directly associate a mark with the source of those goods. While this probably won’t work for the covfefe applicants (since the term has only existed for about six weeks), it could be an option in your situation.

The final option for the covfefe trademark applicants would be to move their applications to the “Supplemental Register.” Registration on the Supplemental Register doesn’t provide all the same legal advantages as registration on the Principal Register, but it does provide protection if and when someone applies for a conflicting mark later. Also, after five years of continual use, you can apply for (and in most cases will be awarded) registration on the Principal Register.

If you feel like you have captured “covfefe-like” lightning in a bottle, and want to talk about how to protect your name and/or logo, please give me a call at 435-596-9366 or shoot me an email at jarom@kkoslawyers.com.

The Realities of Litigation

June 27, 2017 Business planning, Law, Litigation Comments Off on The Realities of Litigation


For most people involved in a dispute, declaring the words “See you in Court!!” can seem like the perfect threat or even feel therapeutic at the least. Some even presume that by stating “I’m going to sue you” is like declaring nuclear war against the other side and the person or company that wronged you will certainly want to ‘settle’ because you have scared them with a lawsuit.

However, people who have actually been participants in litigation soon realize that there is no such thing as “inexpensive litigation,” and many individuals, fueled by the passion of a person scorned, proceed hastily to the courthouse seeking vindication or retribution without having a full understanding of the realities that they are getting themselves into.

Certainly, one of the great hallmarks of our society, and what separates the American system from many others around the world is an independent judiciary. But again, the media frequently oversimplifies what is actually involved in the legal process with its sole focus on sensationalizing the outcome thereby conveying a misleading impression of the actual litigation process.   Here are a few misconceptions I frequently encounter with clients about the litigation process include the following:

  1. Are you ready for the PROCESS? Unless you are in small claims, you generally don’t just file a lawsuit and then get to see Judge Judy the very next day. Media usually focuses on “trials” only, but ignores the months (usually years) of pre-trial procedure needed to get to that point.    Litigation usually begins with a “Complaint” which begins the “pleading” phase where the parties set forth their allegations and responses in defense. Sometimes there could be challenges to the pleadings through the motion process, which add additional expense and delay. Once the pleadings are done, then the parties have the opportunity to require other parties to the lawsuit to answer questions, produce documents, or take testimony of witnesses (the “discovery” phase). It should come as no surprise that parties to litigation are not always so eager to provide information that may hurt their case, and so the discovery process can often take months or years with parties jockeying in court over who should get what.   Assuming the parties have completed discovery, that does not necessarily mean you go to trial.   Trials only occur when there are actual factual or legal issues in dispute which requires a judge or jury to determine, and the reality is that most lawsuits do not go to trial. Although the cost of litigation varies depending on the location and issues involved, what I usually tell clients is the cost to go through these procedures to litigate a normal civil matter from Complaint up to but not including trial, doing a minimal amount of work, can easily run between $50,000 to $100,000. Preparing for and conducting a trial can substantially increase these costs and so unless you’ve retained an attorney on contingency, the expense and delay litigation is definitely an important consideration for most litigants.
  2. Does the Opposing Party have Assets to Satisfy Your Claim?  Usually this is the first question I ask a client contemplating litigation, and many times it is question the client hasn’t considered. It makes no financial sense to pay tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on a case if the defendant has no money.  Although I’ve had my share of clients walk into the office wishing to sue “on principle” or “just to make a point,” these moral considerations usually get thrown out the window very quickly once we begin to discuss the costs that will be incurred to get them to where they want to be.   So unless the opposing party has significant, identifiable assets that may be exposed in a lawsuit, or there is sufficient insurance to cover the claim, many potential litigants find themselves having no remedy for their claim because the opposing side is essentially “judgment proof.”
  3. Do you realize how unpredictable litigation can be? This should go without saying, but I spoken with plenty of people contemplating a lawsuit express confidence that a judge or jury would find them in the right. In litigation, it is less about who is wrong or right and more about what you can prove. Court decisions are ultimately made by people who come from all types of backgrounds and from all walks of life, and attorneys in high stake cases often employ professional “jury consultants” and perform “mock trials” to gauge how a jury will likely view their case. Despite all the money that is spent on attorneys, consultants, experts and the like, even the best attorneys with the greatest of resources lose cases, and most of us have probably followed cases in which we were surprised by the outcome. From a legal perspective, the reason there are trials is because there are issues of law or fact in which “reasonable people can differ.” If every issue in a case was a “slam dunk,” then there would be no need for a trial.

For these reasons and more, I consider litigation to be the option of last resort. Although the media likes to portray litigation and trials as dramatic and full of suspense (which it certainly can be), they leave out the cost and the time consuming process.

Consider interviewing several litigation firms before embarking on your lawsuit and make sure you weigh all the pros and cons of a long draw out lawsuit. It doesn’t mean litigation shouldn’t be a tool, threat or productive option in your dispute, but just go into the process with your eyes wide open.

What Being Dragged Off a United can Flight Teach Us about Contract Law?

April 18, 2017 Business planning, Law, Litigation, Small Business Comments Off on What Being Dragged Off a United can Flight Teach Us about Contract Law?

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past week or so, you’ve probably seen the cell phone camera footage of airport police dragging a kicking and screaming Dr. David Dao off a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last week.

At this point, the story is well known.  United needed to get four additional flight crew employees on Dr. Dao’s flight, so they asked paying customers to give up their seats voluntarily, for increasing levels of compensation.  When there were no takers, United selected four passengers “at random” for involuntary removal from the flight.  Dr. Dao was one of the “lucky” four selected.  However, when the time came to make the walk of shame down the aisle and off the plane, Dr. Dao refused to get up.  That’s when airport security was called in to physically remove him and cell phone cameras started to roll.

This fiasco, and the seemingly incessant media coverage thereof, has been a PR nightmare for United Airlines.  It has also brought an unprecedented amount of attention to the legal term “contract of carriage.”  Simply put, a contract of carriage is an agreement between a carrier of goods or passengers (such as an airline) and the consignor, consignee or passenger. These agreements define the rights, duties and liabilities of both the airline and the passenger.

You agree to your chosen airline’s contract of carriage when you buy your ticket.  The very broad framework for these agreements is established by federal law and the FAA (for domestic airlines), but the contracts can, and do, vary considerably from airline to airline.  Among other things, in your contract of carriage, you agree that you can be bumped from your seat due to overbooking, or because the airline needs to move employees.  You also agree (at least in the contracts of carriage for the four largest U.S. carriers) that you can be removed from or denied boarding to the plane for the following reasons (among many others):

  1. You decided shoes are overrated – boarding can be denied to those who are barefoot or not properly clothed.
  2. You decided showering is overrated – airlines can refuse to board individuals who have or cause a malodorous condition.
  3. You spent your entire long layover in the airport bar – airlines don’t have to board folks who appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs to the degree that they could endanger other passengers or crew members.
  4. You spent your entire long layover in the airport’s all-you-can-eat buffet – if you are unable to sit in a single seat with the seat belt properly secured or are unable to put down armrests between seats for an entire flight, the airline isn’t obligated to give you a seat (or two).

What can we learn from all of this (other than to make sure to wear shoes to the airport)?  I think the takeaway is that even if we don’t know we’re doing so, most of us enter into legal agreements (i.e. contracts) multiple times each day, and it behooves us to know (and when we can do so, also to control) what is in those contracts.

This is especially important in your business.  Do you have a written contract with your vendors/suppliers/customers?  If not, then what happens if there is a dispute?  What is the basis of your agreement?  An email chain?  A phone call?  A face-to-face meeting that ended with a handshake?  If you do have a written contract, when was the last time you looked at it?  Do you understand the language in the contract and your rights and responsibilities under that language?  Have you had a trusted, experienced attorney review the contract to make sure it is in your best interest?

As Dr. Dao’s experience has taught us, the consequences of a contract can be serious, and can even put us in the national spotlight.  Taking the time to review and, if necessary, to change the contracts that you rely on to run your business is absolutely worth the time and effort.  The few hundred bucks you might spend could save you thousands in defending or pursuing a lawsuit regarding a poorly drafted or non-existent contract.

Who’s Liable- The Landlord or the Tenant?

February 14, 2017 Asset Protection, Business planning, Litigation, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on Who’s Liable- The Landlord or the Tenant?

We have many clients that own residential rental and commercial properties and lawsuits involving landlords continue to happen throughout the country, and will continue so long as someone is willing to ‘rent a room’ and someone is likely not to pay or damage something.

However, the question then becomes…who’s liable when something goes wrong.  As you can imagine a lot of finger pointing takes place and it can oftentimes be difficult to see who is in the right.

Thus, history has taught one of the most important lessons of all- “learn from the past”.  As such, I have compiled a brief snapshot of a few recent court cases throughout the country that have dealt with landlord liability.  Hopefully learning from one of these difficult situations will help you avoid the some of the same mistakes.

In a case called Lipp v. Ginger C., LLC (W.D. Mo., 2016), the tenant threw a party. Surprise…Surprise!!! And as you would expect, one of the guests, who had been drinking at the party, went onto a second floor deck to urinate. While on the deck, the wooden balcony broke, causing the guest to fall 18 feet onto the driveway. He then died a few days later. The landlord knew that the balcony had been temporarily repaired by a prior owner, but the landlord had not permanently repaired the balcony as of the date of the party. The family of the deceased guest sued the landlord.

In a case called Ortega v. Murrah (Tex. App., 2016), the tenant broke her leg after slipping on water that had leaked from a broken pipe under the rental property’s kitchen sink. The tenant sued the landlord for personal injuries.

In a case called Moore v. Parham (Ariz. App. 2016), the landlord owned a residential property in Lake Havasu that he leased to a tenant. A satellite dish installer came to the property to install a satellite dish for the tenant. The installer was injured when he attempted to access the roof by climbing on a shade structure attached to the house. The installer sued the landlord for personal injuries.

Lastly, in a case out of California last year called Ramos v. Breeze, 2016, the tenant tripped and fell in the parking lot of the apartment complex in which she was living.   The tenant sued the landlord for personal injuries.  The landlord was held substantially liable for the injuries.

These are just a few of many recent cases involving landlord liability and a landlord being sued. Most of the cases above are still working themselves through the court system in terms of being resolved on the merits, but the point is that if you’re a landlord, you need to consider your exposure to liability and consider what steps you can take as a preventative measure, including the following:

  1. Have your landlord-tenant agreement reviewed. Whether you’re a landlord of commercial real estate, or investment residential real estate, you need to make sure you have a strong “landlord-friendly” agreement. Have you had it prepared or at least reviewed by an attorney?
  1. Review your rental property insurance policies and applicable limits. If a landlord is subject to a legitimate claim, hopefully it never ripens into a lawsuit because the claim is a covered event under the appropriate insurance policy. But make sure you know exactly what claims are covered and what claims are not covered under your insurance policy(ies) so that you know what is and what is not covered under the policy(ies). Do you know what policies you have and what events are covered and what events are not covered?
  1. Consider how you’re managing your rental(s). You want to make sure you utilize best practices and procedures for managing your rental(s), whether you can and are managing them yourself or you have someone else manage them for you.
  1. Consider how you’re vetting your tenant(s). Are you being careful to properly vet/screen your tenants? A little extra time on the front-end to make sure the tenant is properly qualified will save you a lot of time later on.
  1. Consider an entity(ies) for your rental(s). Certainly having an LLC own your rentals is not the end-all, be-all, and it won’t in of itself prevent a lawsuit. However, it can, unless abused, prevent you from personally being named in the lawsuit, and thus exposing your personal assets in the event the plaintiff obtains the judgment against you.

Even in cases in which the landlord “wins”, the time spent and the costs involved to defend the lawsuit can be enormous. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of medicine, particularly when it comes to landlord liability. This type of liability can arise in a number of ways, including failure to comply with statutory requirements, a breach of contract, premises liability, or negligence.

Each one of these liabilities requires a state-specific analysis based on statutes and cases in the particular state in which the property is located. Please contact our office at 888-801-0010 if you would like to schedule a consult regarding these matters.

Which State’s Law Applies in a Lawsuit?

February 14, 2017 Asset Protection, Business planning, Corporations, Law, Litigation, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on Which State’s Law Applies in a Lawsuit?

We frequently hear from clients who have been told by others that they should incorporate in Nevada (or other states outside of their home state) in order to take advantage of their favorable laws.   We have seen many individuals persuaded into incorporating in a state outside of their home, only to complain about the cost and complexity of the structure which ultimately had to be unwound.

This is not to say that incorporating an entity in Nevada or Wyoming should never be considered as part of an asset protection strategy. One primary reason for incorporating a Nevada or Wyoming entity is arguably due to their strong “charging order” protection.   The charging order is a concept protecting an LLC owner who is sued and held liable for something unrelated to and “outside” from the LLC from then being able go and take that LLC interest or the asset held by the LLC.   For example, if you’re cruising on the highway over the weekend and get into a major accident causing serious injuries, the charging order could prevent or hinder the injured plaintiff from seizing your assets held in your LLC.

However, the myth that we often hear from clients is that because states like Wyoming or Nevada have strong asset protection laws, they should take advantage by incorporating these entities into their structure even if they don’t own assets or do business there. What is often omitted from the conversation is whether Nevada or Wyoming law will actually be applied if there is no connection between the lawsuit and Nevada or Wyoming.

Since we are a union comprised of fifty states with different laws, there is an incentive to try and take advantage of states that have more favorable laws. Courts generally discourage this type of “forum shopping” where people try to use the favorable laws of one state even if they have no actual connection with that state.

One of the ways courts deal with these types of cases is by applying a set of rules called Conflicts of Laws. It is an area of the law that allows a state to determine which laws will apply to a case when the laws of multiple states could potentially apply.

For example, lets say a California resident is driving in Nevada on his way to Vegas and collides with a Colorado resident causing catastrophic injuries. Where should this type of lawsuit be filed and which of these three state’s laws should we apply? Because these types of circumstances can be so varied depending on the residency of the parties and the location where the events resulting in a lawsuit occur, it is sometimes difficult to predict where a lawsuit should be and what state’s laws should apply. This is further complicated by the fact that states have different Conflicts of Law rules.

Here are some general rules that courts will usually apply depending on the type of case. Examples include the following:

  1. Personal Injury or Fraud: Generally the law of the state where the wrongful act causing the injury or fraud occurred will be the law that should be applied. For example, if the accident or fraudulent conduct occurred in Nevada, that is an indicator that Nevada law should be applied;
  2. Personal Property (damage or theft): Where the personal property was located when the act causing the theft or damage occurred may determine which state’s laws should apply;
  3. Real estate: The state where the real estate is located will often determine which state’s laws will apply in a dispute relating to real estate;
  4. Contracts: Where the contract was entered or where the principal events necessary to form the contract occurs. Keep in mind that many contracts have provisions governing which state’s laws or courts will be used in the event of a dispute. These types of “forum selection” or “choice of law” clauses are often enforced by courts, unless there is no substantial or reasonable relationship with the chosen state. For example, if you are in California and you enter into a contract with someone else in California and all the activities relating to the contract occur in California, it is unlikely that a California court would enforce a provision that says Delaware law should apply even if you included such a provision in your contract.

These are just some very general guidelines as courts may consider additional factors in any given case. Hence, the outcome in any particular case is often difficult to predict with any consistency.

Therefore, before you decide to set up a structure that includes incorporating in a state which you have little or no connection with, make sure you understand not only the purposes for choosing that particular state, but perhaps even more importantly, its limitations.     Don’t assume that if you incorporate your entity in Nevada, that you will necessarily get the benefit of Nevada’s laws, especially if you do not live in Nevada.

How to Properly Use Credit Reports to Screen Tenants

September 27, 2016 Asset Protection, Litigation, Real Estate, Small Business Comments Off on How to Properly Use Credit Reports to Screen Tenants

Experienced landlords and property managers understand the importance of carefully screening prospective tenants and anyone who has had to go through the process of evicting a tenant knows how cumbersome the eviction process could be.  The ability to screen tenants based on their credit report and/or score is an important tool for landlords to better understand the character of the individual or individuals you intend to rent to, and to assist in identifying potential risks of doing so.

Moreover, information from credit reports can be used to verify or confirm information provided by the prospective tenant in their rental application.  For these reasons, I recommend running credit checks on all prospective tenants, but keep in mind that there are rules imposed by Federal (and possibly state) law that must be followed when a decision is being made based on credit history, which includes the following requirements under federal law:

  1. Landlord must obtain the prospective tenants written consent to obtain a credit report or credit score.
  2. If the Landlord intends to take adverse action based in any part on information in a prospective tenant’s credit report or credit score, the landlord should provide a notice of adverse action to the tenant in writing. Examples of potential adverse actions that would require an adverse action notice if based on credit history or score include:
    • Requiring a larger security deposit;
    • Requiring a co-signer or guarantor;
    • Requiring advance payment of rent; or
    • Rejecting a prospective tenant.

If the adverse action is not based in any way on information on a credit report or credit score, then no adverse action notice is required.

  1. An Adverse Action Notice, under federal law, must contain the following information:
    • A statement that the landlord’s decision was based in whole or in part on information contained in a consumer credit report;
    • The name, address and telephone number of the consumer credit reporting agency which furnished the report to the landlord;
    • A statement that the prospective tenant has a right to obtain, within sixty days, a free copy of the applicant’s report from the credit reporting agency identified in the notice; and
    • A statement that the applicant has the right to dispute the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the report from the credit agency.
  1. If the adverse action is based on a credit score, the notice must contain the following:
    • The numerical credit score used to make the decision;
    • The range of possible scores used by the ratings agency;
    • Up to four key factors that adversely affected the credit score;
    • The date when the credit score was created; and
    • The name of the person or entity that created or provided the credit score.

States may have additional or more stringent requirements than the above.   For example, in California, if a prospective tenant paid a “application screening fee,” they are entitled to a copy of the credit report upon request.

Under federal law, a landlord that willfully fails to comply with these requirements could be liable for actual damages sustained by the prospective tenant, or statutory damages between $100 to $1000 in addition to possible punitive damages, legal costs and attorneys’ fees (15 U.S.C. § 1681n).  Moreover, federal law also gives the Federal Trade Commission and/or state attorney general authority to enforce compliance with the law.  Additional information about landlords using credit reports can be obtained from the Federal Trade Commission website at www. ftc.gov.

Having a uniform set of guidelines, standards and procedures during the tenant screening process, and properly using credit reports and scores as a tool to evaluate prospective tenants are important steps to choosing the most qualified and stable tenant for your rental.

How to Reduce Your Liability as a Landlord

August 9, 2016 Asset Protection, Business planning, Law, Litigation, Real Estate Comments Off on How to Reduce Your Liability as a Landlord

Premises liability is an area of the law that addresses the responsibility of land owners to individuals who come on the land.  This is basically the liability a Landlord faces when owning property.

Perhaps the most common form of premises liability which most people hear of is the “slip and fall,” but it could also include liability against property owners for any injury on the property, even those from mass shootings such as the shooting in Virginia Tech in 2007 that resulted in an $11 million settlement.

For most of us, potential liability for personal injuries is the greatest and most likely source of liability we commonly face, and this is especially true for landlords owning rentals.  Therefore, taking steps to reduce your chances of premises liability for properties that you own should be a part of everyone’s asset protection plan.

The specific standards for evaluating a premises liability case is determined by the laws of the state where the property is located.  However, the factors courts most often look towards is the foreseeability of the harm balanced by the measures that the landowner could have taken to prevent the harm.   In general, the more likely it is that an injury could occur on the property, the more steps the landowner should take to mitigate that risk.   Therefore, the question in many of these cases is whether the landlord had any reason to be aware of a particular risk that resulted in an injury.

For example, in Virginia Tech case, there was evidence the school had some knowledge of the perpetrator’s disturbing behavior prior to the shooting, that they knew there was a gunman was on campus before the attack occurred, and that school officials had locked down their own building on campus, but failed to issue an all-campus notification for more than two hours thereafter.  By contrast, in the 2012 Aurora Colorado shooting at the Cinemark movie theater, the plaintiffs alleged that the movie theater failed to employ security officers and place alarms on the doors, but the Court dismissed the case holding that the movie theater could not have foreseen the premeditated and intentional actions of the shooter.

In general, if the landlord is aware that an unreasonable risk of harm exists, appropriate steps should be taken to mitigate that risk.  Of course, insurance is a key component for risk management but here are some additional tips that could reduce the chances for premises liability:

  1. Landlords should periodically inspect the property and assess what if any dangers pose a threat to persons on the property, document those findings, and take appropriate action to remedy those risks.  Courts will generally balance the likelihood or severity of the risk with the burden on the landlord to take corrective measures, and weigh those factors based on the totality of circumstances.    If the risk was highly probable and/or could result in severe consequences, those factors could tip the balance in favor of liability against the landlord.  On the other hand, if the cost for corrective measures is excessively high, that could tip the balance in the landlord’s favor.
  2. Be proactive in seeking and requiring tenants to report potentially dangerous conditions, and do not ignore complaints from tenants regarding conditions on the property. Once you have been informed of an issue, you are on “notice” which may give rise to a duty to take corrective action to protect the tenants from further harm.  Don’t let ticking bombs fester.
  3. Familiarize yourself with laws or customs that affect the condition of the property such as lead based paint, asbestos, mold, smoke or CO detectors, etc., as failure to comply with these established laws or standards could make the landlord an easy target.   Make sure all the systems on the property are updated and conform to code requirements.
  4. If you become aware of incidents that cause injury or damage, you should be proactive in taking steps to prevent such incidents in the future.  This is known as the “prior similar incidents” rule.  For example, if you discover that there has been a rash of burglaries in the area, you may have a responsibility to take reasonable precautions such as installing locks, screen doors, or cameras.
  5. Require appropriate insurance for potentially dangerous activities or conditions. This could apply to tenants who want, for example, to keep pets, above ground pools, trampolines, playgrounds, etc.   Of course, knowing your tenants and regulating any illegal or risky activities they may engage in is a must.  This is where a solid lease agreement could be your strongest ally.

Keep in mind that, in general, you would not be liable for an injury that you had no reason to know would occur, and there must be some degree of fault that must be proven for the landlord to be liable.   Incidents do happen even for the most conscientious of landlords, but being proactive and taking appropriate action as soon as you become aware of potential risks will go a long way in keeping you out of court.

Success in a Lawsuit

April 26, 2016 Asset Protection, Litigation Comments Off on Success in a Lawsuit

For many people, filing a lawsuit is tantamount to hitting your opposing party with the nuclear option.  Nevertheless, if the potential for litigation does arise, in most cases, your options will be to either litigate, settle, or walk away.   In most cases, trying to settle after a legal dispute has arose is challenging because the parties have already begun to draw their lines in the sand and fear the perception that they will be perceived as “weak” if they cave in to the other side.  On the other hand, to take the case from the initial complaint up to, but not including trial with minimal work can easily exceed fifty thousand dollars with no guarantees of success.  We have seen many clients who, because they were unprepared for this reality, ultimately walk away and do nothing thereby suffer huge losses.   In order to maximize your chance in the event of litigation, here are some tips  that will help your lawyer better  in the event you find yourself facing the possibility of litigation.

  1. Make sure you have solid written contracts specifically designed to protect your interests.We often see contracts that look like they were written on a napkin and are so simplistic that they don’t really provide much assistance at all in the event it needs to be enforced in court.  A good contract should be very clear and detailed on the rights and responsibilities of the parties and should, as best as possible, specify what will happen in the event any of the “what ifs” should occur in your transaction.  If there are any issues in your transaction that are important to you, it should be addressed early on in the negotiations when people tend to be more open to discussion, and then confirmed in the written contract.   Experience demonstrates that people are much less open to discussion once an event occurs that actually affect their legal rights.  In addition, every contract should have an attorney’s fees provision that states the prevailing party in a lawsuit shall recover their attorney’s fees.  Otherwise, you’ll likely have to pay your own attorney’s fees even if you end up winning.
  1. Document Important Events that Could Affect Your Rights. In a lawsuit, it is not about who is right or wrong, but what you can prove.  The best proof is often in the form of documentary or other visual evidence.   All of us have witnessed in today’s Youtube society the impact that visual evidence can impact a person’s opinion.  Therefore, it is important in your business or investment dealings to create evidence of events that may affect your legal rights (i.e. a paper trail).  For example, if an opposing party takes action contrary to the agreement, send out a written confirmation to document the breach.   If the issue is defect or damage to property, take pictures or videos of the defect and damage and also include the date and time.   Of course, circumstances may warrant additional action in addition to mere documenting the event, and when in doubt, consult with your attorney.  Keep in mind that when that time comes for you to consult with litigation counsel, the attorney will be less concerned with whether you were wrong or right, but what tangible evidence do you have to prove your case.   Therefore proper documentation will enhance your attorney’s ability to advocate on your behalf.
  1. Understand and Know Who You are Dealing with. Sometimes a little investigation into your opposing party can reveal helpful information about what you might be facing in the event a legal dispute arises.   For example, have they ever been a party in a lawsuit?  All federal court cases are available online using the Pacer system and many state courts also provide online capability to search by name.  Does the party have insurance or assets from which you can recover for any future judgment?    Is it advisable to secure personal identifying information such as a driver’s license or social security number in the event you have to try and track them down in the future?   Taking the time to get more information about who you are dealing with can be very helpful to your attorney in the event you need to enforce your rights in court.
  1. Get Legal Counsel Whenever You are In Doubt About Your Rights. Many lawsuits could have been avoided had the client decided to call an attorney for advice the moment an issue arose rather than allow the situation to get worse and now face the expenses of litigation not to mention possible loss of investment.  Is it better to spend half an hour speaking with your attorney now or would you rather spend tens of thousands of dollars later in court facing the unpredictability of litigation?

Let’s face it, only lawyers like being in a lawsuit and most people who end up in litigation did not expect that they would end up in court.  Nevertheless, sophisticated individuals and businesses recognize that litigation is always a possibility and, therefore, take the necessary precautions to preserve their rights.   As they say, negotiate like adversaries, but act like friends and the more steps you can take to maximize your success in the event of a lawsuit could actually have the effect of minimizing the actual chances that you would actually need to resort to litigation to resolve your dispute.