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Hot Topics for Startup Employers

Posted by on Oct 15, 2019 in Employment, Limiting Liability, Startup

Employers today face constant hurdles in their day-to-day operations, and startups are no different. The liability for employment violations is not limited to large manufacturers or businesses; emerging businesses and companies in their infancy are likewise vulnerable and need to be aware of the laws so they can take appropriate action to ensure that they are protected.  Startups should be aware of two issues in particular: 1) wage and hour requirements and 2) protecting intellectual property and company goodwill.   Wage and Hour Regulations for Startups Employers of all sizes (including startups) need to be aware of the wage and hour requirements contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA applies to employers whose annual sales total $500,000 or more, or who are engaged in interstate commerce. Practically speaking, this means that the FLSA applies to almost every employer. The FLSA governs overtime pay and minimum wages, which apply to employees who are “non-exempt.” Generally speaking, an employee is non-exempt (i.e., the employer is required to pay overtime and at least minimum wage) if he is not salaried, or, if the employee is salaried, the job does not have certain administrative or professional requirements (e.g., supervising two or more people, discretion in decision making, etc.). In contrast, employers are not required to pay overtime to exempt employees (those who are paid at least a certain salary and have certain job duties). Paying your non-exempt employees at least the federal minimum wage is easy. You likely already comply with this rule as long as you pay your employees at least $7.25 for each hour worked. But be sure to check your state’s laws as well. The FLSA is the floor, not the ceiling. Many states impose their own minimum wage that is in excess of $7.25 per hour (e.g., $12.00 in Washington). Overtime issues are more complicated. In its simplest terms, the FLSA requires that employers pay their non-exempt employees 1.5 times their regular rate for each hour they work over 40 in a given work week. But what is the “regular rate,” and what is a “work week?” A common misconception is that the regular rate is simply the standard hourly rate (e.g., $15.00 per hour) that an employer pays a given employee. It is not. The regular rate must include other forms of compensation, such as commissions and non-discretionary bonuses. Including this extra compensation will naturally affect the amount of overtime that an employee is entitled to receive. The workweek is likewise different than most assume, as it is not simply Monday through Friday. Rather, the workweek from which you determine an employee’s overtime is a seven-day period (e.g., Sunday at 12:00 a.m. to Saturday at 11:59 p.m.) over which an employee may work. As an employer, you should set out your workweek (whatever it may be) in your policies and, if at any time during the workweek (with some exceptions) a non-exempt employee works more than 40 hours, be aware that the employee is entitled to overtime compensation. Misclassifying an employee as exempt when he is non-exempt (and the subsequent failure to pay appropriate overtime) can result in severe legal problems in the form of back wages and attorneys’ fees, among other things. Classifying an employee as exempt is a fact-based inquiry based on an analysis of that employee’s salary and job duties. For guidance on whether you have properly classified...

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Major Ambiguities Remain, but Health Care Vendors Should Focus on California Consumer Privacy Act Preparedness

Posted by on Jul 26, 2019 in Limiting Liability, Startup, Update!

Are you a health care vendor that does business in California? If so—and keep in mind that the concept of “doing business” in California may be broader than you expect—there are new, expansive data privacy requirements that might start keeping you awake at night. California created waves in the information privacy space with its enactment of the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (the “Act”) last summer. The Act, which will be operative beginning January 1, 2020, was hurriedly enacted to prevent a proposed ballot initiative from going to voters in November 2018. That process created a number of significant ambiguities, which remain present in the Act. There are significant questions regarding what types of businesses will be subject to the broad-reaching obligations of the statute and forthcoming regulations. Businesses that have, thus far, managed to avoid the application of the similar EU General Data Protection Regulation (the “GDPR”) may nonetheless fall within the scope of the Act and confront new and expanded compliance obligations similar to those imposed by the GDPR. Based on the current wording of the statute, a “business” subject to the Act’s requirements includes a for-profit entity that (i) collects the personal information of California residents, (ii) determines the purposes and means of processing that information, (iii) does business in California and, among other potential triggers, (iv) has annual gross revenues in excess of an inflation-adjusted amount of $25 million. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming regulations will define the scope of revenue (which, at present, does not appear to be limited to a business’s California revenue), the meaning of information “processing,” and other related concepts.    With respect to applicability, the statute also contains a carve-out for commercial conduct that takes place “wholly outside of California.The present definition of this concept contains somewhat contradictory language, and it is not yet clear what any amended or clarified language will look like.  Businesses potentially subject to the Act should also be wary of the way that the Act ambiguously defines “personal information.” The Act does not apply to medical information governed by HIPAA, which will provide some relief to many health care vendors. However, the Act does apply to other categories of personal information, including IP addresses and other information concerning consumers’ (including patients’) interaction with a business’s website. Even more significantly, the Act appears to apply to (i) employee personal information contained in employment records and (ii) the personal information of client officers and employees that a business gathers in providing services to, and interacting with, its clients (i.e., not traditional “consumer” interactions). Absent some clarification to the contrary in any further statutory amendments or in the forthcoming regulations, health care vendors should prepare to comply with the Act in connection with these particular categories of information.    Due to the current broad scope of the Act, the potential applicability to information collected or disclosed in 2019, and the fact that the Act has significant “teeth” from an enforcement standpoint, health care vendors should not wait for these concepts to be fully refined. Rather, they should prepare now to comply with the Act’s core requirements by taking the following actions, among others: Determine what personal information the business collects, how it collects it, where it stores it, and how it manages, uses, and...

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The Importance of Getting Your License Before You Start Your Own Construction Business

Posted by on Jul 24, 2019 in Governance, Limiting Liability, Practice Pointers, Startup, Your Entity

Are you thinking about starting your own construction business? If so, whether in the commercial or residential setting, it is imperative to find out if you are required to have a license. Keep in mind each state has its own requirements. If you’re in Tennessee, it’s highly likely you’ll need one. Under Tennessee’s Contractors Licensing Act, it is unlawful for any person or business to represent itself as a licensed contractor, or to act in the capacity of a “contractor” while not licensed. Now, you may be thinking “I am not a contractor. I am a designer, or a supplier, or a subcontractor, etc—so the contractors’ license requirement does not apply to me and my new business, right?” Well, not necessarily. The term “Contractor” is incredibly broad under the Licensing Act. “Contracting” includes, among other things, bidding, offering to engage, supervising, overseeing, scheduling, directing or in any manner assuming charge of construction, alteration, improvement, or negotiating a price for projects of $25,000 or more (including all labor, materials, and equipment). Electrical, mechanical, plumbing, HVAC, and roof contractors must also be licensed when working directly with any contractor to perform projects when the total cost of that portion on the project is over $25,000. Tennessee also regulates licenses for certain types of “home improvement” in most of the larger counties. For example, a home improvement contractor’s license is required for residential projects that range from $3,000 to $24,999 (i.e. projects designed for a residence or dwelling unit with no more than 4 units). Again, the term “home improvement” includes a vast array of construction-related work, all of which requires a license – such as repairs, replacement, remodeling, alterations, and more.  Obtaining the appropriate contractor’s license before you start working is extremely important from a risk management standpoint. In fact, contracting in Tennessee without the appropriate license can expose your new business and possibly you, personally to significant liability. For example, to represent yourself as a licensed contractor without the required license, or to act in the capacity of a contractor without the required license, constitutes an unfair and deceptive act under Tennessee’s consumer protection law. This is significant, particularly to a business in its infancy, as you could end up on the hook for a dissatisfied client’s attorneys’ fees and triple their actual damages.  While there are a variety of other matters that must be tackled before getting a new construction business off the ground, licensing is certainly an important box to check off the list. The guidance of an experienced construction attorney can help alleviate any worries you may have in navigating the laws that may apply to you. In addition, finding a well-versed construction attorney can assist a new business in a multitude of areas spanning from drafting of construction contracts, handling of construction defect claims, payment and lien disputes, and other related matters. If you have questions specifically related to construction or general startup matters, please contact me or a member of Chambliss Startup group. *This blog post is brought to you by Logan...

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You May Need Some Legal Advice—7 Reasons Why Seeking Legal Advice Now Will Benefit Your Startup in the Future

Posted by on Jun 6, 2019 in Entity Formation, Governance, Intellectual Property, Startup, Your Entity

So, you’ve decided to start a business. You may be wondering, is it really necessary to consult with an attorney right now? The answer—it all depends on the nature of your business and how much risk you are willing to take. Small legal mistakes when establishing your startup have the potential to affect your business’ success and cost you and your startup financially in the future. We understand that hiring an attorney is daunting for a new business operating on a limited budget. However, there are a few business areas for which you should consider seeking legal advice early on in the life of your startup. 7 Reasons Startups Should Seek Legal Advice Now for Future Benefit: Entity Formation: There are many different legal entity forms a startup may take—a sole proprietorship, general partnership, joint venture, limited partnership, corporation, or limited liability company. Each has pros and cons and different tax implications. Picking the right form for your startup has liability, legal, tax, and financial implications. While information on entity formation is available through the U.S. Small Business Administration and other resources, an attorney can advise you on which business structure is best based on your business plan and goals, as well as your personal liability and tax expectations. Structuring Ownership, Control, and Responsibilities: If your startup has more than one owner, it is recommended that your startup have certain agreements prepared that outline the relationship between the owners—such as who has what responsibilities, who has the power to make certain decisions, each owners’ financial interest in the startup, and how to handle ownership termination. These agreements often take the form of operating agreements and buy-sell agreements for LLCs, or bylaws, restricted stock purchase agreements, and shareholder agreements for corporations. Ultimately, formal owner agreements help prevent future disputes and the need to hire a lawyer to resolve such disputes. Although such agreements may not seem like a priority in the early stages of your startup, they can be key to the future stability and security of your business. Additionally, these agreements are often easier to negotiate and prepare during the honeymoon phase of your startup, rather than down the road when money and emotions are involved. Conducting Business Through a Website: If your startup conducts any business online, it is going to need a Privacy Policy and a Terms of Use Agreement. A Privacy Policy is a legal statement on a website that describes how personal data collected from users and customers of the website will be used. A Terms of Use Agreement is a policy on a website that describes the terms and conditions of users’ use of the website. Beware of blindly copying policies from other websites that offer similar services to your startup—often, policies are tailored to a specific business and will not provide you with adequate protection. An attorney can produce a custom Privacy Policy and Terms of Use Agreement for your website that provides you with the specific liability protection your startup needs. Regulatory Compliance: Depending on the character of your startup’s business, you may be subject to state and federal regulations. An attorney can advise you on which regulations your startup is subject to and the steps your startup must take for compliance. Protecting Your Startup’s Brand: Whether you plan to grow your company on a local,...

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FIELDS & FENCES: A Metaphor For Understanding Patents

Posted by on Mar 5, 2019 in Intellectual Property

One day, you are walking outside and come across a field. It is wide open and beautiful with rolling hills, trees, and ponds (and maybe even oil and diamonds). You look around, and there is no one in sight. For some reason, either no one has ever discovered this place before, or if they had, they never claimed it for themselves. So, like any entrepreneur, you want to claim it as your own. You ask yourself… How do I protect this? At this point, it is just an empty field. There is nothing to identify exactly what you are claiming or how much of it is yours. Worse yet, there is nothing to keep that pesky guy on the other side of the hill from claiming ownership. The fix? A fence. You bring a fence-building friend out to the property, and he is impressed. He agrees to build a fence for your property on two conditions. First, you have to show him and the rest of the world your discovery to prove that it is new and that no one else has claimed it before. Second, you can only keep the property fenced and others off it for a limited amount of time. Afterwards, you have to let others enjoy and use the field too. You think the tradeoff is fair and agree to his conditions. Your friend builds a fence that defines exactly what is and is not yours. Once the fence is built, your friend leaves and you are left alone to enjoy your new property. You are an expert marketer and salesman, and you make a small fortune by charging others to come and enjoy your land. Addressing the intruders… Unfortunately, the guy next door and his friends are persistent. They start trespassing on your property without paying or permission, even though you have it fenced! So, what do you do now? Your fence-building friend is gone and can’t help. And, besides, he is in the fence building business and not the trespasser removal business. It’s your property, which means that it is all up to you to (1) find the trespassers and (2) kick them out. So, you do just that, and once they’re gone, you go on making money and enjoying life in peace. After some time, your fence-building friend reminds you that you have to maintain the fence or it will come down. If you want to maintain the fence, you have to go to your friend and ask for him to do what is necessary to keep it in good shape (for a fee, of course). Otherwise, if you have lost interest in the fence, if you’re tired of extracting trespassing neighbors, or if your limited amount of time is up, no maintenance is needed and your friend will take the fence down so that others can freely enjoy the field (as was promised). Then, you are off to discover the next field… Is it time for you to build a fence? Like the field, inventions can be discovered by more than one inventor. However, only the first inventor to claim (or fence in) the invention in a patent application gets to own the rights to it. In the U.S., those fences (patents) are granted by our fence-building friend, the U.S. Patent...

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The Importance of Governance in the Lifecycle of a Startup

Posted by on Oct 16, 2018 in Entity Formation, Governance

Governance refers to the “governing” or “decision-making” of a company. It helps ensure a company runs smoothly, but also that it operates equitably and appropriately to benefit all stakeholders. A common misconception is that governance is an issue for large companies and something that startups can address in later stages of development. While startups tend to be more focused on growth and viability than structure and management, establishing a governance framework is essential to manage expectations of early investors, partners, owners, and other interested parties that have an interest in the company’s success. Below is a list of items to consider when forming your legal entity and defining roles and responsibilities. When forming your legal entity: Choose an appropriate legal entity early that considers present and future growth, long-term structure and business goals. For example, LLCs and LPs can be problematic for a company anticipating venture capital funding Avoid exposing founders to personal liability (i.e. partnerships have unlimited liability) Ensure that business activities are conducted through the entity and not in a personal capacity. When defining roles and responsibilities: Formalize relationships and avoid casual business relationships (even between family and friends) Formalize in writing the roles and responsibilities for each founder and owner (i.e. day-to-day operation) Record all ownership percentages (i.e. of the founders, and other owners) Create a mechanism for dispute resolution (i.e. how to break a tie) Address the possibility of a founder’s or other owner’s departure from the company Important legal documents for establishing roles and responsibilities: Charter or Articles of Organization Bylaws or Operating Agreement/Founder’s Agreement Stockholder Agreement IP Assignment Agreements Non-Disclosure Agreements Meeting Minutes and Board Resolutions Decisions made now will impact and shape decisions made in the future. Defining structure and roles and responsibilities early on will save time, define, and maintain company culture (i.e. ideas, goals, brand, etc.) and decision-making, and make the company attractive to investors. If your startup or business has questions about governance and entity formation, our team is happy to help you navigate these decisions based on your unique...

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FILE PATENTS NOW, Sell Later – The On-Sale Bar is Alive and Kicking!

Posted by on Jul 11, 2018 in Intellectual Property

As you have probably heard us say more than once, you need to file a patent application BEFORE you sell or offer to sell your invention. Under the America Invents Act (“AIA”), if you sell or offer to sell your invention before filing a patent application, you are not entitled to patent rights in the United States. This rule of law is commonly referred to as the “on-sale bar.” A 2017 Federal Circuit Court decision affirmed the broad scope and drastic consequences of the “on-sale bar.” In Helsinn v. Teva, the Court considered four patents relating to a drug that helps reduce the side effects of chemotherapy. Two years prior to filing any patent applications, Helsinn agreed to supply a company with the subject matter of the patents. This sale was announced in a joint press release and in SEC filings, but the exact details of the invention were not disclosed to the public. After Helsinn sued Teva for infringement of various claims of those patents, Teva argued that the patents were invalid because of the prior sale. The Supreme Court agreed and found that the press release barred patentability, despite the fact that it did not disclose the details of the invention. The Helsinn decision stands as a not-so-gentle reminder that any sale or any offer to sell an invention prior to filing a patent application is a disqualifier, even if the sale or offer to sell does not disclose the details of the invention. Bottom-line – Do not sell or offer to sell your invention before you file a patent...

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USPTO No Longer Refuses “Disparaging” Trademarks

Posted by on Jun 29, 2018 in Intellectual Property

You’ve probably heard about the trademark dispute between a group of Native Americans and the Washington Redskins. For years the validity of certain Redskins’ trademark registrations has been challenged under a federal law that prevents the registration of disparaging trademarks. In 2014, six of the Washington Redskin’s trademark registrations were cancelled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Then came The Slants, a band of Asian musicians. The band applied to register its name as a trademark. The trademark application was refused by the USPTO for being disparaging to Asians, and the band sued to appeal the decision of the USPTO. According to the band, they chose their name to “reclaim the term and drain its denigrating force as a derogatory term for Asian persons.” They also argued that the federal law preventing the registration of disparaging trademarks violated its First Amendment freedom of speech. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and held that the law was unconstitutional. Since the decision in favor of The Slants, the Redskins’ six previously-cancelled registrations have been revived. Bottom-line – The USPTO will no longer solely refuse a trademark registration on the basis that it is...

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Patent Rights Are Exhausted After Invention Is Sold

Posted by on Jun 14, 2018 in Intellectual Property

How far do patent rights go? Well, it often comes down to the sale of the invention. Typically, a patent holder’s patent rights in an invention extend only until the invention is sold – this is known as patent exhaustion. After a first sale, the patent rights in the invention sold are exhausted, and the purchaser is not bound by them[1]. The law, however, was unclear as to whether a patent holder could extend patent rights beyond the first sale by imposing restrictions on the subsequent use or sale of the invention by a purchaser. For two decades, lower courts held that certain restrictions could be used to retain some patent rights after the invention was sold. For example, some courts have permitted patent holders to restrict the resale or re-use of a patented invention. In 2017, the Supreme Court clarified the scope of the Exhaustion doctrine in Impression v. Lexmark. Lexmark, a toner cartridge manufacturer, sold toner cartridges at a lower price if the buyer agreed to a restriction on resale. Meanwhile remanufacturers were gathering up toner cartridges and refilling and reselling them. Impression Products, Inc., a remanufacturer operating in the US and abroad, was purchasing cartridges that had been bought with the resale restriction. So naturally, Lexmark brought suit against Impression for patent infringement. The Supreme Court held that when a patent owner sells an item, that product is no longer within the limits of the patent rights’ monopoly and instead becomes the private individual property of the purchaser. They based this decision on a common principle that sellers should not be able to impose “restraints on alienation.” Purchasers should be able to buy goods without fear that the goods are burdened by “a legal cloud on title.” Without this level of protection, purchasers would have to research all of the goods they intend to purchase to discover any burdens that patent holders may have placed on the goods. Consequently, the Court ruled that Lexmark could not impose a resale restriction on its cartridges that would allow them to sue a subsequent purchaser for patent infringement. The Impression Court determined that the Exhaustion doctrine applies to both domestic and foreign sales of patented inventions. Some have expressed concern that the foreign application of the doctrine will adversely impact the U.S. market for certain goods, such as life-saving pharmaceuticals, which are sold to foreign nations at discounted prices. Now it is possible for foreign purchasers to resell the discounted goods back into the U.S. market at a still-discounted price relative to the U.S. price while also earning a profit. Alternatively, the application of the doctrine to foreign sales may result in price increases for goods sold abroad. [1] Provided however, that the lawful owner of the patented device may maintain and repair the device, but may not reconstruct it. Bottom-line – A patent holder has no patent rights in a patented invention after the invention is sold. If you have questions about patents or other IP matters, please contact...

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Limiting Competition and Protecting Your Company: Non-Compete Agreements 101

Posted by on May 18, 2018 in Employment

What Is a Non-Compete Agreement? A non-compete agreement is a contract between an employee and his or her employer, and it restricts an employee from working with other employers in a similar field (i.e., “competing”) after departing the business. These agreements generally impose a time limitation on how long the ex-employee must avoid competing and typically restrict competition within a specified territory or region. Why Do I Need a Non-Compete Agreement? Non-competes can provide many benefits to startups, such as greater assurance that their confidential information, intellectual property, trade secrets, and other proprietary information will not immediately fall into the hands of a competitor; their customer relationships will be protected; and their training investment will not benefit another company. But not all non-competes are enforceable. When a non-compete gets challenged in court, most courts will look to see whether the limitations are reasonable given the circumstances of the employment. Some states, on the other hand, consider non-competes to be void unless they meet narrow exceptions. For example: Tennessee does not have any statute or regulation that generally governs non-competes in employment. But, it does have statutes and regulations that govern health care provider non-competes, and its courts have held that non-competes that attempt to restrict attorney competition are unenforceable. Georgia generally only allows non-competes to be used if: the employee is in sales, is a key employee or professional, the employee is involved in some form of management as covered by Georgia’s non-compete statutes, or if the employee regularly solicits customers for the employer. California is stricter than both Tennessee and Georgia, as non-competes are all but unenforceable except for extremely limited circumstances. Should Your Company Use a Non-Compete for a Particular Employee? Depending on your company’s needs, it may not be necessary for you to utilize a non-compete with each employee that you hire; rather, you may only want to do so with employees that have access to confidential information or are heavily involved in company sales. It really all depends on the circumstances of that individual’s prospective employment. Consider the following: Is the employee the “face of the company” to customers? Does the employee know the company’s trade secrets and confidential information, or is his or her work more general in nature? Have you provided the employee with unique or special training or knowledge? How much competition does your company have? If you decide that you want to utilize a non-compete in your company’s future hirings, here are some things the agreement should include: The reason for the agreement. The date the agreement will begin. Specific timeframes and distances from which employment with a competitor is barred. Particular identification of the type of conduct prohibited and a clear definition of competing companies. An explanation of what the employee receives in exchange for entering the agreement (this is known as “consideration”), which, in Tennessee, can be something as simple as continued employment with the company. What Should the Limitations Be? If you do decide to use a non-compete, you then need to consider what constitutes a reasonable limitation to impose on the employee after his or her employment ends. Example Limitations: One year and a 50-mile radius restriction. Two years and a 25-mile radius restriction. The breadth of the geographical and time limitations that you select will ultimately...

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