May 5, 2016 by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing at 8:00:00 am
The late music icon Prince certainly isn’t the most famous person to have died without a will and has an estate greater than their debts. Howard Hughes, Jimi Hendrix and Pablo Picasso are among those that also died with substantial estates but no wills. Prince’s lack of a formalized, up-to-date estate plan indicates that the entertainer was much more like the rest of us than we might have ever expected.
By some estimates, more than 60 percent of Americans may not have a recognized will. However, Dallas estate planning attorney Sam Long of Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton, LLP says those estimates are misleading since everyone arguably already has a will. The question, Mr. Long says, is “whether someone has their own or the state drafts it for them,” as seems to be the case with Prince.
“If you choose the latter route by default, then the resulting beneficiaries and fiduciaries under state laws are not always as one would intend or assume,” says Mr. Long, who also serves as an adjunct professor of wills, trusts and estates at the UNT-Dallas College of Law.
“Having no will also can cause additional expense and complexity, and sometimes a greater tax burden on heirs that could have been prevented with some planning. For many people, private wealth now is passed along by beneficiary designations on IRAs, life insurance policies, multiple-party bank accounts, living trusts and/or other forms of ‘nontestamentary transfers.’ But wills still play a vital role in the succession of property at death.”
March 16, 2016 by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing at 12:00:00 pm
President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to the U.S. Supreme Court comes at a time of unprecedented turmoil within the Republican party and polarizing political debate. Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback notes that the nomination of a respected jurist like Garland creates special challenges for GOP senators. Writes Ruback:
In nominating Merrick Garland for the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, President Obama has put Republican senators in a no-win situation. As a federal court of appeals judge, Garland has been regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike as being intelligent, hard-working, and fair. Since taking his current bench in 1997, he has left a track record of politically-moderate appellate decisions. Garland’s opinions are no more liberal than those of current Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by President Reagan.
If Republican senators vote against Garland’s confirmation or refuse to conduct a vote at all, they will be perceived by swing voters as being obstructionist and uncompromising. This could jeopardize reelection bids for senators from all but the most conservative states and could also alienate voters who are undecided between voting Republican or Democrat in this fall’s presidential election. On the other hand, if Republican senators vote to confirm Garland, they will be perceived by the right wing of their party as being too willing to support Obama’s agenda. This could draw strong challenges to them in their next Republican primary. Thus, Republican senators will hurt themselves no matter what they do. No doubt, this was a deciding factor in President Obama’s decision to nominate Garland.
This is a high-stakes game of poker. If the Senate does not confirm Garland, and Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is elected president in November, neither of them will have any incentive to nominate a political moderate to fill this Supreme Court seat. While the Senate could block nominees for the handful of months remaining in Obama’s presidency, the Senate would simply be unable to block all nominees throughout a four-year presidency. So, by scuttling Garland’s nomination, Republican senators could be paving the way for a much more liberal Supreme Court justice taking the bench next year. That’s hardly the legacy that a conservative senator would want to leave.
If Republican senators are holding out for a nominee who is essentially a clone of Justice Scalia, those senators are setting themselves up for a monumental disappointment. Even if Ted Cruz became president in January, he would be unlikely to find a nominee who could match Scalia’s unique ability to meld an extremely conservative philosophy with a rapport engendering political moderate justices to sign-off on his opinions.
March 4, 2016 by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing at 12:00:00 pm
Dallas Criminal Defense Attorney John Teakell, a former federal prosecutor, discusses how the potential discovery of important forensic evidence could affect the still-open murder investigation of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman:
Forensic science and DNA enhancement technology have advanced to the point where it’s possible to retrieve minute traces of DNA evidence from blood or saliva from an object like a knife, even one that’s been exposed to the elements for months or years.
It’s ironic that we’re still talking about DNA evidence because OJ’s murder trial was such a turning point for forensic science. The public really learned about DNA evidence from the trial testimony, and shows like CSI can trace their origins straight back to the OJ trial.
If forensic evidence linking OJ Simpson to the murder is discovered, it would create a procedural challenge for prosecutors, but it would not be insurmountable. Since Simpson was found not guilty, double-jeopardy statutes would prevent Simpson from being charged with the same offense. However, prosecutors might be able to charge him with a different offense related to elements of the same crime.
A bigger problem for authorities is the years that passed between when the weapon was discovered and when the officer turned it over to detectives for analysis. That could set the stage for a repeat of the original trial defense tactics, questioning the professionalism and motives of the LAPD and the quality of the chain of evidence presented to jurors. Since the officer recently retired, he’s not likely to face any professional or legal fallout from failing to alert investigators about this potentially important piece of evidence.
Here we go again with more drama.
February 12, 2016 by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing at 10:00:00 am
The expected sentencing today of Nicholas Rotundo on one count of cyberstalking raises the question of what kind of recourse his victims have against him.
Internet lawyer Kenton Hutcherson, of Dallas’ Hutcherson Law, who has previously handled so-called revenge porn litigation, says if Rotundo in fact threatened to publish intimate photos of women on revenge porn websites in order to pressure them into sending him more intimate photos or videos, his victims would probably have a solid invasion of privacy claim against him. In addition, if he ever posted the photos or videos online, his victims would be able to seek damages and attorney’s fees under Texas’ recently enacted revenge porn statute.
“To the extent his victims sent their photos voluntarily, they probably don’t have a cause of action for invasion of privacy because they voluntarily consented to disclosing their pictures to him, albeit under false pretenses,” Hutcherson says. “However, once he threatened to publish the photos if they did not send more pictures or videos, then if they sent further pictures or videos to him, then their consent would have been coerced, and they definitely have a claim for invasion of privacy. Once he goes the extortion route, you have a pretty good claim.”
So far, it does not appear that Rotundo posted the images he received anywhere online. But if he did, his victims would be able to file a request with major search engines to remove those images from their search results.
February 10, 2016 by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing at 10:00:00 am
The Dallas City Council’s decision not to allow Exxxotica to rent space in the city-owned convention center will undoubtedly be found unconstitutional by a federal judge. If the City is going to own a convention center and lease it to private parties, the First Amendment to the Constitution precludes the City from discrimination based on the message that those private parties are wanting to express at the convention center. And, like it or not, it is well-established under federal law that erotic displays are protected under the First Amendment.
The City’s Council’s decision is short-sighted. The decision might be popular with voters who despise erotic displays. But, when a federal judge orders the City to pay a large damage award to Exxxotica, the voters might not be happy with any city council member whose vote opened the door for tax dollars to be paid to Exxxotica.
December 9, 2015 by Robert Tharp at 12:00:00 am
From the state’s first same-sex marriage to the international fallout over a student-built homemade clock mistaken as a bomb, the past 12 months have marked another eventful year for Texas legal news. Here are the Top 10 Texas Legal News Stories of 2015 as determined by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing, which specializes in public relations and marketing for law firms and legal clients from offices in Dallas and Houston.
10. US Supreme Court to Hear Texas Abortion Lawsuit
Since 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which was based on a Dallas case, Texas has been intrinsically linked to the abortion rights debate. That includes the 2013 passage of Texas HB 2, which established stringent regulations on abortion procedures, providers and facilities. Under the bill, nearly all of the state’s 44 abortion clinics would be forced to close, leaving some women more than 300 miles away from the nearest qualified doctor. One Texas lawsuit challenging the law worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced in November that it will hear the case, Whole Woman’s Health, et al. v. Cole, Comm’r, Texas DHS, et al. The ruling is expected to have repercussions for similar state laws across the country.
9. Rocky First Year for Dallas DA
Susan Hawk’s inaugural year as the first woman to be elected district attorney in Dallas County got off to a rocky start when she fired several key staff members; later, news broke that she had sought help for prescription drug use. Additional staff firings preceded a highly publicized leave of absence that lasted nearly two months while Hawk dealt with depression. Hawk returned to work in October and, despite litigation aimed at removing her from office, began fulfilling campaign promises, including personally trying and winning a murder case and holding regular public meetings. She also announced plans to create an assistance program for mentally ill offenders and to develop one of the largest pre-trial diversion programs in the nation for young offenders.
8. Jail Protocols Scrutinized after Sandra Bland Death
What started out as a simple traffic stop in the college town of Prairie View quickly spiraled out of control in a videotaped confrontation between Sandra Bland, a black woman, and state Trooper Brian Encinia, who is Hispanic. The officer had stopped her for failure to signal a lane change. An argument over Bland’s unwillingness to put out her cigarette ended with Encinia pulling her from her car as he threatened to “light (her) up” with a Taser. Booked into the local jail for resisting arrest and reportedly unable to find family or friends to post her bail, Bland was found dead in her cell three days later following an apparent suicide. Under a national media spotlight, her death raised obvious questions about law enforcement treatment of African-Americans. And it also led to an assessment of jail operators’ methods of spotting defendants at risk of suicide, as well as bail bond requirements. Bland’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit; a criminal investigation continues.
7. Same-Sex Marriage Legalized
Diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, Sarah Goodfriend needed to provide her longtime partner Suzanne Bryant with the protections that only a marriage license can deliver. On the morning of Feb. 19 following a state judge’s order, they became the first legally married same-sex couple in Texas. Attorney General Ken Paxton’s fight to void the union was mostly rendered moot in June with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. After Paxton issued a written opinion that county clerks with religious objections could opt out of issuing same-sex marriage licenses, a few initially heeded his advice while others resigned in protest as the vast majority of Texas counties quickly began issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
6. Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance Derailed
Although designed to protect 15 different classes of people in matters of employment, housing and public accommodations, the opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) assured its defeat in the November elections by focusing on just one small aspect of the ordinance – the rights of transgendered citizens to use public bathrooms. Opponents of the law ignored the protections that would be granted to other citizens based on race, age, military status, national origin and disability under HERO, instead claiming that male sexual predators could misuse the ordinance to enter women’s restrooms. Enlisting civic and religious leaders, sports heroes and citizens to campaign against passage, the opponents defeated HERO with 61 percent of the vote, leaving Houston as the largest city in the country without guaranteed nondiscrimination protections for all citizens.
5. Blue Bell Contamination
There may be no more iconic Texas-made food than Blue Bell ice cream. But love for the “little creamery in Brenham” was put to the test when listeria contamination was discovered in March following the deaths of three people in Kansas. Eight million gallons of ice cream were recalled as manufacturing plants in Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas were shut down. Even as reports of unsanitary practices and a long history of violations came to light, many supporters eagerly counted down the days until Blue Bell’s return to grocery shelves in August. But not everyone was so eager to forgive and forget. Blue Bell currently faces several lawsuits filed by those who claim to have contracted listeria, and the company also must answer a federal class-action claim regarding how customer refunds were handled.
4. Open Carry Set to Take Effect
Another Texas culinary institution, Whataburger, made headlines in July when it announced that customers would not be allowed to openly carry guns in its restaurants when the state’s open carry law takes effect on Jan. 1. Championed by defenders of the Second Amendment, the new law expands the scope of a concealed handgun license to allow licensees to carry handguns in a belt or shoulder holster while in public places. Prior to the law’s passage, Texas was one of only five states with an outright ban on open carry, but the rollback of the 140-year-old ban has helped Texas bolster its reputation as a pro-gun state. Only a bare minimum of restrictions have been placed on open carry. Locations that can ban guns include bars, large sporting events, school grounds and courthouses, with private businesses such as Whataburger being allowed to determine for themselves how to respond to the new law.
3. Student’s Homemade Clock Creates Firestorm
A clock made by a 14-year-old Irving MacArthur High School student of Sudanese descent set off a firestorm when a teacher reported that she thought it resembled a bomb. After bringing the clock to class, Ahmed Mohamed was sequestered, questioned and taken into police custody before being released with no charges filed against him. The boy and his family say he was the victim of racial profiling, and Ahmed has earned worldwide fame as a result of the incident. In November, the Mohamed family’s attorneys sent letters to the city of Irving and the school district outlining their grievances and demanding $15 million to resolve the dispute. No lawsuit has been filed as yet.
2. Biker Shootout at Twin Peaks in Waco
On a seemingly otherwise unremarkable Sunday in May, a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco became ground zero for a shootout between rival motorcycle gangs that left nine bikers dead. A reported fight over a parking space preceded the gunfire between the warring bikers before police responded with shots of their own. Police arrested 192 bikers, confiscating hundreds of weapons of all types in the process. With each defendant initially facing a $1 million bond, many remained in jail for months and McLennan County was required to request public defender assistance from eight surrounding counties. The last of those arrested was released at the end of October, followed by the announcement of sealed indictments of nine defendants in November. Claims that police and prosecutors have mishandled the case have resulted in numerous allegations of civil rights violations and at least one negligence lawsuit filed against Twin Peaks.
1. Texas Top Politicians Face Legal Troubles
Former Gov. Rick Perry did not find much relief when the calendar flipped to 2015. Initially indicted in 2014, he continued to fight first-degree felony charges for alleged abuse of power while governor, along with an additional third-degree felony claim of coercion. Calling the charges politically motivated, his attorneys appeared before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in November to argue that the charges be dismissed. By then, however, the damage had already been done. With the charges still hanging over him, Perry suspended his presidential campaign to become the first to drop out of the crowded Republican primary field for next year’s election. Another high-ranking Texas politician, Attorney General Ken Paxton faces his own legal battles. The state’s first sitting attorney general to be indicted since Jim Mattox was hit with bribery charges in 1983, Paxton faces a potential of 99 years in prison if convicted of three felony counts of securities fraud and failure to register with state securities board. He is accused of misleading investors while serving in the Texas House of Representatives by convincing them to contribute more than $600,000 toward a technology company without acknowledging that he was earning a commission.
July 14, 2015 by Kaitlyn Piazza at 12:00:00 pm
The baseball world has been buzzing about the federal investigation into whether St. Louis Cardinals employees illegally gained access to a Houston Astros' database containing proprietary information on players. Last week, the Cardinals fired the team's scouting director, although he denies wrongdoing. CNN has reported that federal investigators are recommending charges against at least one St. Louis employee. "Data security is an FBI priority, so this investigation is not surprising if there is any evidence of illegal access," says Houston's Sheryl A. Falk of Winston & Strawn LLP, who has handled data breach investigations and theft of trade secrets litigation.
- Writes The New York Times: Investigators have uncovered evidence that Cardinals employees broke into a network of the Astros that housed special databases the team had built, law enforcement officials said. Internal discussions about trades, proprietary statistics and scouting reports were compromised, said the officials, who were not authorized to discuss a continuing investigation. The officials did not say which employees were the focus of the investigation or whether the team’s highest-ranking officials were aware of the hacking or authorized it. The investigation is being led by the F.B.I.’s Houston field office and has progressed to the point that subpoenas have been served on the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for electronic correspondence.
- Writes Fox Sports: ST. LOUIS -- High-level executives of the St. Louis Cardinals were not involved in the hacking of the Houston Astros' player personnel database, an attorney hired by the team said Wednesday, citing an internal review.
- Writes American Lawyer: On the cleated heels of Deflategate and soccer's global corruption crisis, the scandal-prone pro sports community is in need of legal advice yet again—this time related to alleged Major League foul play involving the St. Louis Cardinals. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing Cardinals personnel for allegedly hacking into Houston Astros databases that house team strategies, including information on scouting and trades.
"Hacking into the Astros database suggests a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which could mean a fine and/or imprisonment of up to five years. A civil suit also is a possibility." Falk says it is more common for a company to suffer a cyberattack "from a malicious insider, such as a former employee - someone with a grudge or someone leaving to join a competitor. So it's important to have monitoring systems that can spot suspicious computer access right away."
June 25, 2015 by Kaitlyn Piazza at 10:00:00 am
Cybercriminals are committing identity theft by targeting Americans' health records, which sell on the black market for 10 to 20 times more than credit card numbers. Houston attorney Mark Thibodeaux advises health care companies on cyberattacks in his role as deputy practice leader of the cybersecurity and privacy team at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP.
• Politico Reports: “Over the past year, hacks of insurers Anthem, Premera and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and the CommunityHealth Systems hospital chain compromised about 95 million patient records. Crooks use medical records for identity theft, medical insurance fraud and plain old financial thievery. It’s believed that Chinese hackers have penetrated health care systems in search of valuable intellectual property concerning drugs and devices.”
• Long Island Business News Reports: “As hackers move stealthily from industry to industry, healthcare networks have swiftly jumped to the top of their list of targets. In addition to containing personally identifiable information, such as date of birth and Social Security number, medical records also comprise highly sensitive, protected health information, which may include, for example, psychiatry or HIV records.”
"In addition to the economic drivers, it appears that recent cyberattacks on health insurers and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management are at least partly an effort to gather key information about government workers and possibly those with links to dissident movements in their countries," says Thibodeaux. "These attacks show signs of deep research, targeting those who might have access to important information the hackers want. Unfortunately, health records are often inadequately protected by outdated techniques and software. These recent attacks should encourage health care companies to dramatically improve their defenses."
June 23, 2015 by Kaitlyn Piazza at 4:00:00 pm
Insurance expert Mark Kincaid is advising business owners to brace for battle when they seek payment from their insurance companies for flood losses. "Unfortunately, business owners sometimes assume they have coverage when they don't, or they find that what they've been told by an agent is not, ultimately, what is covered in their policy," he says. Kincaid, the former head of the Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel, is now a partner in Austin's George Brothers Kincaid & Horton LLP.
- According to The Dallas Morning News: “Dallas reported about $50 million in storm damage. Carrollton, Garland, Grand Prairie and Irving each reported at least $2 million in losses.”
- According to ABC 13 Eyewitness News: “Experts say it's not a bad idea to wait for an adjuster, but not to wait too long. Flood insurance policies are written by many insurance agents, but almost all backed by the US Government through FEMA. As with any government program, not following the rules and complying with deadlines can lead to denials.”
- According to KRMG News in Tulsa: “If you had the foresight to enroll in the National Flood Insurance Program, it's important that you realize you only have a limited amount of time in which to file proof of loss. Consumers only have sixty days in which to file their flood loss claims.”
Kincaid advises business owners to notify their insurance agent and insurance company immediately about damage and losses and to be prepared for insurance company "traps" that cause some owners to give up on legitimate claims or settle for pennies on the dollar.
June 22, 2015 by Kaitlyn Piazza at 2:00:00 pm
The record rainfall and resulting floods that have plagued Texas and surrounding states in recent weeks should prompt business owners and managers to consider their bad weather policies and practices. "Employers may show a bit of a double standard if they focus on the hazards of driving to work in snow or ice, but negate the very real hazards of stormy weather," says employment attorney Mark Shank of Dallas' Gruber Hurst Elrod Johansen Hail Shank. "As we've seen, commuting in heavy rain can present its own set of dangers and delays for employees, and corresponding liability and morale risks for employers."
- Writes Houston Chronicle: “Generally speaking, companies don't have to pay their hourly wage workers for the time they don't work. But just following the letter of the law may not be the best approach to good employee relations during stressful weather disasters. That can be especially true when city and county leaders are advising residents to stay home to avoid the dangerous high water and residents are receiving frightening text messages about imminent flash flooding.”
- Writes U.S. News: “Your employer can require you to come to work despite severe weather. That said, a reasonable employer – and even employers that aren’t generally reasonable in other situations – will make allowances for employees who cannot safely make it in.”
Shank advises businesses to have a written, comprehensive plan for all types of weather emergencies that covers telecommuting, responsibilities for communication, and compensation. "In general a business can establish its own payment policies for inclement weather days, especially for non-exempt employees. But the key is having those policies communicated, followed and understood by all managers and staff."
June 16, 2015 by Kaitlyn Piazza at 2:00:00 pm
The nation’s unemployment rate continues to hover just over 5 percent, but one occupation is facing a growing demand and a shrinking workforce. The trucking industry has a current shortfall of some 35,000 to 40,000, a figure that could grow to as many as 240,000 drivers by 2022. One result of the shortage is increased costs for shippers as carriers step up efforts to recruit and retain drivers.
According to The Wall Street Journal: “Experts say there are many reasons behind the shortage, including more stringent work requirements as safety regulations have expanded and low pay that, despite recent gains, has made the tough working conditions tougher to bear. But trucking is also driving headlong into demographic reality: its workforce is getting older, and younger Americans are showing less interest in a career on the highway.”
“The industry is caught between the need for attracting new drivers and the need for experienced drivers,” says Dallas trucking defense attorney H. Peyton Inge IV of Chamblee, Ryan, Kershaw & Anderson. “Companies are increasing pay, expanding training programs, providing signing bonuses and looking for creative ways to address driver retention and satisfaction.” Inge notes that the shortage coincides with more stringent safety regulations and a rise in trucking-related litigation.”
June 9, 2015 by Kaitlyn Piazza at 12:00:00 pm
More than two weeks after the deadly biker gang-related shooting at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, a majority of the 177 arrested remain in jail with bail set at $1 million.Concerns about due process have risen to the point that the presiding administrative judge for Texas’ Third Judicial District, Billy Ray Stubblefield, expects to travel to Waco this week to meet with two district judges and brainstorm about ways to accelerate the bond hearings for more than 130 jailed bikers.
- Writes Texas Lawyer: “Before his trip, retired District Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, who still presides as administrative judge for the Third Judicial District, expressed disappointment about the weeks it has taken for the Waco courts to conduct bond hearings for the majority of the bikers. ‘Due process delayed is due process denied,’ Stubblefield said. ‘I would have been happier if this had been able to be accomplished more rapidly.’"
- Writes Dallas Morning News in a lead editorial this morning: “Three weeks have passed since the biker gang shootout in Waco that left nine dead and 18 wounded. Yet surprisingly little information has emerged to justify the incarceration of about 120 people, many of whom appear guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Without question, egregious criminal activity occurred outside the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco. Some bikers, mainly from the rival Bandidos and Cossacks gangs, appear to have arrived at the restaurant armed and ready to do battle.”
Dallas criminal defense attorney John Teakell of The Law Offices of John R. Teakell notes that police, prosecutors and judges are bound by the U.S. Constitution to ensure that there was sufficient probable cause for each individual arrest. The accused also must be promptly notified of the charges against them and bail amounts must not be set excessively high as a form of punishment.
“This was a horrific shooting and a fluid crime scene,” says Teakell, a former state and federal prosecutor. “But after more than two weeks, there is a real concern that innocent individuals remain in jail, awaiting a reasonable bail amount and a chance to know the charges against them so that they can defend themselves.”
February 11, 2015 by Dave Moore at 2:05:00 pm
The recent developments in the public corruption case against Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price illustrate the devastating impact federal court actions and investigations can have on defendants, even if they’re later cleared of charges. Price faced a firestorm of public criticism when he sought court assistance in paying for his legal defense, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
“On the surface, a lot of people would think that (court assistance) is something he should not qualify for,” John R. Teakell, a federal criminal defense attorney in Dallas, said in a recent interview on the Stinchfield Report. “But I think the point he was making was that he had a lot of assets that were seized from him, and accounts frozen. So, he has limited resources.”
Teakell, who has handled numerous cases involving the government seizure of assets, says it’s common for many federal cases to result in reduced charges or no conviction, yet the resulting damage from the charge lingers.“It happens a lot,” says Teakell. “Even in cases where someone comes to a plea agreement for a reduced charge, when the outcome doesn’t hurt them too badly, they’ve still had to spend resources on an attorney. A lot of people lose their jobs, because they’re arrested and charged. It affects their reputation; if they had a business, it can knock out their business. It’s devastating.”
January 12, 2015 by Dave Moore at 4:00:00 pm
An upcoming United States Supreme Court case – Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Projects Inc. – demonstrates the ripple effect the Court can have on how business is done in the United States.
On Jan. 21, the Court will hear arguments over whether Texas discriminates and violates fair housing laws when it decides where federally subsidized low-income affordable housing developments are built. But in agreeing to hear the case, the Supreme Court has agreed to clarify the use of a principle called the “disparate impact” theory.
The disparate impact theory suggests that discrimination can still occur even if an institution’s business policies are designed to avoid prejudice. If those policies are shown to disproportionately impact one protected group more than another, the theory states that discrimination has occurred, despite efforts to avoid it.
“Because the federal government uses the theory in settling fair-lending cases, this decision could affect not only affordable housing in the U.S. but also the automobile finance industry and banking industry," says Dallas attorney John Shackelford, managing partner at Shackelford, Melton, McKinley & Norton, L.P.
Shackelford, who has more than 20 years of experience representing financial institutions, automobile dealerships and real estate developers in land acquisition, tax-credit acquisition and approval matters, can readily see the ripple effect that the Court's decision can have on major sectors of the U.S. economy.
December 11, 2014 by Dave Moore at 3:00:00 pm
From Texas' multiple Ebola diagnoses to an indicted governor to lawsuits over immigration policy, the Lone Star State once again was at the forefront of the country’s top legal news for 2014. Following are the state’s top legal news stories this year as determined by the staff at Androvett Legal Media & Marketing.
10. Mexico Announces Energy Reform
After three-quarters of a century, Mexico’s federal government moved to end its complete control of the country’s energy production in 2014. A bill signed by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in August set numerous wheels in motion: The government now is establishing ground rules for private investment in energy while sorting out what oil fields should remain with Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex. The move toward privatization has spurred Texas energy companies and law firms alike to prepare for an increased number of transactions and greater activity in exploring Mexico’s energy potential.
9. Adrian Peterson Pleads No Contest
In a case that grabbed international headlines and roused spirited debate over corporal punishment, NFL standout running back Adrian Peterson pleaded no contest to a Texas charge that he injured his 4-year-old son while disciplining him in May 2014. Prosecutors alleged that Peterson struck his son with a thin tree branch, or “switch.” Peterson remains suspended by the NFL while the league decides when he should return, with media outlets predicting that Peterson will not return to the field this season. An East Texas native, Peterson holds numerous NFL records, including the most yards rushed in a single game, and the second-most yards rushed in a single season.
8. Undocumented Immigrant Children Pouring In
Texas made national headlines in July when immigration officials announced a sudden surge in unaccompanied children crossing the Texas-Mexico border. The state’s Office of Refugee Resettlement reported handling more than 42,000 children in the first half of 2014, compared to only 24,668 in all of 2013. Communities across the state offered to set up facilities to accommodate the children, who are fleeing from gang violence, sexual assaults and kidnapping. The influx of immigrant children further intensified political arguments over U.S. border-enforcement policies, with lawsuits coming from Texas and other states.
7. Governor-Elect Abbott Continues to Sue Feds
Prior to the July 2013 launch of his campaign for Texas governor, Attorney General Greg Abbott proudly claimed, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and then I go home.” Abbot has sued the federal government more than 30 times. In early December, he joined 17 states in suing President Barack Obama for his executive order suspending deportations of immigrants with clean criminal records. Abbott and the co-plaintiffs say they have standing to sue because state taxpayers will be left on the hook for expenses related to health care, education, and police to handle illegal immigrants who now have federal permission to stay in the U.S. without permanent citizenship.
6. Lethal Injections Continue Despite Drug Controversy
As a result of highly publicized shortages of the drugs used for legal injection, Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma have begun relying on various cocktails of drugs to execute those sentenced to death. However, Texas continued to find a way to obtain pentobarbital for the same purpose even though the manufacturer stopped sales in 2011. While many anesthesiologists say a single, fatal dose of pentobarbital – the same drug used to euthanize animals – likely is painless, critics question whether the drug is actually used by Texas since the state won’t disclose its source. State District Judge Darlene Byrne of Austin ordered the state to identify its lethal drug supplier in December after ruling the information should be public. Related lawsuits continue to work their way through Texas courts. Since 2012, Texas has fatally injected more than 40 inmates, at least three times more than any other state.
5. BP Slapped for Gross Negligence
In September, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans issued gross negligence findings against energy giant BP Plc. in a criminal case stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 people and leaked 208 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The London-based oil company presumably hoped for a negligence finding, but the judge completely rejected BP’s arguments, clearing the way for possible fines of up to $18 billion. The judge found BP largely responsible before assigning lesser blame to rig operator Transocean and Houston-based contractor Halliburton. BP previously pleaded guilty to 14 federal charges for the explosion and for obstructing a related Congressional investigation. Now, BP has until January before it will hear how much the court says the company should pay.
4. Denton Bans Fracking
Denton’s voter-approved citywide ban on fracking unleashed a firestorm of litigation and heated debate over land and property rights in a state whose economy is largely built on oil and gas. In early November, 58 percent of Denton’s voters approved a referendum that drastically restricts drillers’ efforts to employ hydraulic fracturing of oil and natural gas. Within hours of the vote, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Commission filed lawsuits attempting to declare the ordinance illegal based on claims that municipalities do not have the authority to govern drilling. Since then, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other interest groups have aligned with Denton voters to support the ban in the ongoing dispute.
3. Voter ID Law Approved
In the balancing act between eliminating voter fraud and potentially disenfranchising voters, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 2011 Texas law requiring voters to present a valid photo ID at polling places. The high court’s unsigned opinion did not spell out the reasoning for upholding the law, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not hide her opinion in an accompanying dissent. “The greatest threat to public confidence in elections . . . is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters,” Ginsburg wrote.
2. Ground Zero for Ebola
Infectious disease experts knew the United States eventually would see its first case of Ebola, but the when and where were unknown. The answer came in September, with Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas as ground zero. Thomas Eric Duncan’s well-publicized early dismissal from the hospital’s emergency room and his death in early October dominated international headlines. The nurses who treated him, Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson, were diagnosed with Ebola and later recovered. With the media and public focused on the hospital’s alleged lack of protocols and proper equipment for handling the deadly disease, Presbyterian Dallas ultimately apologized to Duncan’s family and reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount.
1. Gov. Rick Perry Indicted
Texas political wonks got a crash course in criminal justice in August with the indictment of Gov. Rick Perry on a first-degree felony charge for allegedly abusing his power and a third-degree felony claim of coercion. The charges came after a Travis County grand jury found a potential smoking gun when Perry made good on his threat to cut funding for the state’s Public Integrity Unit. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg leads the unit, which lost funding after the DA refused Perry’s ultimatum that she resign following her arrest for driving under the influence. A month after the indictment, Perry’s political action committee printed T-shirts with his mug shot. Perry’s well-heeled defense team has vowed to fight the charges until the bitter end.
October 28, 2014 by Dave Moore at 3:30:00 pm
Far too often, the practice of law focuses on fixing blame and seeking cash awards, rather than solving problems. In a column recently published by Texas Lawyer, Bill Chamblee discusses how Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas – which treated the first U.S. Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan – became the proving ground for how to take ownership of medical mishaps.
Amidst all the panic, hysteria and moral indignation, leaders at Presbyterian Dallas did something unexpected by personally apologizing to Duncan's fiancée, Louise Troh, and taking responsibility for what happened.
"This official said the hospital was 'deeply sorry' for the way this tragedy played out," Troh said in the statement released to the media. "I am grateful to the hospital for this personal call. I am grateful to God that this leader reached out and took responsibility for the hospital's actions. Hearing this information will help me as I mourn Eric's death."
Suddenly, the discussion no longer focused on how Presbyterian Dallas wronged a West African carrier of Ebola and threatened the public health. The hospital's apology shifted the conversation to the importance of caring for people such as Mr. Duncan who have contracted the Ebola virus. Most would agree that it was inevitable that Ebola would appear somewhere in our country, but the important question was how our health care providers and government officials would respond.
Chamblee, who has defended health care providers for 29 years, adds that medical professionals frequently overlook the fact that a kind word, a thoughtful gesture and an open ear can prevent lawsuits from patients who are unhappy about a medical outcome.
September 22, 2014 by Robert Tharp at 4:40:00 pm
More than a few called Dallas attorney Mark Werbner quixotic when he first posed a complex legal argument more than 10 years ago on behalf of a group of American victims of terror attacks in Israel. Over the subsequent decade the civil action would extend its reach around the world with claims that Arab Bank, an international Jordan-based bank, should be held responsible for a wave of suicide bombings in the early 2000s that left several Americans dead or wounded.
On Monday in a Brooklyn federal courtroom – more than five weeks after jury selection began in the long-awaited trial – jurors returned a verdict for Werbner’s clients, finding that the bank should be held responsible.
Writes the AP this afternoon:
The high-stakes legal offshoot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had pitted American victims of terror attacks in Israel in the early 2000s against an international bank with several branches in Gaza and the West Bank. The victims sued in 2004, accusing the bank of knowingly helping Hamas fund a "death and dismemberment benefit plan" for martyrs from the occupied territories. The civil action marked the first time a bank had faced a trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows victims of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations to seek compensation. The U.S. State Department designated Hamas a terrorist group in 1997.
During closing arguments last week, Werbner, co-founder of Dallas-based Sayles Werbner, acknowledged the challenge in bringing a case of such importance to trial.
“What am I doing here? What difference will it make?” he told jurors. “You know what’s going on in the world since then. It’s not any better. You know what we’re facing.”
The argument's complexity was obvious to international media watching the trial.
The burden of proof was high, notes the New York Times. The plaintiffs had to prove that the terrorist attacks were indeed conducted by Hamas, and that the bank’s support of Hamas was the “proximate cause” of the events. In addition, the plaintiffs had to demonstrate that their injuries were “reasonably foreseeable” as a consequence of the bank’s acts.
After 10 years of litigation and a five-week trial, the jury apparently found that the plaintiffs met the legal threshold, and ruled that the bank was liable. A separate hearing will be held to determine damages.
September 17, 2014 by Dave Moore at 12:00:00 am
There’s no doubt that prearranged bankruptcies have become popular in the realm of corporate reorganizations. There are plenty of reasons: many key players are incorporated into the process of settling debt issues; they’re much quicker and (as a result) less expensive than traditional bankruptcies; and the company can continue to operate throughout the process.
But, as Dallas bankruptcy attorney Rakhee Patel wrote (paywall-protected link here) recently for Texas Lawbook, something unanticipated happened in the prearranged bankruptcy planned for Energy Future Holdings (EFH) and its subsidiaries:
From the start of the bankruptcy process, one of EFH’s main goals has been a tax-free spinoff of its TXU Energy division. However, an unexpected wrinkle arose when a competitive bidding war emerged relating in part to the Oncor division, resulting in EFH potentially having more value than initially thought.
Patel, a partner in the restructuring and bankruptcy section of Shackelford, Melton, McKinley & Norton, LLP, indicates that the increased value of the Oncor division effectively nixed the prearranged bankruptcy planned for Energy Future Holdings, very likely increasing the length and expense of the bankruptcy.
The gain in Oncor’s value in the EFH reorganization might reinforce the maxim: Good things come to those who wait.
July 15, 2014 by Dave Moore at 12:00:00 am
One in seven people worldwide use Microsoft Office. Civilized free time is dominated by Netflix and Facebook. Many of our communications depend on smartphones.
Since modern society leans so heavily on software that operates those and other technological wonders, many had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would define what sort of software deserves legal patent protection when it decided Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank.
To some degree, it did just that.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling … confirms that United States patent laws will continue to protect investors who create truly innovative software,” Dallas patent litigation attorney Adam Sanderson told Texas Lawbook’s Jeff Bounds recently. In the case of Alice Corp., however, the Supreme Court determined that abstract ideas aren’t patentable, even if they involve the use of computers to help apply them. However, the court stopped short of defining what is patentable.
“Software presents a special challenge to courts because it has not always been easy to recognize when a software engineer has done enough to ‘transform’ a mere idea into a new and useful invention,” Sanderson, a partner at Dallas-based Reese Gordon Marketos, told Lawbook.
Since the question of what’s a truly innovative patent has yet to be answered, it’s likely the Supreme Court will face the question again.
May 13, 2014 by Robert Tharp at 3:15:00 pm
Popular comedian and top-rated iTunes podcaster Adam Carolla is going on the offensive to defend himself in a suit filed against him in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas by so-called patent troll Personal Audio Inc. The company claims Carolla is infringing its patent for podcasting technology. But Carolla says he will not settle, and he’s calling on crowd funding to raise money for his defense.
Writes Inside Counsel:
James Logan, founder of PersonalAudio, claims he has never made a podcast, but has helped create the medium of podcasting in 1996 – and he has the patents to prove it. According to USA Today, in a legal battle, PersonalAudio is suing comedian Carolla's ACE Broadcasting, two other podcasters and networks Fox, CBS and NBC, claiming they are infringing on his intellectual property. According to The Economist, PersonalAudio once owned a patent on customized cassette tapes with current news. It updated that patent in 2009 to cover any serialized podcast that can be downloaded from a specific URL.
Before the trial begins in September, Carolla is raising money for legal fees against patent trolls. According to Carolla, he needs $1.5 million to face PersonalAudio in an East Texas courtroom that has been favored by patent litigants. So far, Carolla has pulled in just over $370,000 on the Fundanything.com, including a $20,000 donation from e-commerce giant Amazon.
“Carolla argues that Personal Audio is not a legitimate patent owner enforcing its ‘technology ownership rights’ but rather an entity formed for no redeeming industry purpose with no intention to ever manufacture or market the patented invention,” says intellectual property attorney William Munck of Dallas’ Munck Wilson Mandala. “Carolla’s argument strikes a nerve because what he argues Personal Audio is doing feels un-American. The U.S. patent system is broken. The Patent and Trademark Office issues too many fundamentally flawed patents that years later place tremendous financial burdens on U.S. businesses defending against cost-of-defense patent trolls.”
April 11, 2014 by Dave Moore at 12:00:00 am
In a recent interview published in the Dallas Business Journal, Dallas trial lawyer Bill Chamblee explained the 76 percent spike in the number of cases before the Texas Medical Board.
Chamblee, who handles cases on behalf of physicians facing actions before the Texas Medical Board, says that when Texas passed laws that capped noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, it also expanded the enforcement powers of the state.
The Dallas Business Journal’s Bill Hethcock writes:
Once tort reform passed, measures such as a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages took away plaintiff’s lawyers’ financial incentive to pursue cases, Chamblee added.
“Even though a plaintiff’s attorney today might believe there was negligence on the part of a health care provider, the economics aren’t there to pursue it,” he [Chamblee] said. “So the plaintiff’s lawyer will tell the client, 'The only real avenue is to file a board complaint.’”
Texas isn’t alone in this phenomenon. Other states that implemented tort reform, including California, Florida and others, have seen an increase in medical board complaints and investigations as well, said Chamblee, managing partner of Chamblee, Ryan, Kershaw & Anderson.
The winners in this sea change?
“Tort reform primarily — not exclusively, but primarily — benefited health care professionals,” Chamblee told Hethcock.
March 7, 2014 by Robert Tharp at 4:10:00 pm
KTRK-TV in Houston recently piggybacked on the popularity of ABC’s hit show “Scandal” by seeking out a real-life local example of the show’s brilliant fixer, Olivia Pope. They found her in Androvett Legal Media’s own Mary Flood.
In a segment that aired on the opening night of the show’s new season, KTRK’s Melanie Lawson spoke with Mary about the show (she’s a big fan), the challenges of crisis-related public relations, and how her real-world professional life differs from what viewers see on “Scandal.”
While Mary hasn’t had to deal with any PR-crises involving dead bodies (yet), she routinely helps clients navigate the media gauntlet. The stakes can be high, often involving professional reputations or critical business conflicts and criminal or ethical questions. Discretion is at a premium here, so anyone wanting juicy stories will have to stick to “Scandal.”
Those who find themselves in a jam listen to Mary because she has the professional bona fides – she’s a Harvard-trained lawyer and a former nationally respected news reporter – but also because she doesn’t put any shellac on her advice.
“We find out what the true story is, and we remind them that you never, ever, ever lie,” she tells KTRK.
A full list of our crisis-communications advice can be found here.
March 4, 2014 by Robert Tharp at 3:30:00 pm
Business analysts are expecting a jump in the number of H-1B visa applications filed this year by U.S. companies trying to fill coveted science, technology and engineering jobs. As many as 160,000 or more foreign-worker visa applications are expected when the H-1B visa filing season begins April 1. While job offers are plentiful, the H-1B applicants will be vying for 85,000 available visas this year. Businesses must seek the visas because U.S. universities are simply not turning out enough U.S. students with these specialized skills.
“It just shows the U.S. still lags behind other countries when it comes to an emphasis on educating American-born students in computer science, math and other areas," said Dallas immigration attorney Marc Klein of Thompson & Knight in an interview with CNBC.
"So many get advanced degrees at American universities that natural-born citizens don't receive, and (which) are needed for the hard-to-fill jobs," he said. "They go home, and yet so many of them make up the number of applications to work here."
Writes CNBC: It's not just the areas of technology and science that are seeing a need for foreign-born workers in the U.S., Klein added. He said he's processing applications for jobs in accounting, advertising and architecture.
H-1B visas have been part of immigration reform talks that have stalled in Congress, with many on Capitol Hill and the business community— especially those in high-tech industries—urging the government to raise the 85,000 limit or remove it completely. With reform stalled in Congress, the quota will remain for now.
Some U.S. business leaders say they have no problem finding American-born workers for the high-tech jobs that often go to foreign nationals. However, Klein said the economics indicate otherwise.
"It's not cheap to try and get H-1B visas," he said. "Companies don't really want the expense if they can avoid it. But they're having trouble avoiding it."
February 20, 2014 by Robert Tharp at 11:28:00 am
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases next week in which businesses are seeking to recover attorney fees for the cost of defending frivolous lawsuits. The two cases – Highmark Inc v. Allcare Health Management Systems, Inc. and Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc.– ask the Court to revisit the Patent Act and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and invoke “loser pays” fee-shifting in patent disputes.
“Making fee-shifting more common in patent litigation could be one tool to help control the rise in filings from patent trolls or so-called non-practicing entities,” says intellectual property attorney Matthew Anderson of Dallas’ Munck Wilson Mandala.
Indeed, patent infringement lawsuits filed by non-practicing entities have risen sharply, costing U.S. businesses dearly. According to RPX Corporation, patent trolls in 2012 filed more than 2,900 infringement lawsuits nationwide (nearly six times higher than the number in 2006).
The cost of defending against bogus patent litigation reached $29 billion in 2011, according to a Boston University study. Lawsuits by "patent assertion companies" made up 61 percent of all patent cases filed in 2012, according to the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Meanwhile, this litigation trend is ncreasingly targeting smaller businesses. In 2005 patent trolls sued 800 small firms (those with less than $100 million annual revenue), the number growing to nearly 2,900 such firms in 2011; the median defendant's annual revenue was $10.3 million.
“Even frivolous patent lawsuits can be extremely expensive for businesses to defend against," Mr. Anderson says. "The Court here has an opportunity to expand the definition of what constitutes an ‘exceptional case’ that allows fee-shifting. A broader application of fee-shifting could discourage trolls from filing suits that are frivolous or primarily aimed at ‘shaking down’ the defendants for a quick settlement.”
January 17, 2014 by Robert Tharp at 11:55:00 am
Now that adults over age 21 in Colorado can purchase and consume marijuana without fear of prosecution under state law, hospitality industry entrepreneurs are already gearing up for a boom in what they’re calling “weed tourism.” Imagine just 5 percent of the state’s 60 million visitors testing the newly decriminalized recreational marijuana market – that’s roughly 3 million individuals that Slate describes as “wealthy old stoners” on the equivalent of a Napa Valley wine tour.
But it’s not that simple. The Colorado law creates confusion for marijuana tourists who might not realize that while smoking small amounts of marijuana will not get you arrested in Colorado, the actions may run afoul of employment policies back home. After all, evidence of a weekend of smoking weed in Colorado could still show up in employment-related blood tests 30 days later. Many job candidates and employees in certain occupations must undergo periodic drug screenings. Meanwhile, workers involved in on-the-job accidents are often required to submit to a drug test. Even if an employee isn't intoxicated at the time of the incident, a drug test that returns positive for marijuana could jeopardize a career.
"Employers everywhere should view this as an opportunity to review HR handbooks and policies to ensure that, for example, policies are crystal-clear for workers who may be subject to for-cause, post-accident or random drug tests," says employment attorney Audrey Mross of Dallas' Munck Wilson Mandala. "Making sure that workers know and understand employment policies is far preferable to being surprised by consequences that can end a career. A well-written handbook is a great medium for conveying that information."
December 18, 2013 by Dave Moore at 9:30:00 am
There certainly was no shortage of angst and drama in the Texas legal scene during 2013. From the state's new restrictive abortion law taking effect to billionaire Mark Cuban escaping insider-trading charges, the Lone Star State once again was home to some of the nation's most intriguing legal news. Following is a list of the year's top Texas legal stories as determined by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing, which specializes in work for law firms and legal clients:
1. Perry signs voter ID law
After a six-year legislative battle, Gov. Rick Perry signed Texas' version of a voter ID law. Effective Oct. 21, voters now must present one of five forms of identification before they can cast a ballot. Supporters argued that the law was needed to curtail voter fraud. Opponents argued that voter fraud is rare, and that the new law's actual intention is to reduce voter turnout, mostly among Democrats.
2. Texas abortion law survives appeals
Texas' new abortion law survived a significant challenge when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in November. Shortly after an earlier injunction that blocked the law was lifted, Planned Parenthood reported 12 of Texas' 36 licensed abortion providers stopped offering abortions. The case now will be heard by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January.
3. New Chief at Supreme Court of Texas
After 25 years on the bench, Wallace Jefferson stepped down as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas in October. Gov. Rick Perry selected Nathan Hecht – who has served for 24 years on the court – as Jefferson’s successor. Hecht's appointment caused many pundits and other observers to speculate that the court won't change its pro-business stance in the near future.
4. Harris County DA Mike Anderson dies; widow appointed successor
In May 2013, after serving just five months in office, Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson announced he had cancer. Four months later, he passed away, leaving his seat vacant. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Anderson's widow, Devon Anderson, to complete her late husband's unexpired term. Anderson spent 12 years as a felony criminal court judge after serving 16 years as a prosecutor. The new DA previously worked as a criminal defense attorney and served as a state district judge.
5. American Airlines merger with US Airways approved, DOJ drops case
Air travelers breathed a collective sigh of relief in November when the Department of Justice dropped its antitrust case against American Airlines and US Airways, effectively approving the two airlines' merger. Key to the DOJ's decision were concessions by both airlines to give up gates at Reagan National Airport near Washington, D.C., LaGuardia Airport in New York, and others. That compromise eased the federal government's fears that the merger will result in a monopoly.
6. First phase of the DeepWater Horizon case concludes, first criminal trial starts
Energy giant BP and its partners, Transocean Ltd. and Halliburton, went to civil trial in February on charges that they were responsible for causing one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in U.S. history. The second phase of the trial began in late September, focusing on the extent of the damage and which party/parties were responsible. The final decision could result in more than $13 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, and possibly tens of billions more in punitive damages. Earlier this month, the first criminal trial started for a former BP engineer, who faces obstruction of justice charges.
7. Jury clears Mark Cuban of insider trading
Dallas Mavericks owner and billionaire Mark Cuban stood his ground against the Securities Exchange Commission, which claimed he used insider information to avoid a $750,000 stock loss in one of the year's highest profile insider trading cases. Cuban’s victory lap following the October verdict was more somber than his exuberant celebration of the Mavs' World Championship in 2011. "This is a horrific example of how government does work," Cuban told reporters who gathered around him following the verdict. "I won't be bullied. I don't care if it’s the United States government."
8. Houston-area judges under fire
It would be an understatement to say that 2013 was a bad year for Houston-area judges. County Court-at-Law Judge Christopher Dupuy resigned after pleading guilty to abuse of office and perjury. Houston federal Judge Lynn Hughes and Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both came under fire for racially-charged comments. And Harris County Family Law Judge Denise Pratt was accused of falsifying court records.
9. Enron's Jeff Skilling’s sentence reduced, appeals end
The vestiges of the Enron collapse continued to wash ashore in Texas courts in 2013. In June, a federal judge trimmed 10 years from the 24-year sentence for Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, saying trial Judge Sim Lake erred in determining Skilling's sentence. The resentencing will free up about $41 million in assets from Skilling's estate to be distributed to victims of the fraud. This includes about $3 million from the sale of a Dallas condominium and a Houston home Skilling owned, funds from bank accounts, and $5 million he posted as bond when he was first indicted.
10. Lance Armstrong admits drug lies, unleashes torrent of litigation
Embracing the newfound American tradition of "televised confession makes everything OK," Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey on national television that he'd lied for 10 years about being drug free when he racked up seven Tour de France victories. Soon after his January confession, former Armstrong sponsors started lining up to claim that the disgraced athlete committed fraud when he accepted their money while claiming to be clean. Among those is the U.S. Postal Service, which seeks $100 million.
11. Kaufman County district attorneys assassinated
First, Kaufman County assistant district attorney Mark Hasse was gunned down in broad daylight near the county courthouse. That case was still unsolved when Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia, fell in a hail of gunfire in their own home two months later. The horrific murders sparked rumors that white supremacists were waging open war against the Texas legal community before authorities arrested former Kaufman County Justice of the Peace Eric Williams and his wife, Kim, on murder charges. Investigators believe the hits were in retaliation for Williams' dismissal from his JP job for allegedly stealing county property.
12. Brownsville courthouse corruption
A multi-year federal investigation into corruption at the Cameron County courthouse led to the December sentencing of Austin attorney Marc Rosenthal to 20 years in prison for racketeering and bribery. Former state district Judge Abel Limas also began serving his six-year prison sentence in December for racketeering. Limas' cooperation with federal authorities led to guilty pleas and convictions of numerous defendants, including former Cameron County District Attorney Armando R. Villalobos, who was convicted of racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, and five counts of extortion.
13. Michael Morton Law to take effect
It was a nightmare scenario worthy of a Hollywood script: After serving 25 years for murdering his wife, Michael Morton was freed from prison after it was revealed that his trial prosecutor had buried evidence of his innocence. In the intervening years, Morton's prosecutor, Ken Anderson, became judge of the 277th District Court in Williamson County. Anderson eventually was charged with contempt of court over his misdeeds, earning him 10 days in jail, a nominal fine, 500 hours of community service and loss of his law license. On Jan. 1, the Michael Morton Act will require prosecutors in criminal cases to disclose all evidence in their files to defense lawyers.
December 12, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 12:15:00 pm
Benjamin Stewart, who recently joined the Dallas complex commercial litigation boutique Bailey Brauer PLLC, joined KLIF-AM’s Kurt Gilchrist to talk about the ongoing kerfuffle between Snuffer’s Restaurant and Pat Snuffer, the restaurant’s former owner.
Mr. Snuffer, who lost control of the Snuffer’s name after Snuffer’s Restaurants filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, planned to open a new Snuffer’s in the original lower Greenville Ave. location. However, the new owner of Snuffer’s Restaurants, Firebird Restaurant Group, demanded that Mr. Snuffer stop using the Snuffer’s name. Consequently, Mr. Snuffer changed the name of his new restaurant to Pat’s Burgers & Cheddar Fries. Problem solved, right?
Snuffer’s Restaurants then filed suit and obtained a TRO against Mr. Snuffer to prevent Pat’s from opening.
The lawsuit makes many complaints against Mr. Snuffer, but the toughest one to prove may be the trademark and trade dress violation claims, said Mr. Stewart, whose extensive litigation experience includes claims made in conjunction with bankruptcy proceedings.
“The Snuffer’s brand isn’t as well-known as some of the others,” he explained, referencing McDonald’s Golden Arches and the brown background and distinctive blue font on a Snickers candy bar wrapper. “You know what a McDonald’s looks like. When you drive past those arches, you know . . . Snuffer’s hasn’t reached that level.”
Neither Mr. Stewart nor Bailey Brauer PLLC are involved in the Snuffer’s litigation.
November 25, 2013 by Dave Moore at 3:50:00 pm
The forced relocation of Native American tribes from their ancestral homes in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee in the 1830s is considered by many to be among the most shameful chapters in American history. Suffering from exposure, disease and starvation, thousands died along the “Trail of Tears” en route to present-day Oklahoma.
Given the tragic connection, the run-through banner the cheerleaders from Alabama’s McAdory High School displayed at a recent football playoff game was especially troubling. Facing the Pinson Valley Indians, the sign’s message was “Hey Indians, Get Ready to Leave in a Trail of Tears.”
The principal at McAdory issued an immediate apology, claiming that the squad’s sponsor who is tasked with reviewing banner content was out on maternity leave and that role unintentionally had gone unfilled.
Dallas attorney Tom Brandt of Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, P.C. cites the McAdory controversy as a clear example of why school districts need to have the authority to oversee what signs are displayed at school-sponsored events. Brandt represents Kountze ISD in ongoing litigation involving the right of approval for that district's banners after its cheerleaders began using Christian themes for their spirit signs.
"If a district loses the right to review and approve school-sponsored messaging, it opens the door to situations such as what happened in McAdory," he says. "In Alabama, the district has acknowledged that the absence of adequate district oversight helped create a situation where a glaringly offensive message was brought to the football field."
October 15, 2013 by Amy Hunt at 11:04:00 am
If you’re a divorced parent receiving child support payments, you might be getting a little more money now than you did a few months ago. That’s thanks to the Texas Legislature updating the Texas Family Code with changes that took effect Sept. 1.
"This could mean an extra $210 a month for one child, which is a lot to parents struggling to make ends meet,” says Brad LaMorgese, a partner in the Dallas Family Law boutique McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing, L.L.P. "Of course, there are possible exceptions to the child support guidelines, so be sure to talk to your attorney if your needs exceed those envisioned by the Family Code.”
There has long been a cap on the amount of income the parent paying child support must pay. Before Sept. 1, the cap was $7,500 a month. Using the standard percentage formula under child support guidelines, that meant the most a parent would pay in support for one child would be 20 percent of $7,500, or $1,500 a month. The updated cap is now $8,550, meaning a parent paying child support for one child could now pay up to $1,710, 20 percent of $8,550.
Under the guidelines, 5 percent is added for each child with a maximum of up to 40 percent for five or more children. (It’s important to note that adjustments can be made if the non-custodial parent has children from other marriages or relationships.)
October 10, 2013 by Amy Hunt at 10:30:00 am
A May 2013 ruling by the Texas Supreme Court temporarily put a chill up the collective spine of the Texas Family Law bar when the court declared in Tedder v. Aldrich that attorney fees and expenses in a divorce case shouldn’t be considered part of one spouse’s statutory requirement to support the other while the divorce is pending.
Traditionally, Texas courts have considered such expenses to be “necessaries” and often ordered one of the parties to pay them. The Tedder ruling, however, meant that those fees would no longer fall under the heading of “necessaries.” That opened up the possibility that they could end up being the responsibility of the lesser-earning spouse, who may not have the money to pay them.
Fortunately, the Texas Legislature was in session when the high court handed down its ruling and amended the Family Code to say that such expenses may be included as “necessaries,” thus restoring balance to the universe. Kind of.
"We're glad the Legislature and Gov. Perry addressed the availability of legal fees in divorce, but the courts still have a lot of discretion to order – or not order – legal fees to be paid," says Brad LaMorgese, a partner in the Dallas Family Law boutique McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing, L.L.P. "Unless a premarital agreement says otherwise, legal fees should be considered 'necessary.'"
October 1, 2013 by Dave Moore at 12:00:00 am
Big Tex – the symbol of the State Fair of Texas – was publically unveiled Thursday, a day earlier than planned. Intense winds actually caused the premature premiere, according to media accounts.
Big Tex 2.0 was scheduled to be unveiled on opening day of the State Fair. But due to high winds, and the size of the tarp, covering him, as a precaution, State Fair officials unveiled him early. The new size of Big Tex is: 55ft high, and weighs 25,000 pounds. Big Tex has had a facelift and looks 25 years younger and more cartoonish.
Dallas real estate attorney Marc Fanning says the early unveiling calls further attention to the vulnerability of – and need for properly insuring – all possessions, even reborn 55-foot-tall cowboy statues.
“Like all property owners, the State Fair organization should insure their prized possessions in an appropriate amount to cover repair or replacement in the event of a catastrophe,” says Fanning, a director in the Dallas office of Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, P.C.
A little less than a year ago, Big Tex’s predecessor was engulfed in a fiery inferno caused by a mechanical failure. Fair organizers were reportedly reimbursed approximately $155,000 through insurance coverage toward the estimated replacement cost of $500,000 estimated replacement cost of the new Big Tex. Donations gladly poured in to make up the difference. “The campaign to generate donations to build the new Big Tex – who will make his debut this weekend – was brilliant, but fair leaders can't continue to rely on the kindness of strangers.”
September 5, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 11:00:00 am
In the East Texas town of Kountze, a district court judge ruled that it is not unlawful to post Biblical references on spirit banners inside the taxpayer-funded school’s walls, although the legal basis for ruling was not clear. Meanwhile in Georgia, posters highlighting a particularly provocative line from Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible,” are drawing nationwide attention and complaints that the line “God is Dead” is religiously offensive.
The two cases underscore how the mixing of religious messages inside public schools remains far from resolved legally. And until judicial clarity arrives, school administrators should be prepared for unpopular decisions that may upset all sides.
"Although the law regarding student speech continues to be unclear, the safest course of action for the school district is to let the artwork remain," says Dallas attorney Tom Brandt of Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin, P.C., who represents Kountze ISD. "It may not be popular, but given the current status of the law regarding student speech, it is the safest thing to do."
August 6, 2013 by Dave Moore at 12:00:00 am
The successful public offering of Fort Worth-based Athlon Energy Inc. (NYSE: ATHL) demonstrates the importance of attracting savvy investors early on, Dallas attorney Phil Whitcomb recently told the Dallas Business Journal. Upon review of the company’s filings, Whitcomb noted to the publication that Athlon has drawn the backing of noted Apollo Global Management, which has a strong track record of success.
DBJ reporter Nicholas Sakelaris notes:
Whitcomb studied the company’s revenues, assets and business plan and said Athlon is poised to do well through 2013. The so-called conventional wells are cheaper to drill than the unconventional horizontal wells that have become the rage in recent years. Athlon has identified 3,857 potential vertical drilling locations and another 931 locations that could be targeted with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Whitcomb, who specializes in corporate securities and private equity in the Dallas office of Shackelford, Melton & McKinley, told Sakelaris: “They’re going to generate a good amount of cash. They’ve got a great underwriting certificate.”
While predicting how an IPO will do can be difficult (ask anyone at Facebook), Athlon’s successful launch wasn’t just a roll of the dice.
July 22, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 3:00:00 pm
A large swath of the Midwest and East Coast remains in the throes of an epic heat wave, sending residents in search of relief and creating special challenges for employers. The tri-state area in particular is hard hit, with LaGuardia Airport this week reporting all-time high temps of 100 degrees.
Writes MSNBC: In many cases the temperature has become too hot to handle. Employees at a New York City McDonald’s walked out after having worked without air conditioning. In Jersey City, N.J., over 25 firefighters had to be treated for heat exhaustion after battling a blaze in the sweltering weather.
With such dangerously hot temperatures come new considerations for employers, says Audrey Mross, who leads the labor and employment practice at Munck Wilson Mandala in Dallas.
OSHA requirements call on employers to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards, and that includes extreme heat. To make things easier, OSHA now has a "Heat Safety Tool" app with a heat-risk index calculator. Then, there's the other kind of workplace heat. "Plain and simple – some clothing is fine for a night out, but inappropriate at work," says Mross. "It's always a good idea to remind people about any dress code requirements you've established in order to maintain the proper professional appearance in the workplace."
July 19, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 2:30:00 pm
The tragic 2010 death of a University of Mississippi football player is leading to fundamental changes in the way the NCAA and member universities regulate the workouts of student athletes. The changes are part of a settlement related to the death of Bennie "Buster" Abram, a junior defensive backwho collapsed and died on the first day of spring practice in 2010.
According to the lawsuit, the university failed to follow workout guidelines for Abram, who had sickle cell trait, which can deform red blood cells after strenuous exercise. As a result of the settlement, the sports medicine staff at NCAA schools now have “unchallengeable authority” to cancel or modify athletics workouts based on safety concerns.
Writes the Associated Press:
The NCAA made sickle cell trait testing mandatory for all Division I athletes in 2010, though carrying the trait does not prevent an athlete from playing sports. The NCAA has a set of guidelines for institutions to follow regarding the training of athletes with sickle cell trait, including a "slow and gradual" preseason conditioning regimen and for athletes to "stop immediately upon struggling."
The lawsuit alleged that the first day of workouts was "carelessly and recklessly excessive," especially for athletes with sickle cell trait. It also claims there was no evidence Abram was informed of his condition, and that he didn't receive proper medical attention when he began struggling during the workouts, and was instead pushed to continue.
Sickle cell trait is found in approximately 8 percent of African-Americans in the United States, according to the NCAA.
Believed to be the leading killer of Division I football players, the condition has been linked to at least nine deaths among college athletes since 2000.
"This settlement is another step in raising awareness of the dangers of sickle cell trait among athletes, and helping prevent tragic deaths such as Buster's," says The Lanier Law Firm's Gene Egdorf, who represents the Abram family along with Merrida "Buddy" Coxwell and Charles R. "Chuck" Mullins of Coxwell & Associates, PLLC, in Jackson, Miss. "We are pleased that Ole Miss and the NCAA stepped up and settled this matter in a way that honors Buster's memory and will help save lives in the future."
July 17, 2013 by Susan Wheat at 12:00:00 am
When thinking of animal rights groups, the obvious example that comes to mind is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). However, PETA has recently come under fire after investigations into their shelter, based in Norfolk, Va., revealed astoundingly high euthanasia rates. According to an article published in The New York Times , PETA euthanized 2,000 dogs and cats last year, while facilitating only 19 adoptions.
The current trend in animal welfare programs across the country has shifted to a “no kill” standard, in which shelters avoid euthanizing animals barring extenuating circumstances. In order to achieve “no kill” status, cities must save 90 percent of shelter animals. One of the leading cities in the “no kill” movement is Austin, which is the largest city in the country to reach this standing.
"If a handful of people in Austin can change everything for their community's homeless pets, anyone dedicated to change can do the same," says Ryan Clinton, an Austin-based appellate attorney at Hankinson LLP, who is largely responsible for Austin's No Kill initiative. To help other communities achieve no kill success, Clinton led four presentations during the national No Kill Conference last weekend in Washington, D.C.
While most shelters have embraced this system, PETA has remained one of the stragglers, maintaining that its shelter is one of “last resort” and that some of the animals there are better off dead due to overcrowding and depletion of lifestyle.
"You don't have to reinvent the wheel," Clinton says. "But you do have to reject the excuses of public officials, established shelter leadership, and groups such as PETA, who cling to the status quo of killing despite readily available alternatives."
June 19, 2013 by Susan Wheat at 12:00:00 am
Summer is here, and for kids that means one thing: school is out! However, for parents this means a whole new schedule. While the change in children’s activities (or more likely, lack there-of) is a difficult adjustment for any parent to make, it can be especially difficult for newly divorced parents dealing with joint custody arrangements.
Joint custody agreements follow a specific set of rules when school is in session, but once that final bell rings in June, some of those rules become a little more difficult to follow. Who gets the kids on the 4th of July? What about when you want to take them on vacation for a week or two? These questions become much more common when free time becomes more available and schedules are more loosely defined.
“It's always a good idea to notify the other parent of your vacation plans or if those plans change,” says Huffington Post blogger Liz Mandarano. “If for some reason or another you have decided not to tell the other parent of your plans, be prepared for the other parent to possibly bring legal action against you.”
Newly divorced parents need to be especially careful when making assumptions about leeway during the summer. "Generally, the non-primary parent should get 30 days of uninterrupted visitation, but that parent should still get the first, third and fifth weekend of the other months," " says San Antonio divorce lawyer Amber Liddell Alwais, a partner in the Family Law firm McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing L.L.P. "The typical Thursday night visitation, however, probably doesn't apply.”
She says divorced parents need to look over their possession orders carefully and make any specific decisions in advance. "You're not stuck with the standard possession order," Alwais says. "If there are days that are important to you, tell your lawyer and get them negotiated into your possession order."
So if July 4th is your favorite holiday, or if you want to ensure that annual summer visit to Grandma’s, it is possible, as long as you walk the fine line of summer custody with care.
June 18, 2013 by Erin Dooley at 2:19:00 pm
Consumers download over four million mobile health apps daily, Mobi Health News reports. Most people view these apps as convenient and effective healthcare alternatives. However, they may not be as foolproof as they seem. In fact, many haven’t received proper FDA approval.
While some apps simply track health habits, others purportedly perform diagnostic assessments. For as little as 99 cents (plus the price of attachments), patients can purchase apps that monitor blood pressure, test blood sugar, and even perform EKGs.
Some sources estimate that by 2017, these mobile health aids will significantly reduce hospital visits, saving consumers more than $400 billion.
Trouble is, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration can’t seem to keep pace with the medical app onslaught. Despite the potential for misuse, it’s only after the problematic apps are released via Apple’s App Store that they’re identified as system violations.
“It raises an interesting problem when Apple can approve an app before the FDA is certain it meets its guidelines,” Wired blogger Michael Copland writes. “The future has arrived…. The FDA needs to catch up.”
The FDA has just begun to identify and examine offending apps. Its first target was uChek, a free app that supposedly analyses urinalysis test strips to estimate patients’ glucose, protein, leukocyte and nitrite levels.
The FDA doesn’t claim the app is defective or misleading. Rather, it says that the creators should have submitted the device to a more rigorous approval and post-market surveillance program. The app, the FDA says, should have been registered as a Class II medical device, which poses minimal – but actual –risk to patients if misused. The creators claim it’s a Class I device, which implies that improper use presents virtually no patient risk.
In a letter to uChek, FDA administrators explained, “though the types of urinalysis dipsticks you reference for use with your application are cleared, they are only cleared when interpreted by direct visual reading. Since your app allows a mobile phone to analyze the dipsticks, the phone… requires new clearance as part of the test system.”
Though the FDA strives to promote mobile health innovation, it recognizes the need to “narrowly” and “judiciously” regulate an industry that some believe may soon spin out of control.
"The FDA is smart to step into this relationship now, while casual in the U.S., to provide necessary guidance to help keep the public safe," says Houston attorney Maura Kolb from The Lanier Law Firm. “But as these types of smart apps are developed, they will likely attract the attention of Big Pharma and medical device manufacturers, who have shown time and time again that hiding information from the FDA is something they are capable of and willing to do."
June 13, 2013 by Erin Dooley at 12:00:00 am
The 5th Circuit has spoken: lactation is related to pregnancy and childbirth.
But one judge wasn’t so sure.
In a 2012 ruling, District Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a working mother who was fired after requesting to pump breast milk during business hours. Because lactation is “not a condition related to pregnancy and childbirth,” Hughes reasoned, a Houston collections company’s dismissal of the mother, Donnicia Venters, did not constitute sex discrimination.
“My 4-year-old understands basic biology better than some judges,” remarked ACLU blogger Galen Sherwin, who claimed the company blatantly tried to force Venters to choose between her career and her baby’s wellbeing.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that lactation bias shouldn’t be tolerated. In an opinion filed in May 2013, the appellate court reversed Judge Hughes’ dismissal, citing several medical dictionaries and asserting that because “lactation is initiated by pregnancy,” firing a woman based on her pumping habits violates the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII, which protects employees who are pregnant or have recently given birth, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Venters’ case may now proceed to trial.
"The District Court's decision seemed to strain credibility, as this certainly fits the standard needed to bring a sexual discrimination case,” she said. “However, given the conservative nature of the 5th Circuit, it still came as somewhat of a surprise to some that the appeals court sided with the employee. This decision is a strong indication of the general opinion on this issue, and certainly bolsters the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's view that addressing pregnancy-related discrimination should be a national priority."
June 5, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 4:30:00 pm
For the fifth year straight, federal FLSA lawsuits involving wage-and-hour disputes are on the rise. In fact, filings are up 10 percent, according to published reports. Brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the claims typically involve salaried employees who believe they’re owed overtime pay or hourly workers who content hey weren’t paid for all of the hours worked. Communication trends and mobile technology are also playing a role in the trend, says employment attorney Mark Shank of Dallas' Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail Shank LLP.
These are cases alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and typically fall under three categories: salaried employees claiming they are owed overtime pay, hourly workers who claim they weren’t paid for all of their hours, and restaurant workers who claim they weren’t given additional pay to make up for when tips didn’t bring their overall pay to the minimum wage.
Violations of wage and hour laws have become widespread in today’s economy. Sixty-eight percent of low-wage workers interviewed for a report in 2009 said they had experienced a pay violation in the previous work week, including 26 percent who were paid under the minimum wage and 76 percent who didn’t receive overtime pay. Suits have similarly risen, jumping 400 percent in the last decade. And they’ve seen a surge during the recession in particular as employers cut corners looking to cut costs.
"A fundamental problem for employers is that the FLSA, which was adopted in the 1930s, doesn't fit today's world of cellphones, PDAs, email and telecommuting," says Mr. Shank. "This virtual workplace makes it much more difficult for employers and employees to comply with the strict letter of the law, so it's not surprising that the number of claims continues to rise."
May 24, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 10:40:00 am
A bill that would give property owners a streamlined way to finance conservation and clean energy improvements is headed for Texas Governor Rick Perry’s desk.
Known as PACE(Property Assessed Clean Energy), the legislation is designed to provide an innovative and market-based solution to overcome one of the most vexing hurdles for achieving widespread investment in energy efficiency projects for existing structures – obtaining low-cost and long-term financing for conservation projects. Under the bills sponsored by Rep. Jim Keffer in the House and Sen. John Carona in the Senate, owners of commercial and industrial buildings could finance the cost of conservation upgrades for up to 20 years in cities or counties that create the special financing program.
The loan is then attached to the property, rather than the owner, and can be transferred if the property is sold. PACE loans can be issued by city or county financing districts or financial institutions, such as banks.The bill cleared both the Texas House and Senate earlier this month with unanimous votes.
Writes the Austin American-Statesman: The loans are repaid through special property tax assessments. If the property is sold before the loan is repaid, the repayment obligation automatically transfers to the next owner because the lien securing the tax assessment follows title to the property.
The program is expected to allow for the upgrade and enhancement of existing structures, provide substantial water and energy cost savings, and create thousands of jobs statewide. A non-profit association organized by attorneys at Thompson & Knight assisted in the legislative effort. "A PACE assessment will have the same legal status as a lien for ad valorem taxes," says Stephen Block, a partner in the Houston office of Thompson & Knight. "Because the lien will attach to the land, property owners will be obligated to pay only the portion of the cost that accrues during its period of ownership."
May 17, 2013 by Dave Moore at 2:45:00 pm
The Internal Revenue Service’s apparent targeting of tax-exempt conservative groups has set both Republicans and Democrats on a mission to get to the bottom of what’s happening at the agency.
If political biases were in play at the IRS, or even in the Oval Office, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Political consultant Chris Gober says the reports of the IRS’ apparent selective treatment of conservative political groups are symptoms of a larger problem within the federal government’s tax-collection office.
"The IRS is aware that it also has a problem with its employees illegally disclosing pending applications and donors, having reached out to those who were victims of the improper disclosure,” says Gober of Gober Hilgers PLLC. “But they have not taken steps to quell the fears of further disclosures. Nor have they been completely upfront when saying no targeted applications were denied, as they have not released the number actually approved."
While Steven Miller, the agency’s acting commissioner was forced to resign in the wake of the scandal, it’s possible more heads will roll before all the dust settles.
May 15, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 10:30:00 am
Like voting, the call of jury duty is one of those widely underappreciated privileges of citizenship. In courthouses across the country, judges often have a difficult time getting enough qualified jurors to show up for any given trial.
If anything, a bill making its way through the California legislature is prompting a reexamination of our cavalier attitude about jury service. The proposed bill would expand the jury service privilege to allow permanent legal residents – those living in the U.S. legally but who are not citizens. While this may appear to be a practical solution to the problem of dwindling jury pool numbers, it represents a dilution of the responsibilities of citizenship, says Brian Hail of Dallas' Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail Shank.
"As someone who regularly tries cases before juries, it concerns me to see what could be an erosion of the rights and importance of citizenship," he says. "To serve on a jury is to serve as a representative of your country. To be judged by those without true ownership – citizenship – seems fundamentally contrary to our nation's founding principles."
The proposal is prompting a necessary debate about jury service. Writes the LA Times: Jury service is not burdensome drudge work imposed by an overbearing government on an unwilling citizenry. Nor is it a favor that citizens do for their courts. To the contrary, it is a citizen's chief means of oversight on the judicial branch, allowing him or her not merely to help rule on the facts of a particular case but to keep tabs on the judge, the prosecutors, the public defenders and the court system itself. It's the place where citizens observe firsthand the effect of court budget cuts.
Just as citizens, and only citizens, have the power to elect their executive branch leaders and their delegates to the legislative branch, citizen jurors have the final check on at least some judicial branch decisions.
May 3, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 2:30:00 pm
Severe thunderstorms in the Houston area last month brought large hail, strong wind gusts and lightening that caused extensive property damage, broken tree limbs and downed power lines. Home and business owners reported roof damage, broken windows and pock-mocked cars.
The hailstorm and flash floods provide a stark reminder that the severe storm season is upon us, and home and business owners should be prepared. After all, a recent study ranks Texas tops for wind and hail damage claims, noting that such storm damage is among the most common and severe causes of property damage.
Houston attorney Phillip Sanov, head of The Lanier Law Firm's Bad Faith Insurance Practice Group, says now’s the time for property owners to make sure polices are up to date and to document the pre-storm condition of homes, offices and belongings. "Too often, we see insurance companies that deny, delay or vastly underpay legitimate claims, often citing 'pre-existing' conditions," he says.
Among other things, Sanov recommends taking photos and videos of structures and personal property as proof of ownership and existing conditions. "But those pictures do no good if they too are lost in a storm, so be sure to store them online or at a friend's or relative's house," warns Sanov, who represents home and business owners following storms and other disasters.
May 1, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 4:20:00 pm
There’s a well-documented problem with one of the world’s most popular hunting rifles – a defect in the trigger mechanism makes it susceptible to firing when the trigger is not pulled. Accidental discharges are blamed for two dozen deaths and more than 100 injuries.
Houston attorney Mark Lanier says Remington has known for decades that the design flaw in the trigger mechanism has made the rifle unreasonably dangerous. "Gun owners and their loved ones are literally taking a bullet because Remington Arms decided to put profits over safety," says Lanier. In 2012, The Lanier Law Firm successfully represented a Texas man who was severely injured when his Remington Model 700 rifle fired unexpectedly, striking the man in the foot.
Writes USA Today: The 700 series of rifles dates back to the 1940s, when Remington—which had been purchased a decade earlier by the giant chemical company DuPont—was transitioning from a major supplier of the war effort to a more consumer-oriented company. DuPont, which sold Remington in 1993, declined to be interviewed, referring inquiries to Remington.
The rifle series—which debuted with the Remington 721—featured a unique trigger system patented by a young Remington engineer named Merle "Mike" Walker. Walker has called his design "a perfect trigger," with a smooth pull favored by expert shooters. According to Walker's patent, the secret was a tiny piece of metal called a "trigger connector," which is mounted loosely inside the firing mechanism. But critics, including ballistics experts who have been hired to testify against the company, say small amounts of rust, debris, or even a small jolt can cause the trigger connector to become misaligned, forcing the trigger itself to lose contact with the rest of the firing mechanism. Then, the gun can be fired when other parts are operated, such as the safety or the bolt.
But internal documents obtained by CNBC show that in 1948—before the gun went on the market—Mike Walker himself proposed a design change to prevent the trigger's internal parts from falling out of alignment. Other documents show the added cost for Walker's "trigger block" came to pennies per gun, but with the rifle already over budget, officials decided against making a change.
April 26, 2013 by Dave Moore at 12:00:00 am
As traditional media outlets have migrated toward Twitter, Facebook and other social media, it would seem inevitable that they would be susceptible to hacking, just as other users have.
The Associated Press learned this lesson in dramatic fashion on April 23, when a hacker erroneously tweeted on the AP’s Twitter account that explosions were reported in the White House, and that the president was injured. Almost immediately, the U.S. stock market tumbled. The S&P 500 index momentarily dropped in value by more than $100 billion before the report was proven false.
In a recent interview on KLIF-AM, Dallas cyber security attorney Matthew Yarbrough said that the hacking of the Associated Press’ Twitter account typifies the vulnerability of Corporate America’s data.
“As you can see, tweets are becoming incredibly popular,” Mr. Yarbrough said. “Look at what happened up in Boston, when the police announced the capture of one of the Boston Marathon bombers via tweet. We must believe it's true, because it came from a tweet, right? I think these sorts of hoaxes are something hackers like to do, to point out vulnerabilities in systems and networks. And it does show we're putting more confidence into a very short electronic message. I can't believe people are trading upon that, but it does happen. And there will be people at some point in time, who will be prosecuted for things like this.”
Mr. Yarbrough added that many corporations are extremely vulnerable to password hacking. “I often find that typically, when I audit major companies for their cyber security, people in the CEO position have the worst passwords. There's a lot that people can do to really make sure that they're using more complex passwords that aren't so susceptible to something called a “password cracker” that's easily downloaded and someone could point at your account and gain access.”
While the Associated Press reports that it has resolved its vulnerabilities to Twitter hacking, it’s likely only a matter of time before the next major news outlet falls victim to hackers.
April 25, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 4:20:00 pm
Travelers at major airports in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Dallas have started experiencing delays and interruptions as mandatory furloughs for air traffic controllers kick in as part of the 2013 budget sequester.
Writes the LA Times: After the first week of furloughs because of light traffic and good weather, the nation's air travel system operated without serious problems. The FAA warned Monday that more delays are on the horizon when air traffic is heavier and severe weather puts pressure on understaffed air traffic control facilities.
Furloughs of air traffic controllers have prompted an outcry from Washington lawmakers and litigation by pilots and airlines who say they could have been avoided. Airline workers have even started to urge frustrated passengers to pressure the FAA to reconsider the budget cuts. To help cut more than $600 million called for by budget sequestration, the FAA ordered air traffic controllers starting Sunday to take one furlough day in every two-week pay period. That would cut the total of the nation's nearly 15,000 air traffic controllers about 10% on any given day.
Also on the list of cuts is a plan to close smaller air traffic control towers nationwide, including 14 in mostly smaller communities in Texas. The proposal is indicative of the significant struggle the federal agency is encountering in trying to balance mandates to cut costs as part of the 2013 budget sequestration against its primary purpose of preserving safety in the national airspace system, says Dallas aviation attorney and pilot David Norton.
"There are procedures in place that certainly make it possible to safely operate an airport without a control tower," says Norton, a partner at Shackelford, Melton & McKinley. "However, the larger and more active the airport is, the more important it is to have an active control tower in order to ensure the safety of pilots, passengers and everyone on the ground."
April 2, 2013 by Dave Moore at 2:30:00 pm
Dallas corporate marketing and advertising attorney Jane Fergason of the Dallas office of Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP has a few words of warning to consumers who innocently give their ZIP code information to merchants during everyday transactions.
“Once you give the merchant your ZIP code, that information can be sold to a data broker, or the merchant can use that to find out your address or phone number, and other types of publicly available, but hard-to-get information,” Ms. Fergason recently told KLIF-AM radio show host Kurt Gilchrist. The result can be unwanted junk mail or, much worse, identity theft. The abuse of ZIP code and other information has become so pervasive that some states have banned stores from collecting it, Fergason says.
“In California and Massachusetts, they’ve passed laws that say you can’t ask for ZIP code information because that is personal identification information, prohibited by the statute.”
Other states, including Texas, are considering similar measures, she says.
What’s a consumer in other states to do?
For starters, consumers shouldn’t give merchants personal information such as ZIP codes, email addresses or phone numbers, Fergason says. Consumers aren’t required to give that information to venders to complete transactions, she says.
Fergason’s one exception: “There are certain times, such as when you’re at a gas station, when you have to type in your ZIP code, and that’s to help protect you from fraudulent purchases. That’s the credit card company asking for that information; that is not the store where you’re getting your gas … using that information.”
March 26, 2013 by Dave Moore at 1:24:00 pm
Corporate espionage and trade secret theft goes back hundreds of years, by some accounts.
The fact that it was documented in North Texas a few years ago should surprise no one. What might alarm perpetrators, however, is the fact that executives who are caught red handed in the act of stealing company trade secrets can serve hard time for their misdeeds.
Such is the case of Michael Musacchio, who faces a June 14 sentencing date for criminal computer hacking charges relating to trade secret theft that occurred against Exel Transportation Services. Mr. Musacchio was found guilty of one felony count of conspiracy to make unauthorized access to a protected computer (hacking) and two substantive felony counts of computer hacking. Each conviction carries a maximum statutory penalty of five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Court documents say Mr. Musacchio and others hacked Exel’s computers so they could direct Exel’s clients to Frisco, Texas-based Total Transportation Services LLC, where they had become employed.
"Much of the evidence used to convict Mr. Musacchio was collected more than six years ago, for a civil trade secret theft case I filed against Total Transportation Services. That lawsuit resulted in a $10 million settlement," says Dallas trade secret theft attorney Matthew Yarbrough, founder of the Yarbrough Law Group.
The upcoming criminal sentencing for Mr. Musacchio ratchets up the stakes for those considering hacking into their employers’ or former employers’ trade secrets.
March 18, 2013 by Robert Tharp at 1:50:00 pm
You’d think Ted Cruz would know better. That’s not the punch line to a lawyer joke but a sad observation of how our newest senator from Texas has chosen to approach the duties that Texas voters placed on him last November. A lawyer by training and profession and no stranger to a courtroom, Sen. Cruz ought to be familiar with a civil justice system that puts a premium on zealous advocacy of one’s positions but also abjures personal attacks or demonization of the opponent.
That’s the observation in an op-ed by State District Court Judge Craig Smith and Fish & Richardson Managing Principal Tom Melsheimer published last week in the Austin American-Statesman. In the piece, the two hold up the much-maligned civil justice system as an example of one of the few surviving institutions where mutual respect and civil discourse still survive.
Melsheimer and Smith note, for example, that lawyers and the legal system may be easy targets for clichés and jokes, but consider:
• The courts are one of the last places where facts still rule over opinion.
• Where just about everyone knows that character attacks and unfounded insults will cause you to lose the trust of juries and judges and lose your case.
• Where everyone expects zealous advocacy but also courtesy and respect of your opponent and ultimately, compromise.
• Where compromise is often viewed as a victory
They write: This flame-throwing tack is clearly winning him points with his loyal base inside and outside of Texas, but it’s not a winning strategy. It’s a prescription for ending up on the wrong side of votes and, ultimately, becoming marginalized. Certainly, it’s a strategy that would find a trial lawyer on the wrong side of a jury verdict where the jury is a group of citizens called to decide the facts of a case, not cheer for one side or another.
There are plenty of examples of lawyers behaving badly out there, and we don’t suggest that our civil justice system is perfect. Yet when it’s time to step in the courtroom, we have been blessed with a system that rewards and adherence to facts and rejects speculation, surmise, and insults. The civil justice system has lasted so long in part because it embraces “civility.” That’s something that our newest senator and the rest of Congress would do well to remember.
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