New Statutes California Business Owners Should Know About

Earlier this week, I wrote about new statutes California community association managers and board members should know about.  So, I thought I should also talk about new statutes California business owners should know about.  Surely our legislators put great effort into passing lots of legislation to materially improve the business climate in our economically hard hit state. 

Well, no, not really.  I suppose there is a silver lining, though.  At least the folks in Sacramento didn’t go out of their way to make the business climate even worse.

Better luck next year, I suppose.

In the meantime, what to blog about?  I’ve got it! 

Considering the impending Super Bowl game, you may be happy to hear that Assembly Bill 58 amended Penal Code Section 337a, and added Penal Code Section 336.9, to eliminate misdemeanor and/or felony criminal penalties for friendly sports betting pools.  That Super Bowl pool at work?  Now it is only punishable by a fine.  If the stakes are small enough.  Or it doesn’t fall under some other exception.  So okay, these new statutes aren’t perfect (not even for California).  And I should warn you to read the full text of the law yourself, if you are considering doing anything which it may pertain to, because it’s full of all sorts of complexities (and I know less about criminal law than most criminals do).  (You can find it at:  http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/asm/ab_0051-0100/ab_58_bill_20090806_chaptered.pdf.)   

But it is nice to know that our state lawmakers spent their time on issues which are of such importance to our economy this past year.  I mean, in addition to these new Penal Code provisions, they also passed a law allowing a motor vehicle passenger to turn on a DVD screen in the front seat, as long as the driver can’t see it (Assembly Bill 62).  Oh, and California dentists are now prohibited from making credit arrangements with patients who are under anesthesia (Assembly Bill 171), which makes me wonder how widespread this practice was before (a scary thought). 

Tongue-in-cheek comments aside, there are a few new statutes which, depending upon the business you are in, could be important for you to familiarize yourself with.  If your business is a restaurant, remember that the ban on trans fats kicks in this year (okay, that’s still a bit sarcastic).  If you sell a product or service using recurring periodic fees or charges (an “evergreen clause”, for example), you must be careful to disclose the details and obtain your customer’s specific written consent (Assembly Bill 340).  If you do home remodeling or other contracting work, be very sure that you have the necessary license(s), as a first offense will now cost you up to a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail (Assembly Bill 370).  And if yours is a small, home-based child care business (for six or less children), you must be licensed in pediatric first aid and CPR (Assembly Bill 1368), just like larger child care facilities.

Solar Energy for Community Associations – Contract Formation and Risk Management

It is important for any community association considering pursuing a solar lease or power purchase agreement (PPA) to budget for the cost of two important preliminary matters, a feasibility analysis and legal costs.  Skimping on either could ensure the ultimate failure of your efforts, costing the association considerably more money in the long run. 

With respect to a feasibility analysis, I am not talking about the relatively simple analysis performed by single family residential solar installers, comparing a home’s annual electric power use and applicable tariff rates to the anticipated cost and rate reductions of a solar system.  A community association’s solar power needs will be the equivalent of a larger scale commercial solar system, and the cost/benefit analysis for such a system is considerably more complex.  Investors (the prospective system owner for the lease or PPA) will want to see a detailed feasibility analysis in order to determine whether the numbers work for them from an investment standpoint.  Project scale and net metering challenges must be addressed in such a study, so that it can then be used as the basis for the financial terms of a proposed PPA.  Typically, a project which cannot achieve close to a zero balance net metering result is not economically feasible.  As the cost of solar energy system installations drops, and with the passage of AB 920 requiring utilities to roll over or buy surplus production credits effective January 1, 2011, investors will likely be placing less emphasis on achieving zero balance and more emphasis on tax incentives and other benefits of the investment, so exact scaling should become a less critical factor, but investors will still be unwilling to fund a system the feasibility of which has not been determined by a qualified professional.  Unfortunately, unlike our neighbors in Canada, there is currently no funding available to help subsidize the cost of a multi-unit residential solar project feasibility study (with the exception of affordable housing projects).  Nevertheless, it may be necessary for an association to incur the cost in order to attract investors.  A large scale solar installer may be willing to share in the cost, however, and some large scale installers have their own in-house professional engineering staff to perform detailed feasibility studies. 

When it comes to negotiating and drafting the lease or PPA itself, board members must understand and appreciate that, unlike the vendor, maintenance and repair contracts they are accustomed to, a solar power lease or PPA will by no means be a “one size fits all” or “industry standard” contract.  The array of issues which must be addressed, just a few of which I will touch on below, and the very long term nature of the agreement, will require careful negotiation and drafting.  Missing or inadequate contract terms will be fertile ground for future disputes between the parties, undermining the viability of the parties’ long term relationship.  Any association interested in pursuing solar power should, therefore, budget for the necessary legal costs associated with the formation of a complex legal agreement such as a PPA. 

The very long contract duration will also require the careful selection of contracting “partners” (the system installer and owner), and the maintenance of  a cooperative and collaborative relationship over the term of the contract.  Because of the length of the contract, due diligence regarding the financial health and long term viability of the system owner will also be vital.

With respect to the terms of the agreement itself, the scope and complexity of a PPA is much more akin to the construction agreements for a new development than to any contract the board of directors will have previously entered.  Installation, maintenance and operation risks will need to be identified, managed and insured.  In addition, the agreement will have to address such financial issues as buy out options and costs at the end of the contract term, warranty coverage and costs, system performance and monitoring (and how attendant risks are allocated between the parties) and dispute resolution mechanisms.  Liability risks and insurance coverage (both property and liability) must also be addressed, and in a way which accommodates the fact that risk exposures for solar power projects and, therefore, the commercial insurance market to cover such exposures, is evolving, and will likely continue to evolve over the term of the agreement.  The insurance issues in particular will need to be carefully considered since, while property and liability insurance coverage for owners, maintainers and users of solar power systems has become increasingly available since insurers first began issuing “green” commercial insurance endorsements in 2006, such coverage is often provided via “manuscript” as opposed to standard form policy provisions, and not all insurance brokers understand the risks or available coverage options. 

Finally, issues specific to community associations will need to be understood by all parties and carefully addressed.  Membership approval will be required due to the long term nature of the lease or PPA, and easement or license agreements will also be required, both of which will require time to achieve.  Since government granted financial incentives are as important (or more so) to system investors than expected revenues from sale of the power produced, and some incentives are time sensitive (requiring completion of the project within a specified time frame), failure to address the time required to satisfy these community association specific legal requirements may not only undermine the relationships between the parties, but resulting damage to the financing entity may expose the association to potential legal liability for which no insurance coverage is available.  This risk must, therefore, be adequately identified and managed by the parties.

The good news is that all of this is achievable, and has been successfully navigated in the context of PPA agreements for commercial and institutional building solar projects.  There is no reason why these issues cannot be addressed for community association solar energy projects as well, if community associations are careful to work with investors and installers who are familiar with such projects, and have legal representation to help them through the process.

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They’re messing up over there!

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The Insurance Journal reports that the London office of Marsh & McLennan, the global insurance mega-broker, has warned that the UK construction sector is failing to fully manage project risks. 

Phew, good thing that’s not happening here in the U.S., right?  Right?

A rose by any other name . . .

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. . . is a problem.  (My apologies to Shakespeare.)

A problem I encounter on a fairly regular basis, I might add.  

Specifically, the problem is misnamed or unnamed insureds.  It’s a big problem for insureds who think they are but aren’t.  It’s also a problem for insurance agents and brokers (and their errors and omissions insurers).

Getting the name right isn’t always as simple as it sounds. 

Surprisingly, however, I have most frequently encountered this problem in contexts in which getting the name right should have been a fairly simple task.  For example, I recently discovered that the named insured was wrong on all of the insurance policies for a community association, and had been so for a very long time.  I’m not sure how this can happen, since community associations (typically referred to as “homeowners associations”) are generally incorporated in the State of California, and they have governing documents which include articles of incorporation and bylaws, so figuring out what the association’s legal name is should be cinchy (a technical legal term).  I just don’t get it.   

Here’s something else to think about (as if you didn’t have enough already).  When the insured’s name is changed, special attention must be given to any policies issued on a claims made basis.  This would include (but not be limited to) professional liability policies (what used to be called “E&O” or “D&O” policies), and even some general liability policies which are written on a claims made basis.  

What about when the name of the insured has been changed to reflect a change in the business structure?  This raises some issue which are too complex to discuss here.  To see just the tip of the iceberg, take a look at the “Who Is An Insured” section of your commercial general liability policy (if you can find it), and you will see that the named insured’s business structure determines who is covered.  Even more important, of course, is who is not covered.  For example, if your policy’s coverage form says that a partnership that is not named as an insured is not covered, changing your business form from a sole proprietorship to a partnership without changing your insurance policy to reflect that would be a really bad thing.  And oh, don’t get me started on what can happen to your commercial auto insurance policy if ownership of the covered vehicles isn’t described properly.        

Making sure that policies properly name the insured(s) isn’t only a problem with business/commercial insurance policies, either.  I often encounter this issue with homeowners insurance policies when the property is held in trust.  It is important for homeowners to tell their insurance agents how title to the insured property is held, and it is even more important (in my opinion) for insurance agents to ask.  In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, since homeowners usually don’t understand how creating a family trust for estate planning purposes has an impact on insurance, but the insurance agent does (or, at least, should), an agent’s failure to inquire falls below the standard of care.  The real problem arises, of course, when the property is placed in a trust after the homeowners insurance policy is first written, the homeowners don’t tell the agent, and the policy just keeps renewing with the agent never bothering to ask if there have been any changes. 

Suffice it to say that upon putting your home in a trust, the named insured(s) on your homeowners policy must be changed.  Consideration should also be given to ownership of the contents of the residence and how they are insured, and to the individuals (trustees, beneficiaries, occupants) who require liability coverage (and how that will be accomplished).  Similarly, for all you business moguls who put your personal residences in an LLC for tax purposes, your homeowners insurance policy will also need to be changed (potentially in a major way, since some personal lines insurance carriers, considering LLCs to be strictly business entitles, will not issue their policies to one).  Oh, and don’t forget that any umbrella policies will need to be changed as well.  

Finally, just to add the cherry to the whipped cream, the California Court of Appeal recently held, in a case called Kwok v. Transnation Title Insurance Co., that when the Kwoks, who had formed the LLC which originally took title to a house and was the named insured on the title insurance policy, later transferred the property from the LLC to a family trust, they terminated coverage under the title insurance policy.  Which turned out to be a bad thing when they were sued by their neighbors over an easement.  (Go ahead, you can say.  I know you’re thinking it.  “What a Kwok.”)   

There, you’ve been warned.   

Properly naming a business entity isn’t just important for purposes of insurance contracts.  It’s important for purposes of any contract.  For example, let’s say you are a residential property developer, and your risk management process includes setting up an individual LLC for each project.  You use a number of consultants for each project (architects, engineers, environmental consultants, construction managers, etc.).  You have a contract with each consultant, and every one of those contracts require the consultant to protect you against legal liability arising from the consultant’s work through indemnification and insurance provisions, with some of the consultants required to have their liability insurance policies endorsed to add you as an additional insured.  These indemnification and insurance provisions are iron-clad, top notch, brilliant risk shifting mechanisms, providing you with every available protection against legal liability, because they’ve been drafted by a brilliant, insurance and risk management savvy, attorney.  Well, all of that effort may be for naught, if the contracts and/or additional insured endorsements don’t properly name all of the business entities.  

The devil really is in the details, or to put it in construction terms, “measure twice, cut once”.