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Business Law

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Parol Evidence Rule & How it Affects Your Contract

One of the purposes behind memorializing an agreement in a written document is to ensure that the parties to the contract do not recant what they originally agreed upon.  Often, parties may dispute contractual terms if contracts are not working out in their favor or are resulting in negative or unanticipated consequences.

When a document is drafted by an attorney, parties usually feel more confident and secure about the transaction. A legal document will help prevent any future deviations from its original intent because all aspects of the matter have been stipulated in the final written document.   

If there is any disagreement regarding the written contract, the court’s consideration of evidence is limited.  For example, the courts may look into the prior deals between the parties and check out industry practices as a means of comparison.  However, it is typically prohibited to admit evidence of prior agreements or negotiations of the parties on the same contractual matter at issue.

The court may also inquire as to whether the agreement is partially or completely integrated. A fully integrated document is one intended by the parties to represent all of the terms to the exclusion of any prior writings or oral agreements.  If the agreement is fully integrated, then all other information will likely be excluded. On the other hand, if the document is only partially integrated, the court may take note of circumstantial evidence if such evidence does not contradict the agreement. 

“Parol evidence” is generally oral evidence.  It is beneficial and may be admitted under certain circumstances after the parties agree to a final written agreement.  For example, if the parties to the contract made a mistake, such as omitting or mistakenly listing a term, parol evidence may be considered.  In that case, the option of bringing in subsequent agreements in limited circumstances may be available.  

Parol evidence also comes into play when the writing of the document is unclear or if there is a dispute as to the meaning of certain terms within the contract.  Finally, new evidence is admissible if there is illegality or fraud relating to the contract.  Conferring with a contract attorney will help to clarify how parol evidence rule may affect current and future dealings.


Monday, April 17, 2017

An Overview of Foundational Corporate Documents

There are a number of steps involved in forming a corporation from selecting a name, obtaining the necessary licenses and permits, paying certain fees, and filing foundational documents with the appropriate state agency. While an attorney can help prepare and file the required papers, the owners, officer and directors should have a basic understanding of these documents.

Articles of Incorporation

The first underlying document is the Articles of Incorporation which states the corporate name, and the  purpose of the business. This is typically a generic statement to the effect that the corporation will conduct any lawful business in the state in accordance with its objectives.  In addition, the type and amount of stock that will be issued (common or preferred) must be established. This document should contain any other pertinent information, including the name and address of a registered agent.

Corporate By-laws

By-laws are the formal rules regarding the day-today operations of a corporation. This document outlines the corporate structure and establishes the rights and powers of the shareholders, officers and directors. By-laws specify how officers and directors are nominated and elected as well as their responsibilities. In addition this document should clarify how disputes among the parties will be resolved. By-laws establish where and when meetings will be held, whether quarterly, annually or at other times, what constitutes a quorum, as well as voting and proxy rules. Lastly, this document should also contain information on the issuance of shares of stock and other operational details.

Meeting Minutes

After the corporate existence has begun, an initial organizational meeting of the principals must be held in order to adopt by-laws, elect directors, issue stock, and to conduct any other business. All of these activities must be memorialized in meeting minutes, which must also be prepared during any subsequent meetings.

Stock Certificates

Stock certificates are the record of any stock that was initially issued.

Once these foundational documents are in place, a corporation is also required to keep complete and accurate books and records of account and must maintain a record containing the names and addresses of all shareholders. All of these documents may fall under different names and the applicable laws vary from state to state. Because this is a complicated process and one that requires careful analysis, you are well advised to engage the services of an experienced business law attorney to help prepare and file the necessary foundational documents.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Capacity to Contract - Minors, The Mentally Disabled & The Intoxicated

The value and success of a business often rests on the ability of the principals involved to make and enforce contracts with third-parties.  However, if the person who entered into a particular agreement did not have the “capacity to contract” in the first place, then those contracts may be “voidable.”  A contract is “voidable” if it permits the person without legal capacity to either terminate or enforce the agreement.  This is meant to ensure that the weaker party does not get taken advantage of due to unequal bargaining power. 

Again, contracts become “voidable” at the discretion of the party who does not have the ability to execute an agreement.  The “capacity to contract” is an individual’s lawful competence “to enter into a binding contract.”  In other words, there is a presumption that certain individuals cannot understand what they are agreeing to.  This category typically includes mentally incompetent individuals or minors. 

Minors (typically those under the age of 18), do not have the legal power to form a contract.  However, if a minor does enter into a contract, he or she usually has the option to cancel while still under the age of 18. If the individual is no longer a minor and has not yet exercised the right to void the contract, the contract may be enforceable after the person has turned 18. 

Similarly, a person who is mentally incompetent can either have his or her guardian void the agreement or personally cancel it. Tests for mental fitness at the time a contract is signed vary from state to state. Nevertheless, minors and the mentally disabled may not be permitted to void contracts intended to provide them with necessities, such as clothing, shelter and food.   

Persons under the influence of alcohol or drugs do not usually have the same power to void contracts as do minors and the mentally disabled. Typically, intoxication is deemed a “voluntary” act and courts encourage intoxicated individuals to assume accountability for their actions.  If an individual was so inebriated as to be unable to appreciate “the nature and consequences of the agreement,” however, the intoxicated party may be able to void the contract. If another person used the intoxicated party’s condition as a means to take advantage of the situation, this can also be used as a loophole for the intoxicated party to void the contract. Anyone attempting to void a contract should consult with a savvy business attorney in order to explore the possibilities of viable options in his or her particular case.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Use of Non-Disclosure Agreements

As a small business owner, it is essential to protect sensitive information that is often referred to as trade secrets. While some well known examples of trade secrets include the formula for Coca-Cola and Google's algorithms, any business information such as practices and techniques, processes and procedures, needs to remain confidential. In some cases, business data such as client and vendor lists may qualify as a trade secret.

Although trade secrets and other confidential business information are protected by state and federal laws, it is crucial to secure this information through the use of a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement. In sum, this is a legal contract between two or more parties in which the party receiving the sensitive information agrees not to reveal it to any other party without prior permission or authorization.

In situations in which a business engages with vendors or enters into a strategic alliance with a similar business, a separate, stand-alone agreement can be used. Similarly, confidentiality provisions can be incorporated into an employment agreement for employees who are given access to sensitive business information. In either case, common provisions included in these agreements include:

  • A definition of the confidential information (but usually not the protected information itself)

  • An explanation as to why the information is being provided to the receiving party

  • Terms under which the information may be disclosed to appropriate parties (such as on a need-to-know basis)

  • The circumstances in which the information may or not be used

  • The duration of time  the information must be kept confidential

In order for a non-disclosure agreement to be enforceable, it must be deemed fair. A court typically looks to whether an agreement is overly restrictive in making a determination of fairness. If the contract is unduly burdensome to the party receiving the information, a court may find all or part of the agreement invalid. If the information has already been revealed to a third party and the agreement is deemed to be invalid, a business may be barred from recovering damages for its losses. For this reason, it is crucial to consult with an experienced business law attorney who can help to prepare a well designed non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.

 


Monday, February 27, 2017

The Benefits of Incorporating in Safe Haven States

Many business owners believe it's best to incorporate in their home state, but there are often business and tax advantages available in other states. In particular, Delaware and Nevada are attractive to those who are looking to form a corporation. These so-called corporate haven states are considered to be business friendly.

The State of Delaware is well regarded for its supportive business and corporate laws, said to be among the most favorable in the United States. In addition, the state has a judicial body, the Court of Chancery, that is dedicated to business matters. This exclusive focus allows the court to hear cases quickly and efficiently.

Delaware also features a government agency that is focused on supporting businesses, the Division of Corporations. In particular, this agency has streamlined procedures for incorporating that allow businesses to hit the ground running. The Division boasts long hours and provides new businesses with easy access to important resources.

Lastly, the tax law in Delaware is amenable to corporations. A corporation that is formed, but does not conduct business, in the state is not liable for corporate income tax. Moreover, there is no personal income tax for those domiciled in the state or for shareholders that do not reside in Delaware.

Nevada is the second most popular state in which to incorporate. The state's business law affords favorable treatment to corporations. In particular, owners and managers of a corporation are rarely held responsible for the actions of the corporation in the state. Nevada also offers advantageous tax treatment to corporations with no personal income, franchise or corporate income tax.

Depending upon the exigencies of your business,  incorporating in Delaware or Nevada might be the best alternative. By engaging the services of an experienced business and tax law attorney, you can take advantage of these corporate safe havens.

 


Monday, February 6, 2017

What Does "Goodwill" Mean When Buying a Business?

Goodwill is an asset that is an intangible part of a business being purchased. In spite of its intangibility, goodwill may be worth more than concrete assets, such as property, buildings, machinery or inventory. Goodwill is the essence of the company's value to its customers, clients, and employees and, as such, is invaluable to any buyer. It is easier, as many people intending to purchase a business will tell you, to maintain goodwill than to establish it, since, among other things, goodwill takes time to build. Purchasing a business that already has established goodwill in the community can give the new owner a strong competitive edge. 

What Intangible Assets Compose Goodwill? 

Prospective buyers and sellers should be aware of the various aspects of goodwill. Not all will apply to every business, but aspects of goodwill include:

  • Brand name
  • Solid customer base
  • Good customer relations
  • Good employee relations
  • Patents or proprietary technology
  • General reputation
  • Future sales projection

 

Goodwill is a saleable asset, presumed to generate sales revenue and customer continuity. Having been established over years of honest and efficient behavior by the previous owner, it is transferable to the buyer, assuming the buyer maintains the pre-established excellent business practices.

How Is Goodwill Established?

As mentioned, goodwill can only be established over a period of years during which it is nourished and maintained. In business, it is assumed that expenditures have been involved in creating and preserving goodwill. Steps taken to do this include: 

  • Healthy and continuous investment in promotion
  • Maintenance of necessary quantity of high quality customer supplies
  • Support of excellent relationships with both customers and suppliers
  • Maintenance of efficient and respectful management and employees relationships
  • Establishment and maintenance of corporate identity and image
  • Keeping up an appropriate location

How Is Goodwill Evaluated?

 There is no set price for goodwill, though it very definitely features in sales negotiations. Generally speaking, goodwill is reflected in the amount in excess of the firm's total value of assets and liabilities. In well-established businesses, goodwill may be reflected in a price several times higher than the firm's physical assets alone would be reasonably worth.

There are several complex methods by which business goodwill can be calculated so it is essential to have a highly competent business attorney involved in the negotiation process


Monday, January 9, 2017

Why Your Business Needs an Email Policy


In the contemporary workplace, email is an essential and efficient form of communication. Whether it's used internally among staff members, or for exchanges with vendors and customers, email is a necessary business tool. At the same time, misuse of this technology can expose an organization to legal and reputational risks as well as security breaches. For this reason, it is crucial to put a formal email policy in place.

First, an email policy should clarify whether you intend to monitor email usage.


Read more . . .


Monday, December 19, 2016

Patents

Inventors have a right to protect their inventions through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). With the creation of a device come a bundle of property rights issued by the United States Government.   A patent prevents all “others from making, using, or selling the invention in the United States.”  The patent may survive for varying periods of time, depending on what type of patent is applied for and issued. Typically, protection does not activate until the patent is legally granted. 

Not all creations can be patented.  Only a device that is “new, non-obvious and useful” may qualify for a “utility patent.”  Abstract or theoretical concepts or ideas may not be protected by means of a patent.  Likewise, an invention is not patentable if it has been “publically disclosed.”  In order to determine this, patent searches should be conducted prior to filing an application. These searches may be very complex and an attorney’s instruction is advised.

Creations that cannot be approved under patent law may still be protectable through another method, such as trademark or copyright law. An intellectual property (IP) attorney can help advise clients about making the appropriate distinctions. An IP attorney is available not only to educate clients on the various application requirements for all types of intellectual property, but is prepared to provide provisional or non-provisional applications for patents. A non-provisional application establishes the filing date of the patent application, beginning the application process.  A provisional application only establishes the filing date and automatically expires after one year.

If there is more than one person involved in the creation of an invention, the partners may need to file an application as "joint inventors." Unfortunately, there are often disputes concerning which individual actually created the invention; sometime both parties claim to be the "sole inventor." Usually, after thoroughly analyzing all the facts, the attorney(s) can determine whether one or both inventors have the right to file the patent or whether they should file jointly.

There are several fees involved in obtaining a patent license, including filing, issuance, and maintenance fees.  An experienced IP attorney can inform clients of the timetable they will be responsible for, and clarify when various terms, such as "patent pending" or "patent applied for" are supposed to be used to keep the public updated regarding where the inventor is in the patent application process. 


Monday, November 28, 2016

Non-Compete Agreements - Are they enforceable?

Courts typically disfavor “covenants not to compete” or “non-compete agreements.”  Therefore, the terms and provisions of these contracts must not be overly restrictive of the employee.  In order for a non-compete to be upheld, the document must “be reasonable in scope, geography, and time.”  It cannot last for years on end, or prevent the employee from working anywhere in the entire state. Likewise, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from working in a large variety of industries, especially if the restriction includes industries wholly unrelated to the employer’s line of work. 

Two other elements are analyzed by a court to determine the validity of a non-compete agreement:  (1) there must be mutual consideration between both the employer and employee at the moment the contract is signed and (2) the non-competition agreement must protect “a legitimate business interest of the employer.”  Preventing a former employee from working for an employer’s business rival, or preventing disclosure of trade secrets or personally identifiable information of important clientele, are typically considered justifiable business interests.

Non-compete agreements are generally implemented to protect a company’s most important assets:  its reputation and its confidential information.  However, the terms protecting these assets cannot be overly broad or vague.  Thus, in evaluating the “reasonableness” of a non-competition agreement, the court will conduct a “balancing test.”  This is a comparison of the employer’s need to protect its “business interests” with the “burden that enforcement of the agreement would place on the employee.” 

The validity of non-compete agreements is decided on a case-by-case basis. The court will consider circumstances such as the length of time certain information will be kept confidential, and the company’s reasons for limiting the employee's job search to a geographical area. If the court finds that the agreement serves a valid interest and does not exceed the range necessary to protect that interest, the entire agreement may be upheld. 

The court also has the option of doing away with overly intrusive terms in a non-compete, rather than invalidating the agreement entirely. In cases in which a non-compete is perceived by the court as punitive, unduly restricting an employee from obtaining employment, the agreement will not be upheld.  A licensed attorney who specializes in employment law will be able to gauge the likelihood that a particular non-compete agreement will be enforceable.


Monday, November 7, 2016

Trade Secret Vs. Patent Protection

Many business owners wonder which type of Intellectual Property protection is the best fit for their business purposes?  A “trade secret” is intellectual property that is kept private in order to maintain its financial value in the marketplace.  Examples of trade secrets include: “a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process.”  

Alternatively, a “patent” generally protects a “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.”  Thus, a creation may receive protection under either patent or trademark law, but not both, due to varying disclosure rules.  Also, there are several types of patents available, including utility, design, and plant patents. 

Companies that make it a priority to preserve their trade secrets will go to great lengths to prevent others from misusing or misappropriating their critical information. It is likely that a business will seek out the powers of the court system in order to protect the financially viable benefit that derives from their trade secrets. In cases where trade secrets have been violated, courts may order the culpable party to preserve confidentiality or pay expenses, which often include any damages a business sustains as a result of the misuse of a trade secret. 

However, trade secret protection is not without its limits. If a trade secret becomes publically known through an authorized admission, protection may be completely lost.  Additionally, trade secret protection does not protect a business from “independent discovery.”  Independent discovery is when a third party discovers, for example, the formula to a best-selling beverage, on its own.  

On the other hand, trade secret protection usually does not terminate the way other types of intellectual property (such as patents) do.  A patent only protects the inventor for a restricted period of time.  A patent license might not be a good fit if the intention is to keep certain data about the creation a secret.  In order to apply for a patent, intricate details about the device in question have to be revealed, and upon expiration, the information disclosed may become free for anyone to use. 

An intellectual property attorney is capable of evaluating original works and counseling clients on the various types of protection afforded under intellectual property law. He or she will offer good advice about which type of protection best suits each individual situation. 


Monday, October 17, 2016

Oral Contracts & The Statute of Frauds - Is the Agreement Binding?

There is a widespread misconception that verbal contracts are unenforceable.  Nevertheless, a contract made orally with another party, without embodying the particular terms in a signed writing, can still be valid and binding. Even so, any disagreement concerning the deal may pose multiple problems for both parties.  In order for the court to give a verbal contract legal effect, the terms of the deal will have to be demonstrated. This could involve pricey litigation and an extensive discovery process.  Therefore, it is advisable to have an attorney draft any contractual agreement.

Moreover, according to the Statute of Frauds, there are certain contracts that must be in writing in order to be legally binding.  This may include contracts for the sale of land or real estate, surety agreements, in which one person guarantees to take over another's contractual obligations, and service agreements that take over one year to complete.  Other agreements that must be written to be legally binding may include agreements “made in the consideration of marriage,” or those made for the sale of goods valued at $500 or more. If the requirements for contractual validity are not met, either party runs the risk of the other party rescinding the contract by declaring it void.

The Statute of Frauds not only aims to prevent deception or fraud; it requires precise terms to be set in writing for a contract to be valid. The Statute of Frauds typically requires the document to include a description of the “subject matter” of the agreement, the main stipulations to the deal, and the signatures of the parties.  Nevertheless, these requirements may vary with the sale of goods under the Uniform Commercial Code, where a signature by the “party to be charged” may be sufficient.  For a sale of goods, the terms typically should include the price and quantity of the goods. 

Sometimes, if the contract is unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds, it may be saved if one party suffered by relying on the contract and if the injured party can prove this reliance in court.  Likewise, an exception may exist if “specially manufactured goods” were provided under the contract or one party “partially performed” what was required by the agreement.  The outcome may also vary if two merchants were the contracting parties.  Seek advice from a licensed business law and contract attorney to evaluate agreements and determine whether they are legally enforceable. 


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