According to a 2022 study by the Society for Human Resource Management, nearly one in four organizations reported using automation or AI to support HR-related activities.  According to the study, while AI is being used in a myriad of employment decisions, the greatest use by far is in recruiting and hiring.

With this rise in the use of AI in employment decisions, regulators and law makers are turning their attention to ensuring that AI is used in a fair and responsible way that does not violate any laws aimed at protecting the rights of employees.

The EEOC is expanding its focus on AI in 2024.

As was noted in last week’s “Maintaining a Positive and Productive Workplace in 2024” blog post, one of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) focuses announced in its Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2024 to 2028 is the use of AI in recruitment and hiring.  The concern is that the use of AI could intentionally or unintentionally lead to discriminatory practices in recruitment or hiring.  For example, if an AI algorithm was programed to screen out applicants over a certain age, that could constitute intentional discrimination.  Or, even if an algorithm was carefully programmed to avoid any discriminatory screening factors, it still might inadvertently screen out, for example, those with disabilities and therefore have an unlawful, discriminatory disparate impact.

This 2024 focus is a continuation of the EEOC’s scrutiny of and guidance surrounding use of AI in employment decisions.  In 2021, the EEOC launched its Artificial Intelligence and Algorithmic Fairness Initiative, aimed at ensuring that the use of AI and other emerging technologies used in hiring and other employment decisions comply with federal civil rights laws.

In May of last year, the EEOC released a technical assistance document, “Assessing Adverse Impact in Software, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence Used in Employment Selection Procedures Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  This document includes guidance in the form of questions and answers, including:

“3.     Is an employer responsible under Title VII for its use of algorithmic decision-making tools even if the tools are designed or administered by another entity, such as a software vendor?

In many cases, yes. For example, if an employer administers a selection procedure, it may be responsible under Title VII if the procedure discriminates on a basis prohibited by Title VII, even if the test was developed by an outside vendor. …”

Law makers are beginning to propose legislation regarding the use of AI in employment decisions.

In July of 2023, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) U.S. Senator Bob Casey introduced the No Robot Bosses Act aimed at protecting and empowering workers by preventing employers from relying exclusively on artificial intelligence in making employment decisions. On July 20, 2023 the bill was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and no further action has been taken on it at this time.

Illinois and New York City have implemented legislation governing the use of AI in employment decisions, and more states and cities are proposing such legislation.  For a comprehensive look at 2023 state legislation proposed on a myriad of topics related to AI see the National Conference of State Legislators’ summary on Artificial Intelligence 2023 Legislation.

What does this mean for the use of AI in employment decisions?

The use of AI saves time and money and is a valuable tool for many companies.  No doubt the new and even more efficient and effective methods of using AI will expand over time and bring great benefits to the workplace.  It is important, however, to consider not only the benefits and efficiencies of using AI, but also the potential pitfalls, how to avoid them, and how to craft fair, unbiased, efficient, and effective AI employment tools.

Some practical advice to companies to ensure that their use of AI promotes a positive, productive, and lawful workplace includes:

  • Carefully select your AI vendor and inquire into the vendor’s knowledge regarding and practices for avoiding discriminatory selections processes.
  • Assess each AI tool to make sure it does not include any discriminatory selection factors.
  • Assess whether the AI selection procedure has an adverse impact on a particular protected group.
  • Continue to assess your AI tools on an ongoing basis.
  • Carefully determine which positions or decisions are appropriate for the use of AI tools and which are not.
  • Do not make employment decisions solely based on AI. Have qualified personnel review the results of the AI process.

As this emerging area of the law develops, it will be important to stay up-to-date on any new laws or regulations applicable to your company that address the use of AI in employment decisions.

Most of us spend a significant amount of time working and interacting with our colleagues, and we strive to make our workplace positive and productive.  As we dive into a new year, it is a good time to assess what we can do to maintain such a workplace.  A good place to start is reviewing policies and practices to make sure they reflect company culture and values and comply with existing and new employment laws and regulations.

Some considerations include:

  • Has your company expanded, potentially subjecting it to additional laws and regulations, or creating practical day-to-day challenges that need to be addressed?
  • When were your company policies and handbook last updated? Have there been changes in the law or in the culture, direction, or challenges of your business since that time?
  • Are your managers and supervisors well trained in your policies and practices and how to foster a work environment that fits with your culture, values, and desire for a positive workplace and with relevant laws and regulations?
  • Have your employees been trained in these matters as well?
  • What laws and regulations have changed that might impact your company?

Employment law considerations for 2024 include:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has released its “Strategic Enforcement Plan” for Fiscal Years 2024 to 2028.  According to the Plan, its purpose “is to focus and coordinate the

agency’s work over a multiple fiscal year (FY) period to have a sustained impact in advancing

equal employment opportunity.” The Plan outlines the following six subject matter priorities:

  1. “Eliminating Barriers in Recruitment and Hiring,” including, for example, in the use of Artificial Intelligence.
  2. “Protecting Vulnerable Workers and Persons from Underserved Communities from Employment Discrimination,” including for example, individuals with arrest or conviction records, LGBTQI+ individuals, temporary workers, and older workers.
  3. “Addressing Selected Emerging and Developing Issues,” including, for example, protecting workers affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
  4. “Advancing Equal Pay for All Workers.”
  5. “Preserving Access to the Legal System,” including, for example, a focus on overly-broad waivers, releases, or non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements.
  6. “Preventing and Remedying Systemic Harassment.”

According to the EEOC Plan, it will “help guide the EEOC’s work through all of the agency’s activities, including outreach, public education, technical assistance, enforcement, and litigation.”

The EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan is a good reminder to make sure your company has up to date policies and procedures in these areas that support and foster a positive and lawful work environment, and on which your managers, supervisors, and employees are well educated.

This is the first of a series of blogs that will address in more detail each of the six subject matters areas listed above – as well as other employment topics – and offer practical advice on maintaining a positive and productive workplace in 2024.

Pregnancy is a momentous and life-changing event in a woman’s life. It’s a time of anticipation, excitement, and sometimes, anxiety. While many employers are supportive and accommodating during this period, there have been instances where pregnant women have faced discrimination in the workplace. Fortunately, there are legal protections in place to combat this injustice. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, has made it clear that pregnancy discrimination is against the law.

Statutory protection against sex discrimination did not exist on the federal level until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.  However, for many years, pregnancy was not explicitly included as a protected category under Title VII. As a result, pregnant women were often the victims of gross injustice as they were denied promotions, demoted, or even fired solely because of their pregnancy. Women were often forced to choose between their career and starting a family. Thus, in 1978, Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) establishing that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was a violation of Title VII.

The PDA was a vital amendment to Title VII, and it explicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. This amendment clarified that employers could not treat pregnant employees less favorably than other employees based on their pregnancy status.

The PDA has several key provisions that ensure pregnant women are protected in the workplace:

  • Hiring and Employment: Employers are prohibited from refusing to hire a woman because she is pregnant, so long as she is able to perform the essential functions of the job. Pregnant women must be treated the same as any other job applicant and must be given the same opportunity for promotion.
  • Health Benefits: Pregnant employees are entitled to the same health benefits as other employees. This includes medical coverage for pregnancy-related expenses, such as prenatal care and childbirth.
  • Light Duty and Accommodations: Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees who need them, to the same extent they do for employees with short-term disabilities.
  • Protection for Retaliation: It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for asserting their rights under the PDA. This means that if a pregnant employee speaks up about discrimination or requests accommodations, the employer cannot take adverse action against her in response.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act has been a significant step towards equality in the workplace as it establishes that employers are legally bound to treat pregnant employees with the same professional opportunities for growth, development, and job security as their non-pregnant colleagues.

However, despite these legal protections, pregnancy discrimination persists. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is both unethical and illegal.  Therefore, it is important for women who believe they have been subjected to pregnancy discrimination to be aware of their rights and seek legal assistance if necessary. Employers and employees should consult experienced legal counsel to be fully advised of their rights and obligations under the law. If you or a close friend or family member needs assistance in this area, consult the Employment Team at the Finney Law Firm.

As clients “play out” the path of their litigation, they may plan on delaying the consequences of a possible loss at trial court for a year or two by “appealing all the way to the Supreme Court.”  Comfortable that they can postpone payment of any possible judgment 24 to 36 months into the future, they continue with the path of defending a suit, they have figured out — before we ever speak about it.

“Stay” typically requires a supersedeas bond; otherwise judgment collections may proceed

However, it’s not that simple.  As a fairly firm proposition of law, there is no “stay of execution” pending the outcome of an appeal unless and until the party against whom judgment is obtained has posed a supersedeas bond in the full amount of the “cumulative total for all claims covered by the final order.” R.C. §2505.09.

… an appeal does not operate as a stay of execution until a stay of execution has been obtained pursuant to the Rules of Appellate Procedure or in another applicable manner, and a supersedeas bond is executed by the appellant to the appellee, with sufficient sureties and in a sum that is not less than, if applicable, the cumulative total for all claims covered by the final order, judgment, or decree and interest involved, except that the bond shall not exceed fifty million dollars excluding interest and costs, as directed by the court that rendered the final order, judgment, or decree that is sought to be superseded or by the court to which the appeal is taken.

In other words, after a party to a case obtains a monetary judgment against another party (typically, but not always, a plaintiff obtains a judgment against a defendant), absent a “stay” issued by the Court, the party holding the judgment may pursue collections against the party against whom judgment has been rendered while the appeal is being briefed, argued and decided.  This means that the prevailing party may pursue foreclosure against real property, garnishment of bank accounts, attachment of wages and other collections actions, notwithstanding the slow process of a pending appeal that the opposing party believes will reverse the trial court judgment.

How a supersedeas bond is obtained

The bond can be issued by a private surety, such as an insurance company.  But the insurance company wants to take zero risk in the issuance of that bond, so they will do so only upon posting of proper security such as cash, accounts containing stocks and bonds, or real estate with sufficient equity.  And the outcome of this is that the eventual bankruptcy of the losing party, hiding of assets, dissipation of assets, death of the losing party, and other intervening events will not impair the collectability of the judgment by the prevailing party.

Posting of real estate as security

Another avenue to a “stay” order is the conveyance of property of adequate value with the Clerk of Courts, R.C. § 2505.11.  And, under 2505.12, exempt from the bond-posting provisions are (i) fiduciaries who already have posted bonds, with surety in accordance with law, (ii) the state of Ohio and its political subdivisions, and (iii) public officers of the state and its political subdivisions who were sued only in their official capacity.

How it really plays out

How does this, then, typically play out?  First, I find that losing defendants don’t just want to “write a check” to pay the judgment.  Rather, they ignore it until collections actions are taken.  Second, I have found that losing parties willfully ignore the plain language of Revised Code §2505.09 and ask for a bond amount less than the “cumulative total for all claims covered by the final order.”  This request, in our experience, is routinely denied.

Then, there are circumstances in which the losing party simply can’t pay the judgment amount and therefore also can’t post a bond in that amount.  In that circumstance, the losing defendant has the option to declare bankruptcy.  In other circumstances, the losing party has no identifiable assets, but he must honestly submit to a judgment debtor examination and tell the prevailing party’s attorney the location of his assets.  It is a bad idea — one we routinely reject — for a losing party to transfer assets to avoid collections upon loss in litigation.  What this means, for example, is moving around assets for the purpose of avoiding the prevailing party from collecting is as bad of an idea as it is appealing.

So, when Gibson Bakery sued Oberlin College for defamation and obtained a $25 million judgment, the Judged ordered a stay of execution pending appeal only upon the posting of a $36 million bond.  Last week, a $1.8 billion judgment was rendered against the National Association of Realtors and two other defendants.  Because the matter litigated is under the Sherman Antitrust Act, the damages are to be tripled, likely bringing the judgment amount to $5.4 billion.  One of the Defendants is a Berkshire-Hathaway company, which certainly has the cash sitting around for that, but will they post that for just one of their subsidiaries and to pay the freight for all of the defendants?  For most parties, including the other two defendants, they simply would not have the assets available to them to post a supersedeas bond of that magnitude.

As litigants want to be on the “offense” in collections, as the defense — against a diligent prevailing party — is no fun and there are few places to turn to avoid “paying up.”

Conclusion

In your business affairs as well as your litigation, be prepared to accept the accept the consequences of your decisions.  In litigation, those consequences can be both unexpected and expensive.  If your plan is to postpone collections until appeals are exhausted, that may mean posting a bond for the value of the judgment.

On November 3, 2023, we won a big victory for our client, a humble carpenter who lives in Clifton, at the First District Court of Appeals of Ohio.  In the decision, the Appeals Court affirmed a verdict in our client’s favor for the removal of a large tree from his property without his permission.

At trial, our firm not only proved the trespass and actual damages but also proved malice by the Defendant by “clear and convincing evidence,” entitling the client to receive as part of his award reasonable attorneys fees and expenses for taking the case to trial.

A copy of Friday’s appellate court decision is here.

Background

We regularly counsel our clients on the time, expense and sometimes disappointing outcomes in civil litigation.  It is a major part of the challenges our firm and our clients face in court.  And typically small dollar cases — regardless of how just the cause may be — are just not worth pursuing.

Nonetheless,  in 2019 we met with client William Chapel at his property and discussed the removal of his 50+ foot black walnut tree by his neighbor without permission.  He came home from work one day, and the tree was gone, it was taken down, along with an old wood screening fence that had been on his property, all without his permission.  We believed in the case and in the client, so we accepted the case.

Scorched earth strategy of defendants

It is typical in litigation that opposing counsel does not intend to win on the merits of their case, but rather by running out the clock and running the bill to heights that the amount in dispute will not justify, hoping our firm and our clients will “just go away.”   Well, we never “go away.”

Victory at trial court

We here wrote about the $222,836.53 verdict that was rendered in our client’s favor last December before the trial court for the removal of that tree, the majority of that verdict being punitive damages, attorneys fees and out-of-pocket expenses associated with the exhaustive litigation path chosen by the Defendants.

Conclusion

In addition to the $222,836.53 award at the trial court, the Court indicated that attorneys fees and expenses incurred in collections matters and in appellate work would supplement the award, so this week we will be preparing a supplemental fee application,  hoping to finalize the significant win for our client, and the delivery of justice to our community.

Thanks to our able and persistent team of Christopher Finney, Julie Gugino, and Jessica Gibson who saw this case through to the end.

Some people assume that his or her Last Will and Testament or Trust Agreement will determine who gets the assets upon his or her death.  However, there are other documents that can override the terms of a Last Will and Testament or Trust Agreement and pass outside of the probate estate or trust estate.

These documents include completed designation of beneficiary forms for assets such as retirement accounts, life insurance, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and real estate.  We are seeing this as a growing issue, as many people have multiple accounts, with the majority of their net worth being held in retirement accounts.  When the accounts are established or updated, it is frequent to see beneficiaries being designated without any thought to the individual’s overall estate plan.  Therefore, it is imperative that the designation of beneficiary forms for these assets comply with current wishes, and are consistent with the terms of the Last Will and Testament or Trust Agreement if the same beneficiaries who receive assets by beneficiary designation are to receive the assets that are distributed pursuant to the terms of the Last Will and Testament or Trust Agreement.

Whether you’re filling out new paperwork, or moving an account from one institution to another, you will likely be asked to complete a new beneficiary designation form.

Failing to update beneficiary designation forms when life circumstances change is a common mistake.  Some changes in family relations that may require updating beneficiary designation forms are:

  1.        Dissolution of a marriage (divorce) or separation.
  2.         Death of a family member.
  3.        Marriage.
  4.        Changes regarding child, grandchild, or other beneficiary.

With a 401(k), a married spouse is essentially automatically entitled to the assets in the 401(k) unless the spouse formally waives receiving the assets by the execution of a formal waiver in the presence of a notary public.  If there is no beneficiary named and no surviving spouse, the employer’s plan documents determine who is next in line to receive the assets in the 401(k).

Under current Ohio law, payable upon death (“POD”) beneficiary designations can be made for bank accounts by completing the financial institution’s beneficiary documents.  By the same context, transfer on death (“TOD”) beneficiary designations can be made for brokerage accounts by completing the brokerage firm’s beneficiary documents.

For real estate, a TOD Designation Affidavit is effective upon death allowing the owner of the real estate to transfer the ownership of real estate upon the owner’s death to whomever the owner designates by name.  To be effective, this TOD Designation Affidavit must be recorded with the County Recorder where the real estate is located prior to the death of the owner.

Please contact Isaac Heintz (513.943.6654) of the Finney Law Firm for help with your estate planning and estate administration needs.

 

 

 

A study by the Tax Foundation shows that Ohio ranks ninth among states in the nation for “Property Taxes Paid as a Percentage of Owner-Occupied Housing Value” for 2023.  Read the study here (click on table 33).

The top 10 and their rates as a percentage of Owner-Occupied Housing Value follow:

  1. New Jersey, 2.23%
  2. Illinois, 2.08%
  3. New Hampshire, 1.93%
  4. Vermont, 1.83%
  5. Connecticut, 1.79%
  6. Texas, 1.68%
  7. Nebraska, 1.63%
  8. Wisconsin, 1.61%
  9. Ohio, 1.59%
  10. Iowa, 1.52%

Many of our readers will note that their own residential property taxes range from 2.25% to 3.5%, and we believe the reason is that the urban areas of Ohio have greater-than-average property tax rates than many rural areas.

 

Fraudsters — both high-tech and old school — daily attempt to use real estate and other transactions to scam our law firm, our title company and our clients out of money and property.  To date, we have not been hit (some of our client have been), but we are always on guard.  Fraudsters forever keep trying.

As you are growing your business — and these tips apply to businesses large and small, old and new — it is a good idea — from time to time — to gather your financial team and key executives, along with your IT professionals, and simply have a conversation about “tightening things up” and avoiding common scams.

  • Are your checks (and cash) — incoming, outgoing and blank checkbooks — tightly secured and under watchful eyes?
  • Are your systems too open and accessible (a simple question such as automatic screen savers with passwords that trigger when an employee is away from his desk)?
  • Do you have proper insurance to protect your real risks?
  • Do you have proper training and systems in place to avoid common and emerging risks?

In the end, we all have some exposure.  So, eternal vigilance, the latest technology protection and training of employees new and old, is the only answer.  Part of this caution is constantly “tightening up” and “changing up” your transactional practices and security procedures to avoid the latest scam.

Here are some common scams we and our clients have seen:

  1. In the low-tech world, fraudsters simply borrow money based upon false promises and representations.  This is a time-tested and common scam.  It is borne of two human instincts: (a) we want to trust people and (b) we are lured by the promise of a better-then market return on investment (if it’s “too good to be true,” it’s probably fraud).  Many of these fraudsters have the appearance of business stability and financial success, but are willing to offer above-market interest rates for a personal or business loan.  In the end, these loans are not properly secured and are not properly guaranteed, and the fraudster never had the ability or intent to pay back the monies.
  2. Similarly, we have seen clients purchase assets or entire businesses that are subject to liens or governmental enforcement actions, or the purchase price is based upon false financial documents or hidden property condition.  In a business transaction, be careful of slippery buyers, sellers and attorneys who can make fraudulent closing adjustments as the numbers are flying about in a closing.
  3. Another low-tech fraud is thieves who rifle U.S. Postal Service mail boxes (both the blue drop boxes and mailboxes at your home or business), steal checks, and then change the payee and amount on the check and cash it.
  4. Pay attention here: In the high-tech world, fraudsters hack into a Realtor, investor or title company email system, and steal their email signature and logo, and the details of an imminent transaction.  Then, they establish a similar email domain (with maybe one letter changed or a “dot” added).  Using the new domain, they send an email to the party who is to originate a wire with false wire instructions — instructions straight into the fraudster’s overseas wire address.  The email by all appearances looks entirely legitimate and it’s from a name you know and with whom you actively are dealing.
  5. We have written about sellers who don’t own actually property attempting to mortgage or sell the same.  Read here and here.
  6. Finally, fraudsters use sophisticated hacking and ransomware viruses to invade your critical computer systems.  They corrupt your data and hijack control of your systems, relenting only when an exorbitant ransom has been paid.  Extortionists have taken over critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines, hospitals, and municipalities.  Most recently, the vendor running the Cincinnati Multiple Listing Service and dozens of MLSes nationwide was the victim of a weeks-long ransomware attack that was costly and disruptive.

So, how can you protect yourself in this world increasingly fraught with risk of theft of your valuable data, money and time by those with malintent?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Stay in your lane.  Let lenders lend.  In most cases, they are good at it.  If a borrower is coming to you for a loan, it’s likely because he’s not eligible for conventional financing, and that ineligibility is for a good reason — he’s either lying, broke or both.
  • Carefully use due diligence and proper documentation.  If you are going to lend money or buy assets or a business, perform the kind of due diligence a prudent and sophisticated buyer or lender would undertake and obtain appropriate security and guarantees of a loan.  We discuss some of the pitfalls of private lending here.  Similar risks can exist in buying assets and buying whole operating businesses.  Part of this process is assuring that the borrower actually owns the assets he is selling or pledging (free and clear) and that your security interest is properly and timely perfected as against that asset.  In a real estate-based loan, title insurance is a key way to assure this is so.  In purchasing a business, the risk is even greater in that the corporate entity may have significant residual undisclosed liabilities or governmental enforcement problems. That seller — and your purchase monies — will completely disappear by the time you learn of the fraud.  Finally, the #1 “due diligence item” is to know your employees, know your borrowers, know your sellers.  The internet (and now artificial intelligence tools) is an incredibly powerful way to do background on parties to a business transaction,  Use it.  Cautiously heed the lessons of what you find.
  • Properly perfect security interests and document guarantees.  When banks lend money, they want proper security for their loans and appropriate guarantors for their repayment.  In most cases, banks are over-protected, and they want it that way.  You do too.  In both real estate and equipment-based transactions, we have seen borrowers pledge the same assets to different lenders as security for two or more loans.  Obviously, in that circumstance someone is going to be left holding the bag.  (Yes, fraudsters are that shameless.)  Using proper real and personal property title examinations and lien searches and using appropriate documentation for loans and guarantees is critical.  For example, in Kentucky, in order for a personal guarantee of debt to be enforceable, it must follow specific statutory requirements.  Without that, it’s worthless.
  • Don’t put checks or other key financial documents in blue U.S. Post Office boxes on the streets and don’t have checks sent to a mail box at your business or residence that is accessible by others.
  • As to wire fraud, you can’t be careful enough.
    • The sender of a wire should assume everything you see is a lie, the fax, the email, the logo, the wire instructions, the sender web site, the sender.  Everything.  Always verify everything via voice using a trusted and known telephone number for the wire recipient.
    • If you smell a rat, don’t initiate the wire.  Wait and check some more.  Urgency — especially inappropriate urgency — is a key indicator of fraud.
    • Read carefully the sender email addresses and the email.  Many times the email domain of a fraudster does not exactly match the domain name with which you have been dealing.  Note misspellings and grammatical errors in the text of an email that may come from a foreign sender or one unfamiliar with the parties and the transaction.
    • Note last-minute changes, especially of wiring instructions.
    • Note changes made on the Friday before a holiday weekend or before another holiday, and before the end-of-month, when Realtors and title company employees are more likely to be busy and careless.
  • Buy cyber insurance.  Your property and casualty insurance agent can offer your business cyber protection.  It requires you to use good practices for the insurance to invoke, but both the coverage and the required procedures are a critical part of best practices protection.
  • As to ransomware attacks, we have two pieces of advice:
    • First, according to the Harvard Business Review (citing IBM), 60% of cyber attacks originate inside your organization.  Either a malevolent employee or ex-employee intent on theft or vandalism (75% of attacks) or a negligent employee (25% of incidents) who falls for a phishing attack scam cause most losses.  So, hire and retain employees of good character, monitor their activities, and carefully, comprehensively and quickly cut off computer access of former employees.  Segregate access to data in your organization to those who need that data, and no one else.
    • Second, every computer system is vulnerable.  Every one.  But homegrown (premises-based and self-maintained) servers are more vulnerable to a hack (in my opinion).  As a result, we (a) have migrated the vast majority of our data into the Microsoft cloud (other providers are also available) (heaven help the world if they hack the Microsoft cloud!), (b) have segregated access to data to employees who need that access, and (c) have make serial backups of data that is not in the cloud.
  • Understand the risks, develop training and systems to avoid the risk, and train all of your employees on cyber security procedures.

As our attorneys can assist with due diligence and proper documentation (including title insurance) of your transactions, call us!

In litigation, parties may exchange thousands of documents, some of which may contain sensitive information about personal matters, privileged documents and documents containing sensitive financial and tax information.  As a result, many times parties want to enter a “Protective Order” from the Court that allows for such documents to be produced with varying levels of agreed confidentiality protection.  In this blog entry, we explore (a) the true and fundamental need for such protections (usually most of it it is just a waste of time) and (b) some of the abuses we have experienced under such Orders.

In short, (a) they should not be entered casually — but carefully and thoughtfully, (b) there needs to be escape or corrective clauses for inappropriate unnecessary designation of documents as confidential, and (c) there should be penalties on counsel for abusing the Protective Order privileges.

What is a Protective Order?

Typically, a Protective Order allows one party or the other to designate documents as “confidential,” and those documents so designated are protected from public release.  Further, when sharing them with expert witnesses and other third parties (such as a technical consultant for organizing electronic discovery).  That makes sense.  The parties should not post on social media or circulate to competitors truly confidential business plans, financial documents and tax documents.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but then the Protective Order typically provides that filing any such document with the Court must be under seal.  To me, this runs contrary to the principle that trials in the U.S.A are to be held in the public.  Shielding the truth from public view should be done with caution, sparingly.  But beyond that is the hassle of carefully making sure you follow the correct procedures.  It drives up the cost of litigation, and the penalties for making an innocent mistake.

And then, beyond all of those protections, are production “for attorney eyes only.”  Huh?  We can’t share certain documents with our clients?  Ridiculous in 99.997% of instances.  What is so confidential that our own clients can’t be part of information sharing to develop their claims or defenses?  Really?

Further many times Protective Orders contain “claw back” provisions wherein documents that are privileged from disclosure (such as attorney-client or spousal privilege documents) can be (or must be) returned as if unseen, and copies not retained.

Digging your own grave.

There is nothing so deadly in the law as concessions and admissions you yourself make, and a Protective Order is of the type that the Judge will say: “Well, you agreed to this.”  Thus, a Protective Order is a grave you have dug for yourself.  Sign on with great caution.

Judges hate discovery disputes.

Judges are busy with other things, criminal trials, search warrants, temporary restraining orders, and on and on.  The rules of discovery are fairly clear and the parties should play fair.  But they don’t.  And then we must burden a Judge — who might have a murder trial in front of us — with playground disputes about non-production. It’s tedious and unproductive, but sometimes necessary.  But this is complicated when a party thoughtlessly agrees to handle documents in a certain way that later becomes impractical or burdensome.  Asking the Judge to unwind a dispute over the designation and use of documents as defined and prescribed by a Protective Order is more burden for the Court, a burden with which they don’t want to deal, and may simply refuse to address.

Judges are mixed on requiring Protective Orders.

As a result, I generally oppose the use of most protective orders — it just increases the cost and time for litigation.  We are talking tens of thousands of wasted dollars and years of wasted time. So, the request for a Protective Order then ends up before a Judge.

In one active case I have now, we are litigating against a “pay lake” operator.  He has five small lakes, and charges the public to fish in them, and charges for works, beer, coke and chips.  That’s about the level of privacy and complexity of his finances.  “He sells worms, for God’s sake, I say.”  He insisted that his financials and tax returns be disclosed under a Protective Order.  Huh?  What is secret and confidential about selling worms and renting the right to fish in stocked lates at $15 per day?  But sure enough, the issue of a protective order was pursued through the Magistrate and further into the Common Pleas Court with Objections to Magistrate’s decision – attorneys can and will fight over everything.  Fortunately, in this already expensive litigation, the Court rejected the requirement for a Protective Order, allowing us to access the documents sought without restrictions.

In a second case, a personal injury case against a major public utility, the utility sought and obtained (and as discussed below, abused) the Protective Order, complicating already overly-expensive litigation.

Discovery abuse.

Then, once a Protective Order is in place, invariably opposing counsel will abuse his privileges under the Protective Order:

  • In the case of the public utility defendant noted above, they designated 1,500 pages of materials that they themselves previously had posted on line.
  • In another case, the Defendants marked more than 200 entirely blank pages as “Confidential.”
  • In a recent case, the Protective Order had been entered that included the right to designate hyper-sensitive documents as “For Attorneys Eyes Only.”  The case was about residential (Single Family Home) property management.  The opposing attorney designated Quick Books records of the financials of the properties as “for attorneys eyes only.”  Now, this was ridiculous.  What is so hyper-sensitive that we could not share property management financial details with our own client?  It was ridiculous.

Confusion about use at trial.

Then, the funniest thing we had recently in a case with a Protective Order: The Order allowed use of the documents marked as “confidential” for “litigation purposes,” which to me means using them as Exhibits at depositions and at trial.

Well, opposing counsel threw a fit about me using a document — a second purchase contract that came after the one being contested at trial — as an Exhibit at Trial.  Huh?  If that’s not “litigation purposes,” I don’t know what is.

Well, the Judge agreed with me and we were able to use it at trial, but not after significant (15+ minutes) or discussion before the Judge and the Judge slobbering all over himself apologizing that this super-secret document had to come into the record.

One more thing to argue about.

The point of this blog entry is that I don’t like to use Protective Orders and they only should be requested — and permission granted — when they really are needed.  Otherwise, they become one more thing the client pays to draft, negotiate and then endlessly argue over as the litigation progresses.

Just say “no.”

 

 

As we approach our 10th anniversary (more on that to come later), here are the accomplishments and market position of Finney Law Firm, LLC and Ivy Pointe Title, LLC by the numbers.

  • 17 attorneys.
  • 9 paralegals.
  • 3 office locations.
  • 3 wins at the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 5 wins at the Ohio Supreme Court.
  • More than 18 wins at the Federal and Ohio Courts of Appeals.
  • 8 certified class actions.
  • 13,652 Tweets (now, “X”s).
  • 867 blog posts.
  • 63 newsletters.
  • 9,794 successful real estate closings (est.).
  • $56 million in property tax savings (est.).
  • 73 civil rights cases and taxpayer actions.

Thanks for being a part of it!  Much more to come!