Of backwoods towns, train-wrecks, and feuding neighbors (i.e., an Email warning) (law note)

Train WreckWhat is it about train-wrecks that we all slow down to rubber-neck the blood, guts, and gore?  Whatever the reason, we all love to watch a good fight– especially those on-line, where people treat one another less than human.

A recent neighborhood list serve that I am a part of just had a particularly vicious debate between two people who, had they met over a cup of coffee instead of on-line, would at least have been civil to each other.  Instead, they sent verbal barbs back and forth to one another over (of all things) a door-to-door solicitor.  With the whole neighborhood watching.  What does this have to do with your professional career as an engineer or architect?  Glad you asked.  First, just a taste of the exchange:

Aggrieved Neighbor #1: 

I’m sorry for your view of the world and clear lack of broad social intelligence.  You add to the problem and underline the unnecessary drama applied to most modern dialect.  Please go get a few more degrees to convince yourself of your own intelligence.

Aggrieved Neighbor #2:

Nice ad hominem.  I never suggested that you or anyone else on this thread was lacking intelligence or motivated by ill will. Based on your last response, I still wouldn’t say that you’re lacking intelligence, but you are kind of a @#$%. Have a lovely day.

 

That was fun, wasn’t it?  Now, back to how this relates to your work.  These neighbors KNEW that others would see their remarks- hence the nature of a list-serve.  Now, how often do you send an email internally, not intending anyone other than your colleagues to see it?  Often, right?  Do you ever say anything inappropriate in the emails?  Off-color joke?  Tongue-in-cheek comment about the client?

Let’s say you’ve just had it with a particularly offensive client, and send your colleague this email:

Guess who changed his mind again?  That’s right, Mr. Wishy-Washy himself.  Need to revise the latest plans for the lobby area to include an extra work station.  Thanks!

Nothing too bad about that, right?  Would you like to have to explain why you are calling the client names in a deposition?  Cause every one of those emails is discoverable.

Here’s another one (modified from a real life example), sent to a former classmate in Faraway State:

Hey, Joe!  I hear that Mr. X is moving from Faraway to Random Town, North Carolina to run the Operations Facility There.  What happened to get Mr. X sent to a backwater town like Random Town, NC– hand caught in the cookie jar?  Drop me a line when you get a chance.

 

This email (modified ONLY slightly to prevent embarrassment by the persons involved) was actually part of discovery in a case I handled.  Now, imagine explaining to a local jury why you called them a “backwater town”.  The thing is, my client did not mean anything at all by the email– he was just ribbing his former classmate.  You know, the type of thing you do over a glass of beer.  Except here, it was documented.  For the other side.  For the court.  For the jury.

Keep these examples in mind when you are writing anything.  It’s the old New York Times rule— if it isn’t something you’d be happy to have your Grandma read about you in the NY Times, then don’t put it in writing.

Your future self will thank you.

Your turn.  Ever write or get an email that made you wince?  Think twice before sending those missives.  Jokes do not translate well in a construction lawsuit!

 

Learn from SONY: Don’t use trash talk in your construction project emails!

Bears hibernating

A hibernating bear and her cubs

Lessons in construction administration come from everywhere — including the SONY scandal.

In case you are a bear hibernating in a cave (in which case, go back to sleep!), you’ve heard about the SONY hacking that was apparently, but not definitively, done by North Korea due to their displeasure over the movie The Interview.  And, you may have found it amusing to read of the inner bickering at SONY, at lease until the threat of a national incident and the (at least temporary) yanking of the movie from its planned Christmas release.

Lost in all of the discussion about taste, censorship, security, and First Amendment rights, however, was a simple lesson for each of us.  Never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want to see on the TMZ report, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times.  For example, don’t call one of the biggest stars in your studio (Angelina Jolie) a “minimally talented spoiled brat.”

I’ve written about this before, but this is a fine time to remind you that someday, someone will read your emails.  And that someone will not be privy to your internal jokes, quirky sense of humor, or understand that you just had a bad day.  If you have to have those awkward conversations– have them in person, or at least on the phone.  Don’t play around with written communications.  Every email, text, tweet, Facebook post, letter, note, or diary entry can be discoverable in a lawsuit.

We’ve all done it.  Sent inappropriate emails.  Vents.  Laments.  Stop.  Endeavor to be boring rather than funny in all of your online accounts.  You may be only laughing on the inside, but you’ll still have a job, respect, and knowledge that there are no hidden documents waiting to shame you at the stroke of a hacker’s keyboard.  And, tell your employees to do the same.

Do you have an example of getting an inadvertent email or text?  Something that could have been embarrassing if it leaked beyond your firm?  Share in the comments below.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A trap for the unwary: Construction contracts under Seal (Law note)

signing contractHave you ever signed a contract that was “under seal”?  You probably have, and you probably have done so without really understanding what it means.  In North Carolina, a contract “under seal” means that the contract can be enforced for ten (10) years instead of the usual three.  In other jurisdictions, the contract can be enforced for even longer periods of time.  [For example, in Delaware, a contract under seal extends the time for brining a claim to twenty (20) years!]  Since a sealed contract extends your liability significantly, it is not something you should do lightly.

The phrase “under seal” comes from the old tradition of using a unique wax symbol (such as an engraved signet ring) to identify the owner signing the contract.  Today, however, you sign under seal when the words “under seal” or even just “[Seal]” is printed next to your signature, like this:

______________  [SEAL]
Melissa Dewey Brumback

While it is good to know about seals in general, construction professionals should be more concerned than ever about sealed contracts following a recent North Carolina Court of Appeals decision, Davis v. Woodlake Partners.  The Court in Davis held that in a contract to purchase improved property, signed “under seal,” extended the statute of limitations to the ten year statute as authorized by N.C. Gen. Stat. 1-47(2).  This is despite the fact that there is a six year statute of repose in North Carolina.  In the case, the lawsuit was brought within the 6 years, but outside of the 3 year statute of limitations for ordinary contracts.  The Court found the action was timely because of the “sealed” nature of the contract.

What does this mean for construction contracts?  You could find yourself liable on a construction contract longer than you intended.  Does this case apply in a situation where the 6 year statute of repose was violated?  The Court was not faced with that issue, so it’s too soon to tell.  The case was a divided opinion, so the state Supreme Court may be weighing in on the issue.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, consider striking through any “seals” on your construction contracts.

Your turn.  Take a look at the last contract you were asked to sign.  Was it “under seal”?  Did you know what that meant when you signed it?  Share below.

Photo (c) Losinpun.

Preparing for the Tax Man: Tips for Architects, Engineers, and other small business owners (guest post)

Miss me yet?  No, I’m “not dead yet” (for you Monty Python fans).  Nor have I fled to Hong Kong (a la Edward Snowden).  And no, contrary to rumors, I am not working on a Middle Eastern documentary with Jon Stewart.  Ahem.  My MIA status was simply due to too much work.  Good problem to have, right? 

Regular posting will resume next week.  In the meantime, since it is, once again, tax time for quarterly filers, I thought this guest post on tax issues particularly appropriate.  Even if you don’t file quarterlies, pay attention now to save heart ache at the end of the year!

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If you own your own architectural or engineering firm, tax time provides a unique advantage for you. Small businesses have ample opportunities to take advantage of deductions and tax-saving steps that maximize refunds and business profit.
money

Looking for a few small-business tax tips? Consider this shortlist to help streamline your process:

1. Proper record-keeping: Year-round record keeping ensures that come tax time, your paperwork will be in order. Make sure that you save all documents relating to deductions in case your business is audited. Because tax credits and deductions change from year-to-year, keeping excellent records allows you to adapt while being able to reference previous years simply by checking your filing.

2. Keep two Acts in mind: Both the Small Business Jobs Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) help you manage your tax burden. The first has over 17 tax provisions that decrease taxes for small businesses, all of which can win your business great savings. The Affordable Care Act allows small businesses to cover 35 percent of the health care premiums that they pay to provide health insurance to employees. In 2014, the amount will increase to 50 percent.

3. Avoid an audit: Audit traps are indicators to the IRS that they need to investigate your business dealings further. Avoid this scenario by keeping the following details straight:

  • Home Office Deduction rules: Know what qualifies a home office and make sure yours abides by the IRS definition before claiming one. Not all home-based businesses qualify for this deduction.

  • Properly classify your employees: Independent contractors and employees are not one and the same from an IRS perspective and should not be treated as such. Non-compliance with proper classification is a red flag to the IRS that your business may be attempting to avoid payroll taxes and can result in back taxes and penalties.

  • Miscellaneous deductions: Be cautious with your deductions, as a large amount of itemized deductions can raise suspicion. Be sure that you have all of your paperwork to support any deductions and claim them in a clear and specific manner.

  • Business and personal expenses do not mix: While Turbotax encourages freelancers to combine business with pleasure and write off the expenses, the IRS does not welcome this blended method and will scrutinize individuals who combine their business and personal expenses too often. Maintain separate bank accounts for your personal life and business and maintain meticulous records to ensure that your actions do not require further attention.

Whether you have an accountant or do your business taxes yourself, knowing the proper way to file is an excellent policy for a small and growing business. By maintaining clean records and staying aware of IRS policies, you can make the most of business deductions and enjoy a penalty-free tax season.

Chelsea Terris provides online content for Meticulous Plumbing, a family owned company located in Portland, OR. Chelsea is passionate about helping small businesses thrive. 

Thanks Chelsea for the tax tips!

 

Engineers: Here’s how to Securing your Mobile Device from Cyber-Attacks (guest post)

smartphone iconToday, a very important post from guest blogger Silvia Brook.  Silvias writes about home and cyber security for homesecurity.org. When she’s not writing, Silvia enjoys biking with her friends or cooking a new recipe from her compendium of cookbooks.

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Believe it or not, cyber security is still a big issue in the tech industry. It seems as though every year a new electronic device is released by one of the major hardware developers, and yet every year consumers who buy those same devices fall prey to a host of viruses, glitches, and malware. A tablet released this year may get hit with just as many (if not more) viruses as they model that preceded it the year before.

Part of why that’s the case is because malicious applications are changing and evolving at the same rate as the new devices that they target. Developers on both sides of the equation are fighting to make the better application—those who design security apps and protection software will try to keep your information, while hackers will try just as hard to take it away.

A recent assessment of the Android OS’s newest virus protection software might explain this problem. The new smartphone OS—Android 4.2—has a built-in malware scanner for apps. A computer scientist at North Carolina State University decided to see how this new scanning software stacked up third-party virus protection apps in a test that pits them all against the latest malware targeting smartphones. The study found that the Android OS app scanner caught malware content only about 20% of the time. The third-party security apps fared much better, some of which caught malware nearly every time.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Google seems to have trouble designing a competent virus scanning application for its own line of smartphones, all of which seem at least vulnerable to potential viruses according to the above report. If that’s the case, then how can people expect to put sensitive information (emails, finances, photos, etc.) on their smartphones?

I think the most important takeaway is that cyber security should be taken seriously by people who use mobile devices on a regular basis. There really are malicious apps out there that could do some serious damage to smartphones and tablets.  Design professionals such as engineers and architects who rely on their electronics for mobile work  are best off defending themselves from such annoyances with third-party apps designed by professionals with a proven track record.

Below are two apps by such developers which have received nothing but glowing reviews from critics.

Avast!

Avast! is a comprehensive software that addresses many key cyber security concerns. For one thing, the software will help users track their smartphones or tablets should they ever get lost or stolen. Avast! will let users locate their misplaces phones via GPS and send SMS messages to it should they want to address whoever has it. Of course the software also protects mobile devices from malware apps and websites that could be packing a nasty virus by scanning every app before it’s loaded. Avast! also allows users to build a firewall for their mobile devices should they suspect that hackers want to tamper with their data. In other words, Avast! is the whole security package for the Android, and it’s free!

F-Secure Mobile Security

F-Secure is an acclaimed security software company, protecting both home computers and mobile devices all sorts of cyber security threats. F-Secure will ensure that mobile users can browse the web safely without fear of encountering malware; the service will also scan incoming apps and data for any potential viruses that could compromise the safety of the device. Like Avast!, F-Secure also has a feature that will help users track down their mobile device should it be misplaced or stolen (and users can erase their data remotely it they suspect that someone has access to their information). F-Secure has a subscription fee, and it’s only available for Android users.

Melissa here again.  What about you?  Do you have a favorite cyber security app?  Depending on how much you work in the Cloud, you should!  

Share your recommendations in the comment section, below.  Just remember, I’m a luddite, so talk in plain and simple terms!

Photo (c) Lora Williams

 

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