Archive for the ‘Business Entity’ Category

Marriage in Ethereum – A Cautionary Tale

June 24, 2016

In May 2016, a couple who intend to get married in December 2016 created a prenuptial smart contract agreement on Ethereum in blockchain. Ethereum is not a honeymoon resort, but provides a unique way to create, enter into, execute, pay for, secure, and enforce, contracts. The preparation of a prenuptial agreement in this manner heralds an evolution of contracts and contract management. What follows is my take on the legal intersection of autonomous contracting software and human relationships – specifically, a self-executing prenuptial agreement.

Prenuptial agreements are nothing new. Neither are virtual contracts. What is new is how this contracting process runs without human intervention based on a sequence of coded events monitored and executed by a virtual distributed transaction-based and encrypted system. What began as a transparent and public peer-to-peer financial ledger using bitcoin cryptocurrency, is now on the verge of managing personal lives as well.

I have watched bitcoin cryptocurrency and the underlying transaction software which supports the blockchain infrastructure for some time. Cryptocurrency evolved from the current fiat monetary system and has been compared to the gold standard. These monetary forms rely on a belief that the currency (in whatever form) has an agreed upon, or market created, value. Similarly, consideration, a necessary legal contract element, relies upon the parties agreeing that the value exchanged (the consideration – whether money or promises) is sufficient for an enforceable contract.

Blockchain is often described as an online decentralized ledger of financial transactions, the nature of which is transparent to others on the blockchain.  Ethereum is a blockchain platform over which cryptocurrency can be exchanged as well as smart contracts formed.

Co-founder, Vitalik Buterin, described Ethereum as “a “world computer”: a place where anyone can upload and run programs that are guaranteed to be executed exactly as written on a highly robust and decentralized consensus network consisting of thousands of computers around the world.” The Ethereum platform uses “ether” cryptocurrency, a competitor to the more familiar bitcoin. The smart contract manages a series of mini transactions (with the colloquial meaning, not the Ethereum definition), each of which build the agreement whole. Along the way, “fees” are paid for each interaction along the blockchain process. The fees pay the “miners” who process each transaction.

Now back to the marriage!

When I learned about this prenuptial agreement, I was intrigued. Initially, I wondered why anyone would want to do such a thing. Then I thought this experiment was a disaster waiting to happen. Finally, I realized that this could be awesome!

A prenuptial agreement is a promise in consideration of marriage which has to be in writing in most, if not all, 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. This writing requirement comes to the U.S. via the British “Act for the prevention of Frauds and Perjuryes,” which required some transactions to be in writing, whereas many oral agreements remained as enforceable as written ones. A promise in consideration of marriage is one example among many.

A case that I used in my Engineering Law class for several years was Curtis v. Anderson, where Curtis wanted Anderson to return an engagement ring when he broke off the engagement.  Anderson refused. Curtis brought a lawsuit which claimed that he gave her the ring in consideration of marriage and that she agreed to return the ring if they did not get married. In the alternative, the ring was a conditional gift.

If the ring was a promise in consideration of marriage, the promise would have to be writing under the statute of frauds.

If a ring is presented upon acceptance of a marriage proposal (the promises have already been exchanged in advance of the ring giving), it may be viewed as a conditional gift under Texas law. As a conditional gift, the gift’s terms don’t have to be in writing. The conditional gift rule only works, however, if the person who accepted the ring/gift broke the engagement.

Did Curtis get back the ring?

The court determined that the statutes related to prenuptial agreements and the statute of frauds applied. There was no writing, so whatever the parties said either before or after the engagement, did not create an enforceable prenuptial agreement. In addition, since Curtis broke off the engagement, the ring did not qualify as a conditional gift. Therefore, Anderson didn’t have to return the ring.

For my students, this was a much discussed result. Happily for me, the case was an opportunity to talk about the difference between ethics and law, as well as the difference between an engagement (which does not have to be in writing) and a promise in consideration of marriage (which does).

Which leads to the Ethereum prenuptial agreement and whether its terms would be enforceable. Generally, a contract in the U.S. is enforceable if: 1) the parties can legally enter into the contract; 2) there is an offer and acceptance; 3) there is consideration; and 4) the subject matter/form is legal.

Let’s look at each contract element in the Ethereum prenuptial agreement.

Parties and legality.  I don’t know how old the parties are or whether they may legally agree to marry. But, there is a clue – the prenuptial agreement is related to an anticipated marriage in India. If the parties entered into this agreement in India, it may not stand. Nonetheless, a dispute involving the prenuptial agreement may be resolved based on British common law which may apply in India via the Indian Contract Act of 1872.

Offer and acceptance. The parties’ acceptance may be indicated by their seemingly independent interactions with the smart contract.

Consideration.  The consideration in the prenuptial agreement is the exchange of promises to do or not do an enumerated list of things. In addition, there is consideration in the form of ether, which pays for the transactions in blockchain and which, in turn, creates the prenuptial agreement. The fees appear to have been paid and the parties appear to have agreed to its value and therefore have agreed to the prenuptial agreement’s terms.

Subject matter/form.  Let’s assume there are no statutory impediments to prenuptial agreements – could this version be enforceable if the parties live and marry in the U.S.? Prenuptial agreements are legal in the U.S. In the agreement, the magic words required for an enforceable prenuptial agreement are in writing: “in consideration of the marriage about to be solemnized between the parties.” The agreement also makes references to date nights, television viewing rules, insult restraint, etc. But to qualify as enforceable agreement, there would have to be acts that the parties have the legal rights to do, and in exchange for not exercising those rights, agree to be bound by the contract.

An example is the “dollar bill” clause of the prenuptial agreement, where the parties agree that “shopping sprees” are only permitted every fortnight, with the exception of food purchases, which have no monetary limit. If the parties do marry and one of the parties violates the $$ clause with daily shopping sprees using a joint bank account from which the shopping sprees are financed, could this violation be used as a reason to file for divorce? Maybe. Would it matter that the contract was entered into on the Ethereum platform? I do not believe so. The final written document can presumably be understood by both parties, even if they did not write the underlying code responsible for its formation. In addition, each phase of the transaction may be considered a separate agreement and further evidence of the parties’ consent to its terms. Absent fraud or duress, the agreement may be enforceable in the U.S.

There have been posts that say that smart contracts may not be legally enforceable. I was unable to discern the single element that would render them illegal. There are contracts that are illegal because of its purpose, e.g., a smart contract to commit fraud is illegal, and therefore unenforceable. Ultimately, the legal problems may be based on the blockchain code itself. If that is the case, I would suggest that each step be analyzed as a separate contract (because consideration is exchanged at every stage in Ethereum) to determine whether each transaction is legally enforceable, e.g., is there offer and acceptance? consideration? legal parties? proper form/legal? All would have to exist for a legally enforceable contract in the U.S.

This troubling issue was explained further in an article by an attorney, Stephen D. Palley. In summary, he suggests that since the nodes through which transactions pass are decentralized, there is no one entity responsible when the transaction fails due to a problem with the software. Once launched, a smart contract does not require or rely on human intervention and is managed by a decentralized autonomous organization or “DAO.” The inevitable legal problem a DAO faces, however, is who to sue if something goes wrong.

This issue is precisely what arose recently when unknown (as of June 23, 2016) Ethereum developers siphoned money from one decentralized autonomous organization’s (called The DAO) account. That smart contract was created using the Solidity programming language which operates in the Ethereum environment. The DAO was recently formed as a business entity similar to an LLC in Switzerland, perhaps in response to Mr. Palley’s articles and other calls to create a formal business entity. Within a year, liability risk went from non-existent to reality for The DAO investors.

Thus, there are two legal landscapes over which a potential user must navigate – the umbrella contract itself as well as the individual transactions over the blockchain.

Where do I see additional problems? The Ethereum platform uses language that is defined differently from legal terms of art. There are centuries of legal precedent that will not be overturned by code. That fact, however, does not mean that such a lexicon cannot be developed. Indeed, PAX has come up with a legal scripting language for Ethereum.

Upon my cursory review of this subject and applying it to a prenuptial agreement, Ethereum or something similar may make legal contractual transactions streamlined, transparent, and verifiable, especially with regard to simple purchases and template driven services.

Also, promoting something similar to a prenuptial agreement that is available for anyone to use without a disclaimer – e.g., this agreement may not be valid in your jurisdiction, or please consult local laws or we are not providing legal advice – should not be encouraged, even if intended to be humorous.

It is with both enthusiasm and caution that I look forward to what smart contracting, DAO, and cryptocurrency will become. I hope that the programmers recognize that the people with whom these systems interact are rarely streamlined, transparent or verifiable. I also hope that ethical, fiduciary, and social concerns are not abandoned as developers design automated contracts for some of the most intimate of human relationships.

Nothing in this article is purported to be legal advice. You can contact me via email at cynthia.gayton@gayton-law.com.

Legal Developments for the Independent Label

January 26, 2016

Sometimes, having old school printed documents is pretty useful. Back in 1999, I wrote an article about independent music publishing for a newsletter called “Portfolio” managed by the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts. I remembered that I had written something about David Bowie – and lo and behold I had. He was very influential to me as I was learning about online music and related legal issues. Here is the newsletter article in its imperfect glory referencing his incredible 375,000 downloads from his website in 1996. Needless to say – things have changed considerably since then. For example, I have closed my CompuServe account

1999 Winter – Portfolio – WALA – Legal Developments

1999 Winter - Portfolio - WALA - Legal Developments

1999 Winter - Portfolio - WALA - Legal Developments2

1999 Winter - Portfolio - WALA - Legal Developments3

What’s Happening Now in Technology, Arts, Small Business & Contracts – November 2015

November 2, 2015

Arts News

Copyrights and Fair Use: Lenz v. Universal Music Group, et. al.

In this appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Ninth Circuit’s panel held that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) requires copyright holders to consider “fair use” before sending a takedown notification. If a copyright holder fails to do this, it introduces a triable issue regarding whether the alleged infringing use was not in accordance with the law. The copyright owner’s determination whether the use is fair use or not is subjective. This subjective “good faith belief” test required under the DMCA can be determined under two analysis methods: 1) the actual knowledge theory and 2) the willful blindness doctrine, both of which the 9th Circuit held could be used under the DMCA.

Actual knowledge theory says that the there must be some actual knowledge of the misrepresentation on the part of the copyright holder. Generally, in order to be held liable for any damages due to misrepresentation, the court will look to whether the person making the statement was negligent in making false statements. The distinction between this and fraud is that to be held liable for fraud, the speaker must have intended that there be reliance on the false statement made.

The “willful blindness doctrine” means that the speaker materially misrepresented that it had a good faith belief that the offending activity was not a fair use. The plaintiff would have to show that the defendants subjectively believed that the use of the copyright protected work constituted fair use. The lower court in this case determined that Lenz could proceed under the actual knowledge theory, but not the blindness doctrine because “because she did not show that the defendants subjectively believed there was a high probability that the video constituted fair use.”

Background: On July 24, 2007, Stephanie Lenz filed a lawsuit under 17 U.S.C. § 512(f)—part of the DMCA against Universal Music Corp. (“UMG”) and its subsidiaries. She claimed that UMG misrepresented in its takedown notification that her 29 second video containing Prince’s song “Let’s Go Crazy” and to which her children danced, was not lawful. The court determined that “the statute requires copyright holders to consider fair use before sending a takedown notification, and that failure to do so raises a triable issue as to whether the copyright holder formed a subjective good faith belief that the use was not authorized by law.

Lenz uploaded her video named “Let’s Go Crazy #1” to YouTube in 2007. UMG monitors YouTube videos and one of its employees found Lenz’s video. The employee checked to see if the video “embodied a Prince composition” and made “significant use of . . . the composition, specifically if the song was recognizable, was in a significant portion of the video or was the focus of the video.” If the song is the focus of the video, UMG’s procedure required that they notify YouTube to take it down. The procedures did not explicitly say that UMG considered application of the fair use doctrine. The notice included a good faith statement which: “We have a good faith belief that the above-described activity is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law.”

YouTube took down the video, and Lenz protested. YouTube brought the protest to UMG’s attention and UMG responded that Lenz did not acknowledge that her statement was made under penalty of perjury and that there was no record that YouTube or Lenz had licenses to use the song. Lenz protested again, and YouTube reinstated the video. Lenz brought a lawsuit regarding UMG’s alleged misrepresentation under 512(f), among other reasons, including tortuous interference. Only the misrepresentation claim was before the Ninth Circuit for this decision.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, service providers, such as YouTube, can avoid copyright infringement claims under certain conditions. Infringement liability can be avoided if the service provider disables or removes the alleged infringing content “expeditiously.” DMCA sets forth the copyright holder’s requirements to support removal: 1) identification of the copyrighted work, 2) identification of the allegedly infringing material, and, 3) a “good faith” statement regarding the copyright holder’s belief that the infringing use was not authorized by the copyright owner, an agent, or the law. If a copyright owner misuses the takedown notice requirements, the owner is subject to liability under 512(f) misrepresentation.

Fair use analysis was codified in the Copyright Act in 1976, under 17 U.S.C. § 107. Fair use considerations are:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Universal argued that fair use is a “defense” to otherwise infringing activity, e.g., unless proven otherwise, any use of copyright protected works without permission is an infringement. This court stated that fair use is a right, and not an excuse for otherwise infringing content. However, the court quoted Bateman v. Mnemonics, Inc., 79 F.3d 1532, 1542 n.22 (11th Cir. 1996) which said: “Regardless of how fair use is viewed, it is clear that the burden of proving fair use is always on the putative infringer.”

The court provided some guidance as to how a copyright holder could use computer programs to identify content which could be subject to a takedown notice and determine fair use: “For example, consideration of fair use may be sufficient if copyright holders utilize computer programs that automatically identify for takedown notifications content where: “(1) the video track matches the video track of a copyrighted work submitted by a content owner; (2) the audio track matches the audio track of that same copyrighted work; and (3) nearly the entirety . . . is comprised of a single copyrighted work.” Brief for The Org. for Transformative Works, Public Knowledge & Int’l Documentary Ass’n as Amici Curiae Supporting Appellee at 29–30 n.8 (citing the Electronic Frontier Foundation website (link unavailable)).” [CMG link here.]

The court concluded, however, that copyright holders must consider fair use before submitting takedown notices under the DMCA and that the plaintiff, Lenz, could move forward at trial under the actual knowledge theory regarding plaintiff’s misrepresentation allegation. In addition, the plaintiff could seek nominal damages for injuries due to the misrepresentation, if proved.

In my opinion, there are two things worth noting regarding this decision. First, Lenz had filed a tortuous interference claim which was dismissed. In her second amended complaint, only misrepresentation under § 512(f) was the only claim. The tortuous interference with her contract with YouTube claim suggested that the plaintiff’s insistence in reposting the video had a purpose other than making available an innocent video about her children. Indeed, how many children [49,659,075 YouTube views as of October 22, 2015] have been launched to fame after videos were posted on YouTube and subsequently interviewed by television personalities [100,795,145 YouTube views as of October 22, 2015] or had the opportunity to meet the musicians or vocalists the children were imitating? Second, M. Smith, Circuit Judge, concurring in part, dissenting in part, and concurring in the judgment, had the better analytical approach to this case: “In sum, I would hold that parties must individually consider whether a work is a fair use before representing that the work is infringing in a takedown notice. If they do not, and the work is a non-infringing fair use, they are subject to liability for knowingly misrepresenting that the work is infringing.”

If you have copyright protected work which you want to monitor online, Gayton Law can help you with developing policies and procedures for your businesses’ infringement monitoring activities.

Contracts

Terms of Use and Arbitration Clauses. Berkson,et. al. v.Gogo LLC and Gogo, Inc. This consumer fraud case came before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The class action plaintiffs alleged that the defendants, Gogo LLC and Gogo, Inc., fraudulently charged Wi-Fi services on air flights, specifically, that the defendants “improperly increased their sales and profits by misleading customers into purchasing a service that charged a customer’s credit card, on an automatically-renewing continuing monthly basis, without adequate notice or consent.” According to the complaint filed for this case, between 2008 and 2012, the defendants fraudulently advertised that purchasers were only buying single one month subscription to the Wi-Fi service, but the defendants were making recurring charges on the plaintiffs’ credit cards. The defendants said that the plaintiffs agreed to the recurring charges and they also agreed to a mandatory arbitration clause. The named plaintiffs, representing a nationwide class, claimed that the defendants committed “common law breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, common law unjust enrichment, and violation of various consumer protection statutes.” On April 8, 2015, the court made decisions on defendants’ procedural motions, specifically, motions to (1) transfer venue; (2) compel arbitration; and (3) dismiss for lack of standing.

The motions to transfer venue and compel arbitration was based on Gogo’s terms of use. Plaintiffs’ claim that Gogo’s terms and conditions were hidden, and, therefore, unenforceable. Gogo is a dominant player in the in-flight Wi-Fi market, where more than 80% of North American flights use Gogo’s services. Gogo’s website advertised a daily rate of $10 and a monthly rate of about $40. Plaintiffs used Gogo’s services during air plane flights. The plaintiffs’ claimed that there was nothing to indicate that if they registered for the monthly service that they would be billed on a recurring basis. The service was only canceled once the subscribers noticed the fee and contacted Gogo.

The court determined that because the terms and conditions were hidden and users were not given sufficient notice to inquire about the terms (which included language regarding the recurring fee and the arbitration clause) the court denied the defendants’ motions to transfer venue and compel arbitration. The defendant’s motion regarding standing stated that the plaintiffs had not shown the particularized and concrete injuries required to meet the requirements to bring a lawsuit. The court found that just because one plaintiff was reimbursed by a credit card company for the charges when Gogo refused to do so and that another was reimbursed when that plaintiff informed Gogo of the class action lawsuit. The standing motion was also denied.

Although this case was before a New York federal district court, the issues it addresses are nationwide. More and more transactions are being conducted online. This case is instructive with regard to providing transparency about your business’s online contract terms and conditions. Contact Gayton Law to ensure that your online agreements are in compliance with your jurisdiction’s click-wrap, sign-in-wrap and browse-wrap laws.

What’s New at Gayton Law

Posts

The FTC’s Supreme Court Victory: A Rare Win for Both Libertarians and Regulators. Guest post by Theodore A. Gebhard, J.D., Ph.D.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recent Supreme Court victory in the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners (NCSB or Board) case brought together in common cause both economic libertarians and federal antitrust regulators — groups often at odds with each other respecting important philosophical and policy principles. The FTC’s win, however, gave both groups much reason to celebrate.

See the rest of the post here.

Even in a Knowledge-Driven Economy – Things are Still Kings by Cynthia M. Gayton, Esq. posted on Vienna Woods Law & Economics blog.

From September 30 – October 1 of this year, I attended a conference entitled “The IP Platform: Supporting Inspiration and Innovation” that was sponsored by George Mason University School of Law’s Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property.  The extensive and impressive speaker’s list included a keynote speech by David Kappos, law professors from around the country, and innovators of all stripes.

See the rest of the post here.

Programs and Publications

Cynthia Gayton co-created a 3-part workshop, the third of which was held on Saturday, October 24, entitled “Theseus’ Paradox” at The George Washington University’s Alexandria campus. This workshop focused on strategies to manage innovation.

Learn more about the program here.

Caroline Norbury was a featured guest speaker at the second National Creative Economy Summit. Cynthia Gayton had the distinct honor and privilege of interviewing her at DC’s own WLVS Studios on October 6, 2015. Watch the interview here.

The “Guide to Creating and Protecting Fictional Characters” Second Edition by Cynthia Gayton was released in May 2014 and is now available for the Kindle.

Legal Aspects of Engineering. 9th edition by Cynthia Gayton is available through the publisher, Kendall-Hunt publishers and on Amazon.com. This book is used in several engineering courses and is a useful reference for anyone interested in contracting, intellectual property, engineering practice, and other general legal issues.

The information contained in this newsletter is for general guidance on matters of general interest only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on specific facts. The information contained in this newsletter should not be construed as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors. Certain links in this newsletter connect to other websites maintained by third parties over whom Gayton Law has no control. Gayton Law makes no representations as to the accuracy or any other aspect of information contained in other websites.

© 2015 Gayton Law

“The FTC’s Supreme Court Victory: A Rare Win for Both Libertarians and Regulators” Guest Post by Theodore A. Gebhard

April 1, 2015

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recent Supreme Court victory in the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners (NCSB or Board) case brought together in common cause both economic libertarians and federal antitrust regulators — groups often at odds with each other respecting important philosophical and policy principles. The FTC’s win, however, gave both groups much reason to celebrate.

The question before the Court was whether unilateral anticompetitive actions of the NCSB, a state-created body, were immune from antitrust law under the “state action” doctrine. The state action doctrine arises from Parker v. Brown, a 1943 Supreme Court decision that sought to reconcile the Sherman Antitrust Act with the constitutional principle of federalism. Federalism is the idea that the U.S. Constitution recognizes both national and state government sovereignty by giving certain limited powers to the national government but reserving other powers to the individual states.

Because the Constitution is the highest law and therefore always trumps statutes, the Court carved out immunity from the Sherman Act for anticompetitive actions of states acting in their sovereign capacity, which includes regulating private actors in a way that restricts competition. In 1980 the Court extended this carve out to include the anticompetitive actions of non-sovereign bodies upon a showing that the actions were the result of clearly articulated state policy and were actively supervised by the state. (See, Cal. Liquor Dealers v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc.) The active supervision requirement ensures that the anticompetitive consequences are only those that the state has deliberately chosen to tolerate in exchange for other public policy goals.

The NCSB was established by the North Carolina Dental Act to be “the agency of the State for the regulation of the practice of dentistry.” In that capacity, the NCSB has authority to administer the licensing of dentists and to file suit to enjoin the unlawful practice of dentistry. Starting in 2006, the NCSB began to send strongly worded cease and desist letters to non-dentist providers of teeth whitening services. People in this occupation grew in numbers in North Carolina – as well as other states — as the popularity of these services increased over a period of years. Often the non-dentist providers are simply individual entrepreneurs operating out of kiosks in shopping malls and similar venues. Licensed dentists also provide teeth whitening services, but typically at substantially higher fees.

Significantly, the N.C. Dental Act is silent with respect to whether teeth whitening constitutes the practice of dentistry. Nonetheless, the NCSB determined that it was, though without hearing or comment and without any independent confirmation by any other state official. In so doing, the Board found that the non-dentists were unlawfully practicing dentistry. Instead of obtaining a judicial order to enjoin the non-dentists as prescribed by statute, however, the NCSB sent out cease and desist letters, which contained strong language including a warning that the non-dentist teeth whiteners were engaging in a criminal act. The letters effectively stopped the provision of teeth whitening services by non-dentists.

In 2010 the FTC sued the Board on antitrust grounds. In response, the NCSB asserted that it was entitled to immunity under the state action doctrine. The FTC rejected that claim and in an administrative hearing ruled that the cease and desist letters constituted unlawful concerted action to exclude non-dentist teeth whiteners from the North Carolina market for such services. The FTC further found that that this exclusion resulted in actual anticompetitive effects in the form of less consumer choice and higher prices. The Commission then ordered the NCSB to stop issuing cease and desist letters to non-dentist providers of teeth whitening services without first obtaining a judicial order.

Key to the FTC’s antitrust finding was that, under the N.C. Dental Act, the majority of NCSB members must be practicing dentists elected to the Board by the community of N.C. licensed dentists. Moreover, throughout the relevant period, most, if not all, of the dentist members of the NCSB performed teeth whitening in their respective practices. In addition, the Board’s actions came after it received several complaints from licensed dentists about the competition from non-dentists teeth whiteners and the lower fees that these providers charged. Only a few dentists suggested that teeth whitening by non-dentists might be harmful to customers. The FTC found the validity of such public health claims tenuous.

The NCSB appealed the FTC’s rejection of its state action defense. The appeal reached the Supreme Court in 2014, and in an opinion handed down last February, the Court held that, under the record facts, the NCSB does not have antitrust immunity. In reaching this conclusion, the Court found that, although the NCSB is a creature of the state and could properly be labeled a state agency, it is nonetheless a non-sovereign body and thus subject to the active supervision requirement for antitrust immunity to obtain. This requirement was not satisfied. (Not at issue was whether the state had a clearly articulated policy to regulate the practice of dentistry. All parties stipulated to this factor.)

The Court’s finding that the NCSB is a non-sovereign body is the key to the decision, and rightly focuses on substance over form. In particular, the Court focused on the fact that the NCSB is majority-controlled by active market participants and that its decisions in this case were unsupervised by any state government officials. Given these circumstances, the Court found there to be a high risk that Board decisions were and are influenced by self-interest instead of public welfare. When this risk is present, it trumps any formal label given by a state to a regulatory body. The Court specifically held that a “state board on which a controlling number of decision makers are active market participants in the occupation the board regulates must satisfy [the] active supervision requirement in order to invoke state action antitrust immunity.”

The practical result of this holding is that the FTC’s finding of illegal anticompetitive conduct stands. This outcome will no doubt yield important benefits to North Carolina citizens. Teeth whitening entrepreneurs can seek to re-enter the market, and consumers of those services will enjoy lower fees resulting from the increased competition. These will be tangible, observable benefits.

Critically, however, the Court’s holding also has important legal and policy implications beyond North Carolina. States will have to re-evaluate their regulatory boards and account for the fact that giving unsupervised control over who is qualified to compete to boards comprised of members whose incomes depend on those decisions may not produce good outcomes. Going forward, states must give greater care not only to establishing such boards, but also to overseeing their decisions. Decisions made behind merely the facade of a state-created agency will be insufficient for a board to obtain state action immunity.

Additionally, the Court’s holding recognizes that license requirements that do not rest on firm evidence of a risk to public health absent licensure serve not only to protect incumbents from healthy competition, but unnecessarily infringe on basic economic liberty and the right to earn a living. As such, the holding implicitly elevates economic liberty to a position as prominent as the antitrust concern. In so doing, the holding is an important victory for economic libertarians, just as it is for antitrust enforcers. It is a rare example of an instance when groups with economic philosophies that often diverge can come together in common celebration. A great win for both.

Theodore A. Gebhard is a law & economics consultant. He advises attorneys on the effective use and rebuttal of economic and econometric evidence in advocacy proceedings. Mr. Gebhard holds a Ph.D. in economics as well as a J.D. During his career, he spent seven years as an antitrust economist with the Justice Department and ten years as a senior antitrust attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing in this article is purported to be legal advice. You can contact the author at theodore.gebhard@aol.com.

 

Seminar on October 12, 2013

October 9, 2013

Cynthia Gayton, who has been a volunteer attorney for the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts since 1996, will hold a seminar tax strategies workshop for creatives at Artomatic@Jefferson this coming Saturday, October 12, 2013. The event is free for attendees, but registration is recommended.

What’s Happening Now – Technology, Small Business, Contracts – June 2013

June 9, 2013

Technology News

Health Care, Privacy and Mobile Apps. New smartphone apps make it easier to collect more and more personal information from consumers, including health care related data. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (“NTIA”), which is part of the Department of Commerce, has started a process to develop a “code of conduct” related to mobile application transparency to protect personal data privacy. According to a recent Mobile Privacy Report, the FTC recommends that app developers have a privacy policy which is easily accessible through app stores. In addition, a bill was introduced by The Honorable Hank Johnson of Georgia on May 9, 2013, entitled the “Application Privacy, Protection & Security Act of 2013” or “APPS Act of 2013” which is intended “[t]o Provide for greater transparency in and user control over the treatment of data collected by mobile applications and to enhance the security of such data” and is now being considered in Congress. The bill’s discussion draft recommends that if an app collects personal data, the user must agree to the product’s terms and conditions. Specifically, “[b]efore a mobile application collects personal data about a user of the application, the developer of the application shall – (A) provide the user with notice of the terms and conditions governing the collection, use, storage, and sharing of the personal data; and (B) obtain the consent of the user to such terms and conditions.” Rep. Johnson has demonstrated a keen interest in privacy. Please see his press release regarding the National Security Agency’s telephone surveillance program.

Gayton Law can help you develop a privacy policy, whether you are an app developer or otherwise collect personal information from customers through your website.

Small Business News

Employee Benefits and the Affordable Care Act. Employers have until October 1, 2013 to notify employees about health care coverage options available through the “Health Insurance Marketplace” established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act commonly called the “Affordable Care Act.” The new Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) Section 18B requires such notice. The requirements are detailed, but in general, the notice to employees must at minimum inform the employee of 1) the existence of the Marketplace; 2) whether the employer plan’s share of the total allowed benefit costs provided under the plan is less than 60% of such costs which may make the employee eligible for a premium tax credit if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through the Marketplace; and 3) the possibility that the employee may lose the employer contribution to any health benefits plan offered by the employer if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through the Marketplace.

Please note that the law requires that the notice “must be provided in writing in a manner calculated to be understood by the average employee.” Gayton Law can help you draft an appropriate notice in compliance with the law.

Contracting News

Employment Applications. The Americans with Disabilities Act says that employers are not permitted to ask an applicant medical questions until the employer has offered a conditional offer of employment. In a recent case, decided on March 29, 2013, a 3rd Circuit Court said that because an employee made false statements on an employment application regarding drug use, an employer had legitimate and non-discriminatory grounds to fire the employee. Reilly v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, No. 12-2078, (3rd Cir. March 29, 2013). In this case, the former employee, Robert Reilly, brought a lawsuit against his former employer, Lehigh Valley Hospital (“LVH”) asserting that it violated the ADA by disclosing his medical records to the human resources (“HR”) department. Reilly was employed by LVH as a part-time Security Officer. When he was offered the job, he completed and signed an employee health information form as part of the hiring process. The form included two alcoholism and drug addiction questions. In addition to answering “no” to these questions, there was a note on the form indicating that Reilly denied drug/alcohol addiction. The form also said that falsifying information “could result in withdrawal of the employment offer or if subsequently discovered termination of [his] employment.” When Reilly was admitted to the hospital to receive treatment for a work-related injury, he disclosed to the treating doctor that he had a history of drug use and that he was a recovering drug addict. This information was included in a clinical report which was submitted to LVH’s HR department. He was fired for falsifying his employment form. Reilly brought a lawsuit against LVH for violating the ADA and a corresponding Pennsylvania law. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of LVH regarding Reilly’s claims that LVH’s firing was discriminatory. The District Court determined that LVH’s decision to terminate Reilly was founded on a non-discriminatory reason – falsifying information on the employment form – and, and therefore, permissible. Reilly appealed the District Court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit claiming that the District Court erred in its decision. The Third Circuit determined that the District Court did not err and affirmed its decision.

This case was decided in the Third Circuit and would not be applicable in any other jurisdiction. However, this case is instructive for purposes of advising employers that they should ensure that their employment-related forms are not discriminatory or in violation of the ADA. Please contact Gayton Law with any questions about employment application forms and employee-related documents.

Recent Publications

The “Guide to Creating and Protecting Fictional Characters” by Cynthia Gayton was released in May 2013 and is now available on Kindle. Here is an excerpt:

“This is an exciting time to be a creative in any enterprise. You can develop stories, illustrate and publish your work with great speed and minimal expense. Doing things on your own is both liberating and inhibiting. Yes, you can do it all – from start to finish, the product, distribution, display, advertising and promotion are all controlled by you. On the other hand, it could be a problem that all these things are controlled by you. Do you have the skills necessary to bring your product to market, including the knowledge to protect your creations?”

In March 2012, Kendall-Hunt publishers released the 9th edition of Legal Aspects of Engineering by Cynthia Gayton. This book is used in several engineering courses and is a useful reference for anyone interested in contracting, intellectual property, engineering practice, and other general legal issues.

Thank you for reading!

The information contained in this post is for general guidance on matters of general interest only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on specific facts. The information contained in this newsletter should not be construed as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors. Certain links in this post connect to other websites maintained by third parties over whom Gayton Law has no control. Gayton Law makes no representations as to the accuracy or any other aspect of information contained in other websites.

© 2013 Gayton Law

What’s Happening Now in Technology, Small Business & Contracts

March 21, 2013

Technology News

Patents

Are you a small business that considered applying for a patent, but didn’t because of costs? The America Invents Act, which went into effect in September 2011, provides some financial relief in the form of a fee reduction. However, how a small business can take advantage of the fee reduction was unclear until this month. A filing fee reduction of 75% may apply if your business qualifies as a “micro entity.” A micro entity is defined as an applicant who certifies that “that the applicant: (1) Qualifies as a small entity as defined in 37 CFR 1.27 (2) has not been named as an inventor on more than four previously filed patent applications …; (3) did not, in the calendar year preceding the calendar year in which the applicable fee is being paid, have a gross income, as defined in section 61(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (26 U.S.C. 61(a)), exceeding three times the median household income for that preceding calendar year, as most recently reported by the Bureau of the Census; and (4) has not assigned, granted, or conveyed, and is not under an obligation by contract or law to assign, grant, or convey, a license or other ownership interest in the application concerned to an entity that, in the calendar year preceding the calendar year in which the applicable fee is being paid, had a gross income, as defined in section 61(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, exceeding three times the median household income for that preceding calendar year, as most recently reported by the Bureau of the Census.” For further information, please contact the USPTO and James Engel, Senior Legal Advisor ((571) 272–7725), Office of Patent Legal Administration, Office of the Deputy, Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy.

Social Media

Ever wonder what is and is not allowed with social media advertising? Being in compliance with the specific social media company’s rules does not guarantee that you are in compliance with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Among other goals, the FTC promulgates rules, monitors and enforces laws related to unfair and deceptive trade practices. As computer, smart phone and mobile device screens become smaller, some businesses are removing lengthy disclosure/disclaimer language that clutter the screens. This month, the FTC prepared some guidance for both businesses and consumers regarding advertising for online media distribution. Here is a summary of the new guidelines:

  1. The same consumer protection laws apply online as they do in print or other media. The FTC’s rules and guides are not medium specific and may apply to many online behaviors.
  2. Claim qualification should be incorporated in the advertiser’s message (when practical).
  3. Required disclosures must be clear and conspicuous.
  4. As a “sub requirement” to guideline 3, advertisers should place the disclosure as close as possible to a claim which may otherwise be deceptive.
  5. If a disclosure is necessary to prevent deceptive advertising, don’t publish the ad on that particular media platform.

Summarized from “.com Disclosures – How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising,” Federal Trade Commission, March 2013.

Gayton Law can review your online advertising to ensure compliance with these guidelines.

Small Business News

Employee Benefits

Employee benefits and federal and state leave requirements are expensive for businesses, especially small businesses. The relationship between and employer and employee should be based on trust, and when an employee negotiates leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA” or “Act”), trust is paramount. Unfortunately, that trust may be abused as outlined in a recently decided case, Lineberry v. Detroit Medical Center et al., No. 11-13752 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 5, 2013), where an employee who took leave under the Act, was fired for failure to comply with company policy.

As background, Lineberry, a registered nurse, was placed on FMLA leave because she experienced excruciating back and leg pain after moving stretchers. During her FMLA leave, Lineberry posted photos on her Facebook page where she was seen drinking beer and riding a motor cycle while on vacation. Her co-workers, who saw her Facebook page, reported these activities to her boss, who initiated an investigation into possible termination. Lineberry’s employer, Detroit Medical Center (“DMC”), requires an investigation when an hourly employee is facing termination.

After the investigation, DMC’s human resources representative wrote a letter to Lineberry terminating her employment. The letter said that Lineberry was being terminated for failure to abide by DMC’s discipline policy which provided that an employee may be terminated for “[d]ishonesty, falsifying or omitting information, either verbally, in written format … on DMC records including, but not limited to payroll records, human resources records etc.”

Lineberry brought a lawsuit against DMC for “(1) interfering with and denying her right to be reinstated to her position as staff nurse with DMC upon return from her FMLA leave, and (2) retaliating against Plaintiff for taking FMLA leave” both of which are rights guaranteed by FMLA. DMC responded by filing a counter-complaint where DMC sought to recover $3,636.57 it paid Plaintiff in short-term disability benefits.

When the court reviewed the case, it noted that in Michigan, “interference with an employee’s FMLA rights does not constitute a violation if the employer has a legitimate reason unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights for engaging in the challenged conduct.” Edgar v. JAC Products, Inc., 443 F.3d 501, 507 (6th Cir. 2006) (emphasis added). Because Lineberry was unsuccessful in proving that DMC violated the FMLA by terminating her employment, the court agreed with DMC and dismissed the case.

Please note that this case was tried in Michigan and may not apply in your jurisdiction. Gayton Law can help you draft employment policies which may help prevent similar abuses.

Sequestration and Small Businesses

Under the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, some automatic cuts became effective on March 1, 2013, including a reduction to the “refundable portion of the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit for certain small tax-exempt employers under Internal Revenue Code section 45R.” The refundable portion for these employers will be reduced by 8.7 percent and will be applied until 9/30/13, or until Congress intervenes.

Please contact your tax professional to see if this applies to you.

Contracting News

Collusion

Times are tough and many business owners spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make ends meet (perhaps joining with competitors to keep prices high), but the law never rests. Price-fixing is one area of antitrust law about which even small businesses should be aware. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforce laws related to price fixing which is “is an agreement among competitors to raise, fix, or otherwise maintain the price at which their goods or services are sold”. Price fixing violations come under the Sherman Act, which was enacted into law in 1890.[i] The reason why price fixing is under tough scrutiny is because “[w]hen consumers make choices about what products and services to buy, they expect that the price has been determined freely on the basis of supply and demand, not by an agreement among competitors. When competitors agree to restrict competition, the result is often higher prices. Accordingly, price fixing is a major concern of government antitrust enforcement.” FTC Guide to Antitrust Laws. Depending on the nature of the price fixing behavior, a case may be brought by either the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission.

On February 8, 2013, the DOJ settled with Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC, which does business as Macmillan. DOJ said that Apple and five publishers, including Macmillan, had conspired to “eliminate retail price competition, resulting in consumers paying millions of dollars more for their e-books.” The DOJ complaint said that Apple and the five publishers were unhappy with e-book prices and related low profit margins. The settlement requires that Macmillan immediately allow retailers to “lower the prices consumers pay for Macmillan’s e-books.” The DOJ is continuing its litigation against Apple.

Before entering into a contract with a competitor, ask Gayton Law to review the document to make sure that the agreement is not anti-competitive.

Contractor Fraud

The Justice Department announced on March 18, 2013, that executives at two Arlington, Virginia based businesses pled guilty to “fraudulently obtaining more than $31 million in government contract payments that should have gone to disadvantaged small businesses.” The court records do not identify the company names (they are identified as Company A and Company B), but the named conspirators are Keith Hedman of Arlington, Virginia and Dawn Hamilton of Brownsville, Maryland. According to the DOJ press release, Hedman formed a company with “an African-American woman who was listed as its president and CEO to enable the company to participate in the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Section 8(a) program, which enables certain small businesses to receive sole-source and competitive-bid contracts set aside for minority-owned and disadvantaged small businesses.” He then formed another company to operate as a shell company in order to secure contracts for which the first company could not qualify. Dawn Hamilton was a “figure-head” owner who could qualify for 8(a) contracts due to her “Portuguese heritage and history of social disadvantage, when in reality the new company would be managed by Hedman and senior leadership” from Hedman’s other company. In 2011, Hedman withdrew $1 million from the second company’s account and distributed the funds in cash to co-conspirators. Hedman and Hamilton together brought in $31 million in government contracts. Hedman and Hamilton pled guilty to “major government fraud and face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a multimillion-dollar fine. Hedman also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Hedman agreed to forfeit more than $6.3 million, and Hamilton agreed to forfeit more than $1.2 million.” Sentencing is scheduled for June 2013.

Have a government contract problem? Gayton Law can help!

Publications

In March 2012, Kendall-Hunt publishers released the 9th edition of Legal Aspects of Engineering by Cynthia Gayton. This book is used in several engineering courses and is a useful reference for anyone interested in contracting, intellectual property, engineering practice, and other general legal issues.

Thank you for reading!

The information contained in this post is for general guidance on matters of interest only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on specific facts. The information contained in this post should not be construed as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors. Certain links in this post connect to other websites maintained by third parties over whom Gayton Law has no control. Gayton Law makes no representations as to the accuracy or any other aspect of information contained in other websites.

© 2013 Gayton Law


[i] Interested in the events behind the Sherman Act? Consider watching “The Men Who Built America.”

Year End Tips for You and Your Business

November 20, 2012

Greetings!

It may seem to be a little early to think about 2013, but if you are anything like me, the weeks after Thanksgiving are full of hustle and bustle and finding time to organize paperwork and consider the coming year are not at the top of my preparation list. However, thinking about 2013 now will put you ahead of the curve, so here are five things to consider before you become overwhelmed with the holiday season.

1. Get your paperwork and documents in order early for taxes

At least twice a year, I conduct a seminar for creatives and small businesses on taxes. While I do not hold myself out as a tax expert, I can identify several tax issues that daunt creatives and other entrepreneurs. Paperwork is unavoidable, even in this digital age. Even more so as many, if not most, transactions are conducted online and physical receipts are becoming rare.

But an organized approach to your documents can save you money and time. Many creatives and other small businesses ask me about the likelihood of an audit. In my experience, it is hard to make an accurate prediction, but I can say with certainty that having the right documents to support your tax filing can save you a lot of grief even if you are audited.

Gayton law can help you decide which business entity is right for you. Please ask about our Business Entity Selection table.

2. Look for money on the table

You are busy. You have ordered supplies, hired contractors, made sales, etc., but have you gone back to check whether you have received all the services for which you paid? How about royalties? If you were offered a discount on a purchase, did you receive that discount? On the flip side, have you fulfilled all your obligations to a customer? In either circumstance, money may be left on the table waiting for you to pick up. If you were promised a discount or service, go back and review your agreements to see if you received these things. If you provide services or offer discounts, this is an opportunity to build better customer relationships by contacting them to see if your service met expectations and perhaps get more business.

If you are concerned about whether you have received the services requested at the price you paid, contact Gayton Law to conduct a contract audit for your business. If you have contracts that need to be revised to better reflect your business services, Gayton Law can help you update your contracts and make suggestions to improve your contractual relationships.

3. Update your media policies

Even a one person operation should have in place an information and document retention plan, especially when so much of this information is in virtual as well as physical form. Maintaining and keeping old and outdated documents not only clutters your hard drives, cloud drives and desk drawers, but unmanaged documentation may create legal vulnerabilities for your business. Creating policies about document retention which apply to both physical and virtual documentation, as well as email and social media communication is a crucial business practice.

Gayton Law can prepare document retention policies for your business.

4. Employees and Independent Contractor Agreements

Now may be the time to review your employee and independent contractor agreements, especially if existing contracts (even oral ones!) are several years old. Good agreements protect the business as well as your employees and independent contractors.

Gayton Law can review your current agreements and provide advice about whether an update will be advantageous to you and better protect your interests.

5. Annual Business Meetings and Corporate Governance

Even small businesses should take a moment to assess the previous year. Whether you are an LLC, corporation, partnership or a sole proprietor, there is value in setting aside a day or even a few days to look over your accomplishments and start outlining future goals. For those of you with LLCs, corporations and partnerships, your business documents typically require annual meetings. Although everything may be well, getting into the habit of holding annual meetings is a useful way to maintain good businessrecords, which will assist you in the future.

Gayton Law can prepare the documents you need for a small business enterprise, including bylaws and operating agreements as well as assist with corporate governance processes.

Knowledge Asset and Governance Management

For those of you investigating whether knowledge asset and governance management practices are in your future, any knowledge management (KM) plan should incorporate all of the above considerations. Please contact Gayton Law for information about how to include these practices into your KM plan.

Recent Publications

In March 2012, Kendall-Hunt publishers released the 9th edition of Legal Aspects of Engineering by Cynthia Gayton. This book is used in several engineering courses and is a useful reference for anyone interested in contracting, intellectual property, engineering practice, and other general legal issues.

Thank you for reading. Have a great holiday season!

The information contained in this website is for general guidance on matters of interest only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on specific facts. The information contained in this newsletter should not be construed as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors. Certain links in this newsletter connect to other websites maintained by third parties over whom Gayton Law has no control. Gayton Law makes no representations as to the accuracy or any other aspect of information contained in other websites.