Unemployment Insurance in Missouri: Should Employers Respond to Claim Notices?

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

New regulations require Missouri employers to respond timely to information requests regarding unemployment insurance compensation. The federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Extension Act (“TAAEA” or the “Act”) of 2011 requires, among other things, that states increase employers’ duties regarding unemployment compensation claims. Specifically, the Act provides that states must require employers to respond timely and adequately to Claim Notices, information requests from state agencies relating to unemployment benefit compensation claims. It also requires states to charge the unemployment accounts of employers that repeatedly fail to respond to Claim Notices for unemployment benefits paid to ineligible former employees.

In Missouri, an employee that satisfies all the unemployment insurance benefit eligibility requirements may still be disqualified from receiving benefits for voluntarily quitting without good cause or for being discharged for work misconduct. Once a terminated employee files a claim for unemployment benefits, the Missouri Division of Employment Security (“DES”) mails the former employer a Claim Notice, which requires a response within 10 days. The Claim Notice permits the employer to protest an unemployment benefits claim because the former employee quit voluntarily or was discharged for misconduct. If the claim is not in dispute, the employer must still respond to acknowledge the claim.

Some employers routinely fail to respond to Claim Notices. They may systematically choose not to respond to Claim Notices to avoid becoming involved in a former employee’s benefits appeal. Continue reading »

U.S. Supreme Court Backs Resellers in Physical Goods Copyright Case

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Co-authored by Ruth Binger and Jeffrey L. Michelman

Suppose you plan to buy a large supply of Disney books from an overstocked Barnes & Noble retailer in Taiwan, and then offer your employees the opportunity to purchase the books at a deep discount as gifts for Christmas.  You reason that if the employees don’t buy up all of the books, you can always sell the remainder to a discount book chain or on the Internet.

You are approached by the human resources department manager and advised that Disney is very litigious about protecting its copyrights. Because your company is not an authorized seller for Disney products, the manager fears losing an infringement lawsuit.

Fortunately, your legal counsel is familiar with this issue. Upon learning that you intend to make the initial purchase from an authorized Disney retailer in Taiwan, counsel advises that your company is protected by the “First Sale” Doctrine of the Copyright Act.

And the U.S. Supreme Court agrees. In Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, the Court held that a legally obtained copyrighted work can be imported into the U.S. and resold without permission from the copyright owner even if it was manufactured and sold overseas. The ruling applies to sale of physical, tangible works and not digital works that are licensed and not easily resold because of license agreements. The Court explained that in a complex and interconnected world, buyers, sellers, and retailers should be able to import and sell products without having to search out the copyright owner to determine if the U.S. copyright owner approves of the sale.

The facts are simple.  Kirtsaeng, a Thailand citizen, moved to the U.S. to study mathematics at Cornell University, and entered a Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Southern California. Continue reading »

Common Sense Road Map to Employee Discipline and Termination

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Owners and managers frequently face the difficult process of terminating an employee for a reason other than lack of work. The reasons are many and varied, ranging from being placed in the “wrong seat on the bus” to poor cultural fit to “good cause” reasons, such as performance or behavior. Although employment at will is the rule of law, laws exist that undercut the employer’s absolute power to terminate for any reason whatsoever. Many of these laws are just plain common sense and can be compared to administering discipline with your own children.

Decisions made in haste or poorly executed have a very long damage tail including lawsuits, reduced morale, and loss of business momentum. By looking through the lens of both human nature and law, managers and owners can learn to make and execute decisions that are generally defensible both inside and outside the company culture. Knowing what could be coming and where it’s coming from will create a wiser decision process, a more legally defensible position, and buy-in from your watchful employees.

Practicing the following 10 rules will put you on a road map of common sense when dealing with issues related to employee discipline or termination:

  1. Investigate. Investigating the facts protects the integrity of the process and lessens the ability of an employee to establish an unlawful motive. Poking in the weeds also provides feedback to you on what is working, what is not working, and what should be changed. Look for facts – not hearsay and speculation. Determining credibility is your job. Companies are human collaborative efforts containing many actors with varying motives and agendas that can be constructive, bad, opportunistic or even crooked. Consider plausibility, demeanor, motive to lie, corroboration, and past record when making judgment calls.
  2. Interview witnesses and the employee in question. Ask the employee in question to explain what happened in front of two management witnesses. Write down exactly what the employee states and ask him/her to sign it.  Ask the employee for objective facts or witnesses to support his/her position. Your aim is to pin down the employee to “one recollection.” Interview complainants and witnesses by asking who, what, where, when and how questions. Let them know that you will try to keep the investigation as confidential as possible under the circumstances and in compliance with the law. This arduous process prevents tears at the fabric of your culture. Continue reading »

Social Media: Six Ways to Protect Today’s You and Tomorrow’s You

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Thanks to an exponential growth rate in technology, the Internet has changed the world and how we communicate with each other.  In 1995, 16 million people used the Internet.  Last year, 2 billion people used the Internet and in 2020 it is predicted that the number will be over 5 billion.    

Google, a 12-year-old company, has certainly fueled this growth.  Social media platforms have also supercharged Internet usage.  Facebook claims to have over 800 million active subscribers, LinkedIn claims 85 million subscribers and YouTube has over 100 million videos online.

However, the way we relate to and judge each other, whether it is for employment, relationships, or credit history, has not changed.  We are all trying to predict each other’s future behavior for the relationship(s) and transactions we seek.

Facebook purports to be worth $104 billion with its purchase of Instagram.  Why is it worth so much?  Because companies are spending over $2 billion per year to collect information from social media outlets about what we as consumers want.  Our behavior and our opinions can be measured in fine detail as we post and that behavior can be monetized.  For example, it is estimated that your personal/buying information is worth $50 to $500 to Google, depending upon how much you spend.  On Twitter, each of your followers, assuming you have a large following, could be worth as much as $2.50 each per month.  In short, personal data greases the Internet.  The data we share (names, addresses, pictures, precise locations, and links) helps companies target advertising based not only on demographic but also on personal opinion and desires. 

What does all of this information mean to you as an individual? Technology rules will continue to change, so you need to be vigilant. It is important for you to keep up with the positives and negatives of the rapidly changing technology. Right now, social media is at its height but it is designed for websites. That is predicted to change as the world moves to smartphones.  Nearly $1 million worth of features come with any smartphone and there are a billion smartphones in the world.  Within the next decade, 6 billion people will have a constant connection to the Internet.  This explains why Facebook recently bought Instagram, a mobile app company, for $1 billion. Facebook wants to conquer the smartphone market and not be left behind.  Continue reading »

10 Best Practices for Protecting Your Company’s Trade Secrets, Internet Access and Good Will

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

The exponential growth of technology has created amazing efficiencies in how businesses operate. Such cost savings come with a cost and companies need to continuously adapt to the ever changing opportunities and vulnerabilities. In 2020, it is predicted that over 5 billion people will be using the Internet, and within the next decade 6 billion people will have a constant connection to the Internet. The growth of your business is inextricably combined with the growth of the Internet.

Below are 10 best practices for your businesses to consider as you move forward:

Continue reading »

Manufacturing Showing Signs of Improvement in St. Louis

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Part of a series on issues related to Manufacturers, Distributors and International Trade

Historically, St. Louis has been known as a manufacturing region. But over the past few decades, manufacturing jobs have dropped significantly. St. Louis has lost nearly half of its factory jobs since 1990 and now only 1 in 10 working St. Louisans work in manufacturing.

2011 saw a slightly positive sign of recovery in manufacturing. 3,400 jobs were added to the manufacturing sector in this region. Boeing’s deal to build 85 F-15s for Saudi Arabia should continue fighter jet production in the region through 2020. General Motors recently decided to make a huge investment in its Wentzville plant, adding over 1,200 new jobs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced that total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 243,000 in January and the unemployment rate decreased to 8.3 percent. The BLS also recently announced that nonfarm business sector productivity increased at a 0.7 percent annual rate during the fourth quarter in 2011. This reflects of 3.6 percent in output and 2.9 percent in hours worked.

There are positive signs that St. Louis manufacturing jobs are increasing.

Posted by Attorney Ruth Binger. Binger serves both emerging and mature businesses concentrating in corporate law, intellectual property and technology law, and labor and employment law. Her commitment to the success of small to medium-sized businesses, and her understanding of multi-faceted issues inherent in operations, are what distinguish Binger’s practice.

Lack of an Exit Plan Equals Dead Company Walking

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Part of a series on issues related to Manufacturers, Distributors and International Trade

Ralph Waldo Emerson warns that “rest, conservatism, appropriation, inertia; not newness, not the way onward” are forms of old age which causes people (I submit companies also) to be dead while they are yet alive. Yet, your manufacturing company can grow young again, if you as the leader/owner pursue and embrace strategic planning, innovation, and sustainability.

The root cause hindering such onward movement is frequently caused by a lack of succession/exit strategies for business owners/leaders. The Small Business Administration estimates that at any given time, forty percent of businesses are facing transfer of ownership issues. Without arriving upon a succession plan/exit strategy for the owner/leader, onward is not possible.

Rather, the bitter truth of humanity is realized – we all die and many times we take our companies with us. The familiar aphorism “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” describes the propensity of family-owned businesses to fail by the third generation. In fact, it is estimated that less than one-third of family businesses survive the transition from first to second generation ownership, and only 10 percent remain active for the third generation to lead.

By creating an exit/succession plan, a business owner/leader is forced to consider not only what the business needs today but what is needed for the future. The owner will make hundreds of decisions differently such as: making an S Corporation election; entering into contracts with key employees, distributors, and suppliers; maintaining clean records; developing and incenting a good management team; and/or transferring stock to family members. Without a plan, the business will mostly die due to the lack of necessary investment in leadership and talent, business systems, and “state of the art” equipment.

Continue reading »

Terminate an Employee Returning from FMLA Leave and You Could Be Sued in Your “Individual Capacity”

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

To add to the woes and stress of business owners, supervisors and managers, public and private decision makers who act directly or indirectly in the interest of the employer can be sued in their individual capacity under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

Most of us forget it, but the same rules that apply to actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act also apply to actions brought under the FMLA (29 C.F.R. Section 825.104(d) (2009)). A July 11, 2011 decision by the Eastern District of Virginia Court, Eastern Division, titled Weth v. O’Leary (U.S. District Court of E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division) provides important lessons regarding this issue with respect to terminating employees returning from Family Medical and Leave Act, especially if the decision makers are public officials and have sovereign immunity. 

In Weth, the Court refused to grant summary judgment and allowed a FMLA case to proceed to trial because of a highly suspicious timeline, prior raises and highly positive reviews, and the lack of write ups or written documentation bolstering the performance reason defense. 

Plaintiff Weth initially sued O’Leary, both individually and in his official capacity as Arlington County Treasurer. The Court granted Summary Judgment in favor of O’Leary with respect to the official capacity claim because as a state constitutional officer, O’Leary was entitled to sovereign immunity. The Court refused to dismiss the individual claim because sovereign immunity does not apply to individuals sued in their purely personal and individual capacity. The Court cited favorable decisions from various Circuit Courts (Darby v. Bratch, 287 F.3d 673, 681 (8th Cir. 2002)) where courts found that there was no reason to distinguish liability between individual corporate officers and individual public officials.

Weth was employed as a Deputy Treasurer for Litigation for the Arlington County Treasurer for six years. As late as 2009, Weth had received highly positive reviews regarding her job performance and approved salary increases. 

Weth was diagnosed with cancer in September of 2009 and advised O’Leary. In December, Weth initially sent emails to O’Leary advising him that she would need surgery in January, but then advised that the surgery would be in December. Weth worked until the 21st of December, underwent surgery on the 22nd of December and returned to work on the 16th of February.

On her return date O’Leary advised her that she needed to begin looking for a new job immediately, that she was being demoted and almost all of her job duties were being removed and that her sole responsibility was to find a job. One month later, O’Leary suspended her, sent her home with the directive that she was being relieved of all of her job duties and her sole responsibility was to find other employment. 

Continue reading »

Your Employees Are Griping About You on Facebook: Can You Fire Them?

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

Have you ever caught your employees publicly griping about your company, or maybe even about you personally, on Facebook? If you have, your first instinct might have been to discipline or even fire them.

But according to several recent decisions from the National Labor Relations Board, if colleagues discuss compensation, working conditions or other issues related to their employment over Facebook, their conduct may be protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

A conversation that either plans for group action or brings group complaints to management’s attention is considered “concerted activity” under Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

So if you see negative posts about your company on Facebook, think carefully before you react.

For a more in-depth look at Employee Social Media Griping read my recent article on social media posts and see what may and may not be protected by the NLRA.

Posted by Attorney Ruth A. Binger. Binger serves both emerging and mature businesses concentrating in corporate law, intellectual property and technology law, and labor and employment law. Her commitment to the success of small to medium-sized businesses, and her understanding of multi-faceted issues inherent in operations, are what distinguish Binger’s practice.

Beware the Trojan Horse that is Social Media

Ruth Binger

By Ruth Binger

While establishing and maintaining an organizational presence on popular media websites and blogs (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), businesses need to be aware of the legend of Troy and its supposed downfall due to a Trojan Horse. Greek mythology states that Greek warriors concocted a scheme whereby they built a wooden horse and offered it as a gift to the Trojans. The Trojans, in their greed and arrogance, accepted the gift and brought it within their gates. Then, at night as the Trojans slept, the Greek warriors emerged from the belly of the Trojan horse and defeated the Trojans changing the course of a ten-year siege.

Today, a Trojan Horse is more often thought of as a destructive software program that disguises itself as a helpful application. Similarly, although social media may be helpful for your business, be aware what could be lying in the belly of that Trojan Horse.

Line Between Private vs. Public Blurred

According to the Socialnomics web site, Generation Y will outnumber baby boomers sometime this year and 90% of them have already joined an online social network. For many young people, and even 50 year-olds, the line between private and public has disappeared as they tweet, blog, text and share the minutiae of both their personal lives and everyone around them – including their employer. Social media users are under the mistaken assumption that they own the web content they are generating and can retrieve it and delete it if needed.

They are also under the mistaken impression that what they say is protected by some cocoon and that the content they generate is private. This is not true, as evidenced by a Detroit hospital worker who was terminated after she posted a comment on Facebook about a man she treated who was accused of killing a police officer. She was fired for violating strict patient privacy rules under the federal HIPAA law. A Massachusetts 54 year old high school teacher also learned this lesson when posting negative comments about her school community, students, and parents even though she had set the privacy setting on her Facebook account. Moreover, cases are clear that locking a profile from public access does not prevent discovery in litigation either.

Disclosure of Company Information at Risk

Given the fact that technology is moving so fast and disclosure is instantaneous, worldwide and permanent, companies need to train their employees on the dangers of purposeful or inadvertent disclosure of company information. What is at stake for the employer is the loss of confidential information and trade secrets, disclosure of protectable third party information or medical information, suits from other companies for disclosure of secrets, and discrimination suits. For instance, companies recruiting and hiring managers often use social media in order to obtain more information on a candidate than they otherwise could.

However, discrimination laws prohibit employers from making direct inquiries regarding gender, race and other protected factors in their hiring process. If a candidate is not hired, the employer could be subject to discrimination claims alleging that the decision was illegal and based on a protected characteristic. Some online companies, in fact, claim that the social media profiles they will sell you comply with discrimination laws. Similarly, doing social media checks on some employees but not others could also lead to issues. Unregulated monitoring of an employee’s online presence could also lead to privacy related claims. Finally, going to the other extreme, a manager providing a favorable recommendation for a terminated employee could wreck havoc on an employer’s defense in a discrimination suit.

Scrapers & Listening Companies

The information that online users share is not just among their friends but is unknowingly shared with Web tracking companies and advertisers as well. In fact, Facebook acknowledged that its popular application, FarmVille, had improperly shared identifying information about users and, in some cases, their friends with advertisers and Web tracking companies. Social networks are becoming the new public records. Scrapers and listening companies argue they are just being entrepreneurial in that they are only gathering information that is available online anyway- in effect USER BEWARE! U.S. Court rulings are contradictory with respect to scraping, the practice of retrieving data from output from other programs.

People search websites, including Intelius, Inc., offer services that include criminal background checks. “Date Check” promises details about prospective dates for $14.95. Bringing it back to your business, some outfits such as 80Legs.com will scrape a million Web pages for $101. In fact, one Utah company, Screen-scrapers.com, offers scraping software for free. Beware:  if your competitors are not buying your business, they may be stealing it from you by scraping your company.

Bottom Line:  Companies & Users Beware

What is even more disturbing, is that the cyber-criminals who invade social networks to infiltrate your private computer are now invading your work and corporate computers as well. In short, Companies and Users Beware: Social Media can be a Trojan Horse.