New Rules For Businesses Offering Automatic Renewals To Their Customers

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed SB 313, which is a significant change in law for businesses offering automatic renewals of contracts for their goods or services. The legislative counsel’s digest described the new law as prohibiting businesses from “charging a consumer’s credit or debit card, or the consumer’s account with a 3rd party, for an automatic renewal or continuous service that is made at a promotional or discounted price for a limited period of time without first obtaining the consumer’s consent to the agreement.”

Commencing on July 1, 2018, Business and Professions Code Section 17602 as amended by SB 313, will require that businesses who offer automatic renewals or continuous services that include a free gift or trial will also have to include a clear and conspicuous explanation of what happens to the price when the trial period ends. Businesses will also have to disclose how to cancel, and allow cancellation of the automatic renewal, before the consumer pays for the goods or services. To allow cancellation under the new law, businesses will have to provide consumers with an easy method such as a toll-free telephone number, electronic email address, or mailing address. Yet if the consumer accepts an offer online, they must be able to cancel online. And further, if there are any material changes to the terms of the automatic renewal or continuous service, the new law requires that the consumer receive a clear and conspicuous statement of the changes.

This new law applies only to businesses that offer automatic renewals or continuous services to consumers. Businesses that offer automatic renewals or continuous services should become familiar with the new law and change their policies in an effort to avoid violations.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

Shareholder Obstacles Under the Business Judgment Rule

Previously on our blog, we described what information members of a corporation’s Board of Directors can rely on in discharging their duties and explained how they can use the Business Judgment Rule (“BJR”) as a defense to liability imposed in the event of an alleged breach of their duty of care. The use of the BJR as a defense by directors creates an obstacle to shareholders attempting to hold directors personally liable for a breach of the duty of care. Under the BJR, courts will not review directors’ business decisions if the directors were disinterested, acting in good faith, and reasonably diligent in informing themselves of the facts. Shareholders must show directors have not met those requirements in order for courts to evaluate the directors’ business decision.

Shareholders may show that directors are not disinterested by proving that the director(s) have a personal interest in the corporate decision underlying the dispute. However, under California law, it is unclear what amount of personal interest is necessary to find directors interested in a corporate decision.

Arguably the toughest element for shareholders to overcome, courts generally will assume disinterested directors acted on an informed basis and with the honest belief that their decision was in the best interest of the company. This presents an even further obstacle; if a court does find directors did not act in good faith, shareholders must show more than ordinary negligence. In other words, it is not enough for shareholders to prove directors did not act as reasonably prudent people.

Thus, although the Business Judgment Rule presents an obstacle for shareholders challenging decisions made by a corporation’s Board of Directors, the obstacle may be overcome on a case-by-case basis.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims, including claims involving the business judgment rule. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

California Supreme Court Issues Important New Wage and Hour Decision

On July 13, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued a decision that California employment law attorneys have been anticipating for over two years. Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California, LLC) (S227228 7/13/17). The Williams decision significantly impacts the nature and extent of the information employers may be forced to give employees who sue their employers on what are commonly called “PAGA” claims. But before explaining that decision, a bit of background information is required.

In California, employees have at least four different ways to make claims against their current or former employers for unpaid wages and penalties: (1) They can make an administrative claim with the State Labor Commissioner (a “wage claim”); (2) they can file an individual lawsuit in court; (3) they can file a wage and hour class action on behalf of themselves and other current and former employees; or (4) they can file a “representative” action under California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004, commonly known as a PAGA Claim. The first two options, the wage claim and the individual lawsuit, typically seek recovery only of wages and penalties due to an individual claimant or plaintiff. The other two options seek wages or penalties, or both, for a much wider group of employees, represent a risk of far greater liability for the employer and a far greater potential attorney fee reward for the plaintiff’s attorneys. Thus, plaintiff attorneys prefer to bring class actions and PAGA claims rather than wage claims and individual lawsuits. Not surprisingly, class actions and PAGA claims tend to strike fear in employers.

Under the current state of California and federal law, wage and hour class actions may well be less scary for employers than PAGA claims. It used to be the other way around, because in a PAGA claim all that can be recovered are the myriad penalties assessable under the California Labor Code for violation of the wage and hour provisions of the Labor Code. While those penalties can be substantial they are typically (but not always) far, far less than the unpaid wages resulting from an employer’s wage and hour violations.

There are two reasons why PAGA claims have become more problematic for employers relative to class actions. First, the California Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs in PAGA claims do not have to meet certain requirements that they must meet in class actions. Arias v. Superior Court (2009) 46 Cal.4th 969. So PAGA claims can be more difficult to defend against than class actions. Second, as a result of developments in federal law over the last several years, employers can frequently require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that require them to arbitrate all wage and hour claims and give up any right to bring a wage and hour class action in court or in arbitration. Thus, for many employers, the risk from wage and hour class actions has been greatly reduced – in fact almost eliminated.

Employers have argued that PAGA claims are also subject to mandatory arbitration under federal law. They have also argued that they should be able to avoid “representative” PAGA claims in the same way they can avoid class actions. In other words, they have argued that they should be able require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that require them to arbitrate all PAGA claims and give up any right to bring a PAGA claim in court or in arbitration on behalf of anyone other than themselves. However, in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC (2014) 59 Cal.4th 348, the California Supreme Court noted that PAGA claims are a form of government action – with the plaintiff acting as a “private attorney general” on behalf of the state of California to collect Labor Code penalties. The California Supreme Court reasoned that forcing plaintiffs to arbitrate their PAGA claims and preventing PAGA claims on behalf of other employees would really be preventing California from bringing such claims, thereby frustrating the purpose of the PAGA law. Therefore, the California Supreme Court held that employees cannot be forced to arbitrate PAGA claims and cannot be forced to give up their right to bring such claims on behalf of other employees.

That brings us to the decision issued on July 13, 2017 by the California Supreme Court, Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California, LLC) (S227228 7/13/17). In Williams, the plaintiff, Mr. Williams, had worked in a single Marshalls store in California. He brought a PAGA claim, asserting that Marshalls had violated California wage and hour laws including those governing employee meal and rest breaks. Apparently, Marshalls had over 16,000 current and former employees in the time period covered by Mr. Williams’ lawsuit, spread across a large number of stores across the state. In the course of pretrial discovery, Mr. Williams asked Marshalls for the names and contact information for all of those thousands of employees. Marshalls refused Mr. Williams’ request, claiming the request was unfairly burdensome and would violate the privacy rights of those employees. Marshalls argued that until Mr. Williams had demonstrated that his claim of alleged wage and hour violations had some merit he should only be given information on the employees who had worked at the same store as Mr. Williams. The trial court and the court of appeal (in a 2015 decision) agreed with Marshalls. Mr. Williams sought and obtained review by the California Supreme Court.

At this point, it bears noting that if Mr. Williams had brought his law suit as a class action (assuming he had not signed a mandatory arbitration agreement giving up his right to bring a class action), he probably would have been entitled to the names and contact information for all of the thousands of current and former employees. But Marshalls’ argument was that, as the California Supreme Court has held, a PAGA claim is not a class action. So, logically, the rules governing a PAGA claim should be different. The trial court and the court of appeal agreed.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court disagreed with each of Marshalls’ arguments, and reversed. Therefore, at least for the foreseeable future, plaintiffs in PAGA actions, just like plaintiffs in wage and hour class actions, can require the defendant employers to provide the names and contact information of potentially thousands of current and former employees impacted by the plaintiffs’ PAGA claims.

Ezer Williamson Law – 2016 Year in Review

In 2016, Ezer Williamson continued to achieve excellent results for its clients, opened a second office, and expanded into the area of labor and employment law.

The Firm is excited to announce the completion of our newly remodeled South Bay office and our expanded team, including the addition of Robert C. Hayden, Esq., as Senior Counsel, and Dominique Stango and Heather Domingo, the Firm’s new legal assistants.  The addition of Mr. Hayden, Ms. Stango, and Ms. Domingo reflects both the Firm’s commitment to providing exemplary service to our clients, as well as the growth and success the Firm has experienced throughout the 2015 and 2016 periods.

In 2016, the Firm achieved many favorable outcomes for our clients, including, (1) securing a settlement valued in excess of $1 million for the plaintiff in a commercial lease dispute, (2) resolving claims valued in excess of $20 million stemming from a Federal Multidistrict litigation matter regarding mortgage-backed securities, (3) resolving claims made against a real estate investor by an alleged employee, for less than 1% of the multi-million dollar amount sought, (4) successfully negotiated a complicated settlement transaction of a partnership dispute that included several business entities, and (5) favorably resolved a substantial wage and hour class action brought on behalf of individuals who claimed to be improperly classified as independent contractors rather than employees.

As we look forward to 2017, Ezer Williamson plans to further deepen and expand the services offered to our clients, including growing the Firm’s Labor and Employment practice group, as well as continuing to develop the Firm’s presence in our Century City office.

Ezer Williamson Law proudly announces Robert C. Hayden as Senior Counsel

Ezer Williamson Law proudly announces the addition of Robert C. Hayden as Senior Counsel.

Mr. Hayden brings with him over 37 years of legal experience and expertise in the areas of labor and employment law, as well as extensive experience in business and commercial litigation, including contract and intellectual property disputes.

Prior to joining Ezer Williamson, Mr. Hayden was a partner at RG Lawyers LLP where he practiced for over six years representing both employees and companies in employment litigation, including wage and hour class actions, wrongful termination, and employment litigation.

Prior to RG Lawyers, Mr. Hayden was a partner with K&R Law Group LLP. At K&R, Mr. Hayden created and headed the employment law group for approximately 11 years, until the firm’s dissolution. While at K&R, Mr. Hayden also worked on complex commercial, business, contract, and intellectual property litigation.

Mr. Hayden began his career in 1978 in the Labor and Employment Department of Kindel & Anderson and moved with the head of that department to Overton, Lyman & Prince to develop a Labor & employment practice at that firm. He became a partner in 1985 and left in 1989 upon the firm’s dissolution. During his time at Kindel & Anderson and Overton, Lyman & Prince, Mr. Hayden represented employers in all aspects of union organizing campaigns, unfair labor practice proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board, and state and federal litigation.  Following the dissolution of Overton,  Mr. Hayden spent over six years at Lewis, D’Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard (now Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith), leaving as a partner in 1995 to develop the Employment Law group at K&R Law Group.  While at Lewis, D’Amato, Mr. Hayden worked on a wide range of civil litigation matters, including real estate, construction, contract, and commercial disputes.

Mr. Hayden graduated from Stanford University in 1975 with a Bachelor of Science degree.  He then received his legal education at University of California at Berkeley – Boalt Hall School of Law, where he was awarded a Juris Doctor degree in 1978.

To read more about Mr. Hayden, please visit his attorney page here.

Tenant Security Deposits and “Deduct-and-Return” Under Civil Code Section 1950.5

Subject to certain limitations, a landlord may withhold tenant security deposits in order to clean, repair, and make ready a rental unit for new tenants.  In fact, California Civil Code Section 1950.5 provides that the landlord may use summary “deduct-and-return” procedures (that is, procedures that do not require formal legal process) as long as certain rules are followed.

“Deduct-and-Return” Under Civil Code Section 1950.5

Under California law, after a tenant has vacated the premises a landlord has 21 days or less to notify the tenant either (1) that the landlord will provide a full refund of the security deposit, or (2) mail or personally deliver to the tenant an itemized statement listing the amounts of any deductions from the security deposit and the reasons for the deductions, together with a refund of any amounts not deducted. Civil Code Section 1950.5(g)(1).  The landlord must include copies of receipts for the charges that were incurred to repair or clean the rental unit with the itemized statement, or, if the landlord or their employees performed the work or repairs, then the itemized statement must describe the work performed, including the time spent, the hourly rate charged, and the hourly rate must be reasonable. Civil Code Section 1950.5(g)(2).

Failing to Follow the Section 1950.5 Procedure and Potential Penalties

When a landlord fails to follow the timeline and steps identified in Section 1950.5 in good faith, the landlord loses the ability to use the summary procedure.  Put differently, the landlord cannot simply “deduct-and-return” the tenant’s security deposit, but, instead, must return the security deposit in full and bring an action for damages to recover amounts owed to clean and/or repair the rental units.

If the landlord withholds the tenant’s security deposit in bad faith then the tenant may bring an action against the landlord and the landlord may be forced to pay “statutory damages of up to twice the amount of the security, in addition to actual damages.” Civil Code Section 1950.5(l).

Contract Law: Defining Conflicting Terms- Part 2

Previously on the blog, we discussed ambiguous and conflicting terms in contracts. Most contracts include clauses which provide interpretation rules for ambiguous and conflicting terms. In the absence of such a clause (or if the provisions of the clause do not resolve the conflict), certain California statutes, and case law interpreting and applying those rules, will provide the method of determining  which, if any, ambiguous or conflicting terms can be enforced.

Generally speaking, an ambiguous term can reasonably be read in more than one way.  Likewise, a conflicting term exists where compliance with one or more contractual provisions would violate another contractual provision.

The California Legislature codified contract interpretation rules in the California Civil Code to cover a variety of circumstances that can arise with ambiguous or conflicting terms. A summary of a few of the most common principles  follows below.

Contract Interpretation in General

  • A contract must be interpreted to give effect to the mutual intention of the parties as they existed at the time of contracting, so far as such intentions are both ascertainable and lawful. Civil Code § 1636
  • The whole of a contract should be taken together, so as to give effect to every part, if reasonably practicable, with each clause helping to interpret the other. Civil Code § 1641
  • Several contracts relating to the same matters, between the same parties, and made as part or parts of substantially one transaction, are to be taken together. Civil Code § 1642
  • A contract may be explained by reference to the circumstances under which it was made, and the matter to which it relates. Civil Code § 1647
  • No matter how broad a contract is, it extends only to those things the parties intended to contract. Civil Code § 1648
  • Inconsistencies in a contract must be reconciled, if possible, by an interpretation that will give some effect to the inconsistent clauses, subordinate to the general intent and purpose of the whole contract. Civil Code § 1652

Interpreting Specific Contract Language

  • Contract language should be understood in an ordinary and popular sense, not in its strict legal meaning. The exception to this is when parties use words meant to be taken in a technical sense. For example, construction contracts often use language that references published trade standards, which can be used to interpret the contract. Civil Code § 1644
  • Technical words should be interpreted as usually understood by individuals in the profession or business to which they relate, unless clearly used in a different sense. Civil Code § 1645
  • Contract words that are wholly inconsistent with a contract’s nature, or with the main intention of the parties, are to be rejected. Civil Code § 1653

If you have any questions about ambiguous or conflicting terms in a contract, consult with an experienced attorney. Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business, real estate, construction and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business, real estate or construction law needs.

What Constitutes a Trade Secret?

Unlike patents and trademarks, trade secrets are protected without any procedural formalities associated with the benefits of registration with a government agency. The benefit to this is that a trade secret can be protected for an unlimited period of time and requires no public disclosure. The downside is that defining and protecting a trade secret can be trickier.

There are different definitions of what constitutes a “trade secret.” California law has adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act definition, qualifying a trade secret as “information, including a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique, or process” that meets two qualifications. The first qualification is that the information must derive “independent economic value, actual or potential, from not being generally known to the public or to other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use.”  The second qualification is that the trade secret owner must take reasonable steps to maintain the secrecy of the information.

The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, an international agreement administered by the World Trade Organization, similarly defines a trade secret.  According to the TRIPS Agreement, trade secret information cannot be generally known among, or readily accessible to, circles that normally deal with the kind of information in question.  It must also have commercial value because it is a secret, and it must have been subject to reasonable steps by the rightful holder of the information to keep it secret.

Thus, if a company deals with third parties who are privy to a company’s trade secret, it is important to always have them sign confidentiality agreements to make sure they understand that the information is a secret.  Taking those steps not only gives the company a cause of action for breach, but also evidences reasonable steps to maintain the secrecy of the trade secret.  Information that constitutes a trade secret can include processes that make production more efficient, a formula (like the Coca-Cola soft drink formula), customer lists, and proprietary business plans.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business, contract, and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business needs.

California Shareholder Rights

“Economic” Shareholder Rights

Shareholders invest in corporations primarily for economic gain or profit.  The two main ways shareholders can profit from a corporation are by receiving distributions of the company’s profits and by selling all or part of their interest in the corporation. These correspond with the two main “economic” shareholder rights: the right to receive dividends and the right to sell shares. Notably, shareholders only have the right to receive dividends as they are declared by the corporation’s board of directors, and directors are not obligated to declare dividends.  In addition, some investments and receipt of shares may come with limitations on transferability of the shares.

Shareholder Voting Rights

A company’s board of directors has the right to manage the company’s business. However, shareholders have the right to vote on important matters relating to the business, which gives them some control over the corporation as well. Most importantly, shareholders have the right to elect directors.

Shareholder Inspection Rights

Under California Corporations Code Section 1601, shareholders also have right to inspect the corporate documents, such as the incorporation record, accounting books, and meeting minutes.

Derivative Actions and Shareholder Rights

Derivative actions are brought by a shareholder on behalf of a corporation. Officers, directors, and majority shareholders owe a corporation a fiduciary duty. Someone who owes a fiduciary duty and who breaches that duty can be held liable to the corporation for damages.  Thus, in a derivative action a shareholder seeks judicial enforcement of, and redress for breach of, management’s fiduciary duties to the corporation and its shareholders by means of derivative litigation.

Involuntary Dissolution of the Corporation

Under California law, one-half of the directors or one-third of company shareholders can sue for involuntary dissolution of a corporation. A corporate dissolution may consist of a court approved liquidation or sale of corporate assets. However, the involuntary dissolution of a corporation may be avoided if at least 50% of its shareholders elect to purchase, for cash, the shares owned by the shareholders initiating the dissolution proceeding.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business needs, or visit our Shareholder Rights page for more information.

What is a Sole Proprietorship?

Establishing a sole proprietorship is the most common and basic way to start a new business.  In most cases, a sole proprietorship is established by an individual by simply starting a business.  At most a sole proprietorship will need a few simple filings to get going.

Sole Proprietorship

Only one owner is involved in a sole proprietorship. There is an exception for spouses, as California law allows a husband and wife venture to be classified as a sole proprietorship. The owner of a sole proprietorship controls every aspect of the business, and receives all profits from it.

There is no separate legal entity with a sole proprietorship. This is very important to note for liability purposes. For example, if a corporation, which is a separate legal entity, is sued, the corporation owners – its shareholders – are generally protected from individual liability, that is, their liability is limited by their investment in the company in the form of the amount they paid for their shares. However, because there is no distinction between the business and the business owner in a sole proprietorship, the owner can and will be held liable for all business liabilities. In other words, the sole proprietor is personally liable for all debts and actions of the company.

A sole proprietorship exists as long as the proprietor (business owner) is alive. The sole proprietorship will cease to exist once its owner dies.

Filing Requirements

A sole proprietorship in California does not need to file any organization documents with the Secretary of State. However, if the sole proprietorship is going to do business using a name different from the sole proprietor’s, a Fictitious Business Name Statement must be filed.

The sole proprietor will also have to report all business income and expenses on his or her taxes. There is a specific form for this that is part of the California personal income tax return. As with personal income, the sole proprietorship’s tax rate will depend on the proprietor’s total taxable income.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business, contract, and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law needs.