Nebraska Supreme Court Addresses Evidentiary Standards for Approving Average Weekly Wages in Workers’ Compensation Court

One of the issues evaluated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in the recent case of Bortolotti v. Universal Terrazzo and Tile Company, 304 Neb. 219, 933 N.W.2d 851 (Neb. 2019), was what evidence is necessary for a Plaintiff to prove applicable average weekly wages for an owner/operator of a business. In Bortolotti, the Plaintiff was the sole stockholder and president of Universal Terrazzo and Tile Company (Universal), a subchapter S corporation. The Plaintiff had been an installer of terrazzo tile and fabricator and installer of granite for over 30 years before becoming the sole stockholder and president in 2011. The injury at issue occurred in June 2013 and the Plaintiff’s operative petition for workers’ compensation benefits alleged weekly earnings of $3,625 at the time of the injury, but Universal and their compensation insurance provider denied the allegation. At trial the Plaintiff offered one page from his 2013 tax return noting that the employer was an S corporation, and his earnings for the year were $3,950. The compensation court did not believe the Plaintiff’s earnings were so low as president of the company. The evidence at trial also discussed the total gross income of the corporation, but offered no evidence regarding what business expense deductions were taken by the Plaintiff from business earnings. Thus, the compensation court was unable to verify if business expenses had been properly deducted from the company’s gross earnings or the Plaintiff’s testimony that his weekly draw from the corporation was $3,625. Ultimately, compensation court determined that the Plaintiff sustained a compensable injury, but had difficulty in determining the Plaintiff’s average weekly wage due to a lack of exhibits, and instead held the Plaintiff’s average weekly wage was $1,399.95, entitling him only to a statutory maximum compensation rate of $728 per week.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ determination that there was not sufficient evidence to support the high average weekly wage and that the only competent evidence in the record supported the Court of Appeals’ determination of an average weekly wage of $49, the minimum weekly income benefit provided by statute based on the 2013 earnings of $3,950. The Supreme Court held that net profits or net income of an S corporation do not necessarily qualify as “wages” under the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act, as the statute requires focus on the “money rate at which the service rendered is recompensed,” not payments received solely because of a recipient’s status as a shareholder.

As the Supreme Court notes, the burden was on the Plaintiff, the president and sole shareholder of the S corporation to provide evidence differentiating his wages as a corporate employee from his profits as a corporate shareholder. The co-mingling of ownership and employment burdens the party seeking workers compensation to provide sufficient evidence of what their total income is. Bortolotti demonstrates that simply indicating the total revenue of a company will not be sufficient evidence for computing an average weekly wage.

VW Contributor: Ryan Coufal
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Protesting Property Tax Valuations: Key Dates and Deadlines to Keep in Mind for 2020

Tis the season for holiday joy and cheer, but with all the hustle and bustle of November and December comes the new year and the start to tax and property valuation season. Don’t let this tax season “fly by” when it comes to knowing your rights to protest property valuations, and more importantly don’t miss the important deadline dates for when you can protest. So as you enter this busy time of year and count down the days to the end of the year and the start of 2020, please keep in mind the key dates and deadlines for protesting your property tax valuation.

• January 1, 2020: Under Nebraska Statute all real property subject to taxation shall be assessed as of January 1 at 12:01 a.m. and used as a basis of taxation until the next assessment unless the property is destroyed.
• January 15, 2020: If own real property in a county with a population of at least one hundred and fifty thousand (>150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census, the County Assessor is required to provided you notice of a preliminary valuation of your real property by January 15th of each year. Notice will either be mailed directly to you or published on the County or County Assessor’s website.
• March 19, 2020: If you own real property in a county with a population less than one hundred and fifty thousand (<150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census, the County Assessor is required to complete the valuation assessment for your real property by March 19 of each year.
• March 25, 2020: If you own real property in a county with a population of at least one hundred and fifty thousand (<150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census, the County Assessor is required to complete the valuation assessment for your real property by March 25 of each year.

Immediately upon completion of the valuation assessments, the County Assessor must publish in a newspaper of general circulation in the county that an assessment roll is complete and that notices of valuation changes have been mailed and identify the final date for filing valuation protests.

• June 1, 2020: Under Nebraska Statute the County Assessor is required to notify the owner of record as of May 20, 2020, of every item of real property which has been assessed at a value different than the previous year. Such notice shall be given by first-class mail addressed to the owner’s last known address, and the notice will identify the item of real property, state the old and new valuation, the date of convening of the county board of equalization, and the dates for filing a protest.
• June 1, 2020: Property Tax Valuation Assessment Protests can start being filed with the County Board of Equalization. Such protests regarding personal property must be signed and filed on or before June 30, 2020.
• June 1, 2020: Property Tax Valuation Assessment Protests may start being heard by the County Board of Equalization or an appointed referee. Such hearings can be held up to July 25, 2020 unless the county has a population of at least one hundred and fifty thousand (>150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census, then the county may extend the deadline of hearings to August 10, 2020.
• June 6, 2020: The County Assessor must annually post in their office, and as designated by the county board, mail to a newspaper of general circulation and to licensed broadcast media in the county the assessment ratios as found in his or her county as determined by the Tax Equalization and Review Commission.
• June 30, 2020: This is the deadline to sign and file a Property Tax Valuation Assessment Protest. This is a hard deadline, protests mailed via U.S. mail must be postmarked by this date.
• July 25, 2020: This is the last day hearings may be heard by the County Board of Equalization or an appointed referee, unless the county has a population of at least one hundred and fifty thousand (>150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census and extended the deadline of hearings to August 10, 2020.
• August 2, 2020: The County Board of Equalization are required to notify owners of the results of their protests by this date, unless the county has a population of at least one hundred and fifty thousand (>150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census, then the county has until August 18, 2020 to notify owners of the results.
• August 10, 2020: This is the last date the County Board of Equalization can conduct protest hearings if the county has a population of at least one hundred and fifty thousand (>150,000) inhabitants according to the most recent census and elected to extend the deadline.
• August 18, 2020: If the County Board of Equalization hearings were extended to August 10, 2020, this is the date the Board is required to notify owners of the results of their protest.
• August 24, 2020: This is the deadline to appeal any action taken by the County Board of Equalization to the Tax Equalization and Review Commission if the deadline date to send you the results of your protest was August 2, 2020.
• September 10, 2020: This is the deadline to appeal any action taken by the County Board of Equalization to the Tax Equalization and Review Commission if the deadline date to send you the results of your protest was August 24, 2020.

The dates provided above are the deadlines provided by Nebraska Statute. Different counties may have different procedures and processes for the protest’s hearings, and it is important to know those process requirements as well.

Attorneys at Vandenack Weaver can assist you at any step of the protest process and help identify why the county’s valuation is wrong and help you, the property owner, save money on property taxes for the upcoming tax year.

VW Contributor: Ryan Coufal
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Pre-registration of a Copyrightable Work

An often overlooked method to protect copyrightable works is pre-registration. This method will likely become a little more prominent because, earlier this year, the United States Supreme Court determined in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, 585 U.S. ___ (2019) that a copyright owner must wait to bring suit for copyright infringement until their works have been registered. Previously, in the view of certain lower courts, the copyright owner simply had to apply for registration. This decision increased the burden on copyright owners to bring a suit for infringement, but the Supreme Court noted several reasons for its decision, including pre-registration.

Pre-registration is a tool used to protect unpublished works that are in the final stages before commercial distribution, making them particular susceptible to copyright infringement. Instead of following the full registration process that will take over half a year, the copyright owner would submit the work to the United States Copyright Office and, after a limited review, will receive pre-registration. Under Section 408(f) of the Copyright Act, a work that has been pre-registered provides the copyright owner an opportunity to immediately bring a suit for copyright infringement.

Although this particular method of protection might have limited application, it is an important tool to ensure that owners of particularly vulnerable copyrightable works are able to bring suit immediately against those infringing on their works. Otherwise, the copyright owner will have to wait eight or nine months to receive actual registration from the copyright office before they can bring a suit for copyright infringement, which would likely damage the value of the underlying intellectual property. As always, the attorneys at Vandenack Weaver are available to assist with protecting your intellectual property.

VW Contributor: Alex Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Copyright Infringement: Will Congress Make it Easier to Obtain a Remedy?

On October 22, 2019, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 2426, The Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2019. The intent of the legislation is to make it easier for copyright owners to seek enforcement of their rights in situations where the overall damages to the copyright owner are minimal. Essentially, the Copyright Office would create a Copyright Claims Board that would adjudicate infringement claims with damages under $30,000.

The rationale behind the legislation is that cost is a significant impediment to a copyright holder bringing a claim against someone infringing on their work. To bring a claim, as recently determined by the United States Supreme Court, the underlying work must be registered with the United States Copyright Office, which takes time and includes certain expenses. Once registered, the copyright owner can only seek a remedy in federal court, since that is the exclusive jurisdiction for a copyright infringement claim. This process is expensive and, although attorney’s fees can be recovered pursuant to section 505 of the Copyright Act, the United States Supreme Court has also recently limited the scope of recovery. The end result is that many copyright owners are unable to seek a remedy.

This legislation passed with near unanimous support in the United States House of Representatives and moves to the United States Senate for consideration. Should this legislation ultimately become law, it will likely have a significant impact on how copyright owners protect their intellectual property.

VW Contributor: Alex B. Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Buyers Beware: Buying Real Estate Subject to Unpaid IRS Taxes

When purchasing real estate, it is important to be diligent in whether the seller owes unpaid taxes to the IRS.  In certain situations, the IRS can collect prior owner’s taxes from you the buyer of the real estate, even though the seller incurred those taxes.  A recent United States District Court, District of Nevada demonstrates this issue.

In the case of Shirehampton Drive Trust v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, No. 2:16-cv-02276 (D. Nev. 2019), the owner obtained a mortgage to purchase real estate property.  The owner later fell behind and failed to pay their monthly homeowner’s association (HOA) dues, and the HOA recorded a notice of delinquent assessment lien on the property.  The HOA then foreclosed on the property.  Shirehampton Drive Trust (Shirehampton), the plaintiff, purchased the property from the foreclosure sale and sued JP Morgan Chase Bank (the bank) to quiet title to the real property, and the bank filed a counter claim on the same grounds.  The IRS became involved as well and removed the case to Federal Court, filing a claim of its own on the grounds that the previous owner had outstanding unpaid Federal taxes.

Federal IRS Tax Liens arise by an operation of law when taxes are assessed.  Once the IRS records the tax debt, it has an interest in the taxpayer’s property, which generally includes real estate.  The IRS lien is generally made in the local county records and must be recorded to generally be valid.

The issue hung on which lien was superior, the IRS or the HOA lien.  Generally, the “first in time, first in right” rule applies, looking to the timing of when the liens were filed.  Shirehampton argued that the HOA lien was superior and thus they purchased the lien clear of the IRS Federal Tax Lien.  The IRS argued the HOA lien wasn’t perfected before the Federal Tax Lien, as under Nevada state law, the HOA lien would not be perfected until after notice was sent to the owner of the delinquent assessment.  The US District Court for the State of Nevada ruled for the IRS in that the IRS lien filed on May 1, 2009 was before the date the delinquent assessment was sent to the prior owner on July 24, 2009, even though the owner became delinquent of the HOA dues on March 1, 2009.  As notice of the lien was not perfected in being sent to the previous property owner, the IRS’ lien was superior.  Thus, Shirehampton purchased the property subject to the IRS’ lien and had to pay those unpaid taxes of the previous owner.

When dealing with tax issues and liens when buying property it is important to consult a tax attorney that can help you understand the consequences of liens encumbering the property, and not end up paying the unpaid taxes of the previous owner!

VW Contributor: Ryan Coufal
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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A Criminal Conviction for Theft of a Trade Secret Does Not Require a Trade Secret

In an unusual case involving trade secrets, a court determined that the mere belief that stolen information is a trade secret, even when no trade secret was stolen, is criminally convictable. As an important tool for protecting intellectual property, businesses will often keep valuable information  secret, and only provide access to individuals necessary to complete some business objective. Most businesses grant access to the trade secret on the belief that misappropriation is actionable under the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, as well as state laws that are substantially similar to the federal law. It is less known, however, that the theft of a trade secret is a federal crime, pursuant to the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 (“EEA”), as codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1832.

In this particular case out of Chicago, an employee resigned and, before leaving, downloaded 1900 files from his employer. He believed that this information constituted trade secrets of his employer, and had the intention to take these trade secrets to his new foreign based employer. However, prior to boarding his plane to China, he was stopped by the United States Customs and Border Patrol, where the hard drive was discovered.

In February 2019, he was convicted by a jury of actual and attempted theft of trade secrets, pursuant to the EEA. The jury also determined that, to a large extent, the stolen documents did not constitute a trade secret. The defendant filed for a post-conviction motion for a new trial, with an argument that you can’t be convicted of theft of trade secrets if the information did not include any trade secrets.

On October 9, 2019, the judge ruled that theft of trade secrets under the EEA exists even if the underlying materials don’t constitute a trade secret. This suggests that stealing what is believed to be a trade secret constitutes a crime. This outcome certainly poses a unique perspective on a lesser known consequence regarding theft of a trade secret. Whether this concept will transfer to non-criminal litigation over the theft of trade secrets has yet to be determined.

For a detailed history, please see United States of America v. Robert O’Rourke, No. 17-cr-00495, (N.D. Ill. 2019).

VW Contributor: Alex B. Rainville
© 2019 Vandenack Weaver LLC
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Continue to Scrape Away! Microsoft’s LinkedIn Ordered to Lift Ban on Third Party Access to Public Profile Data

In the closely followed hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn case, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision holding that hiQ, a data analytics company, is entitled to a preliminary injunction forbidding LinkedIn from denying hiQ access to publicly available LinkedIn member profiles. hiQ had been scraping data and building products from LinkedIn public profiles. LinkedIn argued that hiQ was in violation of LinkedIn’s user agreement as well as California law and federal law, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and sent hiQ a cease-and-desist letter.

Similarly, back in 2018, a district court in Washington D.C. ruled that using automated tools to access publicly available information on the open web is not a crime, even when a website bans automated access in its terms of service. The case, Sandvig v. Sessions, narrowly interpreted the CFAA. This federal law makes it illegal to access a computer connected to the Internet “without authorization,” but neglects to specify what “authorization” means. In pertinent part, the court reasoned that:

“Scraping is merely a technological advance that makes information collection easier; it is not meaningfully different from using a tape recorded instead of taking written notes, or using the panorama function on a smartphone instead of taking a series of photos from different positions. And, as already discussed, the information plaintiffs seek is located in a public forum.”

The Ninth Circuit decision and reasoning is in line with Sandvig. However, the court was clear not to outlaw a website owner from pursuing any recourse against wholesale appropriation of its public content. Rather, the court articulated a public policy concern if companies like LinkedIn can use sole discretion to determine who can collect and use data when that company does not own the data which they make publicly available to viewers. Read in this way, the court is mitigating the opportunity for LinkedIn to gain a monopoly on public information of the site’s 500 million member profiles.

Many view hiQ Labs, Inc. v. LinkedIn as a victory for the open source web. The internet is a critical space for researchers, journalists, businesses, and individuals who require meaningful access to collect and analyze public information. Specifically, businesses use web scraping bots to relentlessly pursue data which might help grow their business by monitoring competitor pricing. Web scraping is also integral for predictive analysis, where businesses can study and understand products and associated consumer behavior to assess their costs and benefits. Thus, web scraping provides significant business value to a multitude of companies across various sectors.

LinkedIn could appeal the 9th Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then, data miners, researchers, and other third parties can continue to use any public online data not owned or password protected by a website owner.

VW Contributor: Skylar Young
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