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Red Ink

Steve Weiss

Steve Weiss says he’s getting a steady volume of calls from business owners with questions about bankruptcy or liquidation.

Steve Weiss says the wave of bankruptcies that he and others in his line of work are expecting certainly hasn’t reached shore yet, to use a phrase appropriate for this time of year.

“But you can definitely see it building out there — it’s coming; you can see it rolling in,” said Weiss, who specializes in bankruptcies and workouts for the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

This wave is comprised of both corporate and consumer (personal) bankruptcies, and it will be large and hit with considerable force, he went on, adding that a number of factors are colliding that will make it so.

On the corporate side, while many companies have been able to hang on and survive the pandemic to date, they have done so thanks largely to government stimulus initiatives that are due to be exhausted soon, leaving business owners and managers wondering how they will pay people and all their bills. And on the consumer side … it’s a very similar story.

Indeed, unemployment benefits and stimulus checks have helped many make ends meet, but those checks are projected to end soon for large numbers of people, if they haven’t ended already.

“My phone is starting to ring more with business owners who are either unsure how they’re going to make it, or are sure they can’t — the virus has just clobbered their business,” said Weiss, who said his next phone call after the one with BusinessWest was with a business owner looking to talk about bankruptcy or perhaps liquidation.

“My phone is starting to ring more with business owners who are either unsure how they’re going to make it, or are sure they can’t.”

Such calls are starting to come in with increasing frequency, said Mike Katz, a partner with the Springfield-based firm Bacon Wilson and one of the region’s pre-eminent bankruptcy specialists. He used a different, though similar, metaphor to describe what’s coming.

“I think the dam is about to break — we’re on the cusp of a tsunami of bankruptcies,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”

There have already been many, especially on the corporate side, he went on, noting that many large and famous names, many from the retail sector, have filed for Chapter 11 protection. That list, which continues to grow, includes Lord & Taylor, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, Gold’s Gym, Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, Hertz, 24-Hour Fitness, Chuck E. Cheese, California Pizza Kitchen, and Men’s Wearhouse.

Those names reveal the types of businesses that are most in jeopardy, Katz continued, adding that, locally, many small businesses in the hospitality, retail, and fitness realms — but many other sectors as well — face severe challenges as they try to survive the pandemic.

For some in this category, an emerging option is what’s being called the ‘fast-pass’ small-business bankruptcy process, otherwise known as Subchapter V of Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. This new subsection, which became effective in February, is not a response to COVID-19, but certainly seems to be tailor-made for the economic crisis the pandemic has created.

Mike Katz

Mike Katz is expecting a “tsunami” of bankruptcy filings. What he doesn’t know is when this wave will hit.

That’s because, as the name suggests, it is a faster, less expensive Chapter 11 reorganization path, designed specifically for much smaller businesses than those that seek the Chapter 11 route. To be eligible for Subchapter V, an entity or an individual must be engaged in commercial activity, and its total debts — secured and unsecured — must be less than $7.5 million, a new number (the old one was $2.725 million) resulting from provisions of the COVID-inspired CARES Act. At least half of those debts must come from business activity.

Katz and others we spoke with said the fast-pass option holds potential for some businesses, but there are challenges within its many provisions, including the need to come up with a reorganization plan within 90 days of the filing. Such plans may be difficult to develop given how difficult it is to see even a few weeks down the road, let alone several months, because of the pandemic.

“The one downside is you file your bankruptcy papers, and you’re required, within 90 days, to put a plan in place,” said Mark Cress, a bankruptcy specialist with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson. “That’s a short window, and a lot of small businesses are barely holding their own.”

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with these bankruptcy lawyers about what they can already see coming. They can’t predict when this particular surge will begin, but they say it’s almost unavoidable.

Chapter and Verse

While Katz and Weiss were crafting analogies to waves and tsunamis, Cress wanted to draw parallels to the Great Depression.

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the current conditions rival, and in some cases (such as the quarterly decline in GPD) actually exceed those of the Great Depression that started roughly 90 years ago.

“This is worse than the Great Depression in a lot of ways,” he said. “The dip in the economy — it dropped by a third — was something we’ve never seen before. And but for the way the Fed has handled this, it would be devastating; those multi-trillion-dollar programs … they’re the only thing that’s sustaining us. Without that, the whole house of cards would collapse.”

To further state his case — that’s an industry term — Cress pointed to numbers contained in an analysis authored by Morning Consult economist John Leer, who noted that, without additional funding, millions of unemployed Americans are at risk of financial insolvency by the end of this month.

“The personal finances of workers who have been laid off or placed on temporary leave since the onset of the pandemic deteriorated in July,” Leer wrote. “The July survey found that 29% of unemployed and furloughed workers lacked adequate savings to pay for their basic living expenses for the month, up 16% in June. This monthly change contrasts with June, when the finances of laid-off and furloughed workers improved. At that point in time, many renters and homeowners took advantage of the rent-deferral and mortgage-forbearance options included in the CARES Act, thereby driving down their monthly expenses.”

Mark Cress

Mark Cress says the new ‘fast-pass’ bankruptcy process may be a viable option for some, but the process doesn’t leave business owners much time to create a reorganization plan.

Cress backed up that commentary with some other, very sobering numbers regarding renters.

“One-third of all renters weren’t able to make their July rent,” he noted. “And more than 60% were concerned they won’t make August. So you can imagine the ripple effects this will have … many small-time landlords, with one or two tenants, may not be able to pay their mortgage.

“And you if get enough defaulted mortgages … then banks start to pull in their horns, and all of a sudden the credit markets freeze up, and you have a real disaster,” he went on, drawing analogies, again, to what happened nine decades ago.

Looking at these statistics and possible scenarios, it’s easy to see why bankruptcy lawyers are expecting a wave, or tsunami, of personal bankruptcies to hit this area — and the nation as a whole — soon, with ‘soon’ being a relative term.

“Some people are getting unemployment benefits, but it looks like that’s ending,” said Weiss. “There’s a foreclosure and eviction moratorium that’s ending in October, and there are already people living on credit cards and exhausting their savings just trying to get through this — and it’s going to be a while before jobs come back.

“So it’s a matter of sooner than later,” he went on. “And bankruptcy is something of a trailing indicator; it takes people a while to get the point where they need to file for bankruptcy — the credit-card bills don’t become unmanageable until several months go by.”

By the Numbers

But the wave will almost certainly involve corporate bankruptcies as well, said those we spoke with, noting that many businesses have struggled to merely survive the past five months. And with the state already pumping the brakes on its reopening plan as reported cases increase, and ever more uncertainty about the future, survival is becoming more of a question mark for many businesses.

That’s especially true within the restaurant sector, said those we spoke with, noting that, while many have been able to reopen, their revenues are still a fraction of what they were pre-COVID. And with fall and then winter coming — meaning far fewer opportunities to serve outdoors — some in this sector are wondering if, and for how long, they can hang on.

“I think the dam is about to break — we’re on the cusp of a tsunami of bankruptcies. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”

“I’ve been contacted by a number of restaurants, in particular, over the past few months,” said Katz, adding that there have been inquiries from those in other sectors as well. “Some of these have managed to hold on, some have closed some locations while keeping others open … but the number of people I’ve talked to just today tells me that the dam is just teetering, and I think there’s going to be unprecedented times in the bankruptcy field.”

This speculation leads him back to the new fast-pass small-business bankruptcy process, and questions about just how many businesses may try to take advantage of this emerging option, and whether they can be successful with such bids.

“I think a lot of businesses will try doing this because you have a 90-day maximum to get in and get out — that’s how fast this Chapter 11 is going to go,” he explained. “And the whole thing is predicated upon the fact that you only have to propose a plan that provides more to the creditors than they would receive in a liquidation, with no voting.

“Under the current Chapter 11 process, there’s a whole voting process, where you have to get two-thirds of the dollar amount and a majority of the number of creditors to vote in favor of it,” he went on. “But with this process, there’s no voting — it’s a much more streamlined process, and it’s far less expensive.”

With the new ceiling of $7.5 million, many more businesses are now eligible to take this route. But that same 90-day in-and-out period, while attractive in one respect, is daunting when it comes to actually putting a reorganization plan in place.

“I’ve talked with a number of people about it because people are still trying to figure how it works — there isn’t a lot of legal guidance or precedence,” said Cress. “But having to put a plan together in 90 days is going to be very difficult for many small businesses. If you don’t have any profits or any cash and you’re living hand to mouth, it really places an undue burden on you to figure it all out and get creditor sign-off in 90 days.”

Katz agreed. “Most traditional Chapter 11 cases are multi-year, and reorganization is based in projections,” he told BusinessWest. “How do you project when this COVID situation is going to change? If you’re a restaurant, how can you project when people are going to come back to your restaurant and you can go back to something approaching capacity?”

The Bottom Line Is the Bottom Line

Those lawyers we spoke with all expressed a desire not to sound like an alarmist.

But as they talked about what they’re seeing, reading, and hearing on the phone calls they’ve already taken, they admit it’s difficult not to take that tone.

“For many businesses, it’s a matter of survival at this point,” said Cress, noting that survival is becoming more difficult in some sectors with each passing month. “It’s becoming apparent that the recovery is not going to happen as quickly as some had originally hoped, and the effect is going to be much deeper and longer-lasting than people are even letting on.”

And one seemingly unavoidable consequence of all this is bankruptcies, on both the corporate and consumer sides of the ledger.

As Weiss said, the wave hasn’t crashed ashore yet, but if you look — and you don’t have to look hard — you can see it building.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Law

A Stern Test

By Marylou Fabbo

With schools reopening, parents and employers will be in a difficult boat together as they attempt to juggle parenting with personal and professional responsibilities.

Parents are understandably anxious about how they will meet their obligations to both their children and their employers. Several school districts have announced hybrid returns with students alternating between attending school and remote learning. Some jobs just can’t be done from home, and some parents who would otherwise be able to work at home will be needed to help their children with remote learning (or breaking up arguments).

To make matters worse, schools that are already back in session have shown us that, despite precautions that are being taken, school-based COVID-19 outbreaks are a real concern.

Employment-law Compliance

There is no question that many parents will be working from home in some capacity once the school year starts. Businesses should keep in mind that laws that are applicable in the workplace don’t go out the door simply because the workplace has moved to an employee’s home.

Marylou Fabbo

Marylou Fabbo

“Does workers’ compensation insurance apply when an employee trips over a toy during the workday and fractures her ankle?”

For instance, Massachusetts employers must continue to make sure their employees take their 30-minute meal break and keep records of all hours worked, which may not look like the normal 9-to-5 workday. State and federal laws that require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled employees in the workplace apply to remote employees as well.

To meet these requirements, employers may need to do things such as make adjustments to equipment or the manner in which work is completed. Notices that must be posted in the workplace should be electronically distributed or mailed to an employee.

Still, there are many unanswered questions, and businesses are advised to consult with legal counsel before taking any risky actions. For example, employers are required to reimburse employees for required business-related expenses, but what does that mean when employees use their own laptops and internet for at-home work?

Does workers’ compensation insurance apply when an employee trips over a toy during the workday and fractures her ankle? How does an employer prevent and address sexual harassment in the remote workplace? Is it discriminatory to distribute extra or different tasks that can’t be done at home to older employees who no longer have kids at home? All these issues should be discussed with your employment-law advisors.

Job-protected, Paid Time Off

Not all employees will be able to work when their children are taking classes from home. Employers should be prepared to work with a reduced staff for the foreseeable future. Federal laws will provide many parents with job-protected time off when school is closed, which includes situations where some or all instruction is being provided through distance learning.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) generally requires employers to provide paid time off to employees who cannot work (or telework) because their child’s school is closed. However, it’s not enough that a child is attending class remotely. The parent must be needed to care for the child, and the child must be under 14 absent special circumstances.

Still, the FFCRA does not cover all employees or all employers. Employers with 500 or more employees are not covered by the law, while small employers and healthcare providers may be exempt from certain requirements. Also, employees who have been employed for less than a month are only eligible for a maximum of two weeks of ‘emergency sick’ leave, while employees who have been employed for at least 30 days may be able to take up to an additional 12 weeks of expanded family and medical leave (EFML), including on an intermittent basis, assuming that the leave hasn’t already been taken for other permissible purposes.

Eligible employees can earn up to $200 per day when taking childcare EFML, subject to certain maximum dollar amounts. Lawmakers in several states, including Massachusetts, are considering legislation that would fill the gaps in the FFCRA’s paid-leave provisions, and several states have already extended virus-specific paid leave. Employers whose employees aren’t eligible for protected leave will have to decide whether to allow job-protected leave or lay off or otherwise separate with the employee.

School-related Exposure

Unpredictable, illness-related absences can pose another challenge for employers and employees. Children may be exposed at school and bring the virus home.

Employees may be needed to care for their children who are ill and may even test positive themselves. The FFCRA provides up to two weeks paid time off for COVID-related illnesses. The Massachusetts paid-sick-leave statute and the FMLA may also provide employees with paid time off. Employees may also be able to take protected time off (or time at home) as a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s own disability that makes it risky for the employee to go into the office.

Plan Ahead

There’s never been a return to school quite like 2020. The only certainty is that employers could not possibly plan for all potential scenarios. Businesses should make sure they have effective remote-work policies, practices, and procedures in place, be prepared to operate with fewer employees on an intermittent and possibly long-term basis, and designate one or more people within the organization to whom management and employees can direct their questions.

Marylou Fabbo is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., a law firm that exclusively practices labor and employment law. She specializes in employment litigation, immigration, wage-and-hour compliance, and leaves of absence. She devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, and compliance; (413) 737-4753 ; [email protected]

Law

A Landmark Ruling

By Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq. and Erica E. Flores, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Erica E. Flores

Erica E. Flores

Businesses in Massachusetts have to comply with both state and federal anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination in employment based on what are referred to as protected characteristics. Some examples that people commonly think of are sex, age, and religion, but there are many more.

Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination laws have prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation since 1990 and gender identity and expression since 2012. However, many other states either don’t have employment-discrimination laws at all or don’t include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected characteristics under the laws they do have. So what about the federal law?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on specified protected classes. That statute, however, does not list sexual orientation or gender identity in its list of protected characteristics. Although Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of ‘sex,’ because it did not expressly list sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, federal courts had been left to grapple with whether discrimination on the basis of either of those characteristics is prohibited as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. That is, until the Supreme Court of the U.S. issued its ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia on June 15, 2020.

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The court’s decision resolved three separate but similar cases pending before the Supreme Court: Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia; Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda; and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. EEOC.

Each of the three cases began the same way: Gerald Bostock worked for Clayton County, Ga. and was terminated for conduct “unbecoming” of a county employee when he began to participate in a gay softball league. Donald Zarda worked as a skydiving instructor at Altitude Express in New York. After mentioning that he was gay, he was terminated just days later after several years of successful employment. Aimee Stephens worked at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Garden City, Mich. When hired, Stephens presented as a male. After five years of employment, she informed her employer that, after she returned from an upcoming vacation, she planned to “live and work full-time as a woman.” She was fired before she even left.

Bostock, Zarda, and Stephens each filed a lawsuit against their employer alleging that they were discriminated against on the basis of their sex in violation of Title VII. Bostock’s case was dismissed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that sexual-orientation discrimination is not a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. Zarda and Stephens’ cases had a different outcome. The Second and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals found that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, respectively, are prohibited under Title VII as forms of discrimination based on sex.

“An employer has two employees — one female and one male — both of whom are attracted to men. If the employer fires the male employee because he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.”

The Supreme Court of the U.S. agreed to review all three decisions to resolve the issue that had divided the lower courts: whether discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is prohibited under Title VII as a form of discrimination based on sex. The Supreme Court answered in the affirmative.

In the 6-3 majority opinion, which was authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court focused on the ordinary meaning of the language used by Congress in Title VII at the time the law was passed back in 1964. Specifically, Title VII states that it is “unlawful … for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s … sex.” The court noted that, in 1964, ‘sex’ was defined as one’s “status as either male or female [as] determined by reproductive biology; that the statute uses the term ‘because of’ that status to define when an action is discriminatory; and that it focuses on discrimination against an individual, not a group.

Based on this language, the court found that, under the plain meaning of Title VII, “an individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions … because it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” The court went on to explain its reasoning using two examples:

• An employer has two employees — one female and one male — both of whom are attracted to men. If the employer fires the male employee because he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague. Accordingly, he was singled out based on his sex, and his sex is the reason for the discharge.

• An employer employs a transgender employee who was identified as a male at birth but who now identifies as a female. If the employer continued to employ someone who identified as female at birth but terminated the individual who identified as male at birth, the employer intentionally penalizes a person identified as male at birth for traits or actions that it tolerates in an employee identified as female at birth.

The court agreed that sexual orientation and gender identity are, in fact, distinct concepts from sex. However, the court determined that “discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex; the first cannot happen without the second.”

With this landmark decision, every employer that is covered by Title VII anywhere in the country will now be subject to the same prohibitions that have protected LGBTQ+ employees in Massachusetts for the last eight years, and will be subject to civil penalties and civil liability under Title VII for discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This includes every private employer and every state or local government agency that has 15 or more employees.

Amelia J. Holstrom and Erica E. Flores are attorneys at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

COVID Lawsuits

By John Gannon, Esq.

Businesses across the globe are in the midst of planning, preparing, and executing their reopening strategies. While this news is encouraging, employers face novel and complicated legal questions about their potential liability to employees who either get sick at work or cannot return due to medical or childcare-related reasons.

Searching for answers, businesses leaders are confronted with an array of local, state, federal, and industry-specific protocols for operating safely. Charting a course in the face of this uncertainty is no small task. Unfortunately, one thing remains clear: there will be a wave of lawsuits triggered by the difficult business decisions made during this challenging time.

The COVID-19 crisis will send shockwaves through the courts and fair-employment agencies (such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination) for years to come. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remarked that an “epidemic” of these lawsuits will lead to “a trial-lawyer bonanza.” While likely overstated, the concern for employers should be real. Numerous COVID-19-related lawsuits have been filed, with many more on the way. Here are a sampling of those legal theories, with prevention tips and tactics at the end.

Negligence and/or Wrongful Death

One of the scariest claims for businesses will be negligence and wrongful-death lawsuits. In short, these actions may be lodged by employees (and even customers) who are harmed by COVID-19 because the employer failed to keep the work environment safe.

How might this look? Imagine that employees in a manufacturing plant return to work as the business reopens (or perhaps they have been working all along if the workers are deemed ‘essential’). Joe, who works on the factory floor in close proximity with others, tests positive for COVID-19. Mike, who works near Joe, also tests positive. Mike in turn infects members of his household, including an aging, immune-compromised parent. Can any of them sue the business?

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“Our workers’ compensation system typically prevents employees from suing their employers for injuries that result from working. Instead of suing, employees with occupational injuries get paid through workers’ comp. But is a COVID-19 infection ‘occupational?’”

Our workers’ compensation system typically prevents employees from suing their employers for injuries that result from working. Instead of suing, employees with occupational injuries get paid through workers’ comp. But is a COVID-19 infection ‘occupational?’ Proving the root cause of a COVID infection is very difficult, as the virus spreads easily and can be contracted nearly anywhere.

In the above example, would Joe have a workers’ comp claim? Probably not, unless he can show others he was working in close proximity with someone who had the virus before him. What about Mike? He has a better claim, but still no sure thing. And certainly the family member would not be filing a comp claim. Instead, a negligence or wrongful-death suit might follow.

Recently, the relative of a retail-store employee in Illinois who died from COVID-19 sued the retailer for negligence and wrongful death. The lawsuit claims that the employee contracted COVID-19 in the store, and the business did not do enough to protect employees from the virus. All businesses that are open or reopening should have this case on their radar.

FFCRA Violations

By now, everyone should know that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) allows employees to take paid leave for a number of COVID-19-related reasons, including the need to care for children who are unable to go to school or daycare. Employees who are denied FFCRA rights or retaliated against for taking FFCRA leave can sue you in court. Successful employees may be entitled to reinstatement, lost wages, attorney’s fees, and double damages.

The first FFCRA-related lawsuit was filed last month. In the case, a female employee (and single mom) claimed she was fired because she requested FFCRA leave due to her son’s school closing. The employee allegedly discussed her need for leave to care for her son, and was told that the FFCRA was not meant to be “a hammer to force management into making decisions which may not be in the interest of the company or yourself.” She was fired a few days later and then filed what might be the first FFCRA lawsuit. Many more are certain to follow.

Discriminatory Layoffs

At the time of this article, the unemployment rate in the U.S. stands at almost 15%, and more than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March. Each layoff decision comes with the risk that someone will claim the reason they were selected was discriminatory.

Suppose Jane, who is 60, gets laid off, while many younger workers were retained for employment. Jane may claim that the reason was at least partially motivated by her age. If she was right, it would be would be textbook age discrimination.

Whistleblower/Retaliation Lawsuits

Employees who raise complaints or concerns about workplace safety are protected against retaliation by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Similarly, Massachusetts has a law that protects healthcare workers who complain about practices that pose a risk to public health. We expect an increase in these lawsuits during this pandemic.

Prevention Strategies

These novel COVID-19-related lawsuits generally fall into one of two buckets: claims related to worker health and safety, and discriminatory or retaliatory adverse employment actions.

To protect against the first batch, businesses need to rigorously follow federal, state, and local guidance on maintaining a safe workplace. Agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have issued guidance on topics like maintaining safe business operations, temperature checks for employees, and personal protective equipment. Check with your risk-management advisors to see if they have developed checklists or other tools you can use to aid in your business reopening.

Avoiding the second type of lawsuit (discrimination, retaliation, etc.) involves the same tried and true principles that were critical before COVID-19. Make sure you have reasonable, business-based justifications for your decisions that are not motivated by characteristics like race, age, gender, or use of FFCRA leave. These business-based reasons should be well-documented and understandable to laypeople, who may be reviewing your justification in a jury room. Finally, when in doubt, consult with your labor and employment-law specialists.

John Gannon is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser. He specializes in employment law and regularly counsels employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. He is a frequent speaker on employment-related legal topics for a wide variety of associations and organizations; [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

Calling Back Workers

By Mary Jo Kennedy, Esq. and Sarah Willey, Esq.

Mary Jo Kennedy

Mary Jo Kennedy

Sarah Willey

Sarah Willey

As businesses prepare for reopening, many employers are summoning laid-off and furloughed employees and notifying employees who have been working remotely to return to the physical workplace.

Some employers are anticipating that their reopening may be a gradual process. Employers may do a ‘soft reopening’ in order to test workplace-safety measures such as social distancing. Some businesses may find, as a result of new safety procedures, that their workplace no longer requires certain positions. As a result, employers may not need the same number of employees or positions they had back in early March.

However, recalling only a portion of a workforce does have its own risks. Employers should carefully consider who and how many workers to recall and when to have them return.

Once notified, workers’ responses to the callback may vary. Some employees will welcome the return to work as a sign that things are returning to ‘normal,’ while others may have mixed feelings as they may want or need to stay home until the pandemic is over. Employers must consider how to best respond to workers’ requests.

How do you select which employees to call back when calling back fewer than all?

First, identify the types of positions and the number of employees needed for each position to be recalled. There may be certain skill sets or knowledge base needed in order to ramp up business after the shutdown.

“If they have medical concerns regarding returning to work, they should discuss those concerns with their supervisor or human-resources team and encourage them to stay home or arrange an alternate work assignment.”

Second, businesses should consider any policy or past practice regarding recalling employees as there may be a legitimate business reason for not following them. Employers should evaluate their business rationale for the selection process and document the criteria used for selecting one employee over another. Selection criteria may appear neutral on the surface, but the effect of its application may inadvertently result in the elimination of all or a majority of a group of employees in a class protected under discrimination laws. As a result, selection criteria may need to be reconsidered in order to avoid possible discrimination claims.

Can you decide not to recall employees because of a concern regarding their health?

Employers may have a genuine concern that a group of employees may be susceptible to greater harm if infected with COVID-19. For example, an employer may be concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19 of an older employee, employees with known medical conditions, or a pregnant employee. Any selection decision based on a person’s age, perceived disability, or pregnancy will expose the employer to discrimination claims.

Employers should not take a paternalistic view of deciding what is best for its employees. Rather, an employer should let employees know that, if they have medical concerns regarding returning to work, they should discuss those concerns with their supervisor or human-resources team and encourage them to stay home or arrange an alternate work assignment.

What if you laid off some and furloughed other employees?

Employers should consider calling back furloughed employees before rehiring laid-off employees. Employers may have given furloughed employees written assurances that they would be called back and may have retained them on health insurance, indicators that the employer intended to have the furloughed employees return to work.

How do you communicate the call back?

Employers should communicate the offer to return to work in writing. The communication should detail the start date, full-time or part-time status, position, hours, work schedules, wages, location, and conditions of the job.

What if a business calls back laid-off or furloughed employees and the response is that an employee has found other employment?

If an employer is told that a laid-off or furloughed employee is not returning to work because the individual has found employment elsewhere, the employer should document the reason for not returning and then move to the next employee on the recall list. If your business participated in the Paycheck Protection Program, documenting the reason for the refusal is critical in order to meet the loan-forgiveness requirements.

Also, if accrued but unused vacation time has not previously been paid, it should be paid out to the employee immediately, and if the employee was on the employer’s health insurance, a COBRA notice should be sent to the employee.

What if a business calls back a laid-off or furloughed employee who is unable to return to work because of a lack of childcare?

With schools and daycare facilities currently closed, employees with school-aged children may not have childcare options. Under the CARES Act, individuals who are unable to work (including telework) and are the primary caregiver for a child whose school or childcare facility is closed or whose childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19 can receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

In addition, the employee may be eligible for paid extended family and medical leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), under which eligible employees who are unable to work at their normal worksite or by means of telework are entitled to 12 weeks of paid extended family and medical leave (at two-thirds of their regular rate of pay) to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed (or childcare provider is unavailable) due to COVID-19-related reasons.

The FFCRA provides eligibility for paid extended family and medical leave to an employee who was laid off or otherwise terminated by the employer on or after March 1, 2020 and rehired or otherwise re-employed by the employer on or before Dec. 31, 2020, provided that the employee had been on the employer’s payroll for 30 or more of the 60 calendar days prior to the date the employee was laid off or otherwise terminated.

What if an employee has been working remotely during the shutdown and is unable to physically return to the worksite because of a lack of childcare?

While many remote employees have been able to work effectively at home during the forced shutdown, other remote employees may have struggled due their type of work not being conducive to telework. An employer may have valid concerns about an employee’s telework performance, such as the quality and quantity of the work, and should address with remote employees any performance issues.

An employer should discuss with an employee the possibility of flexible or reduced hours in a physical workplace or a modified remote-work schedule. If these options are not viable, an employee unable to return to their normal worksite may be eligible for unemployment.

What if an employee who has a medical condition increasing their risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19 wants to continue working remotely?

Addressing this issue requires consideration of federal and state reasonable-accommodation laws. If the medical diagnosis constitutes a disability under state or federal disability laws, the employee may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation. Given these unprecedented times, an employer may treat a medical condition that puts an individual at an increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19 as a disability. The employer should also explore with the employee other possible accommodations in addition to working remotely.

What if an employee can work but has a medical condition, adding increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19, but the employee’s job duties cannot be done remotely?

Dealing with employees whose work cannot be done remotely but are at an increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19 has unique concerns, and each situation should be considered on a case-by-case basis. If the employee was advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19 and the employer is subject to the FFCRA, the employee may be eligible for 80 hours of paid sick leave under FFCRA.

However, in this scenario, the FFCRA requires that the employee be “particularly vulnerable to COVID-19” and that following the advice of a healthcare provider to self-quarantine prevents the employee from being able to work, either at the employee’s workplace or by telework. Employers should obtain appropriate medical documentation substantiating the reasons for the self-quarantine.

In addition, if the medical diagnosis constitutes a serious medical condition or a disability, the employee may be entitled to either an unpaid leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (if the employer has 50 or more employees and as such is a FMLA-covered employer) or a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation for the disability.

What if an employee wants to continue to work remotely because the employee has an immediate family member who has a medical condition that puts that family member at increased risk of harm if exposed to COVID-19?

An eligible employee of a FMLA-covered employer can take a leave of absence to care for a family member with a serious medical condition. But if the family member does not need the employee’s care, the requirements for FMLA leave would not be met.

Under the American with Disabilities Act, employers are required to provide qualified disabled employees with a reasonable accommodation. When leave and accommodation laws do not apply, employees may ask employers to apply common decency to the situation and let them return to the physical workplace at a later time.

These are challenging issues for employers, who must balance the need to protect employees from COVID-19 with the need to maintain a workforce to keep the business open.

Employers should be cautious when navigating the various leave and disability laws in order to avoid lawsuits. Before denying employees’ leaves or other reasonable-accommodation requests, employers should engage with employees in order to assess the validity and reasonableness of the requests and should document the steps taken.

Mary Jo Kennedy is a partner and chair of the employment group at Bulkley Richardson, and Sarah Willey is counsel and member of the employment group at Bulkley Richardson.

Law

That Is the Question, and Here Are Some Answers

By Valerie Vignaux, Esq.

Valerie Vignaux

Please allow me to interrupt your quarantine gratitude journaling and victory gardening to demystify a topic apt for these unfortunate times: probate.

I have found in my legal practice that most consider probate to be a dirty word. I have also found widespread misunderstanding of what that dirty word really means. What better time than during a pandemic to learn about the legal process surrounding death?

What, then, is probate? It is a process to appoint someone to be in charge of your probate assets after you die, and to distribute those assets according to your wishes. You ask, one eyebrow raised, “what are probate assets?” Excellent question — I can tell that you are a close listener.

Probate assets are property (such as real estate, bank accounts, cars, investment accounts, and retirement funds) that you own in your name alone at your death. These assets do not have a joint owner (like a joint bank account you might have with a spouse). These assets do not have a designated beneficiary (like on an IRA or a life-insurance policy that lists a child as beneficiary). In order for anyone to be able to access these assets after your death — to pay bills, to make distributions to loved ones — the assets must go through the probate process.

“I have a will!” you proclaim with confidence, “so there won’t be any probate.” But you are wrong, my friend. It is not the existence of a will that prevents probate; it is the absence of probate assets that prevents probate. It is how you own something that dictates whether that process must be undertaken, not whether you have a will.

“Then I shall tear up my will!” you cry out. Please, no. Your will makes this process easier, in part, by telling the court whom you want to be in charge of those assets. In the old days, when we shook hands with gusto and gathered at bars to buy overpriced cocktails, we called this person the executor or executrix. Today — really, since 2012 — the personal representative fills this role. Same job, different name.

“What, then, is probate? It is a process to appoint someone to be in charge of your probate assets after you die, and to distribute those assets according to your wishes.”

Your will also informs the Probate Court who will get your probate assets. Additionally, if appropriate, your will names your desired guardian of your children, in the event you die leaving minors behind. (Please wash your hands and stop touching your face.)

“Probate is the fourth circle of hell,” you sigh with resignation, “and I will take great pains to avoid it.” Here’s the dirty word bit, and what so many believe: probate is complicated, takes forever, and costs tons of money. This is not, however, necessarily true, and it is often not true at all. Of course, it depends upon the nature of your assets — perhaps you own many properties in different states, or a family business. Probate’s difficulty depends, too, upon your family circumstances — maybe you don’t have highly valued assets, but your children do not get along and there is a high likelihood of challenge over your collection of red hawk tail feathers.

For most people, probate is simply a process with clearly defined steps and a timeline. Getting help from an attorney can make the process even easier.

You now know, because you’re a quick study, two ways to avoid probate (add a joint owner, designate a beneficiary). But here’s something radical to consider: you might not want to avoid it. There are situations in which it makes good sense to force your assets (some or all) through the probate process. Your will can serve as a master plan for what happens to all you leave behind. That document allows you to spread your wealth (whether millions in cash or a trunkful of hand-sewn face masks) among all of your loved ones equally, or unequally. Your will can even create a trust that can hold assets for minors, those with poor spending habits, or a disabled family member.

If you name your children as beneficiaries of your life-insurance policy and die while they are still minors, a conservator will need to be appointed to receive, hold, and manage those funds for the benefit of your children — kids can’t just inherit money. The conservatorship process, another Probate Court endeavor, also takes time and money — often more than probate itself.

If you instead name your estate as beneficiary of your life insurance (“such madness!” you gasp, but bear with me), those funds will be handled according to the master plan — your will. You can avoid the necessity of a conservatorship by directing those funds into a custodial account at a bank, or by including a trust in your will that will hold the money for the benefit of your children. This is just one example of many.

I work with clients regularly to avoid probate and still achieve their desired goals. But sometimes I recommend that they embrace the process because it makes the most sense for their situation. Probate doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Working with an estate-planning attorney, and perhaps a financial advisor, you may find this is true for you. It’s important that everyone have a plan in place, but let’s all try to stay alive for a good, long while.

Valerie Vignaux is an attorney with Bacon Wilson, P.C., and a member of the firm’s estate-planning and elder-law team. She assists clients with all manner of estate planning and administration, including probate, and provides representation for guardianship and conservatorship matters. She received the Partner in Care award from Linda Manor in 2017, and served on the board of directors for Highland Valley Elder Services; (413) 584-1287; [email protected]

Law

Time to Make a Strong Case

Ken Albano, managing partner at Bacon Wilson.

For years now, it’s been the common refrain among those charged with hiring at companies across a number of industry sectors: good help is hard — or at least harder — to find and retain.

Increasingly, words to that effect are being heard in a sector where they’ve traditionally not been heard as much — the legal community.

Indeed, representatives of several area firms told BusinessWest that, while they can still recruit and hire talent — for the most part — it’s a more challenging assignment in many cases and often takes longer.

“It’s certainly more challenging now than it has been in the past,” said John Gannon, a partner and employment-law specialist at Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, who penned an article for this issue on the many questions employers have about dealing with coronavirus. “But this is not unique to law firms — this is economy-wide, nationwide; it’s just hard to find people because everyone’s working.”

Indeed, this is, by and large, a buyer’s, or job seeker’s, market. Given these conditions, where law firms — like other employers in virtually every sector — are upping the ante with wages and benefits, it becomes more difficult for Springfield-area firms to compete. It’s a completely different playing field than the one that existed during and just after the Great Recession, he went on, when jobs were scarce and law firms saturated with lawyers were very much in the driver’s seat.

Ken Albano, managing partner at Bacon Wilson, which is based in Springfield and also has offices in Northampton and Westfield, agreed.

“It’s certainly more challenging now than it has been in the past. But this is not unique to law firms — this is economy-wide, nationwide; it’s just hard to find people because everyone’s working.”

“It’s challenging, but then it’s always been somewhat challenging in this market,” he told BusinessWest, adding that many factors are contributing to the current environment, including everything from the smaller classes at many law schools, which resulted from that depressed job market after the Great Recession, among other factors, to the lower pay scales in the 413 compared to markets like Boston, New York, and even Hartford (more on that later), to what appears to be fewer people moving into certain areas of the law.

To emphasize that last point, he reached for the Feb. 24 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, specifically the ‘Employment’ page. Using a blue sharpie, he had circled the ads seeking litigators with varying levels of experience — and there were quite a few of them.

John Gannon says recruiting lawyers to this market has always been somewhat challenging, and with the current job climate, it is even more so.

‘Associate — Civil Litigation’ read one ad, while another was headlined ‘Senior Litigation Associate,’ and several read simply ‘Litigation Associate.’ One, for a firm in Charlestown, was more specific: ‘Trusts & Estates & Probate Litigation Associate — Must Love Dogs.’

Albano’s interest in those ads was understandable.

“Our firm’s biggest frustration has been in that one particular practice area, litigation,” he said, noting that the firm lost two of its best litigators, Bob Murphy and Kevin Maltby, to the bench in recent years, and has struggled to fill the void. “And I’m not sure why that is; maybe it’s the anxiety, maybe people don’t like to speak in public. It’s not just us — people are struggling to find people who want to go to court.”

Putting aside the need for litigators, and even litigators who love dogs, hiring has, overall, become more challenging for law firms in Greater Springfield, and this is prompting a response similar to that given by those in other sectors. Specifically, it’s one focused on being imaginative and resourceful, and employing tactics designed to familiarize law-school students with opportunities in this area and also sell this region both to those just starting their careers and those looking at a lateral move.

“We made a decision at a partners’ retreat to put a very targeted and strategic approach to hiring in place,” said Betsey Quick, executive director at Bulkley Richardson, which has offices in Springfield and Hadley, adding that part of this strategy is to focus primarily on area law schools, bring in summer associates and interns, and make them familiar with the firm and the region. And it’s a strategy that’s working.

“These are people who have a connection to the area, and our client community is out our windows,” she explained. “It’s a challenge to find someone who wants to be in the area, but there are so many law schools within 50 miles, and these students have a connection to the community, and if you have a connection to the community, you’re going to know people who need legal services.”

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest takes a look at the job market and the challenges facing firms seeking to hire. As in the courtroom itself, this assignment requires making a very strong case in order to prevail in the end.

Hire Power

As this issue went to press, those managing area law firms certainly had a lot more on their minds than finding new associates.

Indeed, as the number of coronavirus cases climbed steadily upward through last week, every firm in the region was developing contingency plans, making preparations for employees to work at home if necessary, checking corporate insurance policies to see if they’re covered (probably not) in the event that the virus seriously disrupts business, and monitoring the situation at the various law schools — some, including Western New England University, were weighing whether to shut things down for the rest of the spring, and some had already decided to do so.

“Our firm’s biggest frustration has been in that one particular practice area, litigation. And I’m not sure why that is; maybe it’s the anxiety, maybe people don’t like to speak in public. It’s not just us — people are struggling to find people who want to go to court.”

But the matter of hiring is an all-important one in this sector, and it is an issue for the long term as firms look to do everything from filling specific vacancies in departments to ensuring a healthy mix of young and mid-career lawyers to ensure sustainability and inevitable transition to a younger generation, said Quick, adding that Bulkey Richardson recognized a need for such a mix and is aggressively pursuing one.

“We have a commitment to hire, or attempt to hire, at least three young people per year,” she said, adding that this number could go higher if the firm sees good talent and doesn’t want to pass it up. “And that’s part of our strategy; if we don’t keep a targeted and strategic approach to hiring young lawyers, we’re going to be top-heavy.

“Every firm faces succession issues,” she went on. “It’s a difficult, challenging problem to face, and part of it is just bringing up young lawyers behind them, especially while they’re here to talk to them and train them and take them to meet clients; it’s important to tap that wealth of knowledge.”

But when it comes to hiring lawyers, the Springfield market has always been somewhat unique — and challenging, said those we spoke with.

Betsey Quick

Betsey Quick says Bulkley Richardson’s hiring strategy has focused on seeking out law-school students who can make local connections and, overall, a commitment to this market.

In some ways, it competes with firms in New York, Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Worcester for talent, but its wage scale has always been significantly below New York and Boston and also well below those in those other cities. So, in some respects, this region doesn’t compete against those markets.

“What comes with practicing in this market is a lower salary — it’s a fact of life,” said Albano. “And a lot of times, when we do make offers to potential new associates, we can’t compete with the Boston and Hartford markets because, on average, a new associate can make a lot more money working in those arenas than they can in Springfield or Amherst or wherever.

“We’ve lost associates in the commercial practice group to Hartford,” he went on, estimating that salaries there are perhaps 20% higher than in Springfield. “And we don’t chase people — we say, ‘this is the offer, and it’s the same offer we’ve made to people that have been in your shoes, and they’re working here now.’ That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to compete with those markets.”

Overall, the strategy has been to sell this market as a great place to live — and practice law — and to target (and in some respects recruit) candidates who want to be in this market and can commit to being here.

“We’re always looking for people who want to put down roots in Springfield,” said Gannon. “That’s a very important characteristic in all of the applicants we look at.”

Albano agreed.

“It’s tough to have someone from the Boston area come here knowing that the salary is going to be less,” he said, referring in this case to lateral hires. “But you try to impress upon these people that the cost of living is much less here. And we’ve seen both sides of the fence; we’ve had people that have worked in Boston come here and say, ‘I’d love to have a place where my dog can walk on real grass, have a fence around my yard, and not have to go to a skyscraper to go to work.’”

Quick, who handled aspects of recruiting for firms in Boston and Washington, D.C. before coming to Bulkley Richardson, acknowledged that the Springfield market is somewhat unique because of the lower salary ranges, underscoring the need, when it comes to entry-level hiring, to focus on law students who have or can create local connections.

“Anyone can look at the GPA [grade point average] and see how these students are doing on paper,” she told BusinessWest. “But are they going to fit culturally? Are they going to stay in the area? Do they have a tie to the area? Do they have a reason to want to be here? These are the things we look for.”

As for those already in the profession, in this tight job market, the task of recruiting and hiring becomes more difficult because most people are working, said Gannon, and also because the companies they’re working for want to keep them. And it’s the same in the legal profession.

“Most of the people who want to be working are working, and because unemployment rates are so low, what employers have been doing for the past couple of years is doing whatever they can to retain good people,” he said, adding that this means law-firm managers as well. “This means higher compensation, trying to pay more of the lion’s share of employee benefits, offering more generous PTO [paid time off] policies, and letting people work at home, which is a big one for many people. People are happy where they’re working — most of them, anyway.”

As for those coming right out of law school, they certainly want to be happy where they work, and, given the current climate, they have a good chance of succeeding with that mission. One strategy for Western Mass. firms — again, one that businesses in other sectors employ as well — is to familiarize young people with the region and create a familiarity and comfort level that may help sway decisions when it comes time to find a job.

“We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to hire bright, qualified individuals in law school, both at Western New England and UConn, to become law clerks at Bacon Wilson,” he said. “They work for us for a couple of years, and we can see the progress and the value, and quite often they’ll say, ‘I like this place, it’s like family; is there a job opening for us?’ And more often than not, we make one for them because we want to keep that type of talent on our page.”

Final Arguments

Looking down the road is always difficult — especially when there is an unprecedented wildcard like the coronavirus. Indeed, law firms might soon be in less of a growth mode than they currently are.

But for now, and for the foreseeable future, the outlook is promising for business — if not for recruiting lawyers to the 413, necessarily. Whether the task is filling a vacancy in the estate planning or real estate department or finding a litigator — one who loves dogs or not — the assignment is becoming increasingly challenging.

And, like employers across the broad spectrum of business, law firms must respond proactively to this changing environment.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Fresh Start

By John Greaney and Sarah Morgan

John Greaney

Sarah Morgan

Cannabis is a controlled substance under federal law. Massachusetts, however, has shifted from total prohibition to limited legalization. Despite this change, for many individuals, prior convictions for possession of marijuana may still cause major consequences. This raises the question: what can now be done about prior convictions for minor marijuana offenses that are no longer considered crimes under Massachusetts law?

Cannabis (marijuana) is made criminal as a Schedule I narcotic under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Notwithstanding the federal prohibition, Massachusetts and several other states have passed laws loosening the restrictions on small amounts of marijuana for personal use. In 2008, voters in Massachusetts approved a ballot question decriminalizing marijuana possession of up to one ounce per person. Massachusetts enacted an additional measure in 2012, allowing the purchase and use of marijuana for therapeutic uses from registered marijuana dispensaries.

Moving further away from prohibition, in 2016 Massachusetts enacted a law permitting individuals over the age of 21 to possess up to one ounce on their person and up to 10 ounces in their homes. The Cannabis Control Commission, the state agency which now regulates the recreational and medical marijuana industry, is considering social consumption of marijuana at sites designated as licensed marijuana establishments, such as cannabis cafés.

Despite the significant progress made, convictions for marijuana possession under the former criminalization scheme may continue to have lasting effects on individuals. Even minor convictions for possession appear on a person’s criminal offender record information (CORI) report and may disqualify him or her from employment or housing opportunities or possibly lead to other adverse consequences.

The impact of prior criminal convictions for possession also may disproportionately affect people of color. A study conducted by the Cannabis Control Commission found that African-American and Hispanic people — in particular, men — had been disproportionately convicted for cannabis possession between 2000 and 2013 as compared to white people during the same period.

“Despite the significant progress made, convictions for marijuana possession under the former criminalization scheme may continue to have lasting effects on individuals.”

Although the 2016 legalization bill permitted individuals to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, it did nothing to erase past convictions and their lasting impacts.

In 2018, our Legislature addressed the retroactivity problem when it enacted the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Law, comprehensive legislation that allows individuals to seal or expunge their criminal records for offenses that are no longer a crime. This permits individuals who have been convicted for possession of one ounce or less of cannabis to seal or expunge their record. The law does not allow for sealing or expungement of more significant marijuana offenses.

The Criminal Justice Reform bill reflects the Commonwealth’s new views on marijuana use and a progressive intent to address the effects and disparate impacts of marijuana criminalization.

Under our revised laws, sealing and expungement are the two mechanisms available to limit, or remove, minor marijuana convictions from criminal records. Sealing records restricts who can access them and involves a relatively simple process — a petitioner must complete a petition to seal and mail it to the Office of the Commissioner of Probation in Boston. Once sealed, a person may answer, “I have no record,” when asked about criminal records concerning possession of marijuana by an employment or housing screener. However, state law-enforcement agencies and offices responsible for administering foster care, adoption, and childcare programs may still access sealed records.

Expungement permanently destroys a criminal record and allows a person to claim, without limitation, “I have no record,” when asked about their criminal history for any purpose. Expunging records requires a petitioner to file a petition for expungement in court and may require a hearing if either the petitioner or the district attorney, who must be notified of the petition, requests one. A judge hearing a petition for expungement has discretion to approve or deny it. Importantly, individuals who are not citizens, or whose immigration status may be impacted by the process, should not seal, or attempt to expunge, their records without consulting an immigration attorney.

Once a criminal conviction has been sealed or expunged, an individual is no longer obligated to report these convictions on an application for employment or housing. The Massachusetts Ban the Box Law prohibits employers from asking applicants in an initial employment application about their criminal records except in limited circumstances. The changes to the law also require employers to include specific informative language related to criminal-record disclosures in any requests provided to applicants. Applicants whose records have been expunged may answer ‘no record’ on an application for employment or housing.

Once a criminal conviction has been sealed or expunged, an individual is no longer obligated to report these convictions on an application for employment or housing.

At all stages of the hiring process, employers are absolutely prohibited from inquiring about criminal records — or anything related to criminal records — that have been sealed or expunged. In other words, once an employer learns that the applicant either has no record or that the records have been sealed or expunged, the employer cannot inquire further. In view of these changes, employers should review their hiring practices and applications and adjust them, and the interview process, accordingly.

Sealing and expunging prior convictions opens many new doors of opportunity for those impacted by the decades-long criminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts.

Anyone interested in exploring their options for addressing their qualifying Massachusetts cannabis convictions should contact the Hampden County Bar Assoc. regarding “Off the Record: A Clinic on Removing Past Marijuana Convictions from Your Record,” a free event to review individual circumstances and receive assistance on preparing the necessary documents. The clinic is co-sponsored by the Hampden County Bar Assoc., INSA, Sigma Pi Phi, and the Western New England University School of Law Center for Social Justice. 

Justice John Greaney is a former justice of the Supreme Judicial Court and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson.  Sarah Morgan is an associate in the litigation and cannabis practices at Bulkley Richardson.

Law

LLCs in the Bay State

By Benjamin M. Coyle, Esq.

Benjamin M. Coyle

Benjamin M. Coyle

Many families have homes or other real estate that parents hope to pass along to the next generation. In the world of estate planning, there are a variety of ways to achieve the movement of a family home from parents to children — sometimes through a trust, sometimes through a will after death, or even sometimes by outright gift.

While all these methods have their place, another option that should be considered is the formation of a limited-liability company (LLC) to hold title to real estate.

In Massachusetts, a limited-liability company is a business entity, formed with the secretary of the Commonwealth, and offering great flexibility in its management. This flexibility is very appealing, particularly when a home or other real estate is to be owned, used, and managed by a group.

For example, parents may want their four children to inherit a property equally. By using an LLC, rather than deeding each child a 25% interest in the property outright, parents would be able to transfer shares in the LLC to their children. Doing things this way is beneficial for several reasons.

One of the most important advantages of an LLC is the ability to work under an operating agreement — a formal, written document that clearly states the owners/members of the LLC, their respective interests, and the manner in which the LLC is operated and governed. The operating agreement can also allocate profits and losses to various members (which can be different than their ownership interest). Most importantly, the operating agreement also clearly states rules for use of the property by the members, and allocation of expenses.

“One of the most important advantages of an LLC is the ability to work under an operating agreement — a formal, written document that clearly states the owners/members of the LLC, their respective interests, and the manner in which the LLC is operated and governed.”

This gives everyone involved a crystal-clear understanding of their privileges and responsibilities relative to the property.

Once an LLC is formed and an operating agreement established, the real estate in question would be transferred into the LLC by deed, and the LLC would then be the owner of the property. By transferring the property to the LLC, the grantor has essentially converted real estate into tangible personal property, thereby avoiding many of the probate complexities of real estate.

Additionally, an LLC offers continuity in the property’s title, while still providing for the flexibility of changing ownership interests and membership shares (in contrast to multiple deeds divvying up the property, which could cause significant title confusion).

In the event the property is rented, the LLC provides limited-liability protection for its members, either short term or long term. Further, LLCs often offer tax advantages (over outright ownership) with respect to rental income, repair costs, renovations, and other expenses associated with the property. Additionally, since the LLC is a recognized business entity, it may often be easier for the LLC to obtain insurance or borrow money from a bank, in contrast with the banking difficulties that can be experienced by individuals with a shared interest via deed, or if the property were held in a trust.

Although there are significant advantages to the LLC, there are also startup costs and recurring annual expenses associated with the formation and continued maintenance of the LLC. Initial formation costs include a filing fee of $500 with the secretary of the Commonwealth, and any legal fees associated with the completion of articles of organization and the operating agreement.

Massachusetts requires that LLCs file an annual report with the secretary of the Commonwealth. For LLCs formed outside of Massachusetts, the Commonwealth requires a foreign LLC to register in Massachusetts and comply with the state’s annual filing requirements.

It is good practice (and may even be required by the operating agreement) for the members of an LLC to hold regular meetings, at least annually, where they discuss the business of the prior year and the upcoming year as it pertains to the LLC and the operation of the property. The LLC should maintain a corporate book that includes the minutes of each membership meeting, as well as minutes for any special meetings that may occur throughout the year. Since the LLC is a business entity, it will require its own tax-identification number and annual tax return. Depending upon the tax election chosen by the LLC, if there is any associated tax liability, those costs can potentially be passed on to each member to be addressed on their individual tax returns, and the expenses associated with annual fees and costs can be deducted from any LLC income.

An LLC is an excellent option to consider when determining the best way to address transferring real estate from one generation to the next. The transfer can occur during the lifetime of the current owners with relative ease and can be added to many existing estate plans, thereby providing families with effective ownership transitions and limited liability for the members of the LLC.

Benjamin M. Coyle is a shareholder with Bacon Wilson, P.C. He specializes in matters of estate planning and administration, and also has extensive experience with real estate, business, corporate, and municipal law; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Law

2019 Employment Law Year in Review

This past year was one that saw a number of landscape-changing developments in the broad realm of employment law. From paid family leave to cannabis to overtime-threshold changes, there were a number of changes to existing laws, new measures to keep track of, and new challenges for employers.

By Maureen James, Esq.

2019 … it’s been real.

Much like politics this year, employment law has experienced quite the roller-coaster ride. So what has this year taught us? Where will we go next? Has anyone really gotten over the Game of Thrones finale? Will 2020 include more Baby Yoda? You know … the important stuff.

This year saw many changes, most of which will really be felt during 2020 and beyond. Even so, those changes have opened dialogue to new and progressive topics that are changing the landscape of employment law. Here is a summary of the new developments, both here in the Commonwealth and nationally.

Paid Family Medical Leave

We cannot write a ‘year in review’ without starting with the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave law (PFML). A lot of attention was given to PFML last year, and rightfully so. This is an institutional change, and all involved have been nervous about its rollout.

As readers are likely aware, PFML is a state-offered benefit that, come 2021, will entitle most Massachusetts workers to take up to 26 weeks of paid leave for medical or family reasons. PFML is funded through a Massachusetts wage tax that is shared by employees and businesses with 25 or more employees.

Last summer, the Department of Paid Leave issued final regulations and rolled out an updated timeline for employers, which included the deadline for notification to employees of Sept. 30, 2019, the commencement of payroll withholdings on Oct. 1, 2019, and information on the application process for private-plan exemptions.

It is clear this will be a hot topic throughout 2020 as employers will start making their quarterly PFML tax contributions and begin preparing for the first round of claims beginning in January 2021.

Marijuana

Medicinal and recreational marijuana went from nowhere to everywhere this year. Commissions, taxes, licensing … there are lots of complicated issues. For employers, many have been trying to balance state and federal law, as well as existing policies and changing culture. Unfortunately, we are not yet at a place were clear policies and practices exist. Over the next year, this will likely be a hot topic as its effects continue to grow — pun intended.

National Labor Relations Board

Last summer, the National Labor Relations Board made some drastic policy shifts in three swift steps. In May, it was announced that it intended to set standards for union activity on employer property. It followed up in June 2019 with a ruling in UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, where it overturned decades of precedent and determined that employers can ban union organizers from public areas of their private property.

In August 2019, it held in Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation that property owners can bar labor protests by off-duty contractor workers unless they work “regularly and exclusively” on the property and there is no “reasonable non-trespassory alternative” for communicating their message. With these large shifts, it will be interesting to see what other areas NLRB reviews and possibly enacts changes to next year.

“This year saw many changes, most of which will really be felt during 2020 and beyond. Even so, those changes have opened dialogue to new and progressive topics that are changing the landscape of employment law.”

Continuing this trend of pro-employer decisions, a few weeks ago the board released a decision overruling a prior case that held that employees have a presumptive right to use an employer’s e-mail system for non-work-related communications, which includes e-mail traffic related to forming a union. The recent decision reconfirmed that an employer has a right to restrict employee use of its e-mail system as long as it is done on a non-discriminatory basis.

Union Fees

In a recent case — Janus v. State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448 — the U.S. Supreme Court held that non-union workers cannot be forced to pay fees to public-sector unions. Throughout 2019, this has been a debated topic in Massachusetts. The Legislature passed a law providing Massachusetts’ public employee unions access to contact information for employees, as well as certain allowances to charge fees to non-members.

Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed the law, but in September, he was overridden. As we move into 2020, the effect this law has on union dues and relationships between members and non-members, if any, remains to be seen.

Department of Labor Overtime Threshold Changes

One of the many regulations taking effect at the inception of 2020 includes a boost to the salary threshold for the eligibility of workers to receive overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This change will extend overtime protections to currently exempt workers making less than $684 per week (or less than $35,568 per year) and highly compensated employees making less than $2,066 per week (or less than $107,432 per year). This means, before year’s end, employers who employ exempt workers will need to review their compensation (including any non-discretionary bonuses and commissions) to ensure they earn enough to qualify for exempt status as of Jan. 1, 2020.

Non-compete Law

Massachusetts’ new Noncompetition Agreement Act has changed how employers draft, use, and enforce non-compete agreements. The law makes certain types of non-competes flatly unenforceable, and restricts how long and for what reason an agreement can be used in other situations. It also requires consideration (i.e., some sort of payment) to the employee if an employer wants to enforce a non-compete provision. The law has only been in effect a year, so we have not seen the full ramifications of the statute yet.

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services’ H-1B Visas

March 2020 will bring the official beginning of the spring season, but also the first round of electronic registration for H-1B visas under the fiscal year 2021 cap. H-1B sponsorship is offered by employers in ‘specialty occupations’ that require at least a bachelor’s degree (or the equivalent in education and experience). In this new electronic process, employers seeking H-1B workers subject to the 2021 FY cap will complete an electronic registration that requires only basic information about the company and each requested worker.

The H-1B random selection process will use those registrations, and then the selected registrations from that pool will be eligible to file more detailed petitions for the H-1B visa cap.

2020 … Bring It On

There are only a few things that are certain: death, taxes, and another terrible reality show. However, 2020 most certainly will be a year where many new laws stretch their legs and see their first moments of sun. There will undoubtedly be new issues to confront, but no matter what year it is, you can never be too prepared.

Maureen James is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

And to Keep It That Way, Businesses Can Make Use of the NDA

By Kenneth Albano, Esq.

Managing Partner Kenneth Albano

Kenneth Albano

In the legal world, we use the term ‘attorney-client privilege,’ while in the medical field, you may have heard the expression ‘doctor-patient confidentiality.’ Both terms are used in circumstances where a lawyer or doctor must maintain confidentiality to best protect a client or a patient.

In a business setting, the term ‘confidential’ can be used on many fronts, most notably in the context of a formal confidentiality/non-disclosure agreement, more commonly known as an NDA.

The use of an NDA can be seen in many different business scenarios, with the primary purpose being to protect confidential information from being revealed to the public or an unwanted third party, or from being used without the consent or knowledge of the first party.

Within the NDA document itself, the two parties are known as the ‘disclosing party’ and the ‘receiving party.’ The disclosing party is the person requesting that the receiving party sign the NDA, in order to protect the confidential information at stake.

For example, if an owner of a company were looking to retire and possibly sell the business to a competitor, he would not want to offer up proprietary information without protection. In a case like this, the retiring business owner might ask his purchaser or competitor to sign an NDA, which would protect the business owner while the two parties negotiated the terms for the sale of the business.

“You have worked long and hard to develop and grow your business, and without the protection of an NDA, loss of information could have very real financial repercussions.”

The content of an NDA can typically be broken down into five main components:

• Define the parties. This means laying out in clear terms who is the disclosing party and who is the receiving party. Typically the parties are individuals. Within the NDA document, the receiving party will be bound by numerous covenants or conditions associated with the protection of the confidential information being used or revealed.

• Describe the nature of the transaction the NDA is governing. For example, an NDA might be used to protect confidential information associated with the hiring of a new employee or executive, keeping business information private when working with independent contractors, preventing an idea or invention from being stolen or infringed upon, or protecting proprietary or secret company information that might be disclosed during a potential sale of a business.

• Include all the details. Within the NDA, it is important to specifically define, in great detail, exactly what constitutes the confidential information to be protected. In our prior example of the sale of a business, the NDA might prevent the receiving party from revealing any information about the business — whether it were oral or written information concerning the company, technical information, proprietary sales and financial data, software products, marketing strategies, customer lists, personnel records, or any information supplied by the business to the receiving party by the company or its representatives.

In another example, if the NDA were being used for the purpose of hiring a new employee or executive, the definition of the confidential information might include various proprietary information belonging to the company, about which the new employee would become aware during his or her employment. This type of protective covenant regarding confidential information can also be found in a written employment agreement or non-compete agreement as well.

• What information is allowed to be disclosed by the receiving party without violating the NDA? Under normal circumstances, confidential information does not include (a) information generally available or known to the public; (b) information that was already known by or available to the receiving party; (c) information subsequently disclosed to the receiving party by a third person, under no obligation of confidentiality to the disclosing party; or (d) information required to be disclosed as part of a judicial process, government investigation, or legal proceeding.

This type of information would normally be presented as a defense by the receiving party, if litigation alleging a violation or threatened violation of the NDA was commenced by the disclosing party.

• Define the consequences of a violation. If the receiving party breaches or violates the terms and covenants of the NDA, in most cases, the disclosing party can pursue a legal remedy via the court system. Remedies may include but not be limited to preventing further disclosure or use of the confidential information, award of damages, or other equitable relief as may be provided under the law.

Other important elements of an NDA include the length of time the agreement is to be in effect (the ‘term’), and also the governing law which would interpret the terms of the NDA should a conflict arise, and which is generally the state law for the state or commonwealth in which the disclosing party is doing business.

If your company is involved in a transaction where proprietary information could be disclosed to an independent third party, consider the use of an NDA. You have worked long and hard to develop and grow your business, and without the protection of an NDA, loss of information could have very real financial repercussions.

Kenneth Albano is managing partner for Bacon Wilson, P.C., and a member of the firm’s corporate, commercial, and municipal law departments. He represents commercial banks in all aspects of lending and workout practices and represents closely held business entities in all aspects of operations. He serves as town counsel to several Massachusetts municipalities, including Monson, Southwick, and Holland; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Law

Understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Sarah M. Ryzewski, Esq.

Sarah M. Ryzewski

A request for time off comes across your desk from an employee. The employee is requesting additional time off to accommodate a disability she has. The additional time requested is needed to be able to attend all of her appointments, necessary for her to complete her treatment.

How an employer goes about identifying an accommodation request, and either approving or denying the request, is important in staying compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal and state laws. Satisfying the obligations required by employers under such laws is necessary to prevent unlawful actions and prevent disability discrimination.

Under the ADA, it is unlawful for certain employers to discriminate against individuals with disabilities; the law further requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with a qualified disability. A disability is an impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities. A qualified disabled individual is a person who is capable of performing the essential functions of the particular job or would be capable of performing the essential functions with a reasonable accommodation.

The ADA applies only to employers who have 15 or more employers, labor unions, and state and federal government.

Employers need to be able to recognize when a request for an accommodation for a qualified disability is being made. Employees seeking accommodations under the ADA are making the request to be able to perform the essential functions of the job which they have. When making a request for an accommodation, employees are not required to use specific words such as ‘accommodation’ or ‘disability,’ but, rather, only need to explain why a change or adjustment is needed because of a medical condition.

“Under the ADA, it is unlawful for certain employers to discriminate against individuals with disabilities; the law further requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with a qualified disability.”

This medical condition can be either mental or physical. Since key words or phrases are not required under the ADA to make accommodation requests, employers need to educate themselves on how to spot a variety of different ccommodation requests, how requests are being made, and the words being used. Take, for instance, the employee cited above, requesting time off for her appointments. She would be successful in submitting her request for an accommodation by explaining to her employer she needs additional days off during the next few months to be able to complete her chemotherapy. She would not be required to say she needs an accommodation for her disability.

Once the accommodation request has been made, employers will need to determine whether or not the accommodation is reasonable and will need to enter into an interactive discussion. A reasonable accommodation is a change to a job that will allow an individual with a qualified disability to perform essential functions of a job. The accommodation must be related to the job the employee making the request has — otherwise, it is not reasonable. Moreover, employers are not required to approve a request for an accommodation if the request made would cause the employer an undue hardship.

Undue hardships occur when it would require an employer to undertake an unreasonable expense or it would cause significant difficulty to allow the request. Reasonable accommodations usually include modified work schedules, making workplaces easily accessible, leave, and modifying work equipment, among others.

An unreasonable accommodation request would include personal items such as paying for special eyewear or hearing aids. Whether or not an employer ultimately approves or denies an accommodation request, the employer should seek out alternative accommodations to present and negotiate to the employee making the request. Employers are strongly encouraged to fulfill their duty to be compliant by researching the accommodation request and providing alternative accommodations before flat-out denying the request. Determinative on whether an accommodation decision can be reached or not, employers can provide temporary accommodations until a final accommodation has been determined.

To complicate the obligations under the ADA, additional federal and state laws may be intertwined, forcing employers to stay informed. These laws can obligate employers to adhere to additional requirements or may prevent employers from being able to approve certain accommodations.

Frequent laws which come into play with the ADA include the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and state-specific medical leave acts. Medical leave acts allow employees to take a specified amount of time off for medical or family-related reasons. Employers should inform employees whether or not the leave for a disability is within an existing leave policy with the employer, or whether it will be treated as an accommodation request, and should provide information as to whether the leave will be paid or not and the amount of time an employee is allowed to take.

Employers can request documentation for a leave request before approving it as an accommodation request. Employers should provide information on how the ADA’s reasonable-accommodation requirement could be affected by other federal and state laws. Based upon the example from above, the employer would need to explain how the employee’s request for leave as an accommodation would either be within the employer’s existing leave policy or treated as an accommodation request for her disability.

Furthermore, the employer would need to provide additional information to the employee on whether or not the leave, if approved, would be paid or unpaid, and the amount of time she could take.

Although the ADA has many complex components, it is crucial to be well-educated on obligations owed by employers. Employers who fail to adhere to the requirements risk possible claims of non-compliance and potential claims of disability discrimination.

Providing information to employees on the ADA is crucial. Employers should provide employees with the procedures on how to request accommodations, provide contact information for individuals who handle accommodation requests, and document every accommodation request. Having information relating to the ADA within an employee handbook, signage, and training and orientation material is essential. Finally, employers should have a procedure in place for how to successfully oblige the law.

For more information on the ADA and employer obligations, seek clarification from an attorney.

Sarah M. Ryzewski, Esq. is an associate attorney at Royal, P.C.; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Law

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

By Amelia J. Holstrom

On Nov. 3, 2019, news broke that the McDonald’s board of directors voted to terminate CEO Steve Easterbrook for having a consensual relationship with an employee.

Early reports indicate that, after a three-week internal investigation, McDonald’s board found the relationship to be inappropriate and in violation of its policies, including its standards of business conduct, which prohibits employees with “a direct or indirect reporting relationship” from “dating or having a sexual relationship.” McDonald’s makes clear in its policy that “it is not appropriate to show favoritism or make business decisions based on emotions or friendships rather than on the best interests of the company.”

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

McDonald’s is not the first large corporation to find itself in this type of predicament. Companies like Boeing, in 2005, and Best Buy, in 2012, have parted ways with chief executives based on alleged relationships with employees. The decision to remove an employee at any level involves consideration, but to remove an employee at the top of the ladder should be no different.

You may be asking, can companies do that? Can they fire someone for a consensual relationship? Yes, they can — and so can you.

Love Hurts

It isn’t any secret that people spend most of their waking hours at work. Not surprisingly, office romances sometimes bloom. What better place to meet your soulmate, right?

From the employer’s point of view, dating in the workplace can spell trouble. Office romances create many problems. Because employers cannot prevent their employees from developing emotions, it is important to address workplace romances well in advance of any potential problems.

Workplace dating is a recipe for disaster in more ways than one. In addition to decreasing morale and productivity, when true love goes sour, employees often cannot work with each other anymore, or worse, workplace romances can ultimately lead to sexual harassment and/or discrimination and retaliation claims.

“The decision to remove an employee at any level involves consideration, but to remove an employee at the top of the ladder should be no different.”

Assume, for example, that a superior and subordinate have been dating for some time. Their romance fizzles, and things end. What if the subordinate now claims to have felt pressured into the relationship? A supervisor’s relationship with a subordinate is most damaging to the company because of the legal consequences.

In Massachusetts, when a supervisor engages in harassment of a subordinate, even if there is no direct reporting relationship, a business is automatically liable for that harassment.

I Would Do Anything for Love, but I Won’t Let Supervisors Date Subordinates

How should you combat workplace romances? Employers can adopt policies on personal relationships in the workplace that specifically prohibit supervisors and managers from engaging in any romantic relationships with employees at the company, including direct and indirect subordinates.

If you choose to adopt such a policy, it should state that such relationships raise ethical and fairness issues and problems with favoritism and morale, and that they will not be tolerated. Employers should also spell out what will happen if such a relationship is discovered.

Some employers confront the couple, indicate that, if they wish to continue the relationship, one must resign, and let the employees decide who will resign. Other employers confront the employees and terminate the employment of one or both of them effective immediately. It depends on the stance your business wants to take.

Love Rules

What if you don’t want to prohibit such relationships at your workplace? Another approach used by some employers is to have employees in a relationship enter into a ‘love contract.’

Such a document essentially memorializes, in writing, the consensual nature of the employees’ relationship. Be careful here, though. Love contracts are not prospective, as they will not limit the company’s liability for future sexual harassment and/or discrimination and retaliation claims. They may only be helpful to demonstrate that there was a consensual relationship between the employees before and at the time the employees signed the contract.

You Oughta Know

All employers can learn a valuable lesson from the situation involving McDonald’s. Each employer should consider how it wants to handle workplace romances before one becomes an issue for its business. Having a plan or policy in place could save you a lot of heartaches … I mean, headaches.

(The author wishes to thank Neil Sedaka, Nazareth, Meat Loaf, Don Henley, and Alanis Morissette for their wise lyrics about love.)

Amelia J. Holstrom is a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. Holstrom specializes in employment litigation, including defending employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and wrongful termination, as well as wage-and-hour lawsuits. She also frequently provides counsel to management on taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of legal liability; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp

By Chris St. Martin and Sarah Morgan

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published regulations on domestic hemp production. However, there remains significant confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis, marijuana, and hemp.

Chris St. Martin

Sarah Morgan

This confusion comes from state and federal governments’ shifting approaches to regulating these industries. It is even more difficult to understand the legal framework surrounding retail sales, which include hemp and CBD products, as well as marijuana products sold by state-licensed dispensaries. In this article, we hope to provide some clarity regarding what the laws say about cannabis and how they are being enforced.

What Is Cannabis?

Cannabis is a plant genus, or family, composed of three species: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. The species have physical variations between them that allow them to grow in different environments, flower at different periods during the growth cycle, and contain different chemical properties (see discussion on cannabinoids below) that produce different sensations when ingested.

Strains (think, ‘flavors’) produced from the Cannabis sativa species tend to incite feelings of euphoria, boost energy and creativity, and lead to a more head-focused high. Cannabis indica, alternatively, primarily affects the body, and is often helpful in reducing muscle aches and pains and inducing sleep. For these reasons, strains cultivated from indica plants tend to be more useful for medicinal purposes.

“THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the cannabinoid responsible primarily for producing the psychoactive effect, or the ‘high,’ commonly associated with ingesting cannabis.”

Cannabis ruderalis is somewhat between sativa and indica, and has lower yields, but can often be cross-bred with other species to create medicinal strains. The stems of this species can also be used to make clothing and textiles.

The flowering buds of the cannabis plant produce a resin that contains cannabinoids, which are unique chemical compounds found only in cannabis and interact with different receptors in the user’s central nervous system to produce the effects described above.

The ratio of the cannabinoids in a particular strain depends on the genetics of the plant from which it is derived — in other words, how the plant has been bred by selectively combining sativa and indica plants to emphasize particular cannabinoids over others and create a unique strain with individualized characteristics.

More than 100 cannabinoids have been identified, most notably THC and CBD.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the cannabinoid responsible primarily for producing the psychoactive effect, or the ‘high,’ commonly associated with ingesting cannabis. Although THC is most notable for its psychoactive properties, it has also been purported to have medical benefits on the user and can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including seizures, inflammation, pain, nausea, depression, and anxiety.

CBD, or cannabidiol, has anti-anxiety effects on the user and is utilized primarily for its purported medicinal benefits. It does not produce psychoactive effects (in fact, it may lessen the psychoactive effects of THC), and, for this reason, although CBD and THC have similar medicinal benefits, some people may choose to ingest only CBD to avoid feeling the ‘high’ brought about by THC.

CBD can be extracted from the resin of the cannabis plant and can be processed into essential oils, tinctures, and other non-smokable forms. CBD can even be added to body-care products and applied topically.

Marijuana or Hemp?

The term ‘marijuana’ is generally used to identify cannabis that is cultivated for its intoxicating effect on a user. Marijuana was made effectively illegal under federal law with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

The Legislature later classified, and criminalized, marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic under the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, during the nascent ‘war on drugs’ declared by President Nixon. Classification as Schedule 1 — alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy — means that marijuana is deemed to have no currently accepted medical use and a high potential of abuse.

Public sentiment has recently begun to reject this classification of marijuana and the total federal prohibition. Although, at this writing, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, 11 states, including Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, have passed laws legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and 23 others have legalized the use of medical marijuana. Since 2016 in Massachusetts, individuals age 21 or older may possess up to an ounce or more on their person and up to 10 ounces in their homes without violating Massachusetts law.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), the agency tasked with regulating the state’s marijuana industry, provides further information regarding the Massachusetts law on its website.

Cannabis that is selectively bred for non-intoxicating properties is considered ‘hemp.’ Industrial hemp is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world and is useful in formulating textiles, rope, paper, plastics, insulation, oil, and body-care products. Because of this selective breeding, hemp plants contain only trace amounts of THC, but their CBD levels are unchanged.

“State and federal legal developments have created a confusing CBD marketplace. Stores everywhere are selling CBD products intended for human consumption and making health claims about such products. However, both types of sales are illegal, according to state and federal agencies.”

Hemp is cultivated to enhance its distinctively versatile qualities, such as longer, more fibrous stalks and shorter leaves, rather than for the leaves and flower buds for which marijuana plants are cultivated. Because of this, hemp cannot be consumed as an intoxicant. Nevertheless, the Controlled Substances Act did not distinguish between marijuana and hemp (since both are technically cannabis) in classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance; therefore, hemp was swept up in the heyday of the war on drugs and made illegal.

Changing Legal Framework

Under the Farm Bill of 2018, the U.S. Congress, for the first time, legalized the production and sale of hemp at the federal level, eliminating its status as a Schedule I narcotic. The Farm Bill and regulations define hemp as cannabis containing not more than 0.3% THC. Cannabis plants containing any quantity of THC above that amount are classified as marijuana, and remain illegal under federal law. In late October, the USDA published interim regulations on hemp production, which means they are subject to change after a public comment period but were effective immediately.

These regulations also set forth licensing requirements, procedures for testing THC levels and disposal of non-compliant plants, and rules governing other aspects of the industry.

The FDA has taken a more cautious approach, citing concerns about whether CBD is safe to consume in food and supplements. In an April 2019 statement, the agency sought to clarify its position on hemp products. The statement indicated that enforcement resources are directed toward illegal sales of CBD products that claim to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer.

However, it also stated that it is unlawful to introduce CBD-containing food into interstate commerce or to market CBD products as dietary supplements.

This means that effectively all CBD food products, including those derived from legally grown hemp, are unlawful, according to the FDA. The only hemp products that can be legally added to foods are hulled hemp seed, hemp-seed protein powder, and hemp-seed oil, because the seed of the hemp plant contains neither CBD nor THC.

The FDA has undertaken to develop CBD regulations, but despite repeated urging from the USDA and members of Congress, the former FDA commissioner indicated that that the rule-making process around CBD food products would be more complex than conventional products and could take years.

Massachusetts legalized hemp production as a component of the same 2016 law that legalized recreational cannabis. However, after the change of law at the federal level, both the state Department of Agricultural Resources and Department of Public Health issued policy statements on the same day imposing strict rules on hemp products. These two statements echo the FDA’s prohibitions on adding CBD to food products and making health claims about CBD.

What Can We Buy and Sell?

These state and federal legal developments have created a confusing CBD marketplace. Stores everywhere are selling CBD products intended for human consumption and making health claims about such products. However, both types of sales are illegal, according to state and federal agencies. Consumers, retailers, growers, and other stakeholders are looking for information about what is legal, what is not, and why there is so much ambiguity.

CBD derived from marijuana remains illegal under federal law. However, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts has indicated he will not direct his office’s resources to federally prosecute cannabis companies that are permitted under state law, a move that has allowed the cannabis industry in Massachusetts to flourish. Under this state’s regulatory regime, marijuana products containing CBD, as well as THC, can be bought and sold at cannabis dispensaries that are licensed by the CCC.

Retailers in Massachusetts sell cannabis flower, edibles, concentrates, and other forms of marijuana containing both THC and CBD. CCC regulations do not classify edible marijuana products as food, allowing dispensaries to sell CBD-infused edibles without contravening the state Department of Public Health’s policy.

In contrast, despite the federal and state legality of producing hemp, some of the most popular hemp-derived CBD products — food and supplements — cannot be sold under either state or federal law. Nevertheless, the CBD industry may avoid total extinction, since CBD can be added to topical lotions and other cosmetics without defying the laws.

Non-food CBD products, however, represent a small percentage of the potential uses of CBD, and the loss of a valuable opportunity for introducing additional, more profitable products containing CBD into the marketplace adds further demand for the FDA to promulgate its promised CBD rules. Furthermore, hemp can be legally sold for rope, clothing, building material, and other non-ingestible uses, but hemp farmers have stated that Massachusetts currently lacks the manufacturing infrastructure necessary to process the plant for these purposes.

Chris St. Martin and Sarah Morgan are both litigation associates at Bulkley Richardson; (413) 781-2820.

Law

A New Type of Relief

By Rebecca Mercieri Rivaux, Esq.

Rebecca Mercieri Rivaux

Small-business owners will soon have a more affordable option to reorganize their companies. In February 2020, the Small Business Reorganization Act (SBRA) will go into effect, providing a new type of relief to small-business debtors.

The SBRA creates a new subchapter within Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. While Chapter 11 bankruptcy generally provides for business reorganization (usually involving a corporation or partnership), it can be an unappealing option for many small-business debtors, due to complex procedural requirements and high legal and administrative costs. The SBRA will expedite reorganization for small-business debtors by streamlining the burdensome requirements of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The SBRA is, in fact, very comparable to a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the kind used by individuals. Just as with Chapter 13 filings for individuals, an SBRA debtor can expect to have a trustee appointed by the bankruptcy court. The court-appointed trustee will aid the small business in developing a reorganization plan, but is not likely to be involved in any operational aspects of the business. This essentially allows the debtor to remain in possession and control of their own business during the bankruptcy process. The trustee is responsible for disbursing payments to creditors under the reorganization plan.

In order to take advantage of the new SBRA, a debtor must first qualify as a small business. To qualify, the debtor must be a person or entity engaged in a commercial or business activity. If such a business has secured and unsecured debt totaling less than $2,725,625, the business may propose a reorganization plan under the SBRA — so long as they use net income to repay creditors.

This is in keeping with the general practices of Chapter 11, where a debtor usually proposes a plan of reorganization to keep its business in existence and pay creditors over time.

SBRA debtors must produce a copy of the business’ most recent balance sheet, a statement of operations, a cash-flow statement, and a federal income — or file a sworn statement that such documents do not exist.

The SBRA allows the small-business debtor to repay its creditors within a payment plan of three to five years, as the bankruptcy court determines. The SBRA also allows small-business debtors a greater opportunity to retain their ownership interests in their business, even when claims have not been repaid in full (in contrast with a typical Chapter 11 bankruptcy, where a shareholder cannot retain equity in the business unless creditors are paid in full).

To qualify, the debtor must be a person or entity engaged in a commercial or business activity. If such a business has secured and unsecured debt totaling less than $2,725,625, the business may propose a reorganization plan under the SBRA — so long as they use net income to repay creditors.

Another significant benefit to the SBRA is a specialized restructuring strategy offered to individual debtors. An individual who qualifies as a small-business debtor can modify the mortgage on his or her principal residence, provided that the mortgage loan was not used to acquire the real property, but was used primarily in connection with the debtor’s business — such as an individual who is borrowing against the equity in their home for the purpose of supporting their business. This individual small-business debtor would then be able to reduce the loan to the value of the secured claim, propose a lower interest rate, or extend the maturity date of the loan. Once the small-business debtor has completed all payments to creditors, a discharge is granted.  

Under the SBRA, the only excluded activity for the small business debtor is operating “single-asset real estate,” a term that describes a debtor who receives substantially all of its gross income from the operation of a single real property.

Despite this restriction, for many small business debtors, the SBRA will offer relief and a realistic means to reorganize and restructure their businesses under the Bankruptcy Code.

Rebecca Mercieri Rivaux is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C., and a member of the firm’s bankruptcy and business/corporate practice groups; [email protected]

Law

The #MeToo Movement Has Vast Implications in This Sector

The #MeToo movement has brought about change and challenge — from a liability standpoint — in workplaces of all kinds. And this includes the broad spectrum of education. Indeed, recent cases indicate that courts may soon hold schools, colleges, and universities strictly liable for any sexual misconduct by their staff toward their students.

By Justice John Greaney, Jeffrey Poindexter, and Elizabeth Zuckerman

By now, we’ve all seen the #MeToo movement change how Massachusetts and the nation are talking about sexual harassment and other misconduct in the workplace, in schools, in social settings, on sports teams, in public places, and in our private lives.

Justice John Greaney

Jeffrey Poindexter

Elizabeth Zuckerman

The movement has ended careers, felled prominent figures, and made many newly aware of the great number of people — men and women — who face sexual harassment at some point in their lives. It has also reminded students, teachers, professors, administrators, and parents that schools and institutions of higher education are far from immune to this type of misconduct, and that students are sometimes victims of the very staff, faculty, and coaches expected to educate, guide, coach, and protect them.

Against this backdrop, administrators of Massachusetts schools, colleges, and universities have a special reason to take note of the rising tide of complaints about sexual harassment and other gender-based discrimination. The sea change in how sexual harassment is viewed, along with the development of Massachusetts law surrounding sexual harassment in schools, colleges, and universities, suggest that Massachusetts courts may soon hold these institutions strictly liable for any sexual misconduct by their staff toward their students.

That means, whether or not the school, college, or university knew about the conduct, whether or not the institution was negligent in any way, it could be on the hook for substantial damages if a staff member commits sexual harassment. In other words, even without doing anything wrong, or knowing anything wrong was happening, an educational institution could be liable for the entirety of the harm that befalls a student.

As a result, schools, colleges, and universities need to act now to implement policies which provide the best defense if a claim of sexual harassment is made.

In Massachusetts, Chapter 151C of the General Laws, the Massachusetts Fair Educational Practices Act (MFEPA), provides students who have been subjected to sexual harassment by a teacher, coach, guidance counselor, or other school personnel with a cause of action against the educational institution. MFEPA declares that “it shall be an unfair educational practice for an educational institution … to sexually harass students in any program or course of study in any educational institution.” In conjunction with General Laws c. 214, § 1C, the right for students to be free of harassment can be enforced through the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) or through the Superior Court.

“Administrators of Massachusetts schools, colleges, and universities have a special reason to take note of the rising tide of complaints about sexual harassment and other gender-based discrimination.”

The statutes also define sexual harassment broadly, including “any sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: (i) submission to or rejection of such advances, requests, or conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of the provision of the benefits, privileges, or placement services or as a basis for the evaluation of academic achievement; or (ii) such advances, requests, or conduct have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s education by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive educational environment.”

Chapter 151C has been interpreted several times in the courts in Massachusetts, including when:

• A male athletic director of a Massachusetts community college was reported to have provided alcohol to female students in exchange for sexual favors. Several years later, more complaints about his behavior led the college to implement a policy to prevent sexual harassment.

Reports of further inappropriate conduct led to an investigation and agreement that he would no longer coach female athletic teams. However, he continued to work at the school and, eventually, resumed coaching a women’s basketball team. Students who had been coached by the athletic director brought claims against both him and the school.

• During the investigation into a rape of a student by a teacher at a Massachusetts high school, it was disclosed that a male guidance counselor had been involved in sexual misconduct with students. The superintendent of the school district acknowledged that he was aware of continuing reports about the guidance counselor’s inappropriate relationships with students after a female student alleged that the counselor had brought her to his home on two occasions and attempted to coerce her into having sex.

• Parents reported the inappropriate conduct of a male middle-school science teacher to the vice principal and a guidance counselor. The teacher had made inappropriate comments and touched female students, and had been told by school officials to stop on three occasions. The teacher was fired after an internal investigation, but not before he allegedly molested an 11-year-old student.

Despite occasions to consider the applications of Chapter 151C, Massachusetts courts have not yet decided whether schools, colleges, and universities will be held strictly vicariously liable for sexual harassment. In the cases referenced above, it appears the schools or colleges knew about the misconduct and, at least passively, allowed it to continue.

That means that the schools or colleges could be considered negligent, because they knew, or should have known, an employee’s behavior was problematic, but they failed to act, or failed to take adequate measures to remedy the situation. However, if Massachusetts courts rule for strict liability under Chapter 151C, it will mean that it is no defense that the institution did not know what its employee was doing, or even that it took reasonable measures to screen that employee before hiring.

Instead, the mere occurrence of sexual harassment by an employee will be enough to make the institution liable to the victim.

There are indications this may be the direction in which the courts go, because a closely related statute, Chapter 151B, which governs sexual harassment in the workplace, does impose strict liability. It seems entirely possible that the courts will conclude that liability under Chapter 151C should be no different, given that the two statutes relate to the same subject matter and share a common purpose.

Furthermore, because the operative statute is clearly intended to protect vulnerable students from abuses of power by those entrusted with their well-being, it seems likely that the courts may conclude that a strict standard of liability is consistent with the underlying purposes of the statute.

“The rising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault appears to make it more likely that courts will conclude that the only way to stem the tide of abuse is to put the burden on those in the best position to protect vulnerable students — the schools they attend.”

This argument seems strengthened by the popular mood regarding sexual harassment. The rising awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and assault appears to make it more likely that courts will conclude that the only way to stem the tide of abuse is to put the burden on those in the best position to protect vulnerable students — the schools they attend.

Two recent decisions suggest this result may be coming. In a 2016 federal court case, Doe v. Brashaw, Judge Douglas Woodlock gave the first indication that the courts may come down on the side of strict liability under Chapter 151C. He noted there was no clear guidance in the text of the law on whether negligence was required to hold the school, college, or university liable.

Weighing the arguments on each side, he concluded it made sense, at least at the early stage in the case at which he was reviewing the matter, to apply a strict vicarious liability standard.

More recently, in 2017, another federal judge again noted that the standard was unsettled and deferred considering the argument, made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as defendant, that it was entitled to a more favorable standard than strict liability.

Given the significant risk that Massachusetts schools, colleges, and universities will be considered liable for their employees’ misconduct, regardless of what they knew, or didn’t know, about it, how can these institutions respond? The answer is that schools, colleges, and universities need to ensure their sexual-harassment, disciplinary, and hiring policies are up to date.

This will allow these institutions to avoid hiring or retaining employees who show any indication that they will engage in sexually harassing behavior, and also allow the institutions to respond rapidly and effectively if any employee does. In addition, schools, colleges, and universities need to appropriately train and supervise all employees.

For many institutions, this will mean implementing new requirements for training and new policies for ensuring sexual harassment cannot go on in a school, college, or university without rapid detection. In addition to in-house training, the institutions should consider learning sessions taught by outside consultants, particularly law firms, with experience in handling sexual misconduct in the educational environment.

Outside investigations by impartial law firms will, when appropriate, removed the inference of bias on the part of the educational institution when considering possible misconduct by a teacher, administrator, or staff member. In sum, educational institutions need to be prepared to act quickly and decisively when faced with a complaint of sexual harassment in order to remediate any misconduct.

Justice John Greaney is a former justice of the Supreme Judicial Court and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson. Jeffrey Poindexter is a partner and co-chair of the Litigation Department at Bulkley Richardson. Elizabeth Zuckerman is an associate in the Litigation Department at Bulkley Richardson.

Law

What to Expect When…

By John Gannon, Esq.

My wife and I recently welcomed our first child into the world. We are over the moon in love with our daughter and excited to see where this amazing journey will take us.

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

As an employment attorney, this process got me thinking about the topic of parental leave. That’s the legal term for providing job-protected time off from work to employees so they can bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.

Massachusetts state law requires almost all businesses to provide some job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of their child, and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) obligates employers with 50 or more employees to provide additional time off and protections to new parents. Although at first glance these laws may seem easy to administer, there are plenty of traps for those who do not have a deep understanding of how parental leave needs to be administered. Here are a few things employers should be aware of when an employee requests and takes parental leave.

What Does Your Policy Say?

Hopefully, you have a policy that addresses parental leave. If not, it’s time to get one on the books. Even if you have a policy, it’s never a bad idea to be make sure the language is up to date and consistent with state and federal laws governing time off to bond with a child. For example, the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act (MPLA) requires employers with six or more employees to provide eight weeks of unpaid leave to full-time employees for the purpose of giving birth or for the placement of a child for adoption.

If you have more than six employees, you need to have a policy and practice that addresses parental leave. Notably, up until a few years ago, this law was commonly referred to as the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Law, because the language of the statute provided leave protections for female employees only. The law was amended a few years ago to expand parental-leave protections to employees in Massachusetts of all genders.

If your policy refers to maternity leave instead of parental leave, it’s time to update your handbook as several employment laws have probably been added or changed since your last review.

Intersection of the FMLA

Employers covered by the FMLA have additional obligations that go beyond the requirements of state-mandated parental leave. For starters, under the FMLA, eligible employees are entitled to take up to 12 work weeks of FMLA leave in a 12-month period for a number of different reasons, including the birth of a child and to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.

Both mothers and fathers have the right to take FMLA leave to bond with a child. Importantly, when an employee takes time under the FMLA to bond with a child, the eight weeks of state-mandated MPLA runs concurrently. This means that an employee with 12 weeks of available FMLA is entitled to 12 total weeks of parental leave, as the MPLA is used at the same time as the FMLA is used. However, questions arise when employees use FMLA for a reason unrelated to the birth or adoption of their child.

For instance, suppose an employee used 12 weeks of FMLA earlier this year to care for a sick parent. This month, the employee approaches you requesting leave to care for a child who is expected next month. That employee would no longer be entitled to 12 weeks of FMLA to care for the newborn, but would still be entitled to the eight weeks of MPLA under state law.

Leave Employees on Leave Alone

They call it leave from work for a reason. Employers need to resist the urge to contact employees on leave with work-related questions, especially if the leave is unpaid.

A call or two about something basic, such as the location of a file or document on the system, is probably fine. However, requesting attendance at meetings or on phone conferences will cross the line, as will the assignment of projects or other tasks. Not only are you taking parents away from a special and important time in their lives, but you are also potentially creating a situation where you are unlawfully interfering with an employee’s right to take time off under the FMLA or MPLA.

Plus, if the employee is taking unpaid parental leave, which is typically the case, you will need to be sure that the employee is compensated for any work performed during parental leave, including answering calls or responding to e-mails. This can be tough to account for, so the best practice is to let employees on parental leave enjoy their time off without work-related distractions.

Final Thoughts

I learned firsthand that parental leave was a special time for me and my newborn. Employers need to openly encourage employees to take all available parental leave, and should consider offering benefits that go beyond those required by state and federal law.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in a policy brief on parental leave that longer leaves promote better child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and even increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.

A generous parental-leave policy is also a fantastic recruiting and retention tool, as it sends a message that the business values its workforce and is committed to bettering employee work-life balance.

John Gannon is a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. He specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

Mediation: Art of Compromise

By Julie A. Dialessi-Lafley, Esq.

Mediation. Most, if not all of us, have heard the word, but what does it really mean to engage in mediation?

Many people familiar with mediation may think of it in the context of divorce or family-law matters, and, indeed, the process often provides families in conflict with meaningful solutions. But families aren’t the only ones who can benefit from the skills of a trained mediator. In fact, almost any issue or dispute that might be addressed in court could also potentially be solved by mediation.

Mediation is a process in which two or more parties discuss their disputes with the assistance of an unrelated third party — a trained mediator. The mediator assists the disagreeing parties with communication and with the terms of any settlement of the disputed issues. Resolution by agreement is the goal.

Mediation can be used for all kinds of disputes. Many couples facing divorce choose to engage in mediation rather than a court process. Issues of neighbor-to-neighbor disputes are ideal for mediation, and many schools use mediation internally to resolve student-to-student conflicts. Mediation can also address disputes involving business transactions, accidents or injuries, construction, workers’ compensation, employment issues, or labor and community relations. Almost any matter that does not involve complex procedural or evidentiary issues could be addressed through mediation.

Another appealing aspect of mediation is the relatively low cost. Mediation is normally more cost-effective than litigation in court, and certainly it is far less formal than a court process.

Mediation can take place at nearly any stage of a dispute. Conflicting parties may be able to avoid litigation altogether by mediating disputes prior to filing a court action. However, even once litigation is filed, mediation is usually still an option. If the parties agree to engage in mediation while a case is pending, they can do so in a good-faith effort to find a solution outside the courtroom. The parties can also opt out of the mediation process at any time.

Here in Massachusetts, the courts generally cannot order parties to engage in mediation. However, if an existing agreement, contract, or other independent rule requires mediation prior to litigation, the court may be precluded from hearing a matter until the parties attempt to resolve their dispute in mediation.

In fact, the courts tend to favor the mediation process and encourage parties in civil disputes to work toward their own agreements. If litigation is pending, but the parties come to an agreement through mediation and present it to the court, that agreement is likely to become the official order or judgment of the court. If only this writer had a quarter for every time a judge said to litigants, “you are better off trying to come to an agreement you can live with than to let the court decide.”

Unlike a judge or arbitrator, mediators do not decide the outcome of the dispute. They assist the parties to air their differences, identify the strengths and weaknesses of their respective sides, and find a resolution that everyone can live with.

For some people, a common misconception is that by going to mediation they will be giving up rights or forced into an outcome with which they don’t agree. For other people, a desire for the proverbial ‘day in court’ may be enough to keep them from engaging in mediation. In fact, the mediation process allows for a considerable amount of flexibility, and the mediator will design the process around the needs of the participants.

But what is the actual process like? For a typical day-long mediation, the experience normally follows six stages, each with a specific purpose.

Mediator’s Opening Statement

With everyone in the same room, the mediator makes introductions; explains the goals, expectations, and rules of the mediation; and encourages respectful dialogue with the goal of resolution.

Parties’ Opening Statements

Each party has an opportunity to give their perspective of the dispute without interruption. This can include the facts, impact, and general ideas about resolution.

Joint Discussion

Parties may remain together to begin dialogue on the issues, respond to opening statements, and engage in more in-depth work with the mediator. Normally this is determined by the conduct and emotions of the people in the room, and the mediator’s perception of their ability to work together respectfully in the same room.

Private Caucuses

Parties are placed each in separate rooms, and each is given time to meet privately with the mediator. This may continue for the majority of the in-depth work. The mediator, through this private discussion, determines the appropriate way to proceed.

Joint Negotiation

After private caucuses, parties may come back together to communicate directly. However, this does not usually happen until a settlement is reached, or the time scheduled for the mediation ends.

Closure

If the parties reach an agreement, the mediator will likely put the main provisions in writing and ask each side to sign it. If the parties are unable to agree at the time, the mediator will help determine if they want to work toward a solution within mediation.

Conclusion

Mediators are normally patient, persistent, and have plenty of common sense. Effective mediators are good listeners and negotiators, and they’re understanding of human nature. A mediator has to be articulate in order to accurately restate and relate to the positions of the conflicting parties. They may be attorneys, laypeople with training or certifications, volunteers in court-sponsored programs, privately retained, or even retired judges. Attorneys who are also mediators cannot represent one side or another, nor can they give legal advice while in the role of mediator.

One of the most important roles of the mediator is to help the parties understand that accepting less than what they may feel they ‘deserve’ is essential to a fair settlement. As the old saying goes, ‘if everyone walks away feeling slightly unhappy with the agreement, it is probably a fair agreement.’

Despite everyone walking away slightly unhappy, mediation is typically successful and satisfactory. Statistically, parties are more likely to abide by an agreement they reach on their own than an order from a court. The nature and structure of the mediation process results in its high success rate.

Attorney Julie Dialessi-Lafley is a certified mediator and a shareholder with Bacon Wilson, P.C. She has extensive experience with all aspects of family law, including pre- and post-nuptial agreements, separation, divorce, child custody and parenting time, and grandparents’ rights. In addition to family law, she represents clients in matters related to accidents and injuries, civil litigation, and probate and estate planning; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Law

What’s Next for the Cannabis Industry?

The cannabis industry is off to a fast and quite intriguing start in the Bay State, and two new categories of license have particular potential to move this sector in new directions: one for home delivery of cannabis products, and another for social-consumption establishments, or cannabis cafés.

By Isaac C. Fleisher, Esq.

We are nearly three years into the Commonwealth’s experiment with recreational cannabis, and the industry is finally moving beyond an amusing novelty.

The Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) reports that retail sales in 2019 alone have already exceeded $190 million, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. To date, the CCC has issued only 72 final licenses for marijuana establishments, but there are currently another 400 license applications that are pending or have received provisional approval.

Isaac C. Fleisher

This all means that, over the next few years, the Massachusetts cannabis industry is set to grow at an unprecedented rate. What we don’t know is how this growth will change and shape the industry.

Much of the excitement and rhetoric around legalization has focused on the potential to create new business and employment opportunities for communities that have been disproportionately harmed by prohibition and for local entrepreneurs. Lawmakers attempted to pursue these goals (with mixed success) through the design of the original regulations, with provisions for local control by cities and towns, special categories for equity applicants, and caps on the number of licenses that a single business could control.

The CCC has recently been grappling with these issues once again as it revises its regulations.

On July 2, after months of policy discussions and hearings, the CCC released new draft regulations for both medical and recreational marijuana, which will be open for public comment until Aug. 16. While most casual observers will not find the draft regulations to be scintillating reading material, there are a number of interesting new provisions that can tell us a lot about what the future of Massachusetts’ cannabis industry could look like.

Two new categories of license have particular potential to move the cannabis industry in new directions; one for home delivery of cannabis products, and another for social-consumption establishments (i.e., cannabis cafés).

Social Consumption

A social-consumption license would authorize businesses to sell cannabis products to customers for on-site consumption. Just think of your neighborhood bar, but it serves cannabis instead of alcohol. Under the proposed regulations, cannabis could be consumed at a social-consumption establishment in almost any form, except for combustible (i.e. smoking it the old-fashioned way), but even that possibility is left open by a provision for an outdoor smoking waiver.

Cannabis edibles would have to be prepackaged and shelf-stable, but there is no prohibition on serving prepared food on site, so long as the food isn’t directly infused with marijuana. That means we could soon be seeing cannabis restaurants that offer gourmet food alongside gourmet pot.

“There is no prohibition on serving prepared food on site, so long as the food isn’t directly infused with marijuana. That means we could soon be seeing cannabis restaurants that offer gourmet food alongside gourmet pot.”

The CCC is taking an incremental approach to this new class of license by including provisions for a social-consumption pilot program that would be limited to only 12 municipalities. Towns that participated in a working group on social consumption — including North Adams, Amherst, Springfield, Provincetown, and Somerville — would be among those able to opt into the pilot program. Licenses would initially be available only to applicants that were already licensed as a ‘microbusiness’ or a ‘craft marijuana cooperative,’ or applicants certified by the CCC as an ‘economic empowerment’ applicant or ‘social equity’ applicant. The pilot program is an interesting attempt to address the demand for new cannabis markets, while still preserving access for small, local, and minority-owned businesses.

Home Delivery

A licensed ‘delivery-only retailer’ could deliver marijuana products directly to a customer’s residence. Advocates for home delivery have long touted its potential to level the playing field between large, well-funded businesses and the small, local entrepreneurs the CCC seeks to attract.

In theory, a delivery-only licensee wouldn’t need much more than a vehicle in order to begin operating. However, the draft regulations include a number of provisions that could create substantial barriers to entry for small-time operators. Home-delivery orders would still need to go through a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer, who would presumably not be particularly interested in providing their product to competitors at wholesale prices.

Additionally, the draft regulations prohibit deliveries to any residence in a town that has banned brick-and-mortar retailers.

Numerous security provisions included in the draft regulations create further costly (and controversial) requirements for delivery-only retailers. Each delivery vehicle would need multiple surveillance cameras, and delivery agents would need to wear body cameras to record the entire delivery, including the customer. This has predictably resulted in a number of concerns about privacy and regulatory overreach.

At a recent CCC meeting, Commissioner Shaleen Title pointed out that, “to the extent that home delivery to [medical-marijuana] patients has been ongoing, there may already be security in place that goes above and beyond our regulations, and to my knowledge there haven’t been incidents … That seems to be an argument that you should not be putting in additional burdens and regulations.”

While body cameras got the most attention at the CCC’s meetings, one provision in the proposed home delivery regulations with the potential to be far more consequential is the option to use a “third-party technology platform provider” to facilitate the ordering process. In simpler terms, we could soon be saying “there’s an app for that.”

While there is still a thorny tangle of federal and state laws preventing a true e-commerce for cannabis, it’s not hard to imagine startups racing to be the first ‘Uber for weed.’ This would certainly make the consumer experience even more convenient, but it would mean yet another blow to the delivery only retailer’s profit margin, and does not seem consistent with the goal of lowering the barrier to entry for small businesses.

Of course, excitement about new markets comes with the important caveat that the rules still need to be finalized and, in some cases, there would need to be a corresponding change in state law. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that regulators are willing to consider new ideas for Massachusetts’ cannabis industry. The lines around the block at the first retailers have everybody seeing dollar signs, but with no statutory limits on the number of licenses that the CCC can issue, it is only a matter of time before supply exceeds demand.

In states that are further along in this process there is already evidence of a boom-bust cycle, as oversupply causes wholesale prices to plummet and smaller operators are forced out of the market. In Massachusetts, where the cannabis industry is still relatively nascent, there is still opportunity for regulators, consumers, activists, and entrepreneurs to play important roles in shaping the future of the industry.

Attorney Isaac C. Fleisher is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C., where his practice is focused on business and corporate law, with particular emphasis on the rapidly expanding cannabis industry. An accomplished transactional attorney, he has broad experience in all aspects of business representation, for legal matters ranging from mergers and acquisitions to business formation and financing; (413) 781-0560; [email protected].

Law

Date with Destiny

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq. and Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

Timothy M. Netkovick

Timothy M. Netkovick

Daniel C. Carr

Daniel C. Carr

As everyone knows, paid family medical leave (PFML) is coming to Massachusetts on Jan. 1, 2021. To that end, the Department of Family and Medical Leave recently released its final regulations that will govern PFML.

The final regulations provide much-needed clarity on some aspects of PFML, while other aspects remain vague.

Prior to the final regulations being rolled out, one of the most common questions was whether PFML would apply to employers who have places of business in locations other than Massachusetts. The final regulations make clear that the definition of an employee in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will be very broad. The regulations state that an employee will be eligible for PFML leave if the service provided by the employee is entirely within the Commonwealth or the service is performed both within and outside the Commonwealth, but the service performed outside the Commonwealth is incidental to the individual’s service within the Commonwealth.

An employee is also eligible for PFML if the service is not localized in any state, but some part of the employee’s service is performed in the Commonwealth and (1) the individual’s base of operations is in the Commonwealth, or (2) if there is no base of operations, then the place from which such service is directed or controlled is within the Commonwealth, or (3) the individual’s base of operations or place from which such service is directed or controlled is not in any state in which some part of the service is performed, but the individual’s residence is in the Commonwealth.

Therefore, even employers who do not have a physical place of business in Massachusetts, but who may have salespeople in Massachusetts, will want to review the PFML regulations with their employment counsel to determine any potential impacts to their business.

“Even employers who do not have a physical place of business in Massachusetts, but who may have salespeople in Massachusetts, will want to review the PFML regulations with their employment counsel.”

Once an employee begins PFML leave, an employer cannot require an employee to use other forms of paid time off (PTO) prior to PFML leave. However, an employee can choose to use accrued PTO provided by their employer instead of PFML. If an employee chooses to use accrued PTO, the employee is required to follow the employer’s notice and certification processes related to the use of PTO.

If an employee is going to use accrued PTO, employers are required to inform employees that the use of accrued PTO will run concurrently with the leave period provided by PFML. It will be important for employers to track the use of accrued PTO, as they will also be required to report the use of accrued PTO by employees or covered individuals upon request by the Department of Family Medical Leave.

Employers have the ability to establish their own private PFML plan instead of participating in the state administration process. If an employer is going to utilize a private PFML plan, the plan must confer all the same or better benefits, including rights and protections, as those provided to employees under PFML, and may not cost employees more than they would be charged under the state plan administered by the department. A private plan will also need to be approved by the Department of Family Medical Leave before it is implemented.

While the clear intent of the PFML regulations is to line up with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as much as possible, there are also several key areas of difference.

The first noticeable difference is that PFML applies to every employer, regardless of size. Furthermore, as covered employers are aware, under the FMLA, an individual is entitled to leave if they work for 1,250 hours within the previous 12-month period. That 12-month period can be a calendar year or rolling period. PFML contains no such service requirement or minimum hours worked.

Furthermore, an employee is eligible for 20 weeks of leave for their own serious health condition under PFML as opposed to 12 weeks under the FMLA.

It is clear that questions still remain regarding the implementation of PFML. It is also clear that PFML and FMLA will not perfectly align. Employers will therefore want to consult with their employment counsel as they continue to prepare for PFML.

Timothy M. Netkovick and Daniel C. Carr are attorneys with Royal, P.C.; [email protected], [email protected]; (413) 586-2288

Law

A Disturbing Trend

By Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

The #MeToo movement exploded back in 2017. With #MeToo in the news almost a daily, women everywhere became more comfortable coming forward and reporting harassment and telling their stories.

As a result, women felt empowered, but has sharing their stories hurt them in other ways? According to a recent survey conducted by LeanIn.org, the answer to that question might be yes.

Over the past two years, LeanIn.org — an organization dedicated to helping women come together and achieve their goals — conducted surveys to gain an understanding of what individuals are experiencing at work. One of the surveys revealed that, in the post-#MeToo world, women may be receiving less support at work from male managers and may be hindered in their ability to seek career advancement.

The survey, titled “Working Relationships in the #MeToo Era,” suggested that 60% of male managers reported they were not comfortable participating in common work activities — mentoring, working alone, or socializing — with women.

To put that into perspective, according to LeanIn.org, that percentage was only 32% just a year ago. The survey also noted that senior-level men were 12 times “more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings” with junior female employees, nine times “more likely to hesitate to travel [with junior female employees] for work,” and six times “more likely to hesitate to have work dinners” with junior female employees. According to the survey results, 36% of men said they avoided mentoring or socializing with women because they were concerned about how it might look.

Worrisome Results for Employers

The results suggest that #MeToo may actually lead to more gender discrimination in the workplace. If male members of management distance themselves from mentoring, working alone with, and socializing with women, they might be creating legal liability for their employer because they are giving women less opportunity to advance and succeed with the organization.

For example, while work performance is always a factor in decisions regarding promotions, skills learned through mentoring and workplace connections and relationships also play an important role. If a female employee is denied a promotion due her lack of mentorship and/or workplace connections and relationships, and she did not have access to those things like her male colleagues did simply because of her gender, the employer could be subject to a gender-discrimination lawsuit.

The survey did contain some good news for employers: 70% of employees, compared to 46% in 2018, reported that their company was doing more to address sexual harassment. The increase in this statistic is likely because more employers are conducting annual sexual-harassment training in the post-#MeToo world. Unfortunately, the remainder of the survey results suggest that training alone is not enough.

Proactive Steps

Employers should continue to address harassment in the workplace through their anti-harassment policies and by conducting annual anti-harassment training, but they also need to do more to educate employees regarding other forms of discrimination.

First, employers should have an equal-employment-opportunity policy that clearly outlines that discrimination based on gender or any other characteristic protected by law is expressly prohibited. The policy should also outline how an employee may file an internal complaint of discrimination at the workplace.

Second, employers should add annual anti-discrimination training to their training agenda. Implementing effective training will demonstrate that you care about the issue and are taking it seriously, which could help you defend against a lawsuit if an employee decides to bring one.

Finally, employers should remember that gender discrimination doesn’t just arise in this context. Businesses should take a close look at compensation practices to be sure there are no pay-inequity issues. Studies show that women in America earn about 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. Not only is this wage gap a fundamental problem, but it can also lead to serious legal trouble for an employer. Case in point: the World Cup-champion U.S. women’s soccer team’s lawsuit alleging pay inequity and “institutionalized gender discrimination.”

Bottom Line

It is clear that #MeToo has led to important changes in the workplace, but LeanIn.org’s recent study suggests that employers need to continue to be proactive and take steps to create a culture free from harassment, but also address other forms of discrimination.

The full survey results can be found at leanin.org/sexual-harassment-backlash-survey-results.

Amelia J. Holstrom is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. Holstrom specializes in employment litigation, including defending employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and wrongful termination, as well as wage-and-hour lawsuits. She also frequently provides counsel to management on taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of legal liability; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

The Neutral Patent Evaluation

By Mary Bonzagni

Business owners often ask themselves, ‘why embark on a path of securing a U.S. patent when enforcing your patent rights in court will inevitably be a very costly and time-consuming endeavor?’ Amazon may have helped to remove the presumption embedded in that question by offering an attractive alternative to the costly and time-consuming litigation route.

As we all know, Amazon dominates the e-commerce marketplace worldwide. For many consumers (like me), Amazon has become the first and primary source for virtually anything we may need (or want). Dominance, however, has come with a price. Mounting pressure from intellectual-property owners for Amazon to take responsibility for conduct in its marketplace has apparently pushed Amazon into choosing to relinquish its former ‘hands-off’ approach to infringement concerns.

Neutral Patent Evaluation

For U.S. utility patent owners (not U.S. design or foreign patent owners) who have identified infringing products on the Amazon retail or Marketplace platform, Amazon now offers its neutral-patent-evaluation procedure.

The benefits of this procedure include its low cost ($4,000) relative to litigation and its streamlined approach to resolving patent disputes (two weeks to four months). Plus, the parties do not waive any rights to pursue their respective claims in court.

By way of this procedure, a patent owner files a request for an evaluation of their infringement allegation against an Amazon retailer. The Amazon retailer is given the option of either responding to the allegation or removing the accused product listing. If the Amazon retailer choses to respond, then Amazon assigns a neutral evaluator who is a qualified patent attorney, and each party then pays a deposit in the amount of $4,000 to the evaluator. The deposits are held in escrow during the evaluation procedure. The prevailing party will have its deposit reimbursed, while the non-prevailing party will forfeit its deposit, with the forfeited deposit paying the fees/costs of the evaluator.

“While the benefits of this process are apparent, there are limitations.”

While it is not same-day Shipping, this procedure takes only a few weeks (if the Amazon retailer does not participate in the procedure) or up to a maximum of four months (if the Amazon retailer does participate in the procedure). To assure that this procedure concludes within this relatively short term, Amazon limits the evaluation procedure to one patent claim, does not allow any challenges to the validity of the asserted claim, allows only written arguments of a specified length (no discovery or oral arguments), and imposes strict response deadlines.

If the evaluator decides the accused product is covered by the asserted patent claim, then Amazon will remove the listing of the product from its online marketplace. Irrespective of the evaluator’s finding, however, should either party obtain a judgment or order from a court of competent jurisdiction that the accused product does or does not infringe the asserted patent claim, or that the asserted patent claim is invalid, then that party may submit the judgment or order to Amazon, which will honor it by either removing or relisting the product.

During the neutral patent evaluation, the parties may not talk directly to the evaluator but may talk to each other regarding the possibility of reaching an amicable resolution to the dispute. If this happens, then the evaluator may keep a portion of the deposits received from each party as compensation for work completed.

While the benefits of this process are apparent, there are limitations. For example, the outcome of this process determines only whether a product may continue to be sold on Amazon; it does not limit other avenues of commerce for allegedly infringing products. Plus, the procedure only applies to third-party merchants. In other words, products sold by Amazon itself, cannot be challenged using Amazon’s neutral-patent-evaluation procedure. It is also problematic that Amazon does not inform the parties how neutral evaluators are selected. Nonetheless, in my opinion, this procedure is attractive for what it does offer.

Amazon’s Other Programs

Amazon has other programs as well that are designed to protect IP rights. Amazon’s brand-registry program provides owners of registered trademarks with tools for searching and identifying potential infringers of their registered trademarks on the Amazon platform. Amazon also allows IP owners to report patent, trademark, and/or copyright infringement directly to Amazon by way of its report-infringement form. If Amazon accepts the infringement claim, then it will remove the reported content and will take appropriate (but unfortunately confidential) action against the retailer. If Amazon rejects the infringement claim, then they will not take any further action. Amazon will, however, provide the claimant with the reason for its rejection of the claim.

Conclusion

As more and more consumers flock to e-commerce sites, the hope is that Amazon’s neutral-patent-evaluation initiative will be picked up and further developed by other online marketplaces, or perhaps developed into an all-inclusive system that serves to address not only patent, but also trademark and copyright, infringement in a way that all online marketplaces can collaborate on.

Mary Bonzagni is a partner at the law firm of Bulkley Richardson, where she focuses on intellectual-property matters; (413) 781-2820.

Law

Passion for Practice

Last week, Western New England University School of Law graduated its latest class, all of them surely thinking about the road ahead — specifically, the bar exam and the planned first stops on their career paths. But they’re also reflecting on long-term goals and the experiences and mindsets that have shaped those ambitions, in a field of law as broad and diverse as it is challenging. BusinessWest spoke with four of them to put a face — several, actually — on the WNEU Law class of 2019.

Stand Up and Represent

Sometimes, a work experience is more than that, because it sparks a passion. For Kate Malone, she found that passion interning for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), a public-defense organization, in Northampton.

“I really admired the attorneys I worked with and the people who put such effort and compassion into what they do every day, regardless of the client,” she said. “I really like being in that role — even when the facts are against me, I like being able to stand up and represent somebody.”

An interest in work that serves the public interest wasn’t new for Malone, but she had been searching for the right role.

“I initially wanted to find some way to use my degree working in the community, and I started doing work in the immigration clinics,” she said, noting that, during her first summer away from WNEU, she traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish in an immersion program, then came back and split time between school and the public-defense work.

“I’ve always found a way to relate to people I serve and trying to find ways to give them not only a great defense, but the best opportunities going forward.”

There was a time when Malone had envisioned herself across the aisle, in a prosecutor’s role, especially during her undergraduate years at Smith College, when she interned in the Victim/Witness Unit of the Northwestern District Attorney’s office. “I knew that I wanted to be a trial lawyer after spending my summer in court with the victim witness advocates,” she said, adding, however, that her work with CPCS led her in a different direction. She did credit the DA’s office, however, with lending her the sensitivity she finds necessary for her work as a public defender.

“I developed a passion for public defense after observing the challenges people accused of crime often face that I did not fully appreciate before,” she went on. “The issues that my clients experience — namely, poverty, substance-use issues, and mental-health disorders — often contribute to them cycling in and out of court.”

As for her immediate plans, Malone will continue working for CPCS — and helping to fill what she sees as a desperate need for public defenders. “I’m happy to be joining CPCS to help fill that gap, and also helping serve the people in the community I grew up in,” she noted.

Kate Malone — pictured, at center

Kate Malone — pictured, at center, with fellow grads Veronice Santana and Claribel Morales — says an internship sparked a passion for public defense, specifically standing up for often-marginalized people.

“I’ve always found a way to relate to people I serve and trying to find ways to give them not only a great defense, but the best opportunities going forward,” she went on. “The way their cases get resolved matters — it has an impact I’d never even considered before law school.”

Taxing — but Fascinating

Emily Eash entered law school with an interest following in the footsteps of her aunt, who operates an estate-planning practice. But she soon stumbled across a different passion — although ‘passion’ might not be the first word most people would use to desribe it.

That field is tax law.

“When I took my first tax course — it wasn’t required, but I was curious — I was hooked, and I wanted to take all the tax courses they had to offer,” Eash said.

She found out she was good at it, too, placing second in the Young Lawyers Tax Challenge, a national annual competition, held in New Orleans this past January. “I was already interested in tax law, and that cemented that I was fairly decent at what I do.”

“Tax is always a puzzle; there are moving parts and different ways you can create a plan or figure out the puzzle to best suit a client’s needs and wants.”

It helps that she considers the wonkier aspects of the discipline, well, kind of fun.

“Tax is always a puzzle; there are moving parts and different ways you can create a plan or figure out the puzzle to best suit a client’s needs and wants. To get the best outcomes, it takes a lot of moving pieces and interacting with the client to help them achieve their goals.”

Eash isn’t sure where her first landing spot will be — she’s still interviewing for jobs, and would like to land in a small to medium-sized firm to start out — but she’s been impressed by the sheer range of opportunities, both in the tax-law discipline and across the legal realm in general.

“Some of my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do and stayed on that track,” she said. “Others, like me, were thinking they’d do something else and found a different branch off the main tree.”

One thing many young lawyers have in common is a desire to help people, and they don’t wait until they’re out of school to do it.

“I’ve done a clinic with the Housing Court in Springfield, and that’s been very gratifying, helping people access the system. Well, it’s not so much helping them, but giving them the tools they need to access the system and have a fair outcome,” Eash said. “That’s been really nice — I’ve been in the Housing Court for seven months, and it’s been a very fulfilling experience, with a lot of courtroom time and client triage.”

Emily Eash

Emily Eash was surprised at how much she enjoyed her first tax-law course — then turned it into a potential career.

From that perspective, the entire field of law may be seen as a series of puzzles to solve — not just intellectual exercises, but challenges with real stakes, and an opportunity to make a difference.

Broad Outlook

Zac Broughton is a bit of Renaissance man when it comes to the law. At least, he’d like to be.

“I think my favorite part about law is that I don’t have to stay with one thing for the rest of my life,” he said. “As law continues to evolve over time — with new technology, new situations, new philosophical debates to participate in — my desire is to be part of that conversation in whatever area of the law I’m working in.”

Broughton, who will be clerking at Connecticut Appellate Court later this year, honed his multi-faceted approach as editor in chief of the Western New England Law Review.

“I loved working through different areas of the law, but also helping other people find their voice to help advance one area of the law or another — and inspiring my staff and reminding them that we’re stewards of the law, and they should help advance it any way they can. What’s the next legal challenge we can help the legal world solve with the piece we were publishing?”

Broughton has dreams of running for public office someday — or at least being involved in the political scene — but he also wants to work in the public sector with underprivileged populations, particularly individuals with disabilities. That’s a passion that started in his undergraduate years at UMass Amherst — specifically, in the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, which runs an organization called the Ability Experience, whose purpose is to raise money for people with disabilities.

Zac Broughton

Zac Broughton says he’s excited to explore myriad areas of the law — and perhaps run for political office — during his career.

That’s a lot of goals, but there’s nothing wrong with exploring myriad paths in the law, he said. “To say I’ve settled on one area of the law right now is not true. But that means every day, I go to work excited and interested in what comes next.”

Broughton understands that a law degree doesn’t have to mean working in what people might consider traditional legal settings. For instance, at UMass, he earned a master’s degree in higher education administration, and can envision himself someday working in the higher-ed field.

“Today, there’s a host of outside things impacting how higher education operates in law, such as funding Title IX; it’s an incredible time to be working on a college campus and seeing how that intersects with the law.”

In short, it’s good to have options.

“I still want to run for office; I want to work in government,” he said. “It’s all interesting to me.”

A Passion on Hold

Sara Idris was on the cusp of middle school when 9/11 changed the complexion of the country, in many ways for the worse.

“Soon after that, the Patriot Act came out, and I was hearing about these people imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without cause,” she recalled. I wrote a lot of research papers on that, and it became my passion to go to law school and get justice for people who can’t get justice for themselves.”

As a student of Pakistani descent, she was sometimes harassed in school in the coming years, but the perpetrators were never disciplined, which further solidified her resolve to be an advocate for victims of persecution — or worse.

“I knew the injustice done to me wasn’t on the level done to people all over the world, and I saw a future for myself in human-rights law.”

She’s not sure when that future will arrive, however. As she works to finish her education — she has one class left to finish and will take the bar exam in February — she continues to work as a form filing specialist at a local intellectual-property law firm.

Sara Idris

Sara Idris says it can be difficult to match one’s passions to financial realities coming out of law school, but she intends to reach her goal of advocating for victims of social injustice.

“I really enjoy this, and I can see myself working here long-term,” she said. “I have a passion for public interest, but given the amount of loans I have, I don’t know if I can risk working in public interest for the next 10 years at a salary that’s probably lower than I’m making now.”

But Idris and her fiancé have a career plan that involves methodically paying off those loans and perhaps navigating her law career toward the issues she’s most passionate about.

She also realizes that a juris doctor degree doesn’t necessarily mean taking the title of lawyer at all. In fact, many law-school students enroll in order to use the JD to move up in the worlds of education, business, finance, nonprofit management, journalism — the possibilities are endless.

“I spoke with my supervisor here, and she talked to me about how other people have moved up in different departments not working as lawyers, but utilizing the skills they’ve learned in other ways.”

That’s one value of the degree, she went on. “While I want to practice law, I don’t necessarily have to.”

Still, it’s not hard to imagine Idris, down the road, standing up, as she put it, for people struggling to defend themselves against all manner of injustice, and could use a passionate advocate.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Paid Family and Medical Leave

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom

Businesses have had almost a year to prepare for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) in Massachusetts. Still, many questions remain, and the first critical date — July 1 — is right around the corner.

Here are five things that should be at the top of your to-do list as employers in the Commonwealth prepare for PFML.

Decide How to Handle Tax Contributions

PFML is funded through mandatory payroll contributions that begin on July 1. Currently, the contribution is set at 0.63% of an employee’s eligible wages. Because PFML covers two types of leave — medical leave and family leave — the state Department of Family and Medical Leave (DFML) has attributed a portion of the contribution (82.5%) to medical leave and the remainder (17.5%) to family leave. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, employers are permitted to deduct up to 100% of the family-leave contribution and up to 40% of the medical-leave contribution from an employee’s pay. Employers with 25 or more employees are required to pay the rest.

Although employers can pass on a lot of the contribution to the employee, businesses should consider whether to pay a portion, or even all, of the employee’s portion. When doing so, employers should consider the impact on morale, whether an employee is more or less likely to use the leave if they are paying for it, and whether the employer can afford to do more.

Provide the Required Notices

Employers are required to provide notice to employees about PFML on or before June 30. Two separate notices are required — a workplace poster and a written notice distributed to each employee and, in some cases, independent contractors. The mandatory workplace poster must be posted in English and each language that is the primary language of at least five individuals in your workforce if the DFML has published a translation of the notice in that language. Posters are available on the DFML website.

“It goes without saying that employees will have less incentive to return to work once PFML goes live. This undoubtedly will increase the amount of time employees are out of work.”

The written notice must be distributed to each employee in the primary language of the employee and must provide, among other things, employee and employer contribution amounts and obligations and instructions on how to file a claim for benefits. Employees must be given the opportunity, even if provided electronically, to acknowledge or decline receipt of the notice. The DFML has issued a model notice for employers to use.

Employers must get these notices out by June 30, but also within 30 days of an employee’s hire. Failure to do so subjects an employer to penalties.

Consider Private-plan Options

Employers who provide paid leave plans that are greater than or equal to the benefits required by the PFML law may apply for an exemption from making contributions by applying to the DFML. Employers can apply for an exemption to family-leave or medical-leave contributions, or both. Private-plan approvals are good for one year, and, generally, will be effective the first full quarter after the approval.

However, the DFML has made a one-time exception for the first quarter — July 1 through Sept. 30. Employers have until Sept. 20 to apply for an exemption, and any approval will be retroactive to July 1. Employers should consider whether this is a viable option for them before employees can begin taking leave on January 1, 2021.

There are benefits to doing so, but employers should consider the potential cost. If an employer chooses to self-insure its private plan, it must post a surety bond with a value of $51,000 for medical leave and $19,000 for family leave for every 25 employees. Employers may also have the option to purchase a private insurance plan that meets the requirements of the law through a Massachusetts-licensed insurance company.

Review Current Time-off and Attendance Policies

The principal regulator of frequent leaves of absence is the fact that employees are not getting paid for this time away from work, absent company provided paid time off like sick or vacation time. Once those company-provided benefits are used up, the employee is not getting a paycheck.

Naturally, this gives employees motivation to get back to work and on the payroll. Unfortunately, when Jan. 1, 2021 comes around, businesses will lose this regulator as PFML will be paid time off, up to a cap of $850 per week (and up to a whopping 26 weeks of paid time off per year).

It goes without saying that employees will have less incentive to return to work once PFML goes live. This undoubtedly will increase the amount of time employees are out of work. Therefore, businesses should be reviewing their current time-off and attendance policies to determine whether changes should be made in light of this forthcoming law. Are you providing too much paid time off already? Should you develop stricter requirements surrounding absenteeism and employee call-out procedures?

The time is now for discussing these changes as modifications to leave and attendance policies take time to think through and implement.

Plan for Increased Staffing Challenges

Many businesses and organizations throughout the region are currently dealing with significant staffing difficulties due to historically low unemployment rates. This challenge is only going to increase when the leave protections of PFML kick in on Jan. 1, 2021.

We recommend that employers try to get out in front of this by having meetings and possibly forming committees tasked with planning for expected workforce shortages. Consider increasing per-diem staff as regular staffers are likely to have more time off and call-outs from work. Consult with staffing agencies to explore whether temporary staffing will be an option if (and when) employees take extended PFML. Whatever you do, don’t wait until late next year to address potential staffing problems.

Bottom Line

PFML is certainly going to be a challenge for employers to deal with, particularly smaller employers who are not already familiar with leave laws like the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Although it may seem as though the sky is falling on employers, with proper and careful planning and guidance from experts, transitioning into the world of PFML should be reasonably manageable.

John S. Gannon and Amelia J. Holstrom are attorneys with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively representing management in labor and employment law. Gannon specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation. Holstrom devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and before administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, compliance, and union-related matters; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Law

Navigating Short-term Rentals

By Ryan K. O’Hara, Esq.

Ryan K. O’Hara

Ryan K. O’Hara

Maybe you’ve spent a lazy July week with your family in a cottage overlooking Cape Cod Bay.

Maybe you’re letting Janice from work use Grandma’s cabin in Otis for a long fall weekend – you weren’t going to use it then anyway, and who would say no to an extra $200?

Maybe you’ve temporarily filled your empty nest with an Angolan physicist and a Chilean biologist attending a two-week academic conference put on by the Five Colleges.

Whatever the specifics, without actively realizing it, many Massachusetts residents have been party to a short-term rental (that is, a temporary rental of a living space that isn’t in a hotel, motel, lodging house, or bed and breakfast).

While short-term rentals are nothing new, they have become much more prevalent with the rise of entities like Airbnb. Short-term rentals can be an exciting source of income, and powerful online tools have made participation in the market easier than ever. Together with that increased participation, however, comes increased regulation.

Airbnb, Vrbo, and other companies like them act as third-party platforms where property owners can list premises for rent, and prospective renters can find a place that meets their needs. Both renters and property owners can now enter the market and operate with relative ease and informality. The market has also expanded to include a wide range of rental offerings — not only traditional houses and apartments, but also cottages, cabins, “micro” homes, campers, and even letting out vacant rooms in owner-occupied homes.

“While the notion of creating an online account and letting the rental income flow is very appealing, property owners should be aware that there is much more responsibility involved than a first glance at a website might suggest.”

While the notion of creating an online account and letting the rental income flow is very appealing, property owners should be aware that there is much more responsibility involved than a first glance at a website might suggest. Particularly in areas where the rental property is in close proximity to non-renting neighbors, conflicts and complications can arise.

Neighbors worry about vetting the renters, frequent turnover, and increased noise, traffic, and litter from transient visitors who don’t have the same investment in the neighborhood as those who live there. State and local governments are concerned with the number and density of rentals, the loss of tax revenue through unreported rental income, and the movement of customers away from traditional lodging options like hotels (and the excise-tax revenue that comes with them).

In response to these concerns, in December 2018, Massachusetts enacted “An Act Regulating and Insuring Short-Term Rentals” (Mass. Acts 2018, c. 337). This law defines short-term rentals, establishes and imposes obligations on both owners and renters, and empowers local governments to regulate short-term rentals on a town-by-town basis. The act goes into effect on July 1, making it critical that anyone interested in the short-term rental industry familiarize themselves with this new law.

The first thing to understand is whether your property is covered by the act. The act applies to any property that is not a hotel, motel, lodging house, or bed-and-breakfast establishment, and where at least one room or unit is rented, and all rentals are reserved in advance. The next question is whether a specific rental is in fact a short-term rental. Owners beware: if the space is rented for more than 31 calendar days to a given renter, it is no longer a short-term rental, but a residential tenancy, which carries vastly different obligations and duties.

If your property constitutes a short-term rental within the act’s definitions, you are considered an ‘operator,’ and are obligated to register with the Department of Revenue, file special tax returns showing rental income, and pay a 5% state excise tax on rents received. Cities and towns can also choose to impose an additional excise tax of up to 6% (or 6.5% for Boston properties). For Cape and island towns and cities, an additional 2.75% excise tax may be added.

The act also authorizes cities and towns to pass ordinances or bylaws regulating operators. These regulations may, among other things, limit the existence, location, and/or number of operators and the duration of rentals; require local licensing and registration; require health and safety inspections; or even prohibit future rentals where violations are found. Operators must consult with town authorities before operating any short-term rental, to ensure compliance with local regulations.

Per the act, operators must maintain liability insurance of $1 million or greater to cover bodily injury and property damage relative to each short-term rental, unless the rental is offered through a platform such as Airbnb or Vrbo that has equal or greater coverage. Operators must also notify their own property insurer that they will be operating a short-term rental at their premises.

Finally, the act makes clear that Massachusetts’ anti-discrimination statute applies to short-term rental operators. Any unlawful discrimination could expose operators to significant liability. For this reason, it may be advisable for operators to obtain training and legal advice on housing and rental discrimination.

Operating a short-term rental business can be a profitable endeavor that carries less expense and exposure than operating traditional, long-term residential rentals. However, it is vital that any operator understand and abide by the laws and regulations that govern this growing industry. Those who arm themselves with knowledge — whether by reviewing the law on their own or consulting legal counsel familiar with the industry — give themselves a fantastic chance at profitability and success with minimal complications.

Ryan K. O’Hara is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. and a member of the firm’s litigation team. His legal practice is focused on contract and business matters, landlord-tenant issues, land-use and real-estate litigation, and accidents and injuries; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Law

A Sometimes Fine Line

By Marylou Fabbo, Esq.

There’s no doubt the #MeToo movement has brought positive change to the business world by creating a safer environment for women (and men) to come forward with accounts of sexual harassment. But what if the claims aren’t true, either because they don’t rise to the legal definition of harassment or they’re completely fabricated? The damage, to both individual and company reputations, can be significant.

Make no mistake. Subjecting an employee to sexual harassment in the workplace, at a company-sponsored event, or on a business trip is unacceptable and should be punished.

#MeToo has had a strong, positive impact on encouraging victims to come forward with valid claims that had been unreported or overlooked. Everyone who complains of sexual harassment should be heard, but should everyone be believed? Most people — men and women — are not sexual abusers, and yet most individuals would say they have experienced some form of sexual misconduct. Most also would agree that some sexual behavior, such as grabbing a co-worker’s breast, exposing oneself to another employee, or telling an employee that he or she will get a promotion if he or she sleeps with the boss are clear-cut cases of sexual harassment.

Marylou Fabbo, Esq

Still, even if sexual comments or behaviors are inappropriate for the workplace, not everything of a sexual nature rises to the level of illegal sexual harassment under the law. This leaves the door open to unfounded and/or, in some cases, intentionally false claims, which can have a damaging impact on company image and the accused person’s professional and personal life.

Sexual Harassment Defined

Title VII and Massachusetts law prohibit sex discrimination in the workplace, and sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The harasser and the victim of sexual harassment can be the same or opposite gender and have the same or different sexual orientations.

Although this article addresses sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual harassment is also prohibited in places of public accommodation, educational facilities, and housing.

“Even if sexual comments or behaviors are inappropriate for the workplace, not everything of a sexual nature rises to the level of illegal sexual harassment under the law.”

There are two types of sexual harassment: ‘quid pro quo’ harassment and ‘hostile work environment’ harassment. Quid pro quo harassment includes sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when a term of employment or employment decision depends on whether an employee accepts or rejects those advances.

Many of the accusations asserted against producer Harvey Weinstein fall into the quid pro quo category. Actors have come forward stating that Weinstein promised them career advances in exchange for a positive response to his sexual advances; they also have stated that Weinstein failed to help them out if they chose not to meet his sexual demands. That’s unambiguous quid pro quo harassment.

In Massachusetts, employers are strictly liable for quid pro quo harassment, which means the business is on the hook for damages even if it did not know about the harassment.

The other type of sexual harassment is hostile work environment sexual harassment. Under Massachusetts law, illegal sexual harassment occurs when “requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.”

Complaints about Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose’s actions fall into the sexually hostile work environment category. Lauer is accused of exposing himself to staff, and the accusations against Rose included making lewd phone calls and groping women’s breasts. In both cases, the individuals’ employers have been accused of knowing about the harassment and doing little to stop it.

Subjective and Objectively Offensive

An employee who is offended by sexual behavior may file a claim of harassment with the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), believing that the actions were illegal simply because they were of a sexual nature.

However, to constitute illegal sexual harassment in the workplace, the behavior must be offensive both to the recipient and the general public. Ask yourself this question: if an employee shows co-workers vacation pictures on his phone that include friends in bikinis, is that sexual harassment? What about the long-term manager who refers to women as ‘girls,’ gives hugs occasionally, and makes jokes about the lack of sex in his long-term marriage?

Some may find those comments and actions offensive, and others may not. Is the manager just ‘old school’? If an employee subjectively perceives the behavior as hostile, intimidating, humiliating, or offensive, then the conduct may constitute sexual harassment. But that’s not enough — the question becomes whether a reasonable person in the employee’s position would find the conduct offensive.

“To constitute illegal sexual harassment in the workplace, the behavior must be offensive both to the recipient and the general public.”

Conduct of a sexual nature also must be unwelcome in order to constitute illegal sexual harassment, but it is almost impossible to be absolutely sure whether the conduct is welcome or unwelcome. The fact that an employee appears to be a willing participant in sexual discussions about weekend conquests may suggest that the employee was not opposed to the sexual discussions by the water cooler on Monday mornings. Yet, the employee may have actually been cringing on the inside.

Under the law, even if an employee makes sexual comments or jokes, or engages in sexual conduct, those actions do not automatically mean that all behavior is welcome. A disgruntled employee who appeared to be a willing participant may later claim that behavior that was welcome was in fact unwelcome.

Nimrod Reitman, a former NYU graduate student, accused his school adviser, Avita Ronell, of sexually harassing him over a three-year period. He claimed that she referred to him in e-mails by names such as “my most adored one” and “sweet cuddly baby,” and kissed and touched him repeatedly and required him to lie in her bed, among other things. Ronell did not deny the behavior but denied the harassment and claimed that the behavior had been welcomed.

While that case doesn’t arise in the employment context, it provides an example of one reason employers should implement zero-tolerance policies when it comes to sexual banter in the workplace. What may have been considered welcome sexual commentary or behavior may have actually have been unwelcome and could subject them to a lawsuit.

False Accusations of Sexual Harassment

Why would one make a false accusation of having been sexually harassed at work? It cannot be disputed that some people fabricate claims of sexual harassment in the workplace because alleged victims have admitted to making up allegations against co-workers or management for many different reasons.

In some cases, sexual-harassment claims may be made to ward off terminations because employers are fearful of being accused of illegal retaliation if they take (warranted) disciplinary action after an employee has come forward with a sexual-harassment complaint. Disgruntled employees have been found to have made false accusations against someone they believe is responsible for an adverse personnel action the employee received, such as a demotion or termination from employment.

Employees have admitted that they have intentionally made sexual-harassment complaints against co-workers for vindictive reasons or for attention.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to determine whether specific allegations are true or false, as there usually are no witnesses or hard evidence. Because of this, businesses may overreact or react harshly without having all of the facts.

Nev Shulman, star of MTV’s Catfish, was accused of sexual assault. He denied the claims, but the show was suspended anyway. Upon a later investigation, the claims were deemed not credible, and the show was reinstated. A Sacred Heart University student falsely reported having been raped by two school football players and has since faced criminal charges. The leader of the New York City Ballet was accused of sexual harassment and retired. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Collateral damage follows baseless accusations of sexual harassment. Valid harassment claims are devalued and may be looked upon skeptically. When it becomes known that an accusation was false, it raises the possibility in individual’s minds that the next allegation of a similar nature may also not be credible.

Being falsely accused of sexual harassment is also a downfall to the accused’s career. Prior to having their names cleared, alleged harassers may quit or be required to resign, and they sometimes remain under suspicion even after the complaint is found to have been fabricated. The fact that a sexual harassment lawsuit has been filed against a company may be covered in the media, but when, years later, it is dismissed by the court before it gets to the jury stage because the case is without factual support, that information often is not made available to the public — perhaps forever leaving a bad mark on the employer in the eyes of its customers as well as employees. u

Marylou Fabbo is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. She specializes in employment litigation, immigration, wage-and-hour compliance, and leaves of absence. Fabbo devotes much of her practice to defending employers in state and federal courts and administrative agencies. She also regularly assists her clients with day-to-day employment issues, including disciplinary matters, leave management, and compliance; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

Attention to Details Matters

By Timothy Netkovick, Esq.

As attorneys, we often hear comments like these: ‘we don’t need you to draft our handbook, we got one online,’ or ‘we got one from a third party.’

We also hear the same thing about employee trainings: ‘we don’t need an attorney to do our employee trainings; our HR department conducts our trainings,’ or ‘we’re having an outside contractor conduct the trainings.’

I could go on for hours talking about the importance of up-to-date employment trainings and making sure your employment policies are concise, to the point, and tailored to your company. But a recent case from Maine underscores this point better than I could.

By now you may have heard about the so-called ‘Oxford comma case,’ more formally known as O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine. In the case, employees of Oakhurst Dairy filed suit against their employer alleging they were due unpaid overtime pay.

Timothy M. Netkovick

Timothy M. Netkovick

Oakhurst Dairy claimed that it did not have to pay overtime wages due to a qualifying exemption in the Maine overtime law. The entire case boiled down to the placement of a comma in the Maine overtime law. If Oakhurst Dairy was correct, it would incur no further expenses other than the time, expense, aggravation, and attorney’s fees incurred in defending the case. If the employees were correct, that meant that Oakhurst Dairy was in violation of the Maine overtime law, and could have had to pay the employees a substantial sum of money.

The case has reportedly settled for $5 million, an extremely hefty sum to pay based upon differing interpretations of the placement of a comma.

While the Oxford comma case dealt with the interpretation of a law, the lesson for employers is simple — attention to detail matters. In this age of cost cutting in HR departments and legal departments (both in-house counsel and the use of outside counsel), providing trainings for employees and having clear, concise employment policies can save your company immeasurably in the long run.

The Oxford comma case shows that even misplaced or missing punctuation could end up costing your company dearly. Trained legal counsel can provide comprehensive training that will help guide your employees, aid in defending your company in the event of litigation, and also review your handbook policies and give quality advice regarding updates that may be needed in the ever-changing world of employment law.

Holding off on trainings and handbook updates may save your company money in the short term; however, doing so invites the risk of unnecessary litigation based upon both naïve employees and outdated policies. Litigation can last for several years and can be a tremendous drain on your company, not only in terms of legal fees, but also in business disruption caused by the need to gather documents and comply with other discovery requests, including employee depositions.

A company’s managers are its first line of defense. Having regular trainings can help your managers identify potential issues and resolve them before the situation gets out of control. Likewise, having an annual review of your employee handbook can help ensure that all of your company’s policies are up to date and in compliance with applicable laws.

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Timothy M. Netkovick, an attorney at Royal, P.C., has more than 15 years of litigation experience, and has successfully tried several cases to verdict. In addition to his trial experience, he has specific experience in handling labor and employment matters before a variety of administrative agencies. He also assists employers with unionized workforces during collective bargaining, at arbitrations, and with respect to employee grievances and unfair labor practice charges; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Law

Firm Resolve

Managing Partner Kenneth Albano

Managing Partner Kenneth Albano

As Bacon Wilson approaches its 125th anniversary next year, it can look back on plenty of history and change — with perhaps the past couple of decades representing the most dramatic evolutions in law. Through it all, the practice has remained remarkably steady, boasting numerous long-time attorneys and a measured growth strategy that has led Bacon Wilson to its position as the region’s largest law firm — one with its focus squarely on the future.

Just before he sat down with BusinessWest, Kenneth Albano was looking through an old file at Bacon Wilson, dating from 1993. Two things struck him about the letterhead.

One was the number of lawyers — just 16, compared to 42 today. The other striking thing was how many of those 16 are still practicing at Bacon Wilson today.

“Every lawyer except a few is still here,” said the firm’s managing partner, noting that he’s been at Bacon Wilson for 31 years, while the other two partners who spoke with BusinessWest for this story, Hyman Darling (38 years) and Donna Wexler (a relatively brief 17 years), have also built quite a bit of history with the firm.

“It says a lot about the fabric of the firm, that people stay here as long as they do.”

It says a lot about the fabric of the firm, that people stay here as long as they do,” Albano went on. “We have lawyers like Mike Katz and Paul Rothschild, who have been here 40-plus years and are still working hard every day.

“When we interview for associates, they always bring that to the top of the discussion, because it’s important for people to feel stability,” he noted. “With Millennials these days, it’s tough to get a straight answer as far as commitment, but we try to impress upon them that this can be your work family and your home for years to come. That’s what we bring to the table, and it’s been successful over the years.”

That stability has no doubt contributed to the firm’s growth, but so have a series of strategic mergers, which have led to Bacon Wilson establishing offices over the years in Northampton, Amherst, Westfield, and Hadley in addition to Springfield, where it has maintained a State Street address for almost 125 years.

“These are not offices where you call a phone number get a receptionist covering all the shared space,” Albano said. “These are standalone facilities with partners, associates, paralegals, and receptionists.”

At a time when it’s more difficult to find young talent (more on that later), the key has been smart expansion — not hiring just to hire or merging just to merge, he added. And those mergers have essentially been achieved through relationship building.

“We don’t buy practices,” he said. “So if you were looking to retire, you wouldn’t come to me and say, ‘I want X amount of dollars for my practice,’ because it’s a lose-lose situation for us. The win-win is, ‘sure, let’s talk, come be part of the Bacon Wilson family for three or four years, allow your clients to meld into our practice groups, and allow our lawyers to get to know your clients, and have a slow exit strategy.’ That’s how it’s worked in the past.”

Last year, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly ranked Bacon Wilson as the 42nd-largest law firm in Massachusetts, but it’s the largest in Western Mass. — and well-positioned, Albano said, to continue to tackle what has become an increasingly complex and demanding legal landscape.

Time to Change

Long-timers like Albano, Darling, and Wexler have seen their share of changes in the legal world, too.

“When I first came here, if somebody came in for an estate plan, it was a will,” said Darling, who has built a reputation as a premier authority in the region on estate planning. “Now, it’s a will, health proxy, power of attorney, homestead declaration, maybe a trust … we talk about things like end-of-life decisions and organ donors and cremation and anatomical gifts. Pet trusts, gun trusts. It’s evolved into things that none of us ever learned in law school.”

Donna Wexler and Hyman Darling

Donna Wexler and Hyman Darling have seen plenty of changes in their fields of real estate and elder care/estate planning, respectively.

That’s why he has gone from working with one shared secretary to leading a team of six estate-planning attorneys and 20 total staff, with responsibilities ranging from asset-protection planning and pet trusts to having his picture taken with a big check for the Massachusetts Lottery wall in Braintree when a winner decides to establish an anonymous trust.

“There’s special-needs planning that we didn’t do before,” he went on. “There was nothing called elder law when I came to the practice. And 10,000 people turn 60 every day — and we have a lot of them in Massachusetts.”

Technology has changed the way lawyers work as well, said Wexler, who specializes in real estate.

“When I started practicing, I would fill out forms in pen and the secretary would type them, then there were years when I typed them, then it evolved into the banks actually preparing them and e-mailing them. Now we’ve got cloud-based things,” she said, adding that increased government regulation, especially since the financial crisis in 2008, has led to new complexities to her work. “There’s more we need to know about what the regulations are and what we’re required to do.”

Then there’s the culture of constant communication — and the resulting rise in client expectations — that has shrunk timelines on projects in industries like construction, printing, and, yes, law. Albano recalled the days when he’d come back from lunch and hope to see a phone message on one those classic pink slips of paper waiting for him. Now, he returns to a couple dozen e-mails.

“There’s an expectation of immediate response, and it’s changed the pace of the practice tremendously,” Wexler said, to which Darling noted he’s had clients call asking to set up a will before they flew off on vacation. Tomorrow.

They all recognize, however, that those constant e-mails and calls represent something important: individuals who need help, and often at a difficult time in their life.

“I always tell people, if I get a call from someone I haven’t heard from in a while, they’re not calling to say, ‘how are you doing? Have a great day.’ They have a problem.”

“There’s an expectation of immediate response, and it’s changed the pace of the practice tremendously.”

As all three mentioned, those problems continue to evolve. Cannabis law in Massachusetts, for example, has unfurled an entire new world of issues that cross several practice areas. For instance, Albano represents a few municipalities seeking guidance on what kinds of restrictions they can place on marijuana businesses. Wexler has handled transactions for clients looking to purchase land for growing, while some of Darling’s clients have sought to invest in these facilities.

In fact, the sheer scope of Bacon Wilson’s expertise is a plus for clients, Albano said. “We don’t do high-end criminal work or security work. Everything else, we do. And we cross-sell each other to clients. The clients appreciate that.”

Wexler added that the attorneys tend to collaborate for the sake of clients, whether it’s seeking advice from a different department on a case or hearing a potential client’s request for services and recommending colleague with more specialized knowledge.

“When you hire Ken, you’re not just hiring him, you’re hiring 40 lawyers,” Darling said. “The firm is your lawyer. They’re all available.”

Well Suited

Albano said the three-legged stool holding up Bacon Wilson has always been litigation, real estate, and estate planning. “That’s always been with us. But when this firm was founded back in 1895, it was a commercial law firm, and we’ve maintained that commercial group from day one, representing so many Western Mass. banks. We survived all the mergers and all the new banks coming in. The key to our success is maintaining relationships. Relationships are so big in this market.”

So is staying educated and up to date on quickly evolving trends in a practice area.

For instance, even before the #metoo movement — but certainly in the wake of it — employment lawyers have seen a steep rise in harassment and discrimination cases, as well as thorny handbook issues to help clients sort out.

“We’ve had specialists come in here and give seminars on preventing those types of harassment claims,” he noted. “You have to stay up on it.”

In turn, Bacon Wilson’s attorneys are active in the community, writing articles (for publications such as BusinessWest) and conducting workshops on hot issues. That’s in addition to the many ways the firm’s lawyers support their favorite charities and volunteer on their boards.

“Everybody gives back,” Darling said. “We don’t have to ask them; they just realize it’s important.”

Wexler agreed. “When we bring new associates in, the ones I work with seem very excited. And most of them come in with a passion for one organization or another, and we encourage them to take the time to give to that organization. It’s catchy. And it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

That said, it can be a challenge to attract young talent to the firm in a competitive marketplace in an era when law-school enrollment is significantly down from where it was 20 years ago. But Bacon Wilson has developed a relationship with Western New England University School of Law, interviewing students for clerk positions and often hiring them full-time later on, while building similar pipelines with institutions like Bay Path University to find paralegals.

“The tough part is getting young lawyers to stay in Springfield, as opposed to Boston or New York,” Darling said. “But we’ve done a good job. The quality of life here is pretty good. They can make a living and have a house they can afford and be able to pay their school debt.”

Not to mention working at a firm that continues to rack up accolades each year — including “Best Law Firm” in the Valley Advocate Readers’ Poll every year since 2012, “Best Law Firm” in the Daily Hampshire Gazette Readers’ Choice poll every year since 2014, plenty of attorney citations in Best Lawyers in America, the 2018 Firm Impact Award from the Hampden County Bar Assoc. for pro bono work, and a raft of others — and, as Albano noted, a stable, venerable firm to call home for many years to come.

“We’ve grown in bits and pieces over the years,” said Albano, who would like to see the firm grow to more than 50 attorneys during his tenure. “It’s been a great run so far. We’ve had some hiccups along the way, as with any business, especially when the economy was bad. But the reason we’ve grown as well as we have is because the people who work here really enjoy coming to work.”

Joe Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Knowledge Is Power

By John S. Gannon, Esq.

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq

As an employment attorney, my job is to help businesses comply with the myriad laws that govern the workplace. No business is immune from workplace problems, and for those who violate employment laws, hefty penalties and damages await.

In order to help businesses avoid these problems, I’ve put together a list five costly employment-practice mistakes we frequently come across, with tips for correction and prevention.

Misclassifying Employees as Exempt from Overtime

Employers are sometimes shocked when they learn that salaried employees might be entitled to overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week. The shock quickly goes to panic when they are told the salaried non-exempt employee is due several years’ worth of unpaid overtime, and that this unpaid wage amount can be doubled and potentially tripled under state and federal wage laws.

Misclassifying employees as exempt is a common mistake. This is because many employers associate paying a salary basis with no overtime obligation. True, paying employees a salary is typically one part of the test, but there are several other factors to consider during your exemption analysis.

We recommend you work with legal counsel to audit your exempt employee classifications. While you’re at it, consider doing a pay-equity audit to help protect against equal-pay discrimination claims.

Leave-law Headaches

When an employee is out for a medical condition, there are a series of complex and challenging employment laws that need to be navigated. This includes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), workers’ compensation laws, the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law, and, coming soon, the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave law.

These laws have a plethora of traps for the unwary. What do you do when an employee continually calls out in connection with a medical condition? Do your supervisors know what to do if an employee requests several weeks off for surgery? The answers are not always easy, so make sure you know how these laws interact with one another.

Outdated Handbooks and Employment Agreements

Recently, I was reviewing whether a non-compete agreement would be enforceable in court. It turned out the agreement was signed roughly 10 years ago. To make things worse, the last update to the document was pre-Y2K.

The point here is that employment agreements and handbooks should not grow cobwebs. Changes in the law require changes to these documents. For example, Massachusetts enacted significant legislation in October 2018 changing the entire landscape of non-compete law in the Commonwealth. The state also saw the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act take shape in April last year. This new law included a notice requirement that meant an update to the employee handbook was in order.

Having your employment agreements and handbook regularly reviewed by counsel is a good way to stay on top of the constant changes in the employment law world. Remember, if you have not updated these employment documents in a few years, they are probably doing more harm than good.

Failure to Eradicate Harassment at Work

Last year was dominated by headlines spotlighting sexual-harassment scandals and cover-ups. But was the #metoo movement just another fad? The answer unequivocally is ‘no.’

To prove it, late last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published data on workplace harassment claims that revealed a 50% increase in sexual-harassment lawsuits filed by the EEOC when compared to 2017 numbers. The EEOC also recovered nearly $70 million for the victims of sexual harassment in 2018, up from $47.5 million in 2017.

You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: businesses need to take proactive steps to create a workplace free from harassment. This involves updating anti-harassment policies and practices, adequately training your workforce, and promptly investigating all harassment complaints.

Lack of Supervisor Training

Most of the mistakes listed above are fertile ground for supervisor slip-ups. Whether they fail to report harassment (or, worse yet, engage in harassing behavior themselves) or discipline an employee who has taken too much sick time, supervisors who don’t know any better are in a position to do considerable damage to your business.

Proper training can alleviate this risk. Plus, a supervisor who spots an issue before it spirals out of control could prevent a costly lawsuit from being filed.

John S. Gannon is an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. He specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

Navigating Change

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

Amy Royal was taking a calculated risk when she left a stable job in employment law to start her own firm at the start of the Great Recession. But those calculations proved correct, and as her firm marks 10 years in business, she reflects on how her team’s services to clients continue to go beyond legal aid into a business relationship that helps companies — and the local economy — grow.

Many employers, truth be told, don’t think the grand bargain is much of a bargain. And they have questions about how it will affect them.

“Massachusetts tends to be ripe with emerging employment issues, like the grand bargain,” said Amy Royal, referring to this past summer’s state legislation that raised the minimum wage and broadened family leave, among other worker-friendly measures.

“But that’s one of the things I enjoy — the education piece we offer to clients: ‘this is what the grand bargain looks like, and we’re going to help you plan for it. This may not seem so grand, but we’re here to help you navigate this and figure out how you’re going to work within these parameters now.’”

Royal and her team have helped plenty of employers over the 10 years since she opened her law firm, Royal, P.C., in Northampton. Since launching the business as a boutique, woman-owned, management-side-only firm in 2008, that framework hasn’t changed, but the way the team serves those clients has certainly evolved.

“Now that we’re 10 years old, we’re thinking about rebranding, thinking about growth, and how we can provide additional opportunities here at the law firm,” she told BusinessWest. “Is it continuing to market in this very discrete area or expanding beyond that?

“We obviously only represent companies,” she went on, “but in our relationships with clients, we’re being asked to handle other things for those companies apart from employment law.”

“Now that we’re 10 years old, we’re thinking about rebranding, thinking about growth, and how we can provide additional opportunities here at the law firm.”

For example, the firm represents a large, publicly traded company that recently launched a new brand and wanted help creating contracts with vendors and negotiating with other companies it was collaborating with. Another client is a large human-service agency that called on Royal to interpret regulations of its funding sources and help negotiate contracts related to those sources.

“So we’ve organically expanded over time,” she said. “We still represent companies, but we do more for them, because we’re seen as a true advisor to them. So now, at 10 years, I’ve looked at the firm and asked my team, ‘is this something we should now be marketing?’ We still are a boutique firm representing companies, but what we’re going to be rolling out in the coming year is a rebranding initiative — one that’s focused on telling the story of what we are doing here that’s more than just employment law.”

Tough Timing

Royal began her law career working for the Commonwealth, in the Office of the Attorney General, handling civil-litigation matters, which included some employment claims. From there, she went into private practice at a regional law firm that solely handled management-side labor and employment law.

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members, including (top) attorneys Daniel Carr and Timothy Netkovick, and (bottom) Heather Loges, practice manager and COO; and Merricka Breuer, legal assistant.

With that background, Royal sensed a desire to start her own company — which turned out to be a risky proposition, opening up into the teeth of the Great Recession.

“I obviously took a huge leap; I was at an established law firm and had been there for a long time. I had an established job, with a very young family at the time. And it was 2008, when, obviously, the economy wasn’t in good shape.”

So she understood if people thought striking out on her own might not have been the safest move.

“But given how long I’d been practicing law at the time, it felt to me like it was now or never,” she explained. “I really wanted to see if I could make a go at it, and I felt like I had the tools to develop a business. Oftentimes, law firms aren’t thought of as businesses; they’re thought of as practitioners, but not businesses. But I knew I could create a law firm in a strategic way and develop it and make a company out of it.”

At first, Royal’s wasn’t the only name on the letterhead. At first, the firm was called Royal & Munnings, with Amy Griffin Munnings as a partner, helping Royal get the firm off the ground. Later, after Munnings moved to Washington, D.C., the firm was known as Royal & Klimczuk, for then-partner Kimberly Klimczuk, who subsequently departed and currently practices employment law at Skoler Abbott in Springfield.

Currently, Royal employs four other attorneys full-time, in addition to two full-time paralegals and other support staff.

“I really wanted to take the model of a specialized, boutique practice and build upon it with a strong client base of corporations throughout our Valley and beyond — because we do represent companies in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont, as well as national corporations,” she explained.

“I believed it didn’t so much matter where we were located because we go out to our clients,” she added. “So I chose Northampton because I have really enjoyed the community — I went to Smith College, and I thought I could have an impact here and throughout the region and beyond in creating employment opportunities for people.”

That is, in fact, how Royal sees her work: by helping clients navigate through often-tricky employment issues, she’s helping those companies grow and create even more jobs in the Valley.

And while many of those thorny issues have remained consistent, they’ve ebbed and flowed in some ways, too.

“Given the employment-law landscape, there becomes hot areas at certain times, and we become sort of subspecialists in those areas,” she explained. For example, early on, she saw a lot of activity around affirmative action and dealing with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Wage-and-hour conflicts have become increasingly prominent in recent years as well, and Royal, P.C. has handled client defense on those issues, as well as general guidance on how to avoid claims altogether.

“I do feel like we can advise clients and help them flourish,” she went on. “I’m so committed to this region, and I know there’s been a lot of work done over the last decade since our birth as a law firm, in the business community and the community at large, on how to make the Pioneer Valley an even more attractive place for people to live and earn a living and feel like they have opportunities here — that they don’t have to be in Boston to have those opportunities.”

Risk Managers

As she continues to grow the firm, Royal says it’s always a challenge to find talented attorneys who are skilled in labor and employment law and also understand her vision for the company.

“Practitioners often think, ‘here’s what the law says.’ We need to be telling clients, ‘OK, here’s what the law says you can do, but this is also a business decision, and everything is about weighing and measuring risk and deciding whether you can bear that risk or not, whether that’s a good practice or not.’”

“Given how long I’d been practicing law at the time, it felt to me like it was now or never. I really wanted to see if I could make a go at it, and I felt like I had the tools to develop a business.”

And challenges to employers are constantly evolving, whether it’s legislation like the grand bargain or issues that arise from new technology. She recalls what a hot topic portable devices, like smartphones and tablets, were in the early part of this decade.

“Now it’s like everyone has one,” she said, “but at that time, it was a huge issue for employers, who were asking, ‘where is our data going? If you’re a portable employee, what’s happening when you leave with that phone?’”

The economy can affect the flow of work as well. In the early days of the firm, as the recession set in, litigation crowded out preventive work such as compliance matters, employee handbooks, and supervisory training. In recent years, she’s seen an uptick in requests for those services again.

Sometimes, employers will call with advice before taking disciplinary action with an employee — just another way Royal aims to be a partner to clients. The firm also conducts regular seminars and roundtables, both for clients and the public, on matters — such as legislative changes and policy wrinkles — that affect all employers.

In some ways, that’s an extension of the way Royal wants the firm to be a presence in the broader community. Another is the team’s involvement with local nonprofits.

“I’ve tried to set that tone,” she said, “but it’s never been met with resistance — it’s always been met with ‘oh, yes, maybe we can do this, maybe we can do that.’ It’s been important to me to have a team that really wants to support their community.”

Meanwhile, that team has been focused, perhaps more than ever before, on what exactly Royal, P.C. is — where the firm has been in the past, what it is now, and what it wants to be going forward.

“We have a strong, viable book of labor and employment business, and what I’ve communicated to my team is, ‘we can keep going for the next 10 years, 20 years, on that book, and achieve growth.’ Or we can look at our brand and say, ‘do we want to grow beyond that? Do we tell the story of the other services we’re able to provide, and create other employment opportunities for people in the Valley?’ There’s a consensus here that that’s really the direction we should be going in.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Prepare for the Unexpected

Jack Ferriter says it’s never too early to talk to an attorney

Jack Ferriter says it’s never too early to talk to an attorney about a healthcare proxy and living will.

Medical decisions aren’t always cut and dry. The way Jack Ferriter sees it, why entrust them to just anyone?

“A healthcare proxy is someone who stands in your shoes to make medical decisions for you, but only if you’re unable to make those decisions,” said Ferriter, who practices business and estate law at Ferriter Law in Holyoke.

The term ‘healthcare proxy’ also refers to the document that specifies who will make those critical decisions for an individual if they can’t make them on their own — for instance, in a medical emergency that has them unconscious or otherwise incapacitated.

For instance, Ferriter explained, “if a surgeon says, ‘do you want this operation?’ and you can shake your head to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ the doctor will go with your answer. But if you’re unable to make that decision — or even if you’re unwilling, if you say, ‘I don’t know; please ask my wife, who’s my healthcare proxy’ — then the surgeon would ask your healthcare proxy whether you should have the operation.”

A 2017 study in the journal Health Affairs revealed that one-third of Americans have a healthcare proxy, which is far too low, say estate-planning attorneys and doctors.

“When somebody comes in here and they’re asking for an estate plan, we will always include a will, a power of attorney, and a healthcare proxy and a living will,” Ferriter told BusinessWest. “Everyone should have them. It’s not just for people 65 and older. Anybody could get hit by the proverbial bus and need somebody else to make medical decisions with a healthcare proxy, or financial decisions with power of attorney.”

In a recent blog post, Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson noted that it examined whom its own clients had named as their healthcare proxies, and found that, not surprisingly, a spouse was most common, followed by an adult child.

“Where a child was named, gender, birth order, and whether the child was the parent’s ‘unofficial favorite’ often did not seem to matter,” the firm noted. “Geographic proximity to the parent signing the document, emotional maturity, and perceived alignment with the parent’s preferences seemed to determine who was named.  If a child was in a medicine-related profession, that was often a major factor in the selection.”

“Anybody could get hit by the proverbial bus and need somebody else to make medical decisions with a healthcare proxy, or financial decisions with power of attorney.”

Ferriter recommends that clients name two people — a primary and secondary healthcare proxy — because the designation comes into play at urgent and unexpected times.

“If it’s 2 in the morning and the surgeon is trying to reach your healthcare proxy and doesn’t have the right number, or has a home number that’s going into a machine and needs an answer, or if somebody’s out of the country, it’s always good to have a secondary healthcare proxy so the surgeon can call the secondary one and say, ‘should we do this operation or not?’”

He recommends that cell-phone numbers are used, not landlines, but even then, ringers are sometimes turned off, or phones lose their charge, and no one wants the wrong person to make life-and-death decisions because of a dead battery.

Wishes Granted

In addition to the healthcare proxy, Ferriter recommends clients prepare a living will as well.

“You go down the list and check off or initial each line — you do not wish to be resuscitated, you do not wish to be artificially fed, you do not wish to be artificially kept alive,” he noted.

However, the living will in itself is not a binding legal document in Massachusetts (however, it is in Connecticut and some other states). So why prepare one? Perhaps its greatest value comes in the guidance it gives one’s doctors and healthcare proxy.

“I find it’s a good guide for your conversation with your healthcare proxy and with your family. You go down the list and say, ‘here’s what I want, here’s what I don’t want, and even though this is not legally binding in Massachusetts, I just want you to know so that, if you are making the decisions for me, you’ll have my answers ahead of time.’”

And for those who worry about the finality of the living will, Ferriter pointed out that language on the form states that the living will is to be followed only if there’s no reasonable chance of recovery.

“I know these questions are kind of scary. If you’re 55 years old and it says ‘do not resuscitate,’ you’re afraid that if you walk out my front door and have a heart attack, they’re not going to resuscitate you. But they would, because it says ‘only if there’s no reasonable chance of recovery.’ So if you’re 105 years old in a nursing home and your heart stops, they’re probably not going to paddle you. But if you’re 55 years old and you have a heart attack outside a lawyer’s office, I’m sure they would absolutely paddle you, and wouldn’t even ask anybody.”

A third document related to critical-care decisions that has emerged in recent years is the MOLST document, which stands for medical orders for life-sustaining treatment. And, unlike a living will, MOLST is absolutely a binding document.

“MOLST differs from the most common type of palliative-care planning — advanced directive orders, which usually include a living will or other expression of wishes. Those orders generally designate a surrogate decision maker, or healthcare proxy, to act on behalf of an incapacitated patient,” the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) notes.

“Living-will instructions — when presented by a healthcare proxy — are generally recognized as evidence of patient preferences, but are not recognized by Massachusetts law. In contrast, a completed MOLST form travels with the patient at all times, may be faxed or reproduced, and is an official part of a patient’s medical record.”

Ferriter noted that the MOLST isn’t technically a legal document, but a medical one.

“We don’t do them here in the office because the medical orders are done with a physician or a medical professional. Those are your orders, and those are binding in Massachusetts because you’ve had advice from a physician.”

But MOLST is not typically a document prepared absent an impending, planned event, like, say, open-heart surgery.

“Typically, they happen if you are going into the hospital for some kind of serious procedure. My experience is that physicians don’t offer to do medical orders with their patients, but if you ask for them, they’ll do them, and if you’re going in for a serious operation, they may bring it up at that point,” Ferriter said. “You can’t sit at home and fill out medical orders by yourself because you’re not making an informed decision. And it’s usually your primary-care doctor who does it — someone who knows you well — even though the surgeon is doing the surgery.”

MOLST covers resuscitation efforts, breathing tubes and ventilation, artificial nutrition and hydration, and dialysis, the MMS notes.

“MOLST has priority over the healthcare proxy, because it’s your actual wish, as if you had shaken your head ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at the time of the actual procedure,” Ferriter said.

Don’t Put It Off

While many people will never have need of a MOLST, he went on, it’s hard to argue that they won’t need the other documents at some point — and the sooner, the better.

“We tell clients that as soon as you get married or buy a house, have a child, or even graduate from college, it’s not that expensive to do a will, power of attorney, healthcare proxy, and living will,” he noted. “For a single person, it’s less than $300, and for a couple, it’s less than $500.

“A lot of times, older couples will come in upon retirement,” he went on. “Most of the time, they had a previous version of these documents, but things have changed. They had it done in their 30s and 40s, now they’re in their 60s, so we update those.”

Individuals or couples with children will also want to include guardianship documents and perhaps establish a trust in case neither is around to care for them.

“When I have people in their 30s and 40s come in, it’s usually because one of the parents has passed away, or maybe a grandparent has passed away. There’s usually something that pushes them to come in,” Ferriter said, adding that, in truth, it shouldn’t take a big life change to start thinking about who will make important decisions in case crisis strikes.

When folks come in to get their estate plan done, I tell them, ‘you should sit around a dining room table with your family and have a frank coversation about what you want. It can be a difficult conversation, but it’s always better to have it at the dining-room table than around a hospital bed.’”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

Hazy Picture

Just as the business and legal communities in Massachusetts were learning to deal with medical marijuana, voters kicked the door wide open in 2016 by legalizing the drug for recreational use, too. That created a tangle of issues to work out, from how to handle employees that use the drug outside work to launching a cannabis business in the face of federal law that calls the practice illegal. Some of those issues have been sorted out, but others still hang in the air, like so much smoke.

When it comes to the relationship between employers and medical marijuana, few names are as important as Cristina Barbuto.

She’s the woman who filed suit against her employer, Advantage Sales and Marketing, three years ago after being fired — after her first day on the job — for using marijuana outside of work. She was required to take a drug test, and told the employer before the test that she would fail, because she used marijuana at home to help manage her Crohn’s disease.

A supervisor said that wouldn’t be a problem, but Barbuto was dismissed from the job the next day when the drug test came back positive for marijuana. The reason? While medical marijuana was legal in Massachusetts at the time, it was still illegal under federal law.

Her complaint eventually made its way to the state Supreme Judicial Court, which affirmed her right to use medical marijuana outside work on the grounds that forbidding her — as long as she wasn’t impaired on the job — constituted disability discrimination.

“If somebody qualifies as a disabled person and they’re seeking an accommodation, the employer has an obligation to engage in a process with that person and provide a reasonable accommodation that allows them to do their job, unless they can show the accommodation would cause them an undue hardship,” said Pat Rapinchuk, a partner with Robinson Donovan in Springfield. She noted that a subsequent suit by a man denied access to a homeless shelter for his medical-marijuana use came down on the plaintiff’s side as well, on the same grounds as the Barbuto suit.

“But then comes the recreational piece,” she said. “And that’s completely different.”

Indeed, with recreational use of marijuana having been legal in Massachusetts for a much shorter time, case law has not established similar rights for such users, she noted.

“Right now, I would say the recreational marijuana user does not have the protections a medical user does,” Rapinchuk said. “You start with just the basic premise of no substances in the workplace — no alcohol, no drugs. That part’s easy. But what if I used it last week on my own time and my employer drug tests for whatever reason, and I test positive, and I don’t have a medical reason for it? Can the employer either decline to hire me or even terminate me? And I think the short answer right now is ‘yes.’”

In one case that has garnered some media attention, Bernadette Coughlin, a food service supervisor for Sodexo, was fired after being injured in a fall at work. The company required a drug test following an injury, and she tested positive for marijuana, which she admitted she used recreationally at home a few days before. She was fired, and is fighting the termination in court — but might have an uphill battle, Rapinchuk said, because she doesn’t have the disability claim that Barbuto did.

From left, Bulkley Richardson attorneys Scott Foster, Sarah Willey, Mary Jo Kennedy, Ryan Barry, and Kathy Bernardo take part in a recent cannabis panel.

From left, Bulkley Richardson attorneys Scott Foster, Sarah Willey, Mary Jo Kennedy, Ryan Barry, and Kathy Bernardo take part in a recent cannabis panel.

“You’d have to find another route to challenge that,” she added, noting that one possibility is challenging the drug test itself as an invasion of privacy. “Some courts have found such a test to be invasive, and a violation of an employee’s privacy. If they found out otherwise, like through social media, that might pass muster.”

If all this sounds amorphous, it is, Rapinchuk said, and is a field of employment law that is definitely evolving. Drug tests can detect THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana, for days, even weeks after someone smokes or ingests it, and no tests exist to gauge whether the user is currently impaired. That leaves employers with plenty of hard questions about how they want to handle this new frontier.

Growing Concerns

But that’s not the only area of the law currently evolving in the face of legalized marijuana.

Perhaps the most significant wrinkle in marijuana law, Scott Foster says, is that it’s legal in the state but illegal federally. That drives many of the odd situations people find themselves in when they start a marijuana business, and it’s why Bulkley Richardson, where Foster works as a partner, recently launched a dedicated cannabis practice.

As one example, a marijuana business cannot use most banks.

“It’s considered to be money laundering on a federal level to run marijuana money through the banking system,” he explained. “You can’t use an ATM, you can’t use a credit card, and you can’t take the proceeds from the sale of marijuana and deposit it at a bank if they know it’s marijuana funds.”

There are two exceptions: Centurion Bank and Gardner Federal Credit Union. “We literally have marijuana clients driving $50,000 to $100,000 in cash to Boston in armored cars to deposit it at [Centurion],” Foster said, adding that the bank’s fees for the service are astronomical. “The bank is basically taking a business risk. I don’t know if it’s a good risk or bad risk, but no other big banks are taking the chance because the penalties would be devastating to them. Centurion is willing to take the chance.”

Meanwhile, people buying real estate as part of a new business typically finance 60% to 80% of the cost, he noted, but banks can’t lend for this purpose any more than they can take deposits.

“So what you end up with is a lot of very wealthy people playing in this space because you can’t finance it. You’ve got millions and millions of dollars being poured into these ventures that are growing, and nobody hears about it because it’s all private financing. That’s another area where it looks like a normal business until you ask, ‘where’s the money coming from?’”

Then there’s intellectual-property law. Most new businesses federally register their trademarks, but that’s not available for any branding involving marijuana products. “You can come up with this great brand name, this great logo, and you can’t protect it federally,” Foster said. “So now we’re going back to the state system, which does exist in Massachusetts. There is a way to protect trademarks at the state level that, until the marijuana business, nobody had done for 100 years.”

As he and Kathy Bernardo, another Bulkley partner on the cannabis team, spoke with BusinessWest, it became clear why the new practice group includes lawyers that specialize in myriad disciplines.

The disconnect between state and federal law shows up in taxation as well. Foster brought up a quirky section of the tax code that came about after the IRS went after a cocaine dealer in the Midwest for tax evasion, so the dealer filed a tax return that wrote off expenses like security and armored cars. The IRS balked, but a tax court sided with the man.

Pat Rapinchuk says some employers might avoid drug testing for marijuana

Pat Rapinchuk says some employers might avoid drug testing for marijuana as not to rule out some strong potential employees.

“Congress later added section 280E to the tax code, which essentially says if your business is in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of a federally controlled substance, you’re not allowed to take normal business deductions,” Foster explained, and then broke down an example of how that may affect a cannabis-related enterprise.

Say a business makes $100,000 and, after spending $40,000 on product, $20,000 on employees, and $10,000 on rent, claims a profit of $30,000. The owner then pays taxes on that figure; if he owes, say, 40%, he makes a profit of $18,000. But if he’s not allowed to write off expenses, suddenly he’s paying 40% on a much larger chunk of that $100,000 — and taking home much less in profit.

“The effective tax rate is two to three times the size of a normal business. And even though it’s against the law federally, you still have to pay taxes,” Foster noted. “It’s another trap for the unwary.”

Joint Enterprises

From a real-estate point a view, issues like zoning laws, special permitting laws, and host-agreement laws also come into play, Bernardo said.

“Municipalities have held the cards because they have to either accept a marijuana zoning district, or they have the ability to shelve it until we actually get the regulations out for recreational use, but that’s coming to an end, so now they have to decide whether or not they’re going to allow this in town or not.”

That depends largely on how the vote went in that particular community when the ballot question legalizing recreational pot in Massachusetts passed last November. In many Western Mass. communities where the vote was in favor, town officials have been busy putting together zoning bylaws for a marijuana district.

Kathy Bernardo

Kathy Bernardo

“Municipalities have held the cards because they have to either accept a marijuana zoning district, or they have the ability to shelve it until we actually get the regulations out for recreational use, but that’s coming to an end, so now they have to decide whether or not they’re going to allow this in town or not.”

“The people of town agreed that’s going to be there, and they’ve discussed how and where,” she explained. “A lot of towns put a moratorium on it — which was fine, they were allowed to do that, but they were only allowed to do it for a year, and now they have to come to a determination whether or not they’re actually going to have that zoning district in their municipality. But that is all steered by what the vote was in their town.”

If the town’s voters favored legalizing recreational marijuana, Foster added, it puts them in a different approval process locally than if voters were against it as a group.

“If they were against it, the city council or select board has no authority unless and until they do another ballot initiative, another referendum at the town level, to approve it,” he explained. “I don’t think anybody’s really looking, from a business point of view, to go into those towns. It’s just too much of a hurdle.”

Once permitting and zoning procedures are established, business owners have to work with the town on compliance issues, Bernardo said, “and there are a lot of intricacies that you don’t usually have with a lot of other businesses. With this, it’s completely different.”

Bulkley Richardson’s cannabis group has represented outfits ranging from farmers looking to cultivate the plant to people looking to profit on the retail end, she noted, and the cultivation aspect is one that has flown under the radar, yet is important to this region.

“A lot of the things you see in the news are about the pot shops,” Foster said. “What’s not getting picked up as much is the fact that, in order to sell something, you have to first grow it, and it’s a lot cheaper to grow things in Western Mass. than it is in Eastern Mass., in terms of the cost of the land.”

The next step is the extraction and production process, he went on, and that’s an entirely different type of business with its own nuances. “It’s not just selling the leaves, it’s extracting the THC and then putting it in something — oil, an edible, a cream, or something else. Then those products are sold. So you’ve got farming, you’ve got manufacturing, and you’ve got retail. And the farming and the manufacturing are actually happening more around here.”

Foster said his firm launched the cannabis practice because the attorneys were already working with clients in the area on these various enterprises.

“We tell people, ‘here are the ways that a marijuana business is 90% exactly like any other business, and here is the 10% where it’s just wacky different, and these are the things you have to think about.’ But it’s still real estate. It’s raising money. It’s hiring people. It’s all the regular laws which you otherwise have to comply with.”

What is certain, Bernardo added, is that marijuana is now a fast-growing (no pun intended) part of the Massachusetts landscape, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

“It’s here,” she said, “and we have to learn how to deal with it rationally, because people are getting into these businesses, and there are so many balls up in the air when they get a business running.”

Smoke Signals

But while those cannabis-related businesses continue to pop up, employers at … well, pretty much every other type of company must grapple with their employees’ use of the drug outside the workplace.

“There are no tests to determine if someone is impaired by marijuana. There’s no sanctioned way to measure the amount of THC in someone’s system,” Foster said, adding that one reason is that federal grants — here’s that separation of state and federal law again — are not available to research these tests.

“You have a whole system that works on the alcohol side that makes sense — the tests are developed, and the laws are passed that go to those tests,” he said. “None of that exists yet on the marijuana side. The research is happening, but it’s happening with private money, which means it’s subject to more influence and bias.”

Bernardo said a lot of companies that used to test for marijuana are deciding not to do so going forward, due to the uncertainty. “They’ve just eliminated it completely, unless you’re a driver or it’s a safety issue. They don’t even want to deal with it.”

That makes sense in a job market with historically low unemployment, Rapinchuk said, when aggressively testing for THC might make it tougher to compete for talent.

“Employers are trying to hire a good workforce, and they’re going to be ruling out an awful lot of potential employees if they’re going to take that position, so it is possible some employers will decide not to test for that,” she told BusinessWest.

No matter what their stance, she added, it’s probably wise for employers to review their drug-testing policy to make sure it’s clear and consistent, and doesn’t need to be modified in light of the change in the law.

Medical marijuana remains an easier field to navigate than recreational use, she stressed, citing as a recent example a young man who had a medical marijuana card and applied for a position at a local company.

“They told him, ‘we drug test everybody, not just health or safety positions,’ and he disclosed his use to the employer through the testing agency and brought his card. Sure enough, he tested positive, and there was questioning — how often he used it, who’s his doctor, what’s the prescription — but once all those questions were answered, they hired him. So they followed the advice of the Barbuto court in that case.”

Whether dealing with marijuana use by employees or actually launching a cannabis business, Foster said, this is definitely new territory for lawyers, thanks to that gaping disconnect between state and federal law.

“As a licensed group, one of our rules is that can’t help your clients commit a crime,” he said. While the Massachusetts Ethics Commission passed a ruling that allows lawyers in the Bay State to engage in such activity because it’s permitted on a state level, he added, “you still have to tell clients they’re engaging in something that is illegal at a federal level. The nuances are deep and subtle.”

“And can cause a lot of trouble,” Bernardo quickly added.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law

A Clear Roadmap

By Kimberly A. Klimczuk

Kimberly A. Klimczuk

Kimberly A. Klimczuk

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is a federal law that protects employees’ right to engage in concerted activity. Although the NLRA is commonly thought of as protecting employees’ right to form a labor union, which it does, it also protects the right to engage in other concerted activities that may have nothing to do with unions. ‘Concerted activity’ is a broad term and refers to any action employees take together for their mutual aid and protection, such as when two employees go together to HR to complain about their supervisor, or when an individual employee speaks on behalf of himself and his coworkers to demand they all get a raise. The NLRA applies to all employers, whether unionized or not.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is the federal agency responsible for enforcing the NLRA. It has long held that employer policies or rules that interfere with the right to engage in concerted activity violate the NLRA. In 2004, however, the board, in its Lutheran Heritage decision, expanded the NLRA’s protections by ruling that work rules not intended or used to target concerted activity would nevertheless be unlawful if an employee could “reasonably construe” the rule to prohibit concerted activity.

Under the Obama administration, the board relied on the ‘reasonably construe’ standard to declare unlawful a number of commonplace rules. For example, the NLRB found that policies asking employees to refrain from negative comments about co-workers and managers and asking employees to represent the company in the community in a positive and professional manner were unlawful because employees could interpret the policies to restrict their rights to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. At the same time, the board held similar rules to be lawful, such as a rule prohibiting “disloyal, disruptive, competitive, or damaging conduct.”

These decisions created confusion for employers. Without a clear standard as to when a rule would be considered legal, employers wondered whether common-sense rules that had long been part of company culture would be declared illegal by the NLRB.

NLRB members are appointed by the president, and, unsurprisingly, the members appointed by President Trump have been friendlier to employers. Late last year, the NLRB issued a decision (The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154) that established a new standard for evaluating the legality of employer rules. Under this new standard, the board will weigh the interests of the employer in maintaining work rules against the impact of those rules on employees’ right to engage in concerted activity.

In its decision, the board noted that, “over the past decade and one-half, the board has invalidated a large number of common-sense rules and requirements that most people would reasonably expect every employer to maintain.”

The board’s general counsel also issued a memorandum this past June that provides further guidance to employers on how handbook rules should be interpreted under the new standard. The general counsel instructed that the board’s regional directors and other officers should not be interpreting general work rules “as banning all activity that could conceivably be included.” He then went on to group common handbook policies into three categories:

1. Rules That Are Generally Lawful to Maintain

• Civility rules;

• Rules prohibiting photography or recording;

• Insubordination, non-cooperation, and refusal-to-cooperate rules;

• Disruptive-behavior rules;

• Rules protecting disclosure of confidential, proprietary, and customer information (as long as they don’t reference wage or employee information);

• Rules against defamation or misrepresentation;

• Rules prohibiting use of employer’s logos or intellectual property;

• Rules requiring authorization to speak on behalf of the company; and

• Rules banning disloyalty, nepotism, or self-enrichment.

2. Rules That Warrant Individual Scrutiny

These rules are not clearly lawful or unlawful. Instead, the lawfulness of these types of rules must be determined on a case-by-case basis:

• Broad conflict-of-interest rules;

• Confidentiality rules that encompass ‘employer business’ or employee information;

• Rules preventing disparagement of the employer;

• Rules prohibiting or regulating use of the employer’s name (as opposed to employer’s logo or trademark);

• Rules restricting employees from generally speaking to the media;

• Rules banning off-duty conduct that would harm the employer; and

• Rules prohibiting making false statements (as opposed to defamation).

3. Rules That Are Unlawful to Have

• Confidentiality rules regarding wages, benefits, or working conditions; and

• Rules that prohibit joining outside organizations or that require employees to refrain from voting on matters concerning the employer.

Bottom Line

The memo is good news for employers because it provides a clear roadmap to evaluate the legality of employer handbook rules and reverts to a more common-sense standard. It also declares several policies lawful that had been declared unlawful by the prior board.

Employers that shied away from enacting handbook policies like no camera recording or respect/civility rules, or changed handbook policies to ensure compliance with the Obama board’s crackdown, may want to revisit those decisions.

Kimberly Klimczuk is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler Abbott. An employment-law attorney, she specializes in labor relations and collective bargaining; employment litigation; employee handbooks, personnel policies, and practices; and other labor and employment matters; [email protected]; (413) 737-4753.

Law

Degrees of Improvement

By Kayla Ebner

Claudia Quintero was inspired by a lawyer who helped her — and now gets to do the same for others.

Claudia Quintero was inspired by a lawyer who helped her — and now gets to do the same for others.

In the years immediately following the Great Recession, many law-school graduates were challenged to find employment, let alone their dream job. But the picture is gradually improving, as evidenced by the experiences of recent graduates of Western New England University School of Law.

Claudia Quintero calls it her dream job.

That’s how she characterized the position she landed as a migrant/farmworkers staff attorney at the Central West Justice Center in downtown Springfield.

It’s a dream job, because she’s doing essentially what she always wanted to do and what she went to Western New England University School of Law to do — help people, but especially in the same way that an attorney helped her when she was 16 years old.

She met an attorney through a legal-services program in Los Angeles, where she grew up, who helped her apply for and obtain her permanent residence in just five short months. Quintero was always impressed and grateful for her own attorney’s diligence, and thought, “I want to be just like her.”

Like she said, hers is a dream job.

And those have been quite hard for law-school graduates to attain in recent years. In fact, for some time after the Great Recession, taking any job became the goal and, for most, a hard reality.

But the situation is improving, said Laura Fisher, director of Law Career Services at WNEU Law. She used the phrase “pretty steady” to describe the current climate, and while that’s a long way from ‘robust,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘solid,’ or other, more positive terms, it represents an improved picture and a better forecast for recent graduates.

“When the economy really took a hit in 2008 and 2009, every sector of the economy was disrupted, including law schools and law graduates,” said Fisher, adding, however, that “we’re seeing a rebound now.”

She offered some numbers to back up those words.

At WNEU Law, the class of 2017 graduated 101 students. According to data from the American Bar Assoc. (ABA), 43 of those graduates were employed at long-term, full-time, bar-passage-required jobs 10 months after graduation. Nineteen graduates were employed at what are known as ‘JD advantage jobs,’ meaning passage of the bar exam is not required, but that having a juris doctor degree provides a significant advantage.

Of the 101 graduates, eight were unemployed and seeking. Others were employed at both professional and non-professional positions or seeking a graduate degree full-time.

“The 10-month report for the class of 2017 indicates that the percentage of students with full-time, bar-passage-required, JD advantage, and other professional positions is 71.2%,” said Fisher. “This figure is approximately equivalent to, but slightly elevated, over the previous year, which was 68.9%.”

Laura Fisher

Laura Fisher

The ABA gathered that, nationally, 75.3% of the class of 2017 had long-term, full-time jobs requiring or preferring JDs. This is an increase from the previous year’s sum of 72.6%. However, the ABA credits the higher percentage of employment to “an approximately 6% decrease in the size of graduating classes at law schools nationally” (more on that later).

“When the economy really took a hit in 2008 and 2009, every sector of the economy was disrupted, including law schools and law graduates. We’re seeing a rebound now.”

Slicing through all those numbers, Fisher sees an improving job market and more opportunities for the school’s graduates — in the field of law, but also other sectors where a law degree is quite valuable, and these sentiments are reflected in the experiences of some of WNEU’s recent graduates, like Quintero.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with Fisher and several recent graduates to get some barometric readings on the job market and where a law degree can take someone these days. For many, their landing spot was, in fact, a dream job.

Cases in Point

In 2013, the graduating class at WNEU included 133 students, said Fisher, summoning more numbers to get her points across. At that time, 49 students were employed at long-term, full-time, bar-passage-required jobs.

Although the class size at WNEU has decreased since then, Fisher said this is entirely by design. She noted that WNEU, along with other schools, are keeping the class sizes at “a reasonable size that’s reflective of what the market entails.”

Daniel carey

Daniel carey

Despite smaller class sizes, Fisher believes these numbers do not reflect a lack of opportunity in the job market.

“Although the market out there still feels pretty flat and we’re being careful about the number of law students we’re producing, I still feel like there’s plenty of opportunity out there,” she said. “Our alumni go on to do wonderful things.”

“Law school to me seemed like a natural way to really combine a lot of my interests and abilities. I’ve always kind of viewed the law as a way to help people.”

And she used that phrase to describe work both inside and outside the courtroom.

Daniel Carey, assistant district attorney (ADA) at the Northwestern District Attorney’s office and WNEU Law class of 2017 graduate, fits into both categories.

“Law school to me seemed like a natural way to really combine a lot of my interests and abilities,” said Carey. “I’ve always kind of viewed the law as a way to help people.”

Beginning law school in 2013, he was looking for a way to get his foot in the door, so he applied for a job at the DA’s office. He landed one as district court administrator, working behind-the-scenes to help the ADAs. He’s been there ever since, but has continued to move his way up. Since starting his role as ADA, Carey has served as director of the Drug Diversion and Treatment program for two years, a new initiative he helped launch for people struggling with addiction. It assists with treatment, rather than putting people through traditional criminal-justice prosecution.

In addition to his role at the DA’s office, he also served on the Easthampton School Committee and was elected to the Easthampton City Council. And he’s currently running for state representative — a significant change in career-path course from his original plan of being a high-school English teacher.

He is not the only one who was initially unaware of where a law career could take them. Nicole Mule, another member of WNEU’s class of 2017, did not know she was interested in law until she took classes during her time as an undergrad.

Nicole Mule

Nicole Mule

With a major in criminal justice and a minor in communication at the University of New Haven, she was required to take several law courses that were taught by lawyers. She mentioned that the classes were taught very much like they are in law school.

“It made me realize why advocating for businesses was so important. As an attorney, I can have a significant effect on my clients’ businesses for their benefit.”

“After that, I was hooked,” she told BusinessWest.

When in law school, she noted that she did not put all her focus into one practice area, and eventually gravitated toward employment law. In 2016, she accepted a summer position with the firm Robinson+Cole, which has offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and several other states, and was offered a job.

She’s currently an associate in the firm’s labor and employment group, representing both public-and private-sector employers in a variety of labor and employment matters.

Both of her jobs during law school helped her realize her love for this profession.

“It made me realize why advocating for businesses was so important,” said Mule. “As an attorney, I can have a significant effect on my clients’ businesses for their benefit.”

Firm Resolve

Both Carey and Mule graduated with law degrees but have gone on to completely different professions. This wide variety of career options is another reason why the job market for law school graduates is doing better than it was 10 years ago.

For Caroline Montiel, another 2017 graduate from WNEU, combining two of her biggest passions was important, and she was able to find the perfect fit.

She completed her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering, and after receiving some inspiration from her host dad while studying abroad in Spain, she decided to get her law degree. However, Montiel had a different experience than some of her peers while applying for jobs during law school.

“I was applying every week, at least one job a day,” said Montiel, adding that she applied to five jobs a weekend. For every 50 applications she filled out, she hoped to get one interview.

After she passed the bar exam, she began her career with a judicial clerkship in Connecticut Superior Court. In mid-June of this year, she began her new job as patent examiner at the Patent Trademark Office in Washington, D.C., working in the field she fell in love with during law school.

Much like Carey, Montiel, and Mule, Quintero completed several internships during her time at law school, including one with the people who helped her obtain permanent residency. She began applying for jobs during her third year of law school, and ended up sending in applications to about 10 jobs. Quintero’s strategy was simple: apply to places where she knew she would be happy.

“I was very picky about the kinds of jobs that I applied to just because I have a very specific thing that I want,” said Quintero. “I don’t like to divert energy or waste time doing things that I know I’m not going be happy doing.”

She got about three offers and ended up at Central West Justice Center. She said she was nervous that she wouldn’t get a job she wanted or that made her happy, but having a strong network was an important factor. Though it was a fairly seamless process for her, she noted that it took some of her friends much longer to find jobs.

“I was very cognizant that I was lucky,” she said.

There are certainly benefits to knowing what you want, and Montiel noted that having an idea of the type of career one wants to go into before starting law school can be very helpful.

Overall, Fisher said she sees that JD-advantage jobs are rising in popularity, both nationally and at WNEU. She noted that a lot more people are using their degrees for JD-advantage jobs in positions like higher education, data privacy, and security.

The JD-advantage sector is a route that students are becoming more interested in, she went on, not because there are fewer jobs elsewhere, but because they are interested in trying alternative paths.

Fisher mentioned that some students choose to opt out of the traditional path at a law firm because it can be stressful, and they want a good work/life balance.

Market Forces

Fisher wouldn’t say the market is booming for law-school grads — again, ‘steady’ was the word she chose, and she chose it carefully — but she does believe there are many opportunities out there in the legal job market because of how valuable it is to have a law degree in countless professions.

“A law degree is valuable far above and beyond how it can help you practice law,” said Fisher. “There’s a lot more you can do with it. Going through the process of learning how to think about laws and regulation and risk, I think all of that just lends itself to creating an employee who’s very aware, very mindful, and very responsible.”

For the graduates, that means a better chance of landing a dream job.

Law

A Grand Bargain for Business?

By John S. Gannon, Esq. & Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Last month, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the so-called ‘grand bargain’ bill. The new law, which was signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on June 28, will require all private employers — regardless of size — to provide paid family and medical leave to employees. The law also gradually raises the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Here is what businesses need to know about this important legislation.

Paid Family and Medical Leave

 

John S. Gannon, Esq

John S. Gannon, Esq

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Amelia J. Holstrom, Esq.

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2021, Massachusetts employees will be eligible for what we believe to be the most generous paid family and medical leave (PFML) program in the nation. Employees will be able take up to 20 weeks of PFML per year for their own medical condition. They will also be entitled to 12 weeks of PFML to care for a family member suffering from a health condition. The definition of a ‘family member’ is very broad and includes not only a child, spouse, or parent, but also in-laws, domestic partners, grandchildren, grandparents, and siblings.

The new law also allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child. Employees will receive a percentage of their existing pay, up to a maximum of $850 per week, while out on leave. Businesses are required to continue to provide for and contribute to the employee’s health-insurance benefits while employees are out. PFML may be taken, in most cases, intermittently or on a reduced-schedule basis, as well as in a continuous block.

Returning from Leave

Employees who take PFML are entitled to their same job back when they are ready to return to work, or an equivalent position with the same status, pay, benefits, and seniority. Further, employers may not retaliate against employees for taking PFML. Significantly, any negative change in the terms or conditions of employment that occurs during a leave, or within six months after an employee returns from leave, is presumed to be unlawful retaliation. 

Stated another way, if an employee is let go while out on PFML, or within six months of returning from leave, the employer is presumed to have retaliated against the employee. Employers can rebut the presumption only by clear and convincing evidence of an independent justification for the change. This is a high standard that requires the employer to show that its business-based justification for the negative change is substantially supported by the evidence.

Employers found liable may be ordered to reinstate the employee and to pay three times the employee’s lost wages and benefits, plus reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

Who Will Administer and Pay for the Program?

A new state agency, the Department of Family and Medical Leave, will be created to administer the program. PFML will be funded by mandatory employer contributions, at a rate of 0.63% of the employee’s wages. That rate is subject to increase annually.

Employers may require employees to pay a percentage of the contribution, and employers with fewer than 25 employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the contributions. Those contributions will begin on July 1, 2019. Employers will be able to opt out of the program by meeting their obligations under a private plan, such as through an approved insurer or self-insured policy. The private plan must provide the same rights, protection, and benefits as required by the state law.

Minimum-wage Increase

The law also increases the minimum wage for tipped employees from $3.75 per hour to $6.75 per hour over a five-year period and from $11 per hour to $15 hour for all other employees over the same period.

Next Steps for Businesses

Employers paying employees less than $12 per hour ($4.35 for tipped workers) will need to plan now for increased wages in a few months. As for PFML, although the leave benefits are a few years away, employers need to think about how they will handle what we expect to be a sharp increase in employee absenteeism.

Typically, the greatest deterrent against missed work is lack of pay. This will not be the case come January 2021. Employees working for businesses large and small will be able to take PFML for almost one-quarter of the year, and in some cases more than that. Businesses need to start thinking now about how they will plan for those extended absences. They also need to put effective policies in place to curb abuse of state-mandated paid leave.

John S. Gannon and Amelia J. Holstrom are attorneys with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., one of the largest law firms in New England exclusively practicing labor and employment law. Gannon specializes in employment litigation and personnel policies and practices, wage-and-hour compliance, and non-compete and trade-secrets litigation; (413) 737-4753; [email protected] Holstrom specializes in employment litigation, including defending employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation harassment, and wrongful termination, as well as wage and hour lawsuits. She also frequently provides counsel to management on taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of legal liability; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Law

Be Careful with Your ‘Wake Word’

By Andrew Levchuk and Lauren Ostberg

Andrew Levchuk

Andrew Levchuk

Lauren Ostberg

Lauren Ostberg

Everyone is now familiar with Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant, virtual personal assistants (VPAs) marketed by Amazon, Apple, and Google, respectively.

VPAs contain voice-activated applications that promise users a chipper, responsive intelligence for dealing with everyday tasks like phone calls, calendar reminders, coffee orders, streaming entertainment, and list making. In the courtroom, however, law enforcement, digital privacy activists, technology companies — and, yes, Alexa herself — have been exploring the First and Fourth Amendment implications of VPAs’ eclectic résumé.

While VPAs are working for their users, they are also working for Google, Amazon, Apple, and other companies interested in consumers’ habits, interests, and data. Alexa, for example, is regularly ‘listening’ and scanning for her ‘wake word.’ When she hears it, she records the vocal input and her response, then uploads that data to a server in the cloud, effectively reporting it up the chain to her digital overlords at Amazon.

According to the Alexa terms of use, Amazon retains these ‘Alexa interactions,’ which include music playlists and shopping lists, in addition to ‘vocal input,’ for an unspecified amount of time. This is allegedly to provide, personalize, and improve those services, but it is also undoubtedly to provide those technology companies with a valuable, veritable harvest of data.

Looking to access that data, law enforcement is now attempting to identify or eliminate suspects in its investigations with information created by VPAs.

First Amendment

These competing interests came to a head in State v. Bates, a murder case filed in the Arkansas Circuit Court. One witness interviewed during the investigation mentioned hearing music playing during the night in question. Police pursued warrants for multiple digital devices, including the suspect’s Amazon Echo, which played music through a voice command to Alexa.

Amazon moved to quash the subpoena — it did not want Alexa’s recordings, and, with them, its proprietary data — on the public record, nor would it have been good for Alexa’s public image if she disclosed information her user believed to be private.

Amazon invoked the First Amendment, which prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech,” in its defense. First, Amazon argued that users’ requests to Alexa were protected speech because they were exercises of a right to anonymously browse and purchase expressive materials — in this case, audio books, music, and podcasts — without fear of government discovery.

Amazon also argued that Alexa’s response “constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech” and goes on to say that “Alexa’s decision about what information to include in its response, like the ranking of search results, is ‘constitutionally protected opinion.’” It bears repeating that Amazon argued that “Alexa’s decision” — i.e. the decision of a VPA — was “constitutionally protected opinion.”

Alexa was not only being asked to testify against her user; now, she was being imbued with her own perspective. The extent to which the result of proprietary algorithms is ‘speech,’ and the extent to which such speech may be protected, is uncharted legal ground.

The court did not need to address these open questions about the First Amendment’s relationship to a VPA’s speech, because Bates eventually consented to have the recordings released, and the prosecutor dismissed the case (“Alexa, share my alibi”).

Fourth Amendment

Also not addressed by the court, but relevant when considering your VPA’s loyalty, is the ‘third-party doctrine,’ which essentially holds that a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy for Fourth Amendment purposes in information voluntarily shared with a third party, such as an Internet service provider or cell-phone provider. Anything communicated to your VPA is arguably not covered by the Fourth Amendment, because by communicating with your VPA, you have voluntarily shared information with the VPA’s digital overlord (e.g., Amazon in the case of Alexa).

Given the breadth of the third-party doctrine in the digital age, it is now under assault in the courts. The Supreme Court recently held in United States v. Carpenter that access to a person’s historical cell-site records — geographic records of the particular cell towers a person’s phone has been near — is a Fourth Amendment search because it violates the person’s “legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements.” We should expect the attacks on the third-party doctrine to continue.

More generally, electronic evidence of the sort generated by VPAs and other devices is becoming a focus of law-enforcement investigations. For example, a warrant issued in 2017 in Minnesota sought personal details of anyone searching for a victim’s name in Google. Internet searches can be conducted on VPAs, so VPA users will likely be subject to similar warrants in the future.

Whether you are slipping Siri secrets about your business practices, asking Alexa to order cleaning supplies, or using any other various VPAs to verify an address, be aware that your assistant — that chipper, algorithm-driven intelligence — serves multiple masters.

Perhaps when we use the wake word “Alexa,” Alexa should respond with, “you have a right to remain silent.”

Andrew Levchuk is counsel and Lauren Ostberg is an associate at the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson. Levchuk is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Justice and now focuses on litigation and leading the cybersecurity practice. Ostberg’s practice consists of cybersecurity, commercial litigation, and intellectual-property matters.

Law Sections

Not an Arbitrary Decision

John Greaney, who was forced to retire from the state Supreme Judicial Court as he turned 70, is definitely not the retiring type.

John Greaney, who was forced to retire from the state Supreme Judicial Court as he turned 70, is definitely not the retiring type.

John Greaney spent more than four decades behind various benches — everything from this region’s first Housing Court to the state Supreme Judicial Court. Desiring to take advantage of all that judicial experience, the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson, which Greaney joined in 2016, has created an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) group, which he will lead. As arbitration and mediation become ever-more popular methods for resolving disputes, the firm sees this group as a solid business venture.

Peter Barry says it’s a rare opportunity when a small (at least in comparison to outfits in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) Western Mass. law firm can add a former Massachusetts Supreme Court justice to its team.

Rarer still is an opportunity to add a jurist with the breadth and experience brought to the table by John Greaney, who retired from the SJC in 2008, capping nearly 35 years on various benches, starting with the Hampden County Housing Court (which he started) and time on the Superior Court and then the Appeals Court (more on that remarkable career later).

So it’s incumbent on a firm granted that opportunity to take full advantage of it, said Barry, managing partner with Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson, adding that the firm is doing just that by launching an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) group.

This is a move that not only capitalizes on Greaney’s deep reservoir of experience, but serves as a logical — and, yes, opportunistic — response to an ongoing trend within the law to settle matters not in the courtroom, but outside it, through mediation and arbitration.

These are routes that are generally quicker and less expensive than litigation, said Greaney, adding that ADR, as it’s known, has become increasingly popular in realms ranging from healthcare to construction; education to sports. Yes, some of Major League Baseball’s biggest rising stars have their salaries determined by arbitrators (after negotiation fails).

Greaney and Barry believe the firm could well become an attractive alternative (there’s that word again) amid a growing number of options for businesses, institutions, and sports leagues desiring to resolve matters through ADR, and for several reasons.

Chief among them is the expertise it offers — from not only Greaney, but also Barry, who has been involved in the mediation and arbitration of several complex matters, and the other lawyers at the firm.

But that expertise also comes at a sticker price well below what Boston and Harford firms would charge, an important consideration, said Barry.

“We’re looking to be selective and get appropriate cases from Northern Connecticut, Central Massachusetts, and the Boston area,” he said, noting that the firm already serves several clients in those markets, in part because of lower hourly rates.

Greaney, who will be teaming with Barry to handle many of the ADR matters that come to the firm, agreed, and said the timing and a host of factors were right for the launch of this venture.

“It’s a natural progression for this law firm to begin an ADR group,” he noted, adding that, apart from the Hampden County Bar Assoc., which has a panel of mediators and arbitrators, the only other mediators and arbitrators in this region are single-practice lawyers; Boston and Hartford have ADR groups, but this woud be the first in this region.

“There appears to be a need here for the right type of mediator and arbitrator,” he said, adding that the firm intends to fill that void.

Barry agreed.

“There are a lot of mediators and arbitrators out there,” he acknowledged. “But what we bring to the field is an expertise — primarily Judge Greaney — that is not available generally and is suitable for certain types of cases in particular.”

Peter Barry says ADR is an area of the law that is growing and will continue to grow as businesses and individuals seek alternatives to litigation.

Peter Barry says ADR is an area of the law that is growing and will continue to grow as businesses and individuals seek alternatives to litigation.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with Greaney and Barry about Bulkey Richardson’s new ADR group, and also about how arbitration and mediation are becoming increasingly popular — and effective — methods for solving complex legal disputes.

Making Their Case

For those not familiar with Greaney’s background (and many are), it takes more than a few column inches, as they say in the print media, to capture all he’s done during his career.

So we’ll hit the highlights. But even that will take a while.

The Westfield native began his law career with the Springfield-based firm Ely and King in 1964, and was appointed to the Hampden County Housing Court in 1974. That housing court was the second in the state, with the first being in Boston, and was unique in that it served an entire county.

“We decided to innovate considerably,” he recalled. “We designed our own court forms, we changed them to get rid of all the legal language — which cluttered all the forms in the other courts — so people could understand them, and we made them bilingual because we had a large Spanish-speaking population. And, to the dismay of a lot of other courts and judges, we set up a citizen’s advisory council — all to make the court more user-friendly.”

In 1976, Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed Greaney to the Superior Court. This was followed by an appointment to the Appeals Court as an associate justice in 1978. In 1984, he became chief justice of the Appeals Court.

Greaney was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1989 and participated in several landmark cases while serving on the SJC. That list includes Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in which he wrote the concurrence to the opinion establishing Massachusetts as the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

“We share a common humanity and participate together in a social contract that is the foundation of our Commonwealth,” he wrote, creating language that has been used often by gay couples at their wedding ceremonies. “Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend … full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

Other significant cases include a 1993 decision upholding the adoption of a child by same-sex cohabitants; a 1997 decision in the Benefit v. City of Cambridge case, affirming the unconstitutionality of a statute prohibiting panhandling; a 2003 decision in the First Justice case addressing, on separation of powers principles, the constitutionality of statutes governing court clerks and probation officers; and a 2007 decision in the Murphy v. Boston Herald case, affirming a judgment based on defamation.

Greaney, famous for taking a Peter Pan bus to and from Boston most days and using that time to get more work done, reached mandatory retirement age (70) in 2008, but he wasn’t, and still isn’t, the retiring type. He joined the faculty of Suffolk University Law School, served as director of the Macaronis Institute for Trial and Appellate Advocacy, and taught constitutional law, criminal law, and appellate practice.

But he became a victim of the financial pressures facing many law schools today, and as Suffolk Law downsized and Greaney’s position was essentially eliminated, the judge looked for something else to do in ‘retirement.’ And as he looked, he remembered that Francis ‘Sandy’ Dibble, a partner at Bulkley Richardson, had long ago told him that, when he was done teaching, he should consider joining the firm.

He did so, in 2016, and thus went back to where he started (well, sort of) — practicing law in downtown Springfield.

But the legal landscape has certainly changed since Greaney first started out as a lawyer more than a half-century ago. Indeed, ADR has become an increasingly popular alternative to the courtroom, one that resolves matters in months, or even weeks, rather than years.

A Strong Case for ADR

There are two basic forms of ADR, mediation and arbitration, and while they are similar in that they are alternatives to traditional litigation, there are important differences.

Mediation is generally conducted with a single mediator who does not judge the case but instead simply helps the parties facilitate discussion and, hopefully, a resolution to a problem. Arbitration, on the other hand, is more judicial in nature (that’s why Greaney said it appeals to him) and involves one or more arbitrators who take on the role of a judge, making decisions about evidence and giving written opinions, which can be binding or non-binding, with the results being final.

“The shift from actual courtroom litigation and the resolution of disputes prior to courtroom litigation has become a fairly active enterprise over the past 12 years or so,” Greaney explained. “When I was a trial judge, no such thing existed.

“But the phenomenon was created by business people and others,” he went on. “And the courts wanted to see a simpler, more efficiently way to deal with the problems they had.”Also, many contracts — for everything from construction projects to employment agreements to the one signed by Stormy Daniels when she received $130,000 from Presisdent Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Choen — have provisions noting that there if problems arise, they will be resolved by private arbitration and not litigation, Greaney told BusinessWest, adding that the Supreme Court, with a few exceptions, has consistently upheld the validity of these arbitration clauses.”

And as a result, and many law firms and individuals, including many retired judges, now specialize in mediation and/or arbitration (mostly the former), creating a somewhat competitive market for those services.

Bulkley Richardson looks to stand out within that playing field and capitalize on the experience of both Greaney and Barry as well as a host of other attorneys within the firm, including Dibble, Daniel Finnegan, Kevin Maynard, David Parke, Melinda Phelps, Jeffrey Poindexter, and John Pucci.

Barry said the firm is not interested in taking on cases that could easily be handled by one of the other mediators in the region, and is instead interested in more complex matters. And, again, they could come from within the 413, or well outside it given the expertise the firm can now bring to bear.

And because of how the pendulum has swung toward ADR, there should be ample opportunity to grow the practice.

“ADR is an area that’s growing and will continue to grow, and there will be a need for the types of services we’ll provide,” he explained. “A lof of big companies have decided, almost across the board as a policy, that they’re not going to litigate — they’re going to do everything possible to settle a case because of the expense and time and misdirection of resources involved in litigation.”

Final Arguments

Getting back to Major League Baseball and those high-profile salary disagreements going to arbitration … and Greaney, an ardent Red Sox fan, noted with a laugh that he would love to get such a matter sent to Bulkley Richardson.

“I love sports; that would be a delight to get something that,” he told BusinessWest. “I understand the statistics and all that goes into those decisions.”

While landing such a case might be a long shot (that’s might), it seems a much safer bet that Bulkley Richardson’s launch of an ADR group will be a winning proposition — for the firm and the region as well.

That’s because of the uniquely high level experience that can brought to the table, especially from a judge that that has made his mark in settings ranging from Hampden County Housing Court to the SJC.

The jury is in — ADR is now the preferred method of resolving a dispute — and Bulkley Richardson appears well-positioned to capitalize on that movement.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Law Sections

Streamlining the Process

Westfield State University President Ramon Torrecilha

Westfield State University President Ramon Torrecilha says the 3+3 initiative with UMass Law is just one example of partnerships aimed at streamlining the process of getting a college degree — or two of them, as the case may be.

Since he took the helm as president of Westfield State University in 2015, Ramon Torrecilha has talked often, and consistently, about a changing dynamic in higher education and especially at public institutions.

In this environment, he has said to BusinessWest and a wide range of other media outlets and audiences of various types, public schools must be vigilant in their efforts to make a college education more affordable, more value-laden, and better able to help students succeed in the field they’ve chosen.

And, he has argued, one of the best ways to accomplish these ends is through partnerships with other colleges and universities, especially other public schools.

All these sentiments — not to mention the school’s new operating philosophy — are reflected in WSU’s latest partnership initiative, one with the University of Massachusetts School of Law, or UMass Law, as it’s called, the only public law school in the Commonwealth.

It’s called the ‘3+3 law program,’ and UMass Law has created several such initiatives with other public institutions in the state, including UMass Dartmouth, UMass Boston, UMass Lowell, Fitchburg State, Worcester State, and the Mass. College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

Those two numbers in the name of the program get right to the heart of the matter. They refer to the number of years a participant is in school. Add them up, and one gets six, which is exactly one less than it traditionally takes someone to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a law degree, otherwise known as a juris doctor or JD.

“And that one year is very significant,” said Torrecilha, adding that, by shaving two semesters off the process, individuals and their families can save perhaps tens of thousands of dollars — and degree recipients can get on with their careers sooner.

At a time when higher education in general, and public higher education especially, happens to be under scrutiny, I think partnerships, not only with UMass Law School but also our community college partners underscores and reaffirms our commitment to the citizens of the Commonwealth.”

And that career may not necessarily be in the law, said Torrecilha, adding that students in majors not traditionally associated with law — everything from English to gender studies — may well find the program worthwhile because of what a law-school education brings — everything from a focus on critical thinking to experience with forging and then presenting arguments to practice in writing.

“This program will target not only students in political science or philosophy or criminal justice,” he said, listing majors that traditionally feed students to law schools. “It will be available to students in disciplines that you don’t usually think of when you think of a law degree.”

Dr. Emily Todd, chair of the WSU English Department, agreed.

“People generally don’t think about English majors going on to get a law degree, but it’s actually a great preparation for law school,” she explained. “We see the strength of our program as setting people up to be successful; English majors develop skills as writers, good researchers, and excellent close readers, and that helps them to be persuasive writers and to develop their skills in synthesis and analysis.

“I was recently speaking with a first-year student before this program was announced,” she went on. “I always ask students what they want to do, and she said, ‘I’m thinking about law — I really love to think about words and analyze them closely.’”

Here’s how the program works. Following the completion of 90 credits at Westfield State, enrolled students begin their first year at UMass Law. Once the first 30 credits are completed there, students will obtain their bachelor’s degree from WSU. Those 30 credits will dually serve as the first-year requisite toward their law degree from UMass Law.

Elaborating, Torrecilha said those 30 credits earned during that first year at UMass Law will effectively serve as the elective courses that students in any degree program are required to take. They will come in what would be the fourth year of one’s progression toward a bachelor’s degree, rather than in the first two or three, which is traditionally the case.

Torrecilha said the 3+3 program was conceived with a number of goals in mind, including a desire to stimulate more interest in a law degree at a time when overall enrollment has been declining at all the most elite schools — although the needle has started pointing back up at some institutions. And also to perhaps provide a boost for UMass Law, which was launched in 2010 after the private law school Southern New England School of Law offered to donate real estate, facilities, technology, and library assets to UMass Dartmouth for the purpose of creating a public law program in the Commonwealth.

The UMass board of trustees approved the plan in late 2009, and the Commonwealth’s Board of Higher Education did the same a few months later. The school’s first class matriculated in 2010.

But the overriding goals are to streamline the process of getting both degrees and making it more cost-effective. Those are the terms one hears most often in association with the initiative.

If all goes well, Torrecilha said, students may be entered in the program by the fall of 2019. He said there are no goals for enrollment at this time, and he’s not exactly sure what to expect. But he has seen a good deal of interest in the program since it was announced several weeks ago.

“We’re educating the community as we go, and we’ve been talking to advisors,” he noted. “There are a lot of students here on the campus who are asking about it already; I’m hoping that that the first cohort will have between 20 and 30 students.”

Meanwhile, the school will continue to look for more ways to partner with other institutions, including those in the UMass system and the region’s community colleges, to create more ways to streamline the process of earning degrees and making them more cost-effective, said Torrecilha.

“At a time when higher education in general, and public higher education especially, happens to be under scrutiny, I think partnerships — not only with UMass Law School, but also our community-college partners — underscore and reaffirm our commitment to the citizens of the Commonwealth,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it also sets an example of how public institutions can come together for the public good.”

— George O’Brien

Law Sections

‘A Zealous Advocate’

Western New England University School of Law Dean Sudha Setty

Western New England University School of Law Dean Sudha Setty

Sudha Setty wasn’t sure where her initial interest in law would take her — she simply wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. Her current role as a professor certainly fits that bill, though it’s not a path she expected to take early on. Now, as she prepares to take over the dean’s chair at Western New England University School of Law, she’s ready to navigate a still-challenging climate for law schools and help other young people achieve their world-changing goals.

Sudha Setty entered the field of law wanting to make a difference, and she has — only, in much different ways than she first imagined.

So she understands the passion of students enrolling in law school today with the same passion and desire to change society for the better, but admitted that all lawyers make a difference, even if it’s for that one individual client struggling with a difficult time in their life.

“Most of the applications we’ve seen are focused on the idea of working on issues people really care about, and how being a lawyer will provide them with the tools to make a difference on a national or global scale, or even helping one person,” she told BusinessWest. “This is something you have to believe in if you want to be an effective lawyer — you have to be a zealous advocate, regardless of whom the client is.”

Starting in July, Setty will bring that spirit of advocacy to her new role as dean of the Western New England University School of Law after 12 years as a professor there. She will succeed Eric Gouvin, who is returning to the WNEU faculty after a five-year stint as dean.

“Professor Setty is a fine teacher and scholar who understands fully the challenges we currently face in higher education and those which we will continue to confront in these times of unprecedented change in legal education,” said WNEU President Anthony Caprio. “Her wisdom, intellect, training, experience, and energy will serve the law school — its faculty, staff, students, and alumni — the university, and the legal community very well for many years to come.”

Setty called the appointment an honor, noting that law schools are in a unique position to impact the future of a just society, and she has always seen WNEU as a place that launches the careers of thoughtful lawyers who work for the betterment of both their clients and society as a whole.

“I’m really looking forward to leading a group of faculty so dedicated,” she told BusinessWest. “They impress me on a regular basis, this community of teachers and scholars who really believe in what a law school does. I have mixed feelings cutting back on teaching, which I absolutely love. I’ll miss that aspect of being able to interact with students as a classroom teacher. But I’ll be seeking ways to connect with them and work with them and be an active part of the community that drew me to this law school in the first place.”

Courting Change

Setty planned to be a lawyer from her high-school days, through a combination of extracurricular experiences like mock trials and a deep interest in social justice. But her undergraduate work focused not on pre-law, but on the humanities, with the goal of honing her critical thinking and writing, skills that would serve her well no matter what field she worked in.

After graduating from Stanford University with a history degree, she taught overseas and contemplated different options. When she did return to the States and enrolled in Columbia Law School, it was with the belief that she’d build a career as a civil-rights advocate.

“I recognized the ability of lawyers to speak for people who are powerless, or to work as prosecutors seeking justice for victims. I had some ideas about what I wanted to do, but nothing concrete,” she said, adding that many people enter law school with a different career in mind than the one they eventually pursue.

Graduating with six figures of debt, however, changed Setty’s initial priorities a bit, and she went to work at a corporate firm in New York City, spending seven years at Davis Polk & Wardwell as a litigator in anti-trust disputes, securities fraud, and internal investigations of companies. Meanwhile, she took up extensive pro bono work litigating federal civil-rights cases and mentoring city high-school students.

“I had never envisioned myself doing these various aspects of corporate litigation, but I really appreciated my time at the firm,” she said. “I not only gained tremendous skills, but I was working with people who were really top-notch in terms of demanding critical thinking in representing clients.”

law schools are still challenged by depressed enrollment

Sudha Setty’s promotion comes at a time when law schools are still challenged by depressed enrollment, but there are signs the trend might be turning a corner.

Moreover, she was able to repay her law-school debts, which got her thinking about what the next phase of her career might be, and what options made sense.

“Many friends and mentors at Columbia encouraged me to think about teaching and the idea of an academic career,” she recalled. The interview process for jobs was eye-opening, and during a visit to WNEU, she was impressed with what Gouvin has called “student-centered professional education.”

“During the interview process, you see different approaches to legal education. As a student, you only see where you go to school as evidence of what a law school can be like,” she said, noting that she was struck by how friendly the WNEU professors were and how openly they interacted with students outside of class. “That was not my experience at law school, and I found it very appealing, and a selling point for coming here.”

Setty joined the faculty in 2006, eventually serving as professor of Law and associate dean for Faculty Development and Intellectual Life. In the latter role, one goal has been to improve the law school’s scholarly profile, both by helping colleagues to publicize the research they publish, and through workshop exchanges with other regional law schools to present scholarship to each other and get feedback to improve it. “All these help improve the profile of the law school and add vibrancy to the intellectual life at Western New England.”

As an active scholar herself in the areas of comparative law, rule of law, and national security, she recently published a study called “National Security Secrecy: Comparative Effects on Democracy and the Rule of Law.”

“Through the Bush and Obama administrations, I’ve focused on the notion that we don’t have enough institutional accountability,” she explained. “When it comes to national-security matters, both administrations kept telling us, ‘we know what we’re doing.’ My argument is that we need more accountability measures. Obviously, we don’t want to have classified information thrown out there, but we need the power to push back against the executive branch. We’ve set up a system where the president gets to make all these decisions without oversight, and we’ve been willing to accept that with the last two presidents.”

Some of those same people who accepted that paradigm are worried now that the power rests in the hands of a president who can often seem, well, erratic.

“The thing about setting up systems is they apply to whoever is in office. That’s the situation we’ve created,” she said. “I view many things happening under this administration as unsurprising. But if I can win more people to my views for the long term, and we get better institutional controls in place, that would be great. We’ll see what happens.”

Setty has received numerous awards for her work, including the Tapping Reeve Legal Educator Award from the Connecticut Bar Assoc. and two Western New England University School of Law Professor of the Year honors. She co-founded the School of Law’s Color of Law Roundtable speaker series, bringing attorneys and judges of color to campus to speak about their experiences and career paths. She also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy, the executive committee of the American Society of Comparative Law, and was a Fulbright senior specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.

Making a Case

Even as she amassed those accomplishments and began taking on more administrative responsibility over the past few years, Setty never thought about a deanship at WNEU, simply because Gouvin was entrenched there and doing a solid job. But when he decided to return to the classroom full-time, Setty was approached by several colleagues about the position.

“They said, ‘we’d really like you to apply for this position; you’d be great.’ I gave it a lot of thought, because taking on the responsibilities of a deanship would be a big shift, but at the same time, taking on this responsibility at a school I know well, a place I love, is an exciting opportunity.”

The school conducted its internal search before looking outward, and Setty found strong support through the entire process. But she knows the job won’t be easy. Nationally, law-school enrollment plummeted by nearly half between 2003 and 2014, due in part to a declining job market for lawyers, one exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis. By 2012, graduates were finding it very difficult to secure positions right out of school, and that impacted interest in the field.

“The last few years have been very challenging for law schools everywhere,” Setty noted. “They’ve had to examine their budgets and think hard about the choices they’ve been making. In some senses, I think Western New England has been fortunate. We’ve been careful with financial stewardship such that we weren’t trying to expand too very quickly, even when we had very large enrollments.”

Part of WNEU’s strategy focused on giving students more return on investment, including a tuition freeze, instituted during the 2013-14 school year and extending through 2017-18. With the lowered revenues, the school had to keep a close eye on expenses, and it was able to shrink staff through retirements, while avoiding debt from costly capital improvements.

“When times were hard, we had the ability to contract our student body and not have the financial hit be as bad as it could have been, because of our fiscal stewardship and a very careful hand on the budget,” Setty explained. “That’s not to say it has been easy — we’ve seen a lot of colleagues, wonderful teachers, retire and not be replaced, but with the student body shrinking, we could give them the same type of education, offer the same courses, with a smaller cohort of faculty.”

However, she said, an uptick in applications nationally — between 8% and 10%, similar to what WNEU is seeing — is spurring some cautious optimism in law-school leaders, she said, that the field may be turning a corner. “The landscape looks much brighter than it has for a number of years.”

Western New England also benefits from its position as the only accredited law school in the Commonwealth west of Greater Boston, which ensures a broad range of opportunities in the form of internships and clerkships.

The law school also continues to expand its use of clinics — in areas such as criminal defense, criminal prosecution, elder law, and family-law mediation — in which students blend classroom instruction with work on real cases, under the guidance of local attorneys. The vast majority of students get involved in clinics and externships, understanding the value of developing not only real-world legal knowledge, but the soft skills that will make them more employable.

They also provide a social benefit, Setty said, as in the case of the immigration clinic, which helps real-world clients navigate what can be a difficult path in today’s climate.

“It’s a win-win,” she told BusinessWest. “These individuals are in dire need of representation, and they get that representation, and the students receive invaluable experience they can take with them from these clinics.”

Closing Statement

Setty recalled her own clinic experiences from Columbia Law School — in landlord-tenant disputes and small-claims court — with gratitude. “The skills you develop from that aren’t necessarily transferable to the corporate-law environment or working as an academic, but it helps build who you are as a lawyer.”

The career Setty has built is, in many ways, different from the one she envisioned as a high-school student with a passion for social justice. But she’s happy to be impacting the lives of hundreds of students preparing to change the world — or, at least, make life a little better for a client in need.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Sections

Taking the Pulse

By Kimberly A. Klimczuk, Esq.

Kimberly A. Klimczuk, Esq.

Kimberly A. Klimczuk, Esq.

It’s been almost three years since Massachusetts’ Earned Sick Time Law went into effect (how time flies), but employment-law attorneys still frequently receive questions about the law and the administration of earned sick leave.

Like any leave law, the sick-leave law presents unique challenges to employers. Here are some of the questions encountered most often:

Does the sick leave law apply to my organization?

This is an easy one. Unless your organization is a federal or municipal employer, it must provide earned sick leave to all employees (including part-time, temporary, per diem, and seasonal employees), regardless of the size of your organization. If the employer has 11 or more employees, the sick leave must be paid at the employee’s regular hourly rate (with the exception of tipped employees, who must receive at least minimum wage).

As a reminder, the law entitles employees to earn one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours per year, and employees may use the earned sick leave to attend routine medical appointments (for themselves or for a child, spouse, parent, or parent-in-law); to care for their own illness, injury, or medical condition or that of a child, spouse, parent, or parent-in law; or to address the effects of domestic violence.

Can I discipline employees for excessive absences?

It depends on what you mean by ‘excessive.’ The sick-leave law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who use earned sick leave, so if an employee has earned sick leave available that applies to an absence, an employer cannot discipline the employee for taking the time off, nor can it consider the use of sick time as a factor in the discipline for non-sick-leave-related absences. Therefore, employers must be very careful when issuing attendance-related discipline.

Employers may discipline for absences exceeding the amount of sick leave to which the employee is entitled or for absences that occur before the employee has accrued sufficient sick leave to cover the absence. However, employers must make sure the employee’s use of sick leave is not a factor in the discipline. Although it seems obvious, this can be tricky.

Consider two employees. The first employee has one unplanned absence in a two-week period. The second employee has one unplanned absence in a two-week period and five sick-leave-related absences in that same two-week period. Which employee is a supervisor more likely to want to discipline?

While employers generally can discipline employees for unplanned absences unrelated to earned sick leave, they cannot take the use of sick leave into consideration when determining appropriate discipline. Thus, in the above example, it would be unlawful to discipline the employee who took sick leave if the employer did not also discipline the employee who had just the one unplanned absence.

Relatedly, employers should be sure to document any attendance-related discipline and make clear in that documentation that the discipline is not related to sick-leave-related absences. The best way of doing this is to note the specific dates for which the discipline is being issued. If an employer simply writes that the discipline is for “poor attendance,” and the employee had sick-leave-related absences, it will be difficult for an employer to demonstrate that the discipline for poor attendance did not take into account the absences due to sick leave. If the employer specifies the absences at issue, it can show that it considered only the non-sick-leave absences.

What if an employee is out sick but wants to save paid sick leave for later use?

We often hear of employees with accrued paid sick leave who call out sick but then ask the employer to count the absence as an unpaid day off so that the employee can save the paid sick for use later in the year. Employers should not grant these kinds of requests. First, because the sick-leave law requires employers to pay employees who are absent due to illness (assuming the employee has earned sick leave available), an employer who fails to pay an employee for a sick-leave-related absence violates the law, even if the failure to pay was at the request of the employee.

Second, if the employee saves the paid sick leave for use at a later time, the employer may lose the ability to discipline for excessive absences. The employer can discipline for excessive absences only after an employee has exhausted any available paid sick leave. If the employer allows the employee to save paid sick leave, it will take longer for the employee to exhaust the leave, and the employer will, in effect, be required to accept more absences than it otherwise would have.

The best practice for employers is to require the use of paid sick leave for all sick-leave related absences and then later decide whether it wants to allow unpaid leave once the paid leave is exhausted.

Kimberly A. Klimczuk, Esq. is an employment law attorney with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.; (413) 737-4753.