Zinzow Law

We Will NEVER Forget

September 11th, a day that America will always remember. Team Z would like to ask you to take a moment of silence with us to honor all the innocent people who lost their lives on this tragic day in American history.

 

We will never forget. – Team Z

Florida’s Future Coastal Construction … or Lack Thereof?

Florida is one of the most tourist driven destinations in the United States. The economy thrives on the distinctive attractions this state has to offer and, of course, the patrons who invest in them. The Sunshine State attracts visitors far and wide for its beautiful beaches, shady palms, and abundant state parks. Not to mention all the snowbirds who flock here and make this their migratory home for part of the year. Needless to say, Florida’s beauty is captivating which makes it a wonderful spot to call home, the perfect place for a family vacation, or a much-needed getaway. However, being almost completely surrounded by water has made this peninsula a concern for potential sea-level rise for many years. Not to worry though, all Floridians are required to own life jackets, scuba gear, and a snorkel in case of emergency. In all seriousness, the Florida government has concerns for Florida’s future and whether this future may be underwater, at least in some places. Of course, if the government is concerned, it begs the question: should Floridians also begin to worry? To address these concerns, a new law has passed that will require consideration for possible rising sea levels and flooding prior to beginning public coastal construction projects. This law is formally known as “Senate Bill 178 – Public Financing of Construction Projects”, which passed unanimously by 153 Florida legislators and will take effect in July 2021. With the passing of Senate Bill 178, Florida’s coast will likely have a very different look in the coming years. Could this mean no more beachfront condominiums, skyrises or parking garages? While little information is known at this time how this law will directly affect Florida’s construction industry, speculation can be made that it will certainly make an impact.

As it stands, Florida’s governing body is apprehensive about the climate related changes we may see here in Florida. Much of these concerns derive from the impending financial problems and property damage caused by flooding. In addition to those looming financial issues, the state is also preparing to spend at least $4 billion to determine sea level rise solutions which would include “protecting sewage systems, raising roads, stormwater improvements and (creating) seawalls”3. While understanding and preparing for potentially devastating impacts to Florida’s ecosystem is understandably important, Senate Bill 178 is actually the “first major piece of climate-related legislation in a decade” . This legislation was implemented with the hopes of limiting damage to Florida’s structures lining the coastal regions if sea level rise were to continue. These worries are heightened as a result of the studies conducted by the various entities who observe and predict sea-level rise. These predictions, although they drastically differ in number, all seem to indicate that Florida will see higher sea levels at some point in time. That time frame, of course, also varies significantly. For instance, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact Sea Level Rise Work Group has estimated that the rise in southeast Florida “could be as much as 6.75 ft by 2100” . Whereas the Tampa Bay Climate Science Advisory Panel “anticipates a rise of 8.5 ft by the end of the century”2. This uncertainty as to how far and for how long Florida’s land boundaries may stretch is why lawmakers are proceeding with caution for future developments along Florida’s coast. The current measurements depict that Florida’s sea level has risen 8 inches since 1950 and the velocity of this rise is only increasing as the years continue . Surprisingly, scientists measure the sea level every six minutes to have an indication as to the rate these changes are actually happening3. Limiting the coastal development may prevent the need for the state step in later and fix any future damages attributed to rising sea levels. As part of the analysis conducted by the Florida Senate related to Senate Bill 178, they determined that Florida could see a property value loss as high as $300 billion by 21002. Hence, their need and desire to take these somewhat preventative measures now.

As for the requirements imposed by Senate Bill 178, these will consist of tests, scientific research, and assessment to determine how a particular construction project may be impacted by a rising sea level. These tests are called “Sea Level Impact Projections”, also known as “SLIP” studies. These studies are supposed to assess the “flooding, inundation, and wave action damage risks relating to the coastal structure over its expected life or 50 years, whichever is less” . In addition to that, the assessment must also ascertain the “potential public safety and environmental impacts resulting from damage to the coastal structure, including, but not limited to, leakage of pollutants, electrocution and explosion hazards, and hazards resulting from floating or flying structural debris”4. As of now, there is not a lot of information on the exact standards of these SLIP studies and how they may impact construction projects. However, it is known is that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is responsible for developing those standards and establishing the requirements that state-financed constructors will need to abide by prior to commencing work on a project. With that being said, the FDEP will also have the power to enforce civil action against any state-financed constructor who violates these requirements, including injunctive relief and the ability to retain repayment of all the state funds that were spent on the project. However, it is worth noting that this piece of legislation does at least limit the government from seeking damages if civil action is brought forth. Rather than take any unnecessary risk, it is important for constructors who are performing work on state funded coastal construction projects to ensure they are in compliance with this new legislation. Otherwise, they may be liable for paying back thousands, or even millions, of dollars for not adhering to this new mandate.

While change can be a good thing, it is something most people have a considerably difficult time adapting to. Unfortunately, when it comes to following the law, there is not usually a grace period allotted for these new adjustments. Senate Bill 178 will likely cause visual changes here in Florida. We can expect to see a decline in coastal construction and development, as well as changes that are not as easy to see. The changes that will be much more difficult to notice are the ones where the majority of the population are unaffected. With the passing of this legislation, it may cause significant delays, cancellations, and limitations on construction projects. From that, could come profit loss, economic decline and job reduction. Most importantly, and what has not been addressed enough, would be how this legislation could diminish the Florida construction industry as a whole. While this is currently only impacting publicly funded construction projects, a previous version of this bill applied these requirements to private construction as well. While it may be too soon to tell, it would not be a surprise to see implementation of this bill to all coastal construction projects in the future.


Tifffani Sprague, a Paralegal working with the construction industry attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Paralegals

It is mandatory for attorneys to comply with the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules).  These Rules are essentially a code of ethics and define a lawyer’s professional and personal responsibility.  Likewise, a paralegal must follow and abide by the same ethical Rules as an attorney.  NALA, The Paralegal Association (NALA) created 10 Canons that are based on the ABA’s Rules and paralegals are urged to follow these Canons.  Canon 10 provides that a paralegal’s conduct is guided by the Bar Associations’ codes of professional responsibility and rules of professional conduct.  Failure of a paralegal to abide by one or more of the Rules can create an ethical dilemma. In addition, if clients do not trust their lawyer or paralegal due to violations or manipulation of the Rules, it is only a matter of time before you lose that client.  The paralegal plays a crucial role in maintaining the ethical standards of a firm.  Exactly how does a paralegal recognize an ethical dilemma to begin with?

The majority of paralegals are well aware of the most common ethical rules and follow them everyday.  These Rules state that a paralegal shall not:

·         Enter into the attorney-client relationship;

·         Negotiate fees with a client;

·         Appear in court on behalf of a client; and/or

·         Give legal advice

In other words, the Unauthorized Practice of Law or “UPL”.  UPL is described in more detail below.

However, there are some additional Rules that, if not strictly adhered to, can create a fine line between violating a Rule and not violating a Rule.  This fine line can create an ethical dilemma for the paralegal.  Some examples of these ethical conundrums are identified below.

Unauthorized Practice of Law

Even though UPL was briefly mentioned above, it still has its fine line elements.  As a paralegal becomes more knowledgeable in specific areas of law, it may be tempting to answer legal questions a client may have or offer advice on a legal issue.  A paralegal cannot give advice.  Doing so is the Unauthorized Practice of Law.  If a client does have legal questions or is asking for advice, simply relay the client’s questions to the attorney and then give a response to the client.  “Although the attorney has the primary obligation to not permit a nonlawyer to engage in the unauthorized practice of law, some states have concluded that a paralegal is not relieved from an independent obligation to refrain from illegal conduct and to work directly under an attorney’s supervision.”  See the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services.

Confidentiality (In the workplace and at home)

Second to UPL, the most important ethical responsibility of a paralegal is maintaining the confidentiality of the client.  A paralegal should never discuss a case or client with anyone outside of the legal team.  This includes no discussions with your spouse, friends, or family, even if using vague descriptions.  Not only can this jeopardize the rights of the client but it may also assist the case being made by opposing counsel, giving them the advantage, if client information was to be obtained.

Conflicts of Interest

A paralegal should ensure that there are no conflicts of interest for each case you are working on.  If any are found, the supervising attorney needs to be notified immediately and asked to be removed from that case.  If a conflict was ignored, opposing counsel could bring up the conflict of interest and win the case on that alone.

Exhibit Personal Integrity and Competence on a Professional Level

Paralegals serve as representatives of the law and are expected to maintain a high level of professional conduct, both within the workplace and in their personal lives.  If not, a paralegal may lose his/her credibility and/or their job. A paralegal must perform their work efficiently and accurately and constantly strive to increase their knowledge and skill set.

Role of Technology

Technology has created new ethical issues for paralegals and attorneys.  The use of social media, blogs, and e-mail has caused numerous issues among clients and law firms.  Giving legal advice or exchanging information using the methods above can cause ethical concerns if you are not sure who you are sending information or advice to or who might be able to view it.   This murky area is becoming very complex.

Conclusion

Always trust your gut.  If you think there might be an ethical issue, there probably is.  Do your research.  Review your local Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct, the ABA Model Rules, and the NALA Canons.  If you still are not sure, contact a trusted paralegal and/or attorney outside your office and seek their opinion.

It is critical for a paralegal to take the Rules seriously, abide by them, and be able to identify potential ethical dilemmas.   Failure of a paralegal to follow the Rules can result in a paralegal or attorney facing sanctions, fines, or jail time.  If any of the above occur, a paralegal can be sure to have their “registered paralegal” or “certified” status revoked by the State or Association that issued the designation.


Kimberly Ross, a Certified Paralegal working with the construction industry attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.


 

Sources:

www.americanbar.org (American Bar Association)

www.nala.org (NALA, The Paralegal Association)

https://theparalegalsociety.wordpress.com

www.allcriminaljusticeschools.com

https://Fremont.edu

www.turnofphraseeditorial.com

TRAP FOR THE UNWARY: MISSING THE DEADLINE ON SEEKING ATTORNEYS’ FEES

Every Florida attorney knows the rule that any party seeking attorneys’ fees must serve a motion no later than thirty (30) days after the filing of a judgment, including a judgment of dismissal, or the service of a motion of voluntary dismissal, which judgment or notice concludes the action as to that party.[1]  But … what if your client, the owner of a construction project, is inappropriately named as a defendant in a lien foreclosure action.  You explain the rationale as to why your client is an improper party defendant to plaintiff’s counsel but your argument falls on deaf ears, forcing you to file a motion to dismiss.  At a hearing on another defendant’s motion to dismiss, the court grants the motion with leave for plaintiff to file an amended complaint.  Prior to your client’s motion being heard, the plaintiff files an amended complaint dropping your client as a party defendant.  Does the filing of the amended complaint trigger the 30 day time limit for you to file a motion for attorney’s fees as a prevailing party?  You immediately reread the requirements set forth in Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.525.  Your client was neither dropped as a party defendant as the result of a judgment of dismissal nor by the service of a motion of voluntary dismissal, which judgment or notice concluded the action as to your client.  Instead, your client was dropped as a party defendant as a result of the filing of an amended complaint.  Under a strict construction of Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.525, the 30 day time period would not be applicable to your client being dropped from the case as the result of the filing of the amended complaint.  As set forth below, this strict construction is a trap for the unwary.

A further analysis is required as to the methodology by which parties may be dropped in compliance with the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure.  Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) governs “dropping parties.”  There are, in essence, 3 instances in which a party may be dropped by an adverse party in facts analogous to our hypothetical:

  1. In the manner provided for voluntary dismissal in Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.420(a)(1);
  2. By order of the Court on its own initiative; OR
  3. On motion of any party at any stage of the action and on such terms as are just.

 

There is no provision contained in Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) authorizing a party be dropped by an adverse party as the result of the serving of an amended pleading pursuant to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.190(a).  Strangely, Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250 only authorizes the adding of parties through the filing of an amended pleading.[2]

If a Court grants a motion to dismiss but grants the plaintiff leave to amend, this authorizes the plaintiff to add or drop parties in the amended pleading.  “Naturally, an amended affirmative pleading filed under Rule 1.190, which omits all claims that had previously been asserted against one of the parties in the prior pleading, would have the effect of dropping that party voluntarily from the action.  However, because Rule 1.250 refers to Rule 1.190(a) only in connection with the adding of parties, under subdivision (c), and not in connection with the dropping of parties, under subdivision (b), a pleading amendment which does nothing more than drop a party would probably have to be deemed a voluntary dropping of that party under and subject to Rule 1.250(b).”[3]

In most instances, when a plaintiff voluntarily dismisses an action, the defendant is a prevailing party for awarding attorneys’ fees.[4]  There are exceptions to this general rule.  A court may look behind a voluntary dismissal at the facts of the litigation to determine whether a party is a substantially prevailing party.[5]

In Siboni v. Allen, 52 So.3d 779, 781 (Fla. 5th DCA 2010), the court held that a party dropped from litigation under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) is subject to the 30 day time limitation contained in Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.525, governing service of a motion seeking a judgment for costs and attorneys’ fees.  The court stated that in order to reach this holding, it had “read the applicable rules in pari materia to reach this result, mindful of the purposes sought to be accomplished.”[6]  “Pari materia” is latin for “upon the same subject.”  Statutes or rules in pari materia must be interpreted in light of each other since they have a common purpose for comparable items.  In Siboni, the Fifth District Court of Appeals applied the same logic as espoused in Bay View Inn v. Friedman, 545 F.2d 417 (Fla. 3d DCA 1989) to attorneys’ fees as Bay View Inn applied to costs.  In Bay View Inn, the court held that a party dropped pursuant to Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) can utilize Rule 1.420(b) to recover costs.[7]  The Third District Court of Appeals explained that although Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) does not itself provide a basis for assessment of costs, it specifies that a party is dropped “in the manner provided for dismissal in Rule 1.420(a)(1).”[8]  The court in Siboni held that there is no analytical difference in construing the rule’s application to requests for costs (Bay View Inn) than to construing the rule’s application to requests for attorneys’ fees.[9]  Accordingly, even though Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.525 makes no reference to the dropping of parties pursuant to Rule 1.250(b) as a trigger to commence the thirty (30) day deadline, the court in Siboni held that a party dropped from litigation under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) is required to file a motion for attorneys’ fees with thirty (30) days of being dropped or forever be barred from claiming attorneys’ fees.  The Siboni case is the only Florida appellate case addressing this issue.  Can an argument be made that the court in Siboni made an improper legislative decision and ignored the plain reading of Rule 1.525?  Yes, but why take the risk?

CONCLUSION

Pursuant to Florida case law, a party dropped from litigation under Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(b) is subject to the 30 day time limitation contained in Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.525, governing service of a motion seeking a judgment for costs and attorneys’ fees.  Even though the filing of an amended pleading does not explicitly trigger the 30 day time period under Rule 1.525, if your client gets dropped as a party as the result of the filing of an amended pleading, file any motion for attorneys’ fees within thirty (30) days of your client getting dropped.  Failure to adhere to this time period may result in your client’s motion for attorneys’ fees being denied by the court.


Steven “Rusty” Nisbet, a Senior Trial Attorney, is one of the construction industry attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.


[1] Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.525.

[2] Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.250(c).

[3] Trawick, Florida Practice and Procedure (2014 Edition), §4:10; Berman’s Florida civil Procedure, 4 Fla. Prac., Civil Procedure §1.525:8, n.2.

[4] Tubbs v. Mechanik Nuccio Hearne & Wester, P.A., 125 So.3d 1034,1040 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013) citing Thornber v. City of Fort Walton Beach, 568 So.2d 914, 919 (Fla. 1990).

[5] Id. at 1041.  See Walter D. Padow, M.D., P.A. v. Knollwood Club Ass’n, 839 So.2d 744, 745 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003)(No prevailing party when a party voluntarily dismisses case after receiving substantially all of the money claimed); Tubbs, supra. at 1042 (No prevailing party when a party dismissed a cause of action which had been rendered moot).

[6] Id. at 780.

[7] Id. at 419.

[8] Id.

[9] Siboni, supra. at 781.

Building Your Dream: Is A Lawyer Really Necessary?

“Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire.  It is a grand passion.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

For those of us with a passion for horses, home is not always where the heart is . . . home is where the horse is.  Which is why, many of us dream of owning a farm of our very own someday, but it may not be as simple as buying some land and throwing up a few 12’ x 12’ boxes.  The process of designing, building and operating an equine facility, whether it’s meant for personal use or boarding and training can be daunting and overwhelming, which is why seeking out the assistance of a knowledgeable equine lawyer may be just the help you need to avoid unnecessary risk and headaches.

The entire process can be broken down into three categories: (1) site planning; (2) design; and (3) construction.

 Site Planning

Step one in the process is not just buying a piece of property, it’s buying the right piece of property.  The purpose behind land use regulation is to allow a city to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of its residents.  Local land use and zoning restrictions can have a significant impact on how a property owner can use their own property, including restricting what can be built, where a structure can be located, if horses are allowed and how many horses per acre are permitted.

Zoning laws separate land into different basic categories that dictate what can be built and where.  The four basic zones are residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural.  Within these main types of zones, there will generally be additional restrictions that, depending on the municipality, can be very detailed to including things like: size and height of buildings, setbacks from the street, location of utility lines, water rights, and even the number of horses per acre.  In addition to zoning laws regulating how a property can be developed, there are building codes that regulate where and how a building or structure should be constructed.

A good real estate agent may be able to point you toward a property with equine friendly zoning, but a lawyer can assist with requesting a change in zoning or land use restrictions to better suit your needs on a particular property.

Design

Most states have laws that require structures larger than 4,000 square feet to be designed by a licensed architect to protect life safety and ensure structures meet building codes.  In a perfect world, everyone would be able to locate an architect or design professional and general contractor with experience developing equine facilities but when that is not an option, a knowledgeable equine lawyer may be able to assist in assuring that a facility is designed and constructed to minimize exposure to liability. Architects, specifically, have expertise in multiple phases of design, including feasibility studies, site design, barn and building design, permitting, budgeting, and ensuring everything complies with the local building code regulations.

Part of the design process involves the creation of a site plan. A site plan is an architectural plan of your property from a bird’s eye view that includes elements such as setbacks, distance between buildings, property lines, building footprint, parking, sanitary sewer lines and drainage.  An architect unfamiliar with equine facilities may not know to consider the importance of ensure parking and keeping vehicular traffic separate and away from riding arenas or areas with higher equine foot traffic, placement of the stable to allow for good air flow and ventilation, providing adequate space for horse trailers, delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to easily maneuver, and waste management to ensure there is no risk of contamination to the water supply.  Another design factor to consider involves making sure your equine friends remain on your property.  All 50 states have some form of a loose livestock statute holding owners responsible for damages caused by loose animals.

Construction

The final step, when possible is to find a licensed general contractor, knowledgeable with equine facilities, to gather bids and sign contracts with subcontractors (for smaller projects, you may be able to act as your own general contractor and hire each individual subcontractor).  A general contractor will frequently work with the architect to identify areas where you can save money, often called value engineering. However, there are many hidden dangers for horse and rider that even a general contractor familiar with equine facilities, may not know about.

An attorney with experience in equine and construction law can assist the owner by negotiating favorable terms in a construction contact, mitigating exposure to liability by identifying hidden dangers in the work, and assuring compliance with consumer protection statutes intended to protect the owners property rights.  In the event of disputes during construction, having an attorney familiar with the project will allow for swift and economical resolution.  In my experience, if a horse can figure out a way to injure itself. . . it will, therefore creating the safest environment possible for horse and rider is important.  An attorney familiar with equine law can assist in identifying hidden or unexpected dangers such as the importance of using slip resistant materials for stable aisleways, ensuring any gap between boards or panels is narrow enough that a stray hoof cannot fit through and get caught, putting the fence post on the outside of a riding arena, and making sure there are no pointy objects, such as nails/screw or sharp corners in areas where horses will be housed or loose.

Congratulations, your dream farm is done . . . now what?  Be on the lookout for Part 2, Operating an Equine Facility: Should you Consult a Lawyer?

Danielle N. Amico is one of the construction industry and equine attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.

Afraid of Lawyers? I am.

This article is designed to help you understand how to enjoy the time you spend dealing with an attorney versus allowing the experience to turn into the horror story so many people expect it would be. Okay, “enjoy” may be overstating it a bit.  After all, when dealing with an attorney you are typically dealing with situations of high importance which can be very expensive and stressful. Hourly rates can range from a few hundred dollars an hour to many times that depending upon the skill and expertise of the attorney.  Even though this article may not turn your dealings with an attorney into a pleasant experience, it does include a number of important tips that are intended to assure as little unpleasantry as possible.

When to involve legal counsel

Just like the best time to see a dentist is before you have a mouth full of cavities, the best time to see your attorney is before you have giant mess on your hands.  From a construction law standpoint, the very best use of attorney dollars is paying an attorney to prepare, or at the very least, review contract documents before they are signed.  By doing so, you should have a reasonable expectation of entering a contract that clearly manages risk.  In other words, prior to signing an agreement, your attorney should be able to help you understand the responsibilities and risks inherent in the proposed agreement, and what you can do to avoid or manage those risks.

The rule of earlier is better also applies to using an attorney to help deal with conflict.  Speaking to an attorney at the first sign of conflict has two obvious benefits.  First, the attorney can identify and as necessary, assist the client in satisfying contractual or statutory conditions precedent.  Many claims end before they even begin because the claimant failed to comply with contractual or statutory requirements.  These requirements can take different forms, for example deadlines or content that must be included within a specific document.  The second benefit of speaking to an attorney as soon as a potential dispute is identified is the attorney’s ability to then advise the client on a big picture strategy designed to assist in setting up a claim or defense as advantageously as possible.  An attorney may be able to suggest strategies for communication aimed at preventing a dispute from maturing, or when that is not possible, help frame the dispute in your favor. Advantageously structuring a client’s position relative to a dispute before the dispute has matured into formal claims and defenses is often enough to prevent the dispute from ever reaching maturity.

How to select the right attorney

First and foremost, it is imperative to assure that any attorney you are considering has the expertise and experience required to handle the dispute you are facing.  I am constantly surprised by how often parties engage counsel on construction law disputes that have little or no construction law experience.  Again, using the dentist analogy, common sense dictates that you would not go to an orthodontist for a tooth cleaning any more than you would go to a general dentist for braces.  The exact same logic should apply when choosing an attorney.

Many, if not most attorneys provide prospective clients with an initial consultation that is either free of cost or charged to the client only to the extent the attorney is engaged.  However, prospective clients frequently fail to take advantage of this significant opportunity to save money.  From the attorney’s perspective, the reason for an initial consultation is to assure that the attorney understands the assignment and is comfortable handling it before committing to do so.  Accordingly, attorneys will typically request basic background information in advance of an initial consultation to review prior to the consultation. Thus, prospective clients that use the initial consultation as little more than an opportunity to meet an attorney are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to understand their dispute from the attorney’s point of view.  An informed client should use the initial consultation to ask as many questions as they can about not only the attorney’s experience or billing practices, but also the attorney’s evaluation of the case, anticipated budget, expected duration, and strategy.

If you can appreciate the significant value of the information a prospective client can obtain during an initial consultation, then the logic of the next suggestion should be self-evident. Prospective clients should take advantage of free initial consultations by meeting with as many prospective attorneys as is necessary to find the right attorney for your assignment.  Just as a person diagnosed with a serious illness should obtain a second or third opinion prior to deciding upon a course of treatment or the doctor to provide such treatment. A person dealing with an important legal matter should meet with multiple attorneys prior to agreeing upon a strategy and find the right attorney to implement that strategy.  The most basic legal dispute will involve a significant amount of stress, anxiety, and more than likely, expense. Understanding that, it is foolish not to take advantage of every opportunity to assure you wind up engaging an attorney that cared enough to prepare in advance of your meeting and that has the knowledge, expertise, and experience to clearly describe how the attorney plans to handle the proposed assignment.

How to efficiently use legal counsel

A discussion as to the client’s budget for the assignment should begin as part of the initial consultation and should continue throughout the representation.  Attorneys that are not being paid for their work are generally allowed to not only terminate representation, but assert retaining and charging liens to secure payment for services provided.  Accordingly, every client should discuss a proposed budget with their attorney on the front end of a dispute and periodically throughout the matter as the case develops and things change. Any client with a limited or defined sum of money that is willing or able to apply towards legal representation, should openly share such information with their attorney as early in the process as possible so that the attorney can consider their ability to deliver the requested legal services within the specified budget.

After an attorney has been engaged, the most effective way to efficiently deal with the attorney is to have an organized strategy for communication in place from day one.  Attorneys that bill by the hour are selling a limited resource, the billable hours that can be eked out of a workday. A successful attorney needs to bill all time  they spend working on a client’s matter.  However, perhaps the most often uttered complaint about attorneys with hourly engagements is that they bill for every single phone call or email.

Clients that make this complaint have only themselves to blame because the complaint arises from the client’s failure to understand the implication of billing practices that employ minimum billing increments and the client’s failure to employ an organized strategy to deal with same.  When an attorney has a minimum billing increment of .2 hours, the client is going to be billed for 12 minutes of legal fees whether the attorney spends 12 minutes on the task or not.  Understanding this, you can see how quickly legal fees can mount by sending an attorney a series of “quick emails” or calling an attorney with several “simple questions.”

How do you address this issue?  Understanding the implication of minimum billing increments is the first step and planning accordingly is the solution.  Instead of sending an email to your attorney every time you have a question, maintain a notebook where you write down questions to address with your attorney during your next conference.  Obviously, emergencies can arise and when they do, you would be foolish not to reach out to your attorney immediately. However, if during the conference necessitated by an emergency you are able to address five non-emergent questions, thoughts, or concerns that you had jotted down to discuss the next time you met with your attorney, you will have saved an entire billable hour versus having sent those five simple issues in separate emails, each of which would have triggered a .20 minimum time entry.

How to efficiently use the legal system

Ask almost anyone that has been a party to a lawsuit that went to trial, and they will proclaim that a bad settlement is very often better than a great lawsuit.  Attorneys are expensive.  Litigation is time consuming and stressful.  What do you do with that information?  If you are smart, you will use it as a motivating factor to encourage you to find the earliest possible opportunity to end the case on terms that you can live with.  Litigation should be viewed as a matter of last resort, and as such, during litigation parties should anxiously explore any opportunity to bring the dispute to an end.

Decision making by a client during litigation should be driven by what the party “needs” out of the litigation versus what the party believes it is entitled to, wants to receive, or believes justice would dictate, and to do otherwise almost assures disappointment in the final result.  If despite my warnings, a client insists on speaking to me about “what is fair” or “what justice dictates,” I remind the client that while we have the best justice system in the world, it is far from perfect, and suggest the client spend their hard-earned dollars on a psychologist working through their sense of fairness or justice rather than spending those dollars on an attorney seeking an end that matches the means.


John J. Thresher, a Florida Bar Board Certified Construction Specialist, is one of the construction industry attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.

OSHA – Oh Sh . . . oot

You are showing a colleague the photographs from your vacation to Big Sky Country, still relishing in the sounds of silence and the intoxicating scent of ponderosa pine you left just yesterday, and in walks an OSHA representative welcoming you back with a Citation and Notification of Penalty.

The story, however, does not start or end there.  By this point your facility or your jobsite, or both, have been inspected on at least one occasion by OSHA.  This could have been a routine inspection, or one triggered by an accident.  It is wise to learn about your obligations under OSHA before an inspection and before receiving a Citation and Notification of Penalty because the price you pay thereafter may be significant.  That price can be the penalty itself, the legal costs to contest a Notification of Penalty, increased worker’s compensation costs, and even losing future bid opportunities because of required OSHA incident disclosure.

The OSHA of today is a far cry from its origins.  OSHA was passed by Congress in 1970 and became law in 1971 after an increase in accidents and deaths spanning five decades, starting with World War II.   Manufacturing during the war was focused on defeating Hitler and keeping wages at pace with extraordinary inflation, sometimes sacrificing health and safety for the good of the cause.  After World War II the country saw dramatic growth during its chemical revolution where new chemicals were created and deployed in manufacturing and agriculture without a full understanding of their impacts.  The environmental movement of the 1960s, seeking to rally others behind their cause, enlisted the workforce and unions to tip the scale against employers, and tip, it did.  During a two year legislative debate on workplace safety, pro-business legislators sought to create an advisory OSHA agency, not one which had the power to regulate.  Those legislators also battled against inclusion of what we now know as the “general duty” clause.  Some battles were won, and others were lost.  What remained was a patchwork of ideals that a new executive agency would implement.  In the decades since this agency has seemingly expanded its-own power, and seeks to enforce an ever expanding body of its unilateral pronouncements.  This body of pronouncements emanate from the very “general duty” clause pro-business advocates fought back against.  While that clause is now the law, executive agency edict can fortunately be checked through knowledge and challenge where appropriate.

Contractors should know that they have a general duty to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm.  That workplace includes not only a contractor’s own facilities, but the jobsite as well.  The contractor must also endeavor to ensure that its employees perform daily activities in accordance with applicable safety standards, of which there are many.  There are general standards, and also those which depend upon the nature of work performed (e.g. illumination, lead, hazmat, electrical, fire protection, welding, confined space, fall protection, chemical).  These elaborate standards are set forth initially in the United States Code and the Code of Federal Regulations.[1]  OSHA then issues interpretation letters explaining those requirements and how they may apply to a particular circumstance.[2]

It is critical that contractors are intimately familiar with applicable standards, and that contractors develop an ongoing safety training program.  This program should be conducted both by internal and external sources.  The program can and should consist, in part, of informal training, such as project planning meetings and task specific training by supervisors on a day to day basis.  The program should also consist of formal training via internal seminars or outsourced seminars.  All training should be documented contemporaneously (who, what, when) because there is little time to scramble for details and documentation after an accident.

Although contractors have a duty to implement safety training, they are not legal guarantors of safety.  The mere existence of an accident does not mean that a contractor has failed in its general duty.[3]  Since the contractor is required to address only recognized hazards, an unanticipated unusual event does not trigger a violation of the general duty.[4]  This is particularly true where OSHA claims that the incident is “serious,” as opposed to “other than serious.”   A serious violation exists only where OSHA can prove there is a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm and that the contractor knew about it, or that it should have known about it with the exercise of reasonable diligence.[5]  Even where an event could have been anticipated, OSHA must still prove that feasible measures would have materially reduced the likelihood of injury.[6]

Against this backdrop we recircle to our story of the returning vacationer.  Following the accident or other inspection the OHSA Compliance Safety and Health Officer would have submitted an inspection report to the Area Director for review.  While this secondary review is designed to safeguard contractors from overzealous prosecution by the Officer, the reality is that the Officer carries a great deal of influence with the Area Director.  If the Area Director concludes that the employer has violated a rule, a Citation will be issued, and it may be combined with a Notification of Penalty.[7]  OSHA is required to give the contractor a reasonable time within which to cure (abate) the violation, though that will not eliminate the penalty if one is assessed.[8]  The abatement period specified by OSHA is often unreasonable, but contractors may petition for modification of the abatement date.  The petition must include a number of details, such as steps taken to abate the issue by that point, the additional time needed, interim steps implemented to safeguard employees during the abatement period, and a certification that the petition for modification has been posted in a manner visible to the contractor’s employees.[9]  This petition must be timely filed or the contractor will have waived its right to seek modification.

The Contractor may also wish to contest the Citation in whole or in part.  This may be necessary for any of the reasons outlined in the opening paragraphs of this article.  It may also be prudent because an uncontested Citation may lead to more frequent OSHA inspections and increased fines in the event of future violations.  A Citation may be contested in only two ways: (1) an informal conference and (2) a formal notice of contest.[10]  A formal notice of contest must be initiated with the Assistant Regional Director within fifteen business days of the Citation.  The informal conference does not have any impact on that deadline, so if an informal resolution is to be reached, the contractor must initiate the informal conference quickly.  The contractor has the right to and should be represented by counsel during both an informal conference and the formal contest proceeding.

The contest proceeding is a formal legal process before the OSHA Review Commission, with a presiding Administrative Law Judge.  OSHA will be represented by legal counsel throughout the proceeding.  These proceedings are governed by complex rules of procedure and standards.[11]  At conclusion of that proceeding, the Administrative Law Judge will prepare a written decision which may be appealed to the appropriate federal circuit court.[12]

In 1776 Adam Smith published his great work The Wealth of Nations wherein he espoused the principal of the “Invisible Hand”; a laissez-faire, hands-off policy where government would let the competitive market self-regulate.  Some might say that what Adam Smith was to the Invisible Hand, OSHA is to the heavy hand.  While OSHA is often well-intended, it provides a terrible trap for the unwary.    You may avoid this trap by learning now about your obligations and defenses under OSHA, because with swift and appropriate action, contractors can position themselves to avoid, defeat, or modify Citations and penalties. Don’t be the contractor who exclaims OSHA-Oh Sh…oot!


Justin R. Zinzow, a Florida Bar Board Certified Construction Specialist, is one of the construction industry attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.


 

 

 

[1] 29 CFR 1926.

[2] https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2006-10-18

[3] Secretary of Labor, Complainant v. Intercontinental Terminals Company and Erbauer Construction Corporation, 1980 WL 10125, at *8 (Mar. 20, 1980) (stating it is well settled that the happening of an accident, in and of itself, is not proof of a violation of the general duty clause, further opinion testimony, even that of an expert, is not conclusive and it is up to the trier of fact to determine what weight, if any, will be given to the testimony).

[4] Champlin Petroleum Co. v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, 593 F.2d 637 (5th Cir. 1979) (stating that the general duty obligation is not designed to impose absolute liability or respondeat superior liability for employees’ negligence, rather its requires the employer to eliminate feasibly preventable hazards. It is the Secretary’s burden to show that demonstrably feasible measures would materially reduce the likelihood that such injury would have occurred).

[5] Secretary of Labor, Complainant v. H.C. Smith Construction Company, 1980 WL 10503, at *10 (Nov. 13, 1980) (finding that the occurrence of a death is not enough to result in a serious violation, the evidence must show that if a violation occurs, there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result therefrom).

Western Waterproofing Co., Inc. v. Marshall, 576 F.2d 139, 143 (8th Cir. 1978) (stating that failure to comply with a safety standard under OSHA is willful if done knowingly and purposely by an employer who either intentionally disregards the standard or is indifferent to its requirement); Brennan v. Occupational Safety and Health Review Com’n, 501 F.2d 1196, 1199 (7th Cir. 1974) (finding a serious violation to exist where there is a probability that death or serious physical harm could result from an existing condition or practice adopted unless employer could not with reasonable diligence know of the violation).

[6] Id.

[7] 29 CFR 1903.14

[8] Id.

[9] 29 CFR 1903.14-1903.15

[10] 29 CFR 1903.17 & 1903.20

[11] Part 200, Title 29 CFR.

[12] 29 USCA 660.

COVID 19: The Ultimate Force Majeure?

Today’s world is looking slightly different than it used to.  Nowadays, it is “normal” to see people wearing masks, face coverings, and gloves while doing their grocery shopping, and in some places, it is a requirement.  It is “normal” for an outbreak of hysteria to form over the last package of toilet paper or cleaning wipes.  It is “normal” to whip up your own homemade bottle of hand sanitizer because you cannot find it anywhere else.  People are referring to these life changes brought on by coronavirus as the “new normal”.  In fact, people are already questioning if things will ever return to how they once were.  While life should eventually return to how it was before the coronavirus was introduced, another underestimated change as a result of this global pandemic are how force majeure clauses within contracts may be drafted and interpreted.

What is a force majeure clause?

The term force majeure comes from the French meaning “superior force”.  Essentially, a force majeure clause within a contract identifies unforeseen, supervening events or situations that may excuse a parties’ delay in performance.  For example, a party to a contract may be obligated to complete a construction project by an agreed upon deadline.  However, if a hurricane were to suddenly hit and destroy part of the newly built structure, causing significant delays in completion, the constructor may not be found in breach of the contract if the contract identifies this type of natural disaster as a force majeure.  In addition to hurricanes, other more specified events, typically listed within a force majeure clause can include: war, riots, fire, national emergency, labor strike, governmental acts, acts of God, and pandemics.  A force majeure clause within a contract may appear similar to the one below:

“Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein, neither party shall be liable for any delays or failures in performance resulting from acts beyond its reasonable control including, without limitation, acts of God, labor disputes, delays in transportation, supply shortages, war, fire, invasion, lockout, equipment failure, severe weather conditions, or acts of terrorism.”

Would the effects related to COVID-19 be covered by a force majeure clause?

The answer to this question may not be that simple.  In fact, since the onset of coronavirus, many people have looked to their contract to try and determine if the issues they are experiencing would be appropriately protected by their force majeure provision.  Even after conducting a methodical review of the language utilized in the contract, this is not always clear.  The delays or issues in performance stemming from coronavirus might be excusable if the terms “governmental act”, “epidemic”, or “pandemic” are notably defined as examples of  force majeure.  If not, and a dispute were to arise, it may need to be resolved through the use of arbitration or litigation.  Litigation is always the last option anyone wants to consider when it comes to resolving a disagreement, but if it MUST be done, it is of the utmost importance to find an experienced attorney, especially within the parties’ particular industry.  As the outcome of force majeure disputes are decided on a case-by-case basis and dependent on numerous factors, such as the terms of the contract, applicable law, and other facts, it is crucial to rely on someone who has previously handled contract disputes.

Things to consider before signing a contract:

Is the force majeure clause within the contract sufficient to cover issues that may be caused by the effects from COVID-19?

Prior to signing any legally binding document, serious consideration should be made as to what may go wrong after the document is executed.  While it can be extremely difficult to prepare for the unexpected, there are typically basic scenarios to keep in mind in order to be better protected.  Think of the force majeure clause like insurance.  What events could happen that may negatively impact the ability to abide by the terms of the contract?  These should be included within the force majeure clause to potentially avoid liability for not being able to meet the requirements assigned in the rest of the contract because of that particular event.

More specifically, determine if the ongoing effects from coronavirus may contribute to failures in performance, delays, or any additional defaults.  If labor or material shortages are caused by the effects of coronavirus (i.e. people getting sick, mandatory quarantining, or imposed travel restrictions) and the contract specifically lists “labor or material shortages” in the force majeure provision, those particulars should be covered.  If the force majeure portion of the contract does not include particular language related to the effects from coronavirus, it may be up for further interpretation.

If a dispute were to arise and the contract requires arbitration, mediation or possibly litigation, how will these be conducted?

As social distancing and other restrictive mandates have been issued, changes had to be made from the standard day to day business operations seen before, especially with how legal proceedings are conducted.  In the past, parties were able to negotiate and argue their point of view in person and within relative proximity to one another.  Nowadays, mediations, arbitrations, and hearings are held via video conference or telephonically.  It may not seem like a substantial issue, but what challenges could occur within the use of these formats, as opposed to performing the traditional, in-person confrontations?  As contracts typically contain a clause related to navigating potential disputes, be sure to take into consideration how the contract may need to be revised in order to prepare for a socially distant friendly format.

Future impact of coronavirus:

There are several economic impacts and concerns related to coronavirus, which will likely continue long after the virus is gone.  It is impossible to know exactly how much will be impacted as it is still fairly new, but it is something that should also be taken into consideration before signing a contract or making any business-related decisions.  In the event of a contract dispute arising from effects caused by coronavirus, pay close attention to any news related to court decisions and how they may be interpreting this ultimate force majeure.


 

Tiffani Sprague, a Paralegal to construction industry attorneys at Zinzow Law, LLC.  For more information, or to inquire about a free seminar on this or other legal topics, email info@zinzowlaw.com, or visit www.zinzowlaw.com.

Rick Haskins Runs for Mayor of Key West

At Zinzow Law we believe it is our patriotic duty to make our voices heard at the ballot box, but also to support exceptional candidates who vie for public office with the promise of honoring the traditions of America, making her strong, and continuing her beliefs.

Our dear client Rick Haskins, a successful businessman in construction, real estate, pools, plumbing and a Veteran of the U.S. Navy, has decided to seek the office of Mayor of Key West, and we are proud to support him personally and as his campaign’s legal counsel.  God Bless America!

 

From all of us at-

TEAM Z

So Apparently, I’m a Racist