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A jury verdict in Las Vegas highlights how crucial it is for homeowners associations to properly inspect and maintain common equipment. The HOA for the Lamplight Village at Centennial Springs now faces either finding a way to pay the $20 million decision or a lengthy and expensive appeal. Lawyers for the plaintiff argue that if the HOA had simply agreed to a $150 per month maintenance fee, the HOA would never have been in this situation.

DT-19867194-scale-001In 2013, Carl Thompson was playing basketball with some friends. He sat on a nearby swing set to send a text message. Unexpectedly, the metal crossbar at the top of the swing set broke and came crashing down on his head. Weighing in at 42 pounds, the cross bar effectively crushed the left side of the 15 year-old’s skull.

In the years since, Thompson has suffered from debilitating headaches. He has difficulty remember things and some of his physical movements are impaired. Doctors say that his chances of developing dementia have radically increased. As with many traumatic brain injuries, there is a likelihood that Thompson’s condition will further deteriorate. So far, he has been unable to finish high school, and his dreams of becoming a musician have fallen by the wayside.

Thomson sued the HOA. A jury recently decided the case in his favor with a $20 million verdict. The plaintiff’s attorneys say that the HOA ignored several warning signs that the swing set was failing. Inadequate repairs had been made in the past, and the HOA had refused to purchase a $150 per month maintenance plan from the swing set’s installer to cover routine upkeep and other repairs.

Thomson’s attorneys also say that the HOA took a chance by going to court with the case instead of accepting several settlement offers for far less money. Now, the lawyers believe that the HOA’s insurance company will be responsible for the damages.

Taking a case before a jury is always a risk. This is why experienced, knowledgeable legal counsel is indispensable to all litigation. With their assistance, it may be possible to avoid a trial.

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One of the questions I hear frequently is about whether we are accepting new clients.

While the short answer is “Yes”, here is some additional information which many people find interesting.

Great%20Fit%20Gears%2039896521-001.jpgOur law firm, Sylvester Oppenheim & Linde is committed to client service and quality legal representation for each and every client. That means that we only accept clients who we feel are a good match for our expertise, experience and areas of practice.

I learned a long time ago that we can’t be all things to all clients, but we can be all things to some clients: and those are the ones we welcome and serve in an exemplary manner.

The purpose of this blog is to provide helpful information to anyone who reads it. On our website, you will find another example of our “Be of Service” attitude by reading our Home Page Article “Eleven Questions to ask BEFORE Hiring a Business Attorney“. You will also find a list of our practice areas on that page.

Our clients tell us that they appreciate our honesty, accessibility and guidance. And we appreciate our clients.

Back to the question. The answer is: “Yes, we are always looking for one or two new good clients.” If you have a legal issue, I invite you to call and let’s find out whether we are a great fit for each other. I can be reached at 818-461-8500 or via the Contact form on this page.

Richard Oppenheim

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Employers don’t always have an easy time when it comes to accommodating the religious beliefs of workers. Understanding nuanced belief systems and balancing that with company objectives leads to legal friction. That’s the case in a lawsuit that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, filed against Memorial Healthcare in Michigan.

Employment-Contract-44108074-001According to the complaint, medical transcriptionist Yvonne Bair received an offer of employment from Memorial Healthcare. The prospective employer informed Bair of its requirement that all employees receive the flu vaccination. Bair refused the vaccination on religious grounds, saying that her belief in Jesus Christ led her to reject injecting or ingesting any foreign substances. The hospital suggested that Bair could take the nasal spray flu vaccine, but Bair again refused.

Memorial then rescinded its employment offer, despite the fact that Bair told them that she would wear a mask. According to the employer’s policy, it’s acceptable for employees to wear a mask when they cannot get a vaccination.

Bair took her complaint to the EEOC, which filed a lawsuit on her behalf. The EEOC charges that Memorial violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it rescinded the employment offer. According to the act, employers cannot discriminate against employees based on religious beliefs. Instead, employers must strive to provide reasonable accommodations that allow workers to observe personal religious practices.

Why did Memorial rescind the offer of employment when they have a policy allowing unvaccinated employees to wear a mask as an alternative? Bair would eventually have become a work-from-home employee, so the chances of her transmitting the flu to co-workers or patients would likely have been minimal.

Perhaps Memorial had other reasons for deciding to go with another job candidate. However, unless they used proper documentation to support their decision, they may find themselves in a continuing legal battle.

It is vital for all employers to understand anti-discrimination employment laws. Additionally, it’s critical that employers proceed with extreme caution when it comes to hiring, firing and disciplinary decisions. Work with a qualified business attorney to make certain you stay on the right side of the law.

Feel free to contact attorney Rich Oppenheim by phone or message by using the “Contact” box in the right column of this blog.

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Service and support animals are becoming an increasingly common sight, especially with so many veterans suffering from PTSD. These animals are trained to meet the physical, psychological or emotional needs of disabled people. This makes them an indispensable part of everyday life for thousands.

Lawsuit-64354059-001Many public places that do not normally allow animals make exceptions for service animals. This is also true on airlines. However, American Airlines recently settled a lawsuit in connection with an incident in which a veteran says she was harassed and discriminated against when she tried to board a plane with her service dog, Jake.

Lisa McCombs served in the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. As she suffered from PTSD, upon her return to civilian life, McCombs was partnered with Jake, a support dog that was trained to move closer to McCombs when she experienced trauma or stress. These behaviors are intended to provide reassurance and to help ward off panic attacks.

McCombs and Jake are constant companions, but when she tried to board a flight in Kansas in 2015, American Airlines employees blocked her from boarding with her dog. Apparently, employees did not believe the dog was a service animal despite McCombs having appropriate paperwork and the presence of an identifying vest on the dog. Moreover, McCombs had called in advance to inform the airline that she would be flying with a service animal.

McCombs and Jake were denied boarding two days in a row in Kansas. More alleged harassment followed at a Texas airport. She filed a lawsuit under the Air Carrier Access Act. This law essentially states that airlines cannot discriminate against air travelers based on disabilities. In an answer, American Airlines argued that the law does not provide individuals with the right to privately sue.

Nonetheless, the case has now settled with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for the airline says that the settlement was to the parties’ mutual satisfaction, and he also thanked McCombs for her service.

Understanding the rights of Americans with disabilities is crucial to avoiding discrimination lawsuits. Contact attorney Rich Oppenheim to learn more.

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When a corporation hires a coach for an executive, that executive probably expects to hone skills that enable her to take on a more advanced role. However, that was not the experience had by Denise Stilwell, a former executive at Twentieth Century Fox.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001Stilwell began her employment with Fox in 1999. By 2013, she had been promoted to a vice president position in enterprise rights management. The position came with a four-year contract, which included a promise of promotion to a senior vice president position within the first two years.

Her immediate supervisor accepted a voluntary retirement package in 2016, which meant that she began reporting to Fox CFO Dean Hallett. Shortly after the change, Stilwell was summoned to Hallett’s office. She expected to be given a promotion. Instead, Hallett informed her that she “smiled too much,” and that an executive coach was going to begin working with her.

That coach was Jack Zwissig from Zwissig and Associates. Zwissig allegedly told Stilwell that her “smile is fake,” that she laughed too much and that people generally didn’t like her. Most troubling of all is Stilwell’s assertion that Zwissig told her that she should “lift her skirt.”

Stilwell reported Zwissig’s comments to Hallett, calling them sexist and improper. Almost immediately, she was reassigned to another executive vice president, Joanie Wallace, who refused to meet with her for months. Abruptly in January 2017, Stilwell was fired because her department wasn’t moving in the right direction.

Recently, Stilwell filed a lawsuit naming her former employer, Zwissig and Zwissig’s firm as defendants. The complaint levels charges of gender discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment, among others. If she prevails, the plaintiff hopes to collect unspecified damages for loss of future earnings and benefits as well as emotional distress.

This situation acts as a vital reminder that all complaints regarding possible harassment and discrimination must be followed up on swiftly and thoroughly. Failing to do so often exacerbates the situation to a point that is difficult to control. Working closely with a qualified employment attorney is the best way to prevent these circumstances from occurring.

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A former employee of a Chicago-area Target store is suing the retail chain based on numerous claims. Perhaps most explosive among them is the accusation that Target systematically accuses Hispanic employees of using fake Social Security numbers.

Wrongful-TerminationEsmeralda Radek began working at Target in 2012. In 2014, the manager of the store where Radek worked received a letter that claimed that Radek was stealing from the store and selling the items on eBay. Moreover, the letter asserted that Radek had used a fake Social Security number during the hiring process.

Approximately one week after receiving the letter, human resources personnel at the store confronted Radek over the claim that she used a false Social Security number. Radek was requested to verify her Social Security information by providing the state in which the credential was issued. In response, Radek informed supervisors that she had been born in Texas, and that her mother had likely obtained the Social Security card for her.

Within a few days, Target terminated Radek’s employment on the grounds that she had used a fake Social Security number. However, Radek claims that she is not the only Hispanic employee at Target who has been accused of similar crimes. If these employees could later verify the authenticity of their credentials, they could be re-hired.

In April of 2014, Radek filed a complaint alleging that she had been fired based on her national origin. Additionally, the complaint alleged a negligence claim under Illinois state law, hostile work environment claims and asserted that Target had demonstrated a pattern of practice that discriminated against Hispanic employees.

Target filed a request to dismiss the case, and a U.S. District judge partially granted this request. Judge Lee dismissed the claims regarding the hostile work environment and pattern of practice, but said that Radek’s case regarding national origin discrimination may proceed.

When questions arise regarding an employee’s identification and other credentials, it is always advisable to proceed with caution. Consult with a qualified business and employment attorney before this type of situation arises so that your organization is prepared to respond in line with the law.

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It is vital for employers to understand any physical limitations that their employees have. Not responding appropriately can lead to serious legal trouble.

ADA-138029727-001It’s a situation that happened recently in Union City, Georgia where a police detective sued her former employer. Jacqueline Lewis is an African-American woman who had been employed by the department for 10 years when her career stumbled. Lewis suffered a heart attack in 2009 and was diagnosed with a chronic heart condition.

This condition didn’t render her unfit, so Lewis continued in her role until the department decided to require all employees to carry a Taser. As a part of the training, each employee was expected to submit to a five-second shock. Participants had to seek the consent of their physician prior to the training, but Lewis’ doctor refused permission because of her heart condition.

Lewis’ superiors placed her on administrative leave, and a series of mishaps appears to have worsened relations between Lewis’ doctor and the police department. By day 21 of her leave, Lewis had been terminated, with her employer arguing that she had exhausted her leave time.

Lewis promptly filed a discrimination lawsuit, citing disability, race and gender as the grounds. The complaint detailed the stories of two white, male officers who had been given considerably more time before they were terminated for not meeting the physical ability requirements.

A district court didn’t agree that Lewis had demonstrated her status as a qualified individual under ADA. Additionally, they said that the male employees she compared herself to were not “similarly situated.” Lewis appealed this decision, and the Eleventh Circuit found that Lewis’ heart problems did not make her disabled. However, the department’s decision to treat her as if she was gave her protection under ADA. The circuit court also argued that there may be evidence of gender and race discrimination. They ruled that the case should be decided by a jury.

This case illustrates how crucial it is for employers to treat their employees with care. That treatment may grant them some protection under the law to which they wouldn’t otherwise be entitled.

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James Damore, a former Google employee who made headlines last year after his written diatribe regarding why women are barred biologically from being successful at engineering, is making headlines again for suing the company.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001In his long and considerably detailed complaint, Damore alleges that the tech giant discriminates in its hiring policies against white, conservative men. He accuses the company of having hiring quotas for workers who are female or belong to an ethnic minority. Citing meetings in which department managers are singled out and chastised for not having reached their quota of female or minority workers, Damore says that it is difficult for a white man who does not hold liberal views to get ahead at Google.

Among the charges, Damore says that Google actively discriminates against white male employees who have “perceived conservative views by Google.” The complaint goes on to state that Google has a practice of disciplinary action against employees who “expressed views deviating from the majority view at Google on political subjects raised in the workplace ….”

Google’s own diversity reporting makes Damore’s claims seem at least partially spurious. The company’s latest reports say that their workforce is 69 percent male and 56 percent white. What is more, their technical employees are 80 percent male and 53 percent of these workers are white. This may make it difficult for Damore to support his claims in court.

At the same time, Google is being sued by four female former employees who say that the company openly discriminates against women, paying them less than male counterparts and making it more difficult for them to advance to more responsible positions. In fact, the government is already investigating Google for suspected discriminatory practices against females and minorities.

Google seems to be embattled on all sides thanks to these lawsuits. Their position is a stark reminder of how important it is to develop hiring, promotional, disciplinary and firing practices that are in strict accordance with the law. Working closely with a business and employment attorney is an excellent way to ensure that your company does not run afoul of the law.

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Sexual harassment and abuse in a wide range of industries has made major headlines in recent months. Heavyweights in Hollywood and the media, along with CEOs of major corporations, are all losing their reputations as allegations come to light. With more people being aware than ever before about the dangers of sexual impropriety in the workplace, now is an excellent time to introduce more stringent policies and to implement comprehensive training at all levels of any organization.

bribery4The recently passed federal tax law adds another layer of complication to the settlement of sexual harassment and abuse claims in the workplace. Previously, employers could deduct the cost of settlement payments made to the victims of sexual harassment. It also was possible to deduct the cost of severance packages that were given to at-fault employees. The new tax legislation appears to put an end to this practice.

This new tax law adds § 162(q) to the Internal Revenue Code as follows:

“(q) PAYMENTS RELATED TO SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND SEXUAL ABUSE.—No deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for—

(1) any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement, or
(2) attorney’s fees related to such a settlement or payment.”

In other words, when the settlement of the sexual harassment claim involves a non-disclosure agreement, the employer will no longer be able to deduct the cost of those proceedings on their federal taxes.

As straightforward as the law’s wording is, its application promises to be complex. What happens if the plaintiff alleges other forms of harassment or discrimination in the same proceedings? Is the cost of settlement for those claims still deductible? If the employer disagrees that the payments should not be deductible, what means do they have to fight it? Going to court would all-but guarantee the publication of information that is subject to the non-disclosure agreement.

The new federal tax law gives employers one more excellent reason to train all employees regarding the dangers of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Preventing these incidents before they happen is the best way to avoid complicated tax questions and litigation.

Feel free to contact me, Richard Oppenheim with your related legal questions. I may be reached at 818-461-8500 or by using the “Contact Us” box in the right column.

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The line that divides free speech from school speech is one that often gets blurred. In an age where multitudes of information is available at the touch of a finger, the situation becomes even more complex. When a student creates an Instagram account that is rife with racist statements and images of classmates, are his efforts protected by the First Amendment?

zero-tolerance-at-schoolOne student at Albany High school in Albany, California created such an Instagram account in November 2016. He invited a handful of friends to access the derogatory pictures that he had taken of other students, most of whom were African-American girls. Along with his friends, he made racist comments. Some of his friends “liked” the images.

The Instagram feed was discovered in March 2017. The students who had been targeted by the account were threatened with violence in many of the posts. When school officials reviewed the account, punishments were swift. The account’s creator was expelled in June. Other students received suspensions. An anti-racism rally was held on the day that the suspended students returned. Concurrently, another faction of students decided it was time for a session of “restorative justice.” The suspended students were essentially forced to walk a gauntlet of screaming, angry students, some of whom became violent. One of the students who was returning to school after being suspended had his nose broken in the incident.

The students who were punished for their involvement filed a lawsuit that named the school district, several officials, employees at the school and board members as defendants. Recently, Judge James Donato issued a ruling on part of that lawsuit. He agreed with the defendants’ assertions that the punishments had been reasonable as they were levied by the district in the case of most of the students. However, he ruled that other students who had not targeted specific students with their posts were too harshly punished.

Other claims must be decided in this complex case. When it comes to questions of free speech, it is always best to stay on the side of caution, especially when schools or the workplace are involved.