By Associate Attorney Danielle Nodar
May is Small Business Month in Charlotte! As a small business, safeguarding the confidential information that makes you stand out from the competition is important to the long-term success of the business. Non-compete agreements are common tools used by businesses to help protect this kind of confidential and proprietary business information and allow for business to hire talented employees without worrying that the employee will take your idea and implement it elsewhere. These agreements generally restrict an employee from working for a competitor until a certain period passes and protect confidential information from being used by an ex-employee. However, with companies transitioning to a remote working environment and widespread unemployment, more businesses and lawmakers are re-evaluating the scope and legality of non-compete provisions.
Non-compete agreements are controlled by state law, meaning that each state has unique provisions for what is permissible in these agreements. In North Carolina, a non-compete agreement must meet the following requirements:
With the changes in the employment landscape in the last year, there has been a growing movement to limit or even abolish the use of non-compete agreements. As more workers are forced to find new jobs, have moved to remote working environments, or move to a state outside of their employer’s home base, the question of how and when to enforce non-competes has been more present with business owners and lawmakers. As non-competes are governed by state law, it also makes it difficult for employers with employees residing in multiple states to be able to maintain enforceable agreements without careful planning. For example, some states have limited noncompete agreements to apply only to employees making over $100,000 a year, or to be valid only when a business interest is being sold.
There is also a push for the federal government to step in and put some overarching limitations on non-compete agreements that limit these agreements in cases where a narrow group of defined trade secrets are trying to be protected by a business. While it is too soon to tell if federal laws impacting non-compete provisions are on the horizon, it is important for employers to be mindful of the importance of crafting a narrowly tailored non-compete provision that works to protect their business while still allowing for fair treatment of former employees. Exploring other legal options that could be used to protect confidential business information is also crucial. If you have questions about how to best protect your business’ proprietary and confidential information, please call Jesson & Rains!
By Attorney Kelly Jesson
While surfing through social media, have you ever seen someone post a photo or video set to music and add the caption “I do not own the rights to this music”? We assume people are doing this in hopes of getting around copyright laws. We assume they think that, by disclaiming ownership, they won’t get in trouble, but that is incorrect.
A copyright protects an original work of authorship, whether in writing, video, or audio form. A person infringes on a copyright if the person uses the work without permission, even if they put out a notice that they don’t own the music. To be clear, simply using the work is infringement; not pretending you created it.
A copyright owner can seek damages if you use its work without permission. There is a narrow exception called “fair use,” but it only applies when people use a work for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Most social media posts are not going to fit into this category.
Also, taking a picture from someone else’s website or social media and sharing it yourself is also copyright infringement. You may have heard of celebrities getting sued for posting pictures of themselves that someone else took.
Bottom line: If you didn’t create it, don’t post it without permission. If you have any questions about getting a federal copyright for your original work, please give Jesson & Rains a call!
By Attorney Kelly Jesson
Jesson & Rains, PLLC, is offering a couple of new business plan packages that include discounted legal services.
Our clients are busy and they sometimes forget to keep their information updated with the Secretary of State’s Office or file their annual reports; they pay for a registered agent who does nothing more than forward their mail; and they sometimes fall victim to scams like this and this.
We’re offering a yearly plan that includes serving as our client’s registered agent and filing their annual report, among other things. A description of the plan is attached to this email. This plan helps to ensure your privacy (if your business is ever sued, the lawsuit will be delivered to our office’s address); you will be less likely to fall victim to a scam (we will sort through and destroy junk mail); you will be more organized and have less paper (we will scan and forward your mail immediately to your attention after sorting); and we will ensure that corporate records and Secretary of State records are kept up to date.
We’re also offering an upgraded yearly plan that includes unlimited access to attorneys throughout the year. No more billing for .1 emails or .2 telephone calls. We want to encourage people to contact us anytime they need us instead of being afraid to get a bill from us.
This is a continued effort from us to offer flat fees instead of hourly billing. Annual reports are due April 15, and they can be filed now, so this is a great time to switch over to having Jesson & Rains handle it. Please contact us if you’re interested, and please forward to any busy business owners you think may need our help!
By Attorney Kelly Jesson
Creditors come in all shapes and sizes: ex-spouses, bankruptcy, personal and business debts, and claims involving real estate or professional malpractice. People in high risk professions or who deal with circumstances that are prone to litigation sometimes want to take steps to protect assets. However, this must be done before a dispute arises, because moving assets around afterwards can sometimes be deemed a fraudulent conveyance and voided by a court.
Unfortunately, there is no “magic wand,” and protecting assets oftentimes involves investing your earnings into protected accounts, such as life insurance and retirement. An individual’s retirement account is exempted from their own creditors (but not from a beneficiary’s creditors once the assets are inherited, which will be discussed in the next blog dealing with asset protection in estate planning). The cash value of a life insurance policy is also protected from the insured’s creditors, but again, not from a beneficiary’s creditors once the assets are inherited.
Additionally, the state of North Carolina exempts certain amounts of property from creditors:
One of the most important things you can do is title property as “tenants by entireties” (TBE). If a husband and wife purchase property together, by default, it is owned as TBE and is therefore protected from the creditors of just one of them, meaning a lien will not attach. However, if a creditor gets a judgment in both spouses’ names, a lien can attach. Also, if the spouses divorce or one passes away, a lien can attach if the remaining owner is the debtor. Another alternative or high-risk professionals is to have the low-risk spouse own the majority of assets because they will not be responsible for debts unless joint.
Another really important step is for self-employed people to form businesses and formalize businesses to protect assets. If you follow business formalities, business creditors cannot reach your personal assets for business debts. If you own investment properties, you are running a business. In fact, the definition of “operating a business” is pretty loose, and oftentimes people will move high-value assets over to LLCs for asset protection purposes. Again, you must follow business formalities (set up a tax identification number, maintain a separate bank account, have an operating agreement).
If you own a business but you have personal creditors, those cannot reach assets titled in the name of your business. They are limited to collecting only the distributions you receive from the business, which you control as the business owner. Distributions do not include your pay made through payroll, which is another reason to run your business like a business.
Finally, we’re often called by people to set up trusts to avoid creditors. General living trusts or revocable trusts are not protected from creditors of the grantor (the person who sets it up), although the funds could be protected from beneficiaries’ creditors after the grantor dies (the subject of our next blog). North Carolina residents have a few not-so-great options: First, they can set up an irrevocable trust for the benefit of others. For example, if you are married, you can create an irrevocable trust that benefits your spouse for his or her lifetime. Presumably, your spouse will take care of you while you’re married, so you will indirectly have access to the money you put into the irrevocable trust, although on paper it will no longer belong to you, so your creditors cannot reach it. This obviously has risks, but it is an option.
Another option is an asset protection trust. In an asset protection trust, the trustee has discretion to distribute money to the grantor as well as other beneficiaries. These trusts are not valid in North Carolina, although they are available in seventeen other states and other countries. However, North Carolina residents can pick the situs (jurisdiction) of their trust and where the trustee is located, meaning, for example, that you can state that Georgia law applies to your trust even though you live in North Carolina. However, lawmakers in North Carolina have questioned whether this practice is valid for asset protection trusts, and, therefore, there are some risks involved. Of course, transferring funds to another country is always risky.
If you are interested in implementing any of the above ideas in order to protect your assets, please give the attorneys at Jesson & Rains a call!
By Attorney Edward Jesson
Hearings were recently scheduled on a proposed North Carolina state bill entitled “An Act to Provide Consumer Protections Related to Roofing Repair Contractors.”
If passed, the law would have a big effect on the roofing industry in North Carolina--written contracts between roofing contractors and consumers would now be required. The proposed bill would require the following provisions to be included in these contracts:
1. The roofing contractor’s contact information;
2. The name of the consumer;
3. The physical address of the property being worked on and a description of the structure being repaired;
4. A copy of the repair estimate that addresses:
a. a precise description and location of all the damage being claimed on the repair estimate;
b. an itemized estimate of repair costs, including the cost of raw materials, the hourly labor rate, and the number of hours for each item to be repaired; and,
c. a statement as to whether the property was inspected prior to the preparation of the estimate and a description of the nature of that inspection.
5. Date the contract was signed by the consumer;
6. A statement that the contractor shall hold in trust any payment from the consumer until the materials have been delivered to the job site or the majority of the work has been done;
7. A statement providing that the contractor shall provide a certificate of insurance to the consumer that is valid for the time during which the work is to be performed;
8. If the consumer anticipates that insurance funds will be used to pay for any portion of the job, a disclosure from the consumer that states that the consumer is responsible for payment if the insurance company denies the claim in whole or in part and a disclosure from the contractor that he or she has made no guarantees that the claimed loss will be covered by an insurance policy.
The new law, if passed, will also give the consumer the right to cancel the contract if the consumer’s insurance company denies the claim. Further, it will prohibit various practices from roofing contractors, including offering to pay insurance deductibles for the consumer or offering the consumer anything of value in order to display a sign or any other type of advertisement at the consumer’s property.
It is important to note that the proposed law specifically excludes licensed general contractors or subcontractors working underneath a licensed general contractor from the definition of “roofing repair contractors.”
While the new law would create an extra requirement that roofing contractors in NC may not be happy about, we always recommend having written contracts in place between contractors and the consumer. Too often the only written documentation is a cost estimate and, if there are any disputes, there are no provisions in these cost estimates for handling those disputes. The proposed law may also strengthen the reputation of the roofing industry by weeding out unscrupulous roofing contractors.
Jesson & Rains will continue to keep our clients updated on the passage of this law and are happy to assist with the drafting or review of any construction contracts. You can follow the status of the law yourself at: https://www.ncleg.gov/BillLookup/2019/S576.
By Attorney Kelly Jesson
Business owners around the country are starting to reopen their businesses up to employees and customers. However, regardless of government announced “phases,” businesses owe a duty to their employees and customers to keep them safe while on the premises. Lawsuits are starting to pop up, according to Market Watch.
What can you do to limit your potential liability? Businesses should follow healthcare and government recommendations, such as wiping down surfaces, frequent hand washing, wearing masks, socially distancing, etc. These recommendations sometimes change, so business owners should stay abreast of updates. Keeping your employees from getting sick on the job in the first place is key: in a worker’s compensation case, all the worker has to do is prove they were injured on the job and there’s a causal connection between the two. For example, a grocery store cashier may have a claim due to exposure to the public. A worker’s compensation claimant does not need to prove that the business was negligent.
For businesses that don’t have a large volume of public traffic (such as law firms), owners may ask patrons to sign a document before coming into the premises stating that they do not have COVID-19, are experiencing no symptoms, and they have not been around anyone with COVID-19 or who has otherwise been experiencing symptoms. While patrons can, of course, lie on these forms, at least it’s one additional step that business owners can show that they are taking to
protect their employees and other customers. Showing that you are taking the necessary steps to keep people safe is important in defense of personal injury lawsuits, where the plaintiff has to show not only causation (that they caught COVID-19 at your business) but negligence (that you failed to act with reasonable care).
A defense to a negligence action is “assumption of risk.” Some business owners may ask patrons to sign waivers of claims, saying that the patron is “assuming the risk” of contracting COVID-19 by coming to their establish. For example, someone who voluntarily eats at a restaurant or goes to a nail salon knows that there is a risk that they may be infected, and a business is not guaranteeing 100% that they will not be infected, because there’s no way to do that.
Governor Cooper provided business owners with extra protection a couple of weeks ago when he signed the Coronavirus relief bill. The act provides for limited liability for businesses deemed “essential” under the Governor’s prior stay-at-home order. If an employee or customer gets COVID-19 from spending time at an essential business, the business is not liable for damages unless it is “grossly negligent” or worse. Gross negligence is a higher standard than simple negligence. Instead of a plaintiff showing the absence of reasonable care in a negligence lawsuit, a plaintiff would have to show the conscious disregard for reasonable care to prove that a business was grossly negligent.
While essential businesses should be comforted by this law, we are of the opinion that this should not change how they do business. In fact, if they consciously fail to abide by social distancing and cleaning protocols, they could arguably be grossly negligent.
If you have any questions about how to prepare your business for reopening, give Jesson & Rains a call!
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