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Business Law

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

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.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

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.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Do You Need Meeting Minutes?

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.
 


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Lancaster Scheduled to Speak at CLE: Business Law Bootcamp


Program Description

Learn Current Procedures and Best Practices

In order to successfully advise your business clients, it's essential that you remain up to date on best practices and the latest developments. At this fast-paced program you will learn practical tips and techniques from experienced practitioners on a variety of matters ranging from contracts to taxes; and at the end of the day you will return to your desk with a handy resource and the know-how to effectively represent any business client. Don't miss this opportunity to hone your skills. Register today!

  • Learn the latest procedures and best practices regarding business law so you can confidently represent your clients.
  • Secure your clients' business interests: utilize practical tips for drafting LLCs.
    Read more . . .


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Should I Incorporate My Business?

Should I Incorporate My Business?

The primary advantages of operating as a corporation are liability protection and potential tax savings. Like any important decision, choosing whether to incorporate involves weighing the pros and cons of the various business structures and should only be done after careful research.

Once incorporated, the business becomes a separate legal entity, and assets of the corporation are separated from the owner’s personal finances. As a result, the owner’s personal assets generally can be shielded from creditors of the business.

To maintain this legal separation and avoid “piercing the corporate veil,” the corporation must observe certain formalities, including:

  • Keeping corporate assets and personal assets separate (no commingling of funds)
  • Holding shareholder and director meetings at least annually
  • Maintaining a corporate record book including bylaws, minutes of shareholder and director meetings, and shareholder records
  • Filing annual information statements with the Secretary of State
  • Filing a separate tax return for the corporation

Many business owners are concerned about “double taxation” of income that affects certain types of corporations known as “C-Corporations”.   Double taxation results when the C-corporation has profit at the end of the year that is distributed to the shareholders. That profit is taxed to the corporation, at the corporate tax rate, and then the dividends are taxable income to the shareholders on their personal tax returns. However, the corporate tax and dividend rates can be lower than the individual tax rate that a sole-proprietor would pay on a 1040 Schedule C, and a knowledgeable accountant or tax attorney may be able to advise on how to minimize the burden of double-taxation and indeed pay an effective tax rate which is lower than what a sole proprietor would pay.

For example, a small C-Corporation will likely have a shareholder who is also an employee. Paychecks to the shareholder/employee are, of course, tax deductible to the business. To the shareholder/employee, they are taxable income (as would be the case with a paycheck from any employer). A bonus could be paid to the shareholder/employee in order to lower the corporation’s taxable profit, eliminating the double-taxation. These calculations should be performed by a tax advisor, but shifting income from the corporation to the shareholder/employee (or not, depending on which has the lower tax rate) can be an effective way to lower your overall tax liability. In addition, there are certain advantages that are only available with a C-Corporation, such as full tax-deductibility of medical benefits for a shareholder/employee.

The S-Corporation avoids the double-taxation by offering a tax structure similar to the Limited Liability Company. A corporation with 100 or fewer shareholders can elect to be treated as an S-Corporation. If the corporation is profitable, the shareholder/employee must draw a reasonable salary (and pay employment tax on it), but then all remaining corporate profits flow through to the shareholder’s personal tax return (thereby avoiding the FICA tax on the portion of profits that is taken as a dividend).

An experienced attorney can help you decide which form of ownership is best for your business, help you establish the entity, and ensure the required formalities are observed.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Employee Handbooks: Important Provisions

An employee handbook is an instrument that is widely used by employers to communicate their expectations and policies to employees.  There are many reasons to develop and distribute an employee handbook.  These written documents enable employers to clearly outline what is expected from employees and what employees can expect from the employer.  In the event of a dispute with an employee or when a claim is made with a government agency, the handbook can be invaluable in protecting employer’s position. 

When drafting an employee handbook, certain information should be included. This includes:

Wages, Salaries and Other Compensation

An employee handbook should cover how and when employees will be paid.  It should also note how time worked it to be recorded, what taxes will be taken out and explain overtime policies.

Schedules

This document should also cover daily schedules.  It should note hours to be worked, breaks, attendance, lateness, how to request time off and whether employees are entitled to paid time off and when.

Benefits

An employee handbook can also be used to give employees information about benefits. It should cover what benefits are offered and how employees can qualify for them.

Employee Conduct

This manual should also be used to let your employees know how they are expected to act while at work.  It should also detail the dress code, if one exists.  You might also want to include guidelines for behavior in common situations.

Disciplinary Matters

An employee handbook should always include a section on employee discipline in the event that an employee should violate company rules or guidelines.  This section should detail any disciplinary system that is in place, and, if one is not in place, explain that matters will be handled on a case by case basis.

Safety Concerns

Your employee handbook should also cover how to respond to any and all foreseeable safety concerns.  These might include safety issues relating to work conditions, employee disputes and inclement weather.

Employment Discrimination/ Sexual Harassment

Employment discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace are real issues that can cost businesses a great deal of money.  By including your company’s firm stance on these matter and explaining that neither will be tolerated might help you avoid conflicts in the future. Employee handbooks differ greatly depending on business structure, size and even the industry in which it operates. Some manuals are just a few pages whereas others may be dozens.  In order to create a comprehensive employee handbook and ensure maximum protection for your business, you should consult with a business or employment law attorney to advise you on these matters.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Limited Liability Company (LLC): An Overview

Limited Liability Company (LLC): An Overview

The limited liability company (LLC) is a hybrid type of business structure, offering business owners the best of both worlds: the simplicity of a sole proprietorship or partnership, with the liability protection of a corporation. A limited liability company consists of one or more owners (called “members”) who actively manage the company’s business affairs. LLCs are relatively simple to establish and operate, with minimal annual filing requirements in most jurisdictions.


The best form of business structure depends on many factors, and must be determined according to your particular business and overall goals:

Advantages

  • LLC members enjoy a limited liability, similar to that of a shareholder in a corporation. In general, your risk is limited to the amount of your investment in the limited liability company. Since none of the members will have personal liability and may not necessarily be required to personally perform any tasks of management, it is easier to attract investors to the limited liability company form of business than to a general partnership.

  • LLC members share in the profits and in the tax deductions of the limited liability company while limiting the potential financial risks.

  • LLCs offer a relatively flexible management structure. The business may be managed either by members or by managers. Thus, depending on needs or desires, the limited liability company can be a hands-on, owner-managed company, or a relatively hands-off operation for its members where hired managers actually operate the company.

  • Because the IRS treats the limited liability company as a pass-through entity, the profits and losses of the company pass directly to each member and are taxed only at the individual level (which may or may not be an advantage to you, depending on the profitability of the LLC and your personal income tax bracket).

  • Members of an LLC have flexibility in dividing the profits and losses. In a corporation or partnership, profits must be divided according to percentage of ownership. However, with an LLC, special allocations are permitted, so long as they have a “substantial economic effect” (e.g. they must be based upon legitimate economic circumstances, and may not be used to simply reduce one member’s tax liability).


Disadvantages

  • Limited liability companies are, generally, a more complex form of business operation than either the sole proprietorship or the general partnership. They are subject to more paperwork requirements than a simple partnership but less than a corporation. Annual filings typically include statement and nominal filing fee payable to the Secretary of State, informational returns to the IRS, and filing of a state tax return.

  • In certain jurisdictions, single member LLCs may not be afforded the same level of limited liability protection as that of an incorporated entity.

Also note that in many states, an LLC is prohibited from rendering “professional services” which can include companies providing services that require a license, registration or certification.   Such professionals typically have to establish a Professional LLC which does not offer limited liability for professional malpractice.
 


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Do I need to file a DBA for my small business?

Do I need to file a DBA for my small business? 

Selecting a name for your business can be challenging. It must be unique, memorable and representative of your product or service. Depending on the name you ultimately choose, you may also need to file for a DBA.

Simply defined, DBA stands for “Doing Business As.” A DBA is a fictitious business name, also referred to as an assumed business name, that differs from the personal name of the owner(s) or the official name of a registered corporation. For example, if Patricia Smith is a sole proprietor and opens her bakery under the name of Patty’s Cakes, the bakery would have an assumed name because it is not the owner’s legal name.

DBAs are a form of consumer protection, giving customers insight into the individuals or corporation that they’re really hiring or purchasing a product from. Generally speaking, there are two instances where a DBA will be needed:

  1. A sole proprietor or partnership where the owner(s) names are not used.
  2. An existing corporation or LLC wants to do business under a different name. This may occur when a new product is launched or the company is looking to expand into a new industry.

For sole proprietors, who operate under an assumed name, a DBA is often required to open a bank account and start accepting payments for the business. It’s important to note that not all states require the registration of a DBA. Furthermore, a DBA is not a substitute for a trademark which requires a separate application that must be filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If you are looking to start a business under a fictitious name, it’s imperative that you consult a business attorney who is familiar with the business formation laws in your county and state. When registration is required, this can generally be done with the county clerk’s office or your state government.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Negotiating a Commercial Lease? Be Sure to Address These Issues

Negotiating a Commercial Lease? Be Sure to Address These Issues

When it comes time for your business to move into a new commercial space, make sure you consider the terms of your lease agreement from both business and legal perspectives.  While there are some common terms and clauses in many commercial leases, many landlords and property managers incorporate complicated and sometimes unusual terms and conditions.   As you review your commercial lease, pay special attention to the following issues which can greatly affect your legal rights and obligations.

The Lease Commencement Date
Commercial leases typically will provide a rent commencement date, which may be the same as the lease commencement date. Or not. If the landlord is performing improvements to ready the space for your arrival, a specific date for the commencement of rent payments could become a problem if that date arrives and you do not yet have possession of the premises because the landlord’s contractors are still working in your space. Nobody wants to be on the hook for rent payments for a space that cannot yet be occupied. A better approach is to avoid including in the lease a specific date for commencement, and instead state that the commencement date will be the date the landlord actually delivers possession of the premises to you. Alternatively, you can negotiate a provision that triggers penalties for the landlord or additional benefits for you, should the property not be available to you on the rent commencement date.

Lease Renewals
Your initial lease term will likely be a period of three to five years, or perhaps longer. Locking in long terms benefits the landlord, but can be off-putting for a tenant. Instead, you may be able to negotiate a shorter initial term, with the option to extend at a later date.  This will afford you the right, but not the obligation to continue with the lease for an additional period of years.   Be sure that any notice required to terminate the lease or exercise your option to extend at the end of the initial lease term is clear and not subject to an unfavorable interpretation.

Subletting and Assignment
If you are locked into a long-term lease, you will likely want to preserve some flexibility in the event you outgrow the space or need to vacate the premises for other reasons. An assignment transfers all rights and responsibilities to the new tenant, whereas a sublease leaves you, the original tenant, ultimately responsible for the payments due under the original lease agreement. Tenants generally want to negotiate the right to assign the lease to another business, while landlords typically prefer a provision allowing for a sublease agreement.

Subordination and Non-disturbance Rights
What if the landlord fails to comply with the terms of the lease? If a lender forecloses on your landlord, your commercial lease agreement could be at risk because the landlord’s mortgage agreement can supersede your lease. If the property you are negotiating to rent is subject to claims that will be superior to your lease agreement, consider negotiating a “nondisturbance agreement” stating that if a superior rights holder forecloses the property, your lease agreement will be recognized and honored as long as you fulfill your obligations according to the lease.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Does My Business Need a Registered Agent?

Does My Business Need a Registered Agent?

A registered agent is someone that you as a business owner designate to accept legal papers if your company is sued or named in any type of administrative agency case. If your business is legally established within a state in which you don’t maintain a physical presence, you are often required to appoint a registered agent that is physically located within its borders

A registered agent can be an individual or a corporation. Many small businesses simply list one of the owners as the registered agent, if any of them reside in the state in which the business is formed. In situations where none of the owners are residents of the state in which the business is formed, there are a number of options. Some attorneys are willing to serve as the registered agent for their clients’ businesses and may do so for no additional fee, provided that the attorney herself is a resident. There are also companies that will serve as the registered agent for an annual fee. Generally, you must name your company’s registered agent when you file your articles of formation with the appropriate government agency (in most states, the Department of State).

There are generally two situations where you are required to maintain a registered agent:

  1. When your business is formed in a state in which you don’t maintain a physical presence, such as your company headquarters.
  2. When your business conducts intrastate commerce within a particular state. For example, if you register your business in Delaware, but you operate a few stores in Virginia. This is an intrastate transaction because your products are being sold directly to consumers within Virginia. Note that selling products through an online store and shipping the products to Virginia would not be considered intrastate commerce. Nor would sales through distributors of your products.

The registered agent must be an individual that lives in that state, or a business that has offices in that state. So, if you live in Delaware you could serve as agent for your company in Delaware. However, if your company also does intrastate business in Virginia, you will have to appoint someone else who lives in Virginia, or a company with offices in Virginia, to serve as your registered agent.

Even if you do reside in the state where you need to designate a registered agent, there are advantages in designating a third party, such as maintaining privacy or preventing a litigant from serving you with a lawsuit in front of your customers and employees. A business law attorney can help you sort through the key considerations and take steps to make sure you comply with all local statutes.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Common Area Expenses in Commercial Leases

Common Area Expenses in Commercial Leases

There are different types of commercial leases, such as gross leases, modified gross leases and net leases.  One variation of the net lease is a “triple net” lease, in which the tenant is liable for a net amount of property taxes, insurance and common area maintenance relating to the property they are possessing.  Most of the time, additional fees in the form of common area maintenance expenses come up in the context of a triple net lease.  Landlords ask tenants to pay these fees so that they contribute to the cost of maintaining common areas such as entranceways, walkways, parking lots and hallways, as well as services enjoyed by the tenant such as janitors, security and landscapers.  These fees are in addition to a rental payment and can be substantial depending upon the situation. 

It is essential that a business owner be informed about the terms of the lease they are entering into, especially if these terms have the potential to cost them money.  As common area expenses can be a significant cost they are often controversial and hotly negotiated.  Most of the disagreements over these terms relate to the distinction between costs for the maintenance of common areas and expenses that are primarily the landlord’s responsibility.  Generally, the test is who will benefit most from the expense, the tenant or the landlord.  For example, it can be argued that tenants should not be paying for improvements that are being done to increase the value of the property as the landlord will be the primary beneficiary of these improvements. 

When negotiating common area expenses, the business owner should inquire as to the purpose of the payments.  They should also ask whether they will be able to review what the money is being spent on at any given time.  Business owners should seek the advice of an attorney as they will be able to explain many of the options available to them.  For example, there might be an opportunity to ask for a capped or fixed rate.  Most importantly, they should be informed about their legal options in the event of a dispute.

If you are signing a commercial lease and will be responsible for common area expenses, it is in your best interest to consult with a business law or real estate attorney before signing on the dotted line. 


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