Employers Beware – The NLRB May be Coming for Your Handbook

Employee Handbook And Policies – Team Smart HR

Employee handbooks are common in most businesses, and employers often prepare one (or find a template) and then forget about it. During the Obama administration, handbooks became a hot topic in the employment arena because the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) attacked employee handbooks from every conceivable angle by arguing that a harmless neutral policy infringed on an employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity. Handbooks became boring again under Trump, but with the increase in unionization across the country, the NLRB has once again set its sights on employee handbooks. The NLRB recently filed a complaint against Starbucks alleging that 19 of its policies violated its employees’ right to exercise their protected rights.

The NLRB complaint was surprising because its allegations challenge NLRB’s own precedent ruling that a facially neutral policy will be reviewed under a “reasonable interpretation” standard. Under that rule, if a policy does not, on its face, interfere with an employee’s rights, it is presumed lawful.

The Starbucks complaint filed by the NLRB appears to be attacking this precedent because several of the policies in the complaint are facially neutral. The NLRB argued that the following policies violated employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity:

  1. Prohibition Against Harassment
  2. A Respectful Workplace Is Everyone’s Responsibility
  3. Shirts, Sweaters and Jackets
  4. Pins
  5. Personal Mobile Devices
  6. Personal Telephone Calls and Mail
  7. Social Media
  8. Soliciting/Distributing Notices
  9. Video Recording, Audio Recording and Photography
  10. Acceptable Use of Starbucks Electronic Communications Systems
  11. Confidentiality
  12. Conflicts of Interest
  13. Media Inquiries
  14. Mobile Computing
  15. Requests for Partner Information
  16. How We Communicate
  17. Conflict Resolution
  18. Corrective Action
  19. [Back Cover]

Why is this important?

Employers will need to review their employee handbooks if the NLRB reverses its precedent. With the NLRB and union activity growing recently, businesses may find themselves facing allegations that their employee handbook is infringing its employees’ rights to unionize. This situation only highlights how important it is for business to review their employee handbooks at least once per year. For additional help navigating these issues, feel free to contact Walker R. Lawrence, a partner in the employment law practice at Levin Ginsburg, at wlawrence@lgattorneys.com, or (312) 368-0100.

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The Great Resignation – Employers Beware

Resignation Letter" Images – Browse 1,242 Stock Photos, Vectors, and Video | Adobe Stock

The job market continues to be volatile, and businesses are willing to take more risks to hire proven talent. That means taking the best people from their competition. Business owners therefore need to start preparing for when (not if) a key employee leaves to join a competitor.

Below are some ideas to help you prepare for a key employee’s potentially sensitive exit to a competitor and ensure your business is protected: begin preparing and setting up a plan of action so you are prepared to handle.

• Review current restrictive covenant and confidentiality agreements. This is particularly important right now because non-compete laws are changing in Illinois and in other states in the US.
• Update confidentiality agreements to require employees to submit information about their digital footprint on their personal devices, including making those devices available for a forensic review upon the employee’s exit.
• Consider implementing phantom equity programs or bonus plans.
• Evaluate your hybrid-work environment and focus on flexibility.
• Audit your IT protocols and ensure your most important data is being monitored and its confidentiality maintained.
• Limit which employees get access to sensitive information – gone are the days that every employee gets access to all your information.

When an employee leaves to join a competitor, employers should immediately take certain preliminary steps to identify possible wrongdoing:

• Preserve the employee’s email and activity logs. This data is often auto deleted unless you place a hold on the information.
• Review emails sent to personal email addresses.
• Review all emails sent with attachments.
• Review activity logs.
• Preserve any devices used by the employee.
• Conduct an internal investigation to determine if there has been any other unusual activity.
• Retain a computer forensic expert.

Once these preliminary steps are completed, consider sending a cease-and-desist letter to the former employee and the new employer to ensure any damage is contained. Depending on the circumstances, filing a lawsuit (including seeking immediate injunctive relief) may offer the best protection for your business.

The attorneys at Levin Ginsburg can help businesses prepare for and react to the departure of key employees so that any impact is mitigated. For additional help navigating these issues, feel free to contact Walker R. Lawrence, a partner in the employment law practice at Levin Ginsburg, at wlawrence@lgattorneys.com, or (312) 368-0100.

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Licensing Your Product

What is Product Licensing and How to Use it with Your Invention

You have spent years — maybe even decades — developing and creating your product. Finally, your product is ready to be put to market, and you plan on licensing it to other companies or individuals. But how do you protect yourself and your rights in the product while allowing another person or entity to use it?

The first step is knowing that nobody understands your product better than you. You should learn the reasons why the licensee plans to use your product and what other entities or individuals will have access to it (e.g., third parties working with the licensee). Next, consider whether you want to continue developing the product while licensing it, or if the product is in “final” form. This should spark other considerations, including:

• Ownership rights in your product – the licensee must realize that, unlike full ownership, the license is merely a group of specific rights that the licensee obtains while product ownership remains with you.
• How long and for what price should the license be granted – this will be dictated by the market, but research should be done to ensure profitability.
• Any required maintenance on the product while it is being licensed and what that process will entail – will there be maintenance fees associated with the licensing?
• Audit rights – determine the number of users of your product and ensure you are being compensated appropriately.
• Should specific restrictions or permissions be in place to alter or improve the product? Who owns any alteration or improvement made during the licensing period?
• Indemnification – will licensee defend you against claims made by third parties? Determine which claims the licensee is responsible for and which claims you are responsible for.
• Taxes – Be specific about the allocation of tax liability. Certain states have laws that restrict the ability to allocate.
• Limitation of liability – if the product malfunctions or is defective, you may be on the hook for things such as the lost profits of the company to whom you licensed the product unless your license agreement states otherwise. Additionally, you likely want licensee to provide proof of insurance before licensing.

These are just some of the things you should consider before licensing your product. Along with other contractual terms and conditions, these items should be included in a written license agreement signed by both parties. It is better to work with your legal, technical, and finance teams before finalizing a written license agreement to ensure profitability and the full protection of rights in your product. Levin Ginsburg regularly deals in the licensing of products to help grow businesses. If you are considering licensing your product and would like to discuss these, or any other related issues, please contact Joseph A. LaPlaca at jlaplaca@lgattorneys.com or (312) 368-0100.

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What Does your Insurance Policy Actually Cover?

New York Ends the Year with Onerous New Insurance Coverage Disclosure Rules for Defendants in Product Liability Litigation | Product Liability Advocate

Insurance is a key part of managing risk and protecting against unexpected financial losses. Individuals and businesses alike can benefit from the right coverage, whether it be your personal auto policy, commercial general liability policy, or property damage coverage. But don’t assume that just because you have a policy you are fully covered. Insurance policies are often full of exclusions and fine print. Even with the most reputable insurers, policies are rarely “one size fits all.”

A recent Illinois appellate court decision is a prime example. In Farmers Insurance Exchange v. Cheekati, et al., 2022 IL App (4th) 210023, the insureds were homeowners who, while unable to sell their property, rented it to a tenant. That tenant was injured when a defective staircase at the home collapsed. The insureds made a claim under their homeowner’s policy with Farmers, undoubtedly expecting they would be covered for the injury occurring in their home. They were not—Farmers denied coverage based on two policy exclusions: the first preluded coverage for bodily injury to any insured or any “resident of the residence premises;” the second precluded coverage for bodily injury “in connection with the rental or holding for rental” of the premises. Based on those exclusions, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Farmers, declaring that it had no duty to defend or provide coverage to its insureds.

The lesson here: review your policy documents carefully and make sure you are getting the coverage you think you are paying for. For more information regarding these or similar issues, please contact Mark L. Evans at mevans@lgattorneys.com or (312) 368-0100.

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How Do You Know If Your Insurer Has Acted in Bad Faith?

Insurance Bad Faith Litigation - The Patterson Law Firm, LLC

Individuals and businesses procure insurance to protect against a variety of potential losses. For example, individuals insure their homes in case of property damage, and businesses insure for certain potential economic losses. When a loss occurs, often times the claim process seems simple: the insured submits a claim and the insurer pays the claim. However, things are not always so simple. The insurer may take the position that it is only required to pay some of the loss, or it may deny the claim altogether by contesting either the existence or the scope of coverage.

Contesting the scope of coverage or denying coverage outright is not necessarily bad faith. Bad faith is defined under Illinois law as conduct by an insurer that is “vexatious and unreasonable.” In an insurer is found to have committed bad faith, Section 155 of the Insurance Code allows the prevailing insured to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and significant penalties.

Section 154.6 of the Illinois Insurance Code delineates certain improper claims practices that could constitute bad faith depending on the circumstances. Some examples include:

• Knowingly misrepresenting to claimants and insureds relevant facts or policy provisions relating to coverages at issue.
• Failing to acknowledge with reasonable promptness pertinent communications with respect to claims arising under the insurer’s policies.
• Failing to adopt and implement reasonable standards for the prompt investigations and settlement of claims arising under its policies.
• Compelling policyholders to institute suits to recover amounts due under its policies by offering substantially less than the amounts ultimately recovered in suits brought by them.
• Refusing to pay claims without conducting a reasonable investigation based on all available information.
• Failing to affirm or deny coverage of claims within a reasonable time after poof of loss statements have been completed.

While an insurance company who commits an improper claims practice under Section 154.6 of the Insurance Code is not per se engaged in bad faith, courts will review the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the insurer’s conduct was “vexatious and unreasonable” under Section 155. Such a finding would entitle the insured to recover fees and penalties.

Having an experienced attorney evaluate your individual or business insurance claims is critical for swift and effective resolution. For more information regarding these or similar issues, please contact Roenan Patt at rpatt@lgattorneys.com or (312) 368-0100.

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Recruiting Top Talent and Retaining Key Employees

Key Person Insurance | Protect your Business from Key Employee Loss

As we approach the new year and reflect on the radical changes occurring over the last 18 months, recruiting top talent and retaining key employees remains a significant challenge for many businesses. For that reason, many business owners are exploring additional tools and options to attract new talent and keep key employees.

One of these tools is a phantom equity plan. A phantom equity plan offers a business significant flexibility while at the same time giving an employee something of value that is intrinsically tied to the growth of the business. Phantom equity plans provide an employee some, but not all, of the benefits of being an equity holder without the complexity, additional documentation, and voting rights typically associated with equity ownership. These benefits may include: (1) receiving distributions or dividends when such benefits are paid to equity holders, (2) payments upon a sale of the company, or (3) payments upon retirement or separation of employment.

In exchange for providing an employee these added benefits, businesses realize several advantages. First, an employee feels rewarded when they are offered phantom equity, while at the same time creatively aligning an employee’s financial goals with the business’s success. Second, the terms of a phantom equity plan can be carefully crafted to ensure an employee continues working for a business before earning any financial benefit from a phantom equity plan. Finally, businesses can require that an employee execute updated non-compete and non-solicitation covenants that will be more defensible because the employee is receiving a significant added value (e.g., potential payments under the phantom equity plan) in exchange for signing the restrictive covenants.

While these programs are “simpler” by nature, businesses must still prepare these plans and administer them in compliance with the IRS code and other applicable statutes and regulations. The attorneys at Levin Ginsburg can help design, implement, and prepare a phantom equity plan that is a good fit for your business to allow you to recruit top talent and retain key employees. For additional help navigating these issues, feel free to contact Walker R. Lawrence, a partner in the employment law practice at Levin Ginsburg, at wlawrence@lgattorneys.com, or (312) 368-0110.

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CCPA UPDATE

While most businesses are aware, a surprisingly small number report that they will be ready to comply with the California Consumer Privacy Act (“CCPA”), when it officially takes effect on January 1, 2020.

The CCPA was first signed into law in September 2018.  Often touted as “GDPR Lite” or “GDPR 2.0” because of its similarity to the European regulation, CCPA’s key provisions are summarized as follows:

  • Right To Be Forgotten:   Upon a consumer’s request, a business subject to CCPA will be required to delete a consumer’s personal information.
  • Right To Be Informed:  Upon a consumer’s request, a business subject to CCPA that sells consumer personal information will be required to disclose the categories of information it collects and identify third parties to whom the information was disclosed or sold.
  • Right To Opt Out:  Upon a consumer’s request, a business subject to CCPA will be required to provide the consumer with the ability to prevent the business from selling the consumer’s personal information.
  • Right of Non-Discrimination: If a consumer requests that a business not sell his/her personal information, the business is precluded from charging the consumer a higher price for goods or services, or providing the consumer a lower quality good or service, except if the difference is reasonably related to the value provided by the consumer’s data.

Since the CCPA was passed, it has already undergone changes, in September, 2018, and again on February 25, 2019, with the introduction of California Senate Bill 561 (“561”).  While some changes were merely cosmetic, fixing errors, etc., the substantive changes aimed to clarify and strengthen the law.  For example, 561’s amendments:

  • Expand the consumer’s right to bring an action for damages:  Previously, the CCPA allowed a consumer to bring suit for damages against the business if the business failed to maintain reasonable security protocols for non-encrypted, non-redacted personal information that resulted in unauthorized access, identity theft, or other disclosure.  Now, instead of just the narrow, breach situation, consumers may bring a private right of action against a business by merely claiming that his/her rights under the CCPA were violated, in presumably any manner.  Damages in these types of suits are statutory and a Plaintiff may recover up to $750 per incident.  Additionally, since claims may be pursued on a class-action basis, this change is of critical importance.
  • Delete a business’s ability to seek guidance from the Attorney General as to how to comply with the CCPA.  In its place, the amendment adds language that the “Attorney General may publish materials” that may assist a business in compliance.

561, while a start, does not clarify all ambiguities in the CCPA.  For example, language such as “households” remains vague as to whether it means consumers, or a combination thereof.  Also, while the language of “consumers” and “businesses”, and other evidence seem to suggest that the CCPA was not intended to include “employers” vis-à-vis their “employees”, nowhere in the text does it clarify the same.  If an amendment did indicate that the CCPA applied to employers and their employees, businesses in California would have to implement stringent security safeguards, as data breaches often involve divulgence of employees’ personal information.   Therefore, while 561 provides the initial amendments, the CCPA likely will see further amendments prior to its January 1, 2020 launch

In conclusion, businesses subject to CCPA should begin to take steps toward compliance now.   Data mapping, updating policies, developing teams, increasing security measures and other activities that will be required for compliance take time to implement.  Businesses with questions as to whether it is subject to CCPA, or what steps to take, should contact a privacy attorney.

For further information regarding this topic, please contact:

Natalie A. Remien at nremien@lgattorneys.com or 312-368-0100.

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Illinois Minimum Wage Law Update – Higher Wages and Stiffer Penalties

On February 19, 2019, newly elected Governor J.B. Pritzker fulfilled a campaign promise and signed legislation that will raise the Illinois Minimum Wage. The law made two major changes:

  • Raised the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2025
  • Significantly increased the penalties for violations of the act – including misclassifying independent contractors

Minimum Wage

Under the new law, the minimum wage will increase annually for all employees over 18. For those employees that are under 18 and work no more than 650 hours in a calendar year, they will be subject to a lower minimum wage.

Businesses that have employees in Chicago or certain Cook County municipalities will need to continue to follow the local minimum wage ordinances which are higher than the Illinois state law. Both the local ordinances update on July 1 and the state law is tied to a Calendar year.

A breakdown of the relevant wage rates is below.

Significant Increase in Penalties for Violations

In addition to the increase in minimum wages across the state, the changes that went into effect on February 19, 2019, significantly increased the penalties for employers that fail to properly pay minimum wage or overtime. This is particularly important for employers that misclassify their workers as independent contractors and may be subject to significant liability as a result of that misclassification.

Under the new law, if an employee is underpaid, they can recover “treble” (three times) the amount of the underpayment. In addition to the treble damages, the statutory monthly damages penalty increases from 2 percent to 5 percent. Finally, there is now an additional penalty of $1,500.00 payable to the Department of Labor’s Wage Theft Enforcement Fund.

Example. If an employee is underpaid $7,500.00 and the employee receives a judgment two years later, the employer will have to pay $33,000 to the employee. The damages are broken down as follows:

  • $22,500 in treble damages for the $7,500.00 of unpaid wages
  • $9,000.00 (at least) in the 5 percent damage penalty
  • $1,500.00 to the Department of Labor

These damages do not include attorneys’ fees, as well as other potential damages under the Federal minimum wage law (FLSA) and the local ordinances.

What does this mean for employers?

Given the significant risk if you are underpaying employees you should evaluate your pay policies and ensure that your company is in compliance. It is important to annually conduct a wage and hour audit to proactively mitigate risk.

Please contact us if you need any assistance complying with the Illinois or Federal Minimum wage and overtime laws at 312-368-0100 or Walker R. Lawrence at wlawrence@lgattorneys.com

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