Law and Daily Life: March 2010 Archives
Law & Daily Life - The FindLaw Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

March 2010 Archives

President Obama Signs Student Loan Bill into Law

Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed the bill overhauling the student loan industry into law. This law will make major changes in student loan programs, most notably, cutting out banks as middlemen and making the education loans a direct government to student transaction. The changes in this law are expected to save taxpayers about $68 billion dollars over the next ten years. 

State of War: Officials Argue over Healthcare Suit

As discussed in a prior post, the Attorneys General of 13 states (at last count) have announced plans to file a court action challenging the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law. Now, in a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Democratic governors of four of those states are pushing back against their Republican AG's and saying they believe the action will fail.

Are banks finally lowering mortgage principals? Until recently, debt negotiation and loan modification were the avenues of choice for many banks, if they even agreed to assist distressed homeowners. This involved perhaps adjusting interest rates and the length of the loan, but up to this point, not the principal amount owed. Forgiveness of debt was simply out of the question.

Until now.  

Bank of America announced last Wednesday that it planned to cut mortgage principal on some loans, in order to assist the distressed homeowners involved, in an invitation-only program for homeowners facing foreclosure.

Oh Brother, Will School Spy Case Change Fed Law?

They say all they wanted to do was track down missing or stolen laptops. And possibly, make student Blake Robbins kick that vicious Mike & Ike habit. However, the much reported on (and much blogged about) Lower Merion School District spy case has had numerous unforeseen consequences, (lawsuit, FBI probe) and here is one more. Ars Technica reports on March 29, that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee of Crime and Drugs hauled its members from the comfort of Capital Hill to Philadelphia for a hearing on possible changes to the Federal Wiretap Act, precipitated by this case.

New "Common Sense" Rules for Don't Ask, Don't Tell

On Thursday, March 25, Secretary of the Defense Robert Gates told a press conference the United States Military will adopt a "common sense," "common decency" approach to the enforcement of the "don't ask, don't tell" law governing gay men and women serving in the armed forces. According to Secretary Gates, such new rules of enforcement are an important first step while the armed forces considers the effect a repeal of the law would have on the military as a whole.

The tax-man cometh. And you're not ready for him. Although you scrambled to gather your bearings, your IRS income tax returns are just not ready, for whatever reason. Perhaps you haven't received a 1099 that you're waiting for. Or perhaps, you had a major life event occur and you were too distracted to prepare your IRS income tax returns.

Or perhaps, you just procrastinated (it's okay, you can admit it).

Well, know this: The IRS allows you an extension to file. Taxpayers are automatically entitled to a six month IRS extension to file their income tax returns, upon making a request with the IRS by filling the appropriate forms. Now isn't that a bit of good news?

What is the Supremacy Clause and Why Should You Care?

Article VI, Section 2, of the United States Constitution reads in pertinent part:

"This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding."

In discussing allowable tax deductions, many people want to know exactly when they can -- and can't -- deduct interest expenses.

Although you can deduct interest in many cases, there are times when interest expenses clearly do not fall within the allowable tax deductions. When allowable, however, interest expense deductions can be a great way of reducing your income tax amount. 

So, what are allowable interest deductions available to the individual taxpayer, under federal income tax law?

The general rule is this:

California Judge Rules Against State Furloughs

A judge in Alameda County Court in California ruled yesterday that the furloughs ordered for state employees by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must end. Judge Frank Roesch found that the three day a month forced days off for employees of state agencies violated state law. As a result, Californians might now get a chance to stand in line at the DMV on Friday, once again.

Prom Up-Date: Judge Rules in Gay Teen's Favor

If you have been following the story of gay Mississippi teen Constance McMillen and her fight to take the date of her choice (in the outfit of her choice) to her prom in Fulton Miss., you know that McMillen and the Itawamba County School District went to court this week. Federal court Judge Glen H. Davidson heard the arguments by the high school which cancelled the prom because of McMillen's request to attend with her girlfriend. The Mississippi ACLU, representing McMillen, argued that the district's refusal to allow McMillen to attend the prom, and their decision to cancel the dance altogether, was a violation of the student's constitutional rights. On Tuesday, the judge agreed.

Prom Date Update: ACLU, School in Court

As discussed in a prior post, this past December, gay teen Constance McMillen had requested of Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi that she be allowed to bring her girlfriend as a date to the school prom and wear a tux. This month, the school (and fashion police) responded to both requests by canceling the prom. This week, McMillen and the ACLU were in U.S. District Court claiming the teen's free speech rights were violated by the school's move to cancel the dance.

This week's Supreme Court decision in a bankruptcy case involving student loan debt, not to mention the soaring numbers of bankruptcies, has many people curious about the boundaries of debt discharge in bankruptcy.

Well, what is "discharge" in bankruptcy?

In a nutshell, discharge is essentially a forgiveness of debt. If discharge is granted by the Bankruptcy Court, then the debtor is released from the liability of paying that debt. This means that creditors cannot come after the debtor for the debt, once the discharge is granted.

Sound good? Well, not so fast.

Next Health Care Fight: States AG's to Challenge Law

As if the health care bill has not undergone enough challenges during the legislative process (as it should) it will face a new challenge if and when it is signed into law by President Obama.

The Attorneys General from 12 states, all of them Republican (with the exception of Oklahoman Drew Edmonson) and at least one seeking office in the fall, will challenge the health care bill as unconstitutional.

President Obama Signs Health Care Bill into Law

This morning in the East Room of the White House, President Barack Obama signed into law the health care reform bill, formally entitled the Affordable Health Care for America Act. Although this bill was passed by the House of Representatives on Sunday, there is still one more "fix-it" bill, a companion piece of legislation that will be debated, amended and voted on by the Senate in the next few days.

Child care expense deductions could be one of the most overlooked tax deductions.  But if you're a working parent, or even if you are a job-seeker, you may be able to take these allowable tax deductions for child care. 

You see, you can deduct, up to a certain percentage or dollar amount, any work-related child care expenses. This rule also applies to the care of an incapacitated spouse and certain other individuals, but for the purposes of this post, we'll talk about the tax breaks for parents.

If you child was under 13 when the care was provided and is your dependent, the expenses for the child's care might be allowable deductions.

So, you're figuring out how to calculate income tax  and you're stumped. Federal income tax law  has you confused and your IRS income tax returns are getting delayed in the process. The big question on your mind is to itemize or not to itemize?  

Let's step back for a second and actually identify the tax jargon involved. The standard deduction amount is a predetermined amount that the IRS lets you take. They decide what the standard deduction amount is and at which income levels it phases out.  

So here's what you need to know in deciding whether to take the standard deduction or whether to itemize:

Health Care: It Passes, Now More Votes?

As the whole wide world knows, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives managed to pass the health care bill by a majority of 210-212 on Sunday. The bill includes provisions to mandate the purchase of health insurance, and to prevent companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. MSNBC reports that the law would extend coverage to 32 million Americans currently without health insurance. So what happens now?

Heath Care: What is the Individual Mandate?

The major health care bill that passed in the House on Sunday, March 21, contains so much information that much of it is unclear to many of us. One controversial element of the bill is the "individual mandate," the requirement that everybody purchase health insurance. But what does "everybody" mean and what does "purchase" mean?

Another Hooters Uniform Employment Practices Suit

Hooters has just been sued for the third time in the state of California for illegal employment practices. The restaurant, best known for its pneumatic wait staff and hot wings, is under fire for its treatment of employees as relates to the Hooters uniform and whether or not employees are allowed breaks. Former employee Maya Galakhova is one of the plaintiffs in the suit filed by attorney Burton Boltuch. Boltuch has also filed suits against Hooters restaurants in Southern California as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area.

eBay Lawsuit by Deaf Sellers Claims Discrimination

A lawsuit against eBay was filed by a deaf woman in Missouri who claims that that the online auction site violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because it requires sellers to verify their identities via telephone. The complaint against eBay for deaf sellers was filed by Melissa Earll on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in the western district of Missouri.  

According to MediaPost, Ms. Earll, a "profoundly deaf" individual, claims that she was not able to register as a seller with eBay because it requires sellers to punch in passwords online that they receive via telephone. Ms. Earll claims that she attempted to contact eBay over the span of two months in the summer of 2008 in order to let the auction site know that there should be an alternative verification system. However, when Ms. Earll tried to register as seller in 2009, she was still unable to do so.

Retailer David Cohen, owner of the Mystique Boutique chain of Manhattan clothing stores has been arrested in New York City. 

And for those of you who are familiar with Mystique Boutique and its sister Manhattan clothing stores -- no, Cohen was not arrested by the fashion police (although arguably, he should have been, for some of the merchandise carried in his stores). Cohen was arrested for, among other things, not being so nice to his employees. 

More specifically, he was arrested for paying less than New York minimum wage with no overtime to over 150 employees at several of his Manhattan Mystique Boutique locations.  Cohen's numerous stores include stores on Broadway, on Canal Street and a 5th avenue store. His chain consists of Mystique Boutique, Madness Boutique, Exstaza and Amsterdam.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo states, in his press release that since 2004, employees have worked up to eleven hours a day, six days a week, without being paid overtime and without meeting New York minimum wage requirements.   

Privacy is Pricey: Some Parents Against Webcam Suit

Most ideas presented to a group are inevitably followed by the question, "just what is this going to cost me?" In the area surrounding the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania, where the district is being sued for allegedly spying on their students via webcams on the school laptops, that is the question on some parents' minds. After one student was allegedly caught via webcam exhibiting "improper behavior," he brought suit along with his parents. That suit, Robbins v. Lower Merion School District is seeking a class action status, but now some of the potential class say they want to be excused.

Judge to Rule Soon on Illinois Parental Notification Law

A judge will rule at the end of March on whether or not to dismiss the suit which has most recently prevented the Illinois parental notification law from taking effect. Cook County Judge Daniel Riley will announce his decision on March 29.

Distressed homeowners, listen up! Help may be on the way.

Well, relatively speaking, at least. Help has been on the way many times and despite the efforts by the Obama Administration, banks seem unwilling to take up the incentives offered to assist the distressed homeowners. 

Now, the Obama Administration has announced a new plan, which in essence, is not too different from the older ideas. This plan, which launches on April 5 under the Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA) program is another incentive-based program for distressed homeowners who want to "short-sell" their home. 

In other words, homeowners and the lenders involved might be paid a small stipend to relinquish the home to a buyer for less-than-mortgage price. 

Supreme Court to Hear NASA Background Check Case

As discussed in another post, last June a case was heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, wherein 28 engineers, scientists and other employees at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California (run by NASA) challenged the background checks instituted after 9/11. In December, the government attorneys asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. On March 8, the Supreme Court has agreed to do so in its upcoming term, beginning in October.

Mississippi School's Prom Cancelled over Gay Date

Constance McMillen, a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi can't go to her school's prom because it was cancelled. Thanks to her. On her big night, Constance wanted to bring her girlfriend as a date and wear a tux. When she asked school authorities if she could, they said no. The ACLU came to her aide and the school cancelled the prom.

'Bachelor Pad' Ad Gets Apartment Company in Hot Water

Using a phrase like "a great bachelor pad for any single man looking to hook up," might well get you into a spot of trouble, but not the kind you think. The Connor Group, owners and management company for nearly 1,900 rental units in the Dayton, Ohio, area reportedly used that tag line to advertise their rentals on craigslist.com and wound up with a lawsuit from the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center. The lawsuit seeks $25,000 in damages and fees and asks for fair housing training to become mandatory for the Group's employees.

The Internal Revenue Service is assisting homeowners. Although the effect of this help is really only marginal, it still helps those taxpayers who pay real-estate tax, whether state or local.

A quick primer on real-estate tax, for the uninitiated: The real-estate taxes in question are the taxes paid by property owners to their county, state or municipality. Generally, these taxes are paid twice a year and could run in the range of 0.5% to 2% of the home's assessed real estate value.

The Internal Revenue Service does not collect your property tax, nor does it really have any sway as to how much you owe in real estate tax. This tax is entirely separate from your income tax calculation (or the calculation of any other tax that the IRS collects).

Did you know that you could deduct your higher education expenses as "business expenses," under certain circumstances? 

A nurse won against the IRS for higher education tax deductions she took in her income tax returns. Here's the surprising part -- she went head-to-head with the IRS on her own, without hiring an attorney. 

What's even more surprising is that this woman's case could be a small landmark case in the tax laws dealing with higher education tax deductions. Lori Singleton-Clarke, a Maryland nurse, took a $15,000 deduction for her MBA tuition and was denied the higher education tax deduction.    

Study and New Bills both Address Gays in the Military

A new study is under way to gauge the effects of a major change in the military's "don't ask don't tell policy," in place since 1993. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress he thinks a change in the law is "probably inevitable," but will make sure a thorough understanding of the consequences for a military at war will be considered. Last Wednesday, Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Army Forces Europe and co-leader of the study, testified before a House committee. "Military readiness and effectiveness must retain primacy here," he said.

Arne Duncan Announces Civil Rights Push in Education

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, traveled to Selma, Alabama, yesterday to announce the Department of Education's new civil rights program. Speaking at the historic Selma Bridge, the Boston Examiner reports that Secretary Duncan will work to ensure students of all races and genders have equal access to everything from college prep classes to science and engineering programs.

Earlier in this blog, we discussed the income tax rules regarding the First Time Homebuyers Tax Credit. Tax credits are a great way to lower your income tax calculation, if you're entitled to the credits. The First Time Homebuyer Credit can reduce the tax you have to pay, by crediting the tax you owe and refunding you any difference. 

Here's an example: Imagine you owe $1000 in tax and you're entitled to $8,000 from the First Time Homebuyer Credit. After filing out the required form and submitting the valid paperwork (we'll discuss that in a separate post), you would receive a check for $7,000 from the IRS.  

It's really a great way to reduce your tax bill. 

Race to the Top Finalists Announced

As discussed in a previous post, the state of California squeezed in a late application to win one  of the President's Race to the Top education grants. The finalists were announced late last week and unfortunately, they did not include the Golden State. The finalists, drawn from a pool of 41 contenders, were: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. The winners will be chosen in April and a second round of applications will be accepted in June.

Time Out: Admin Leave for 2 in School Webcam Case

A new development in the ongoing Pennsylvania school spying by webcam case previously covered in this blog came on Friday. Two technicians with the embattled Lower Merion School District were reportedly placed on administrative leave. According to a statement from the school district, "Placing them [Technician Michael Perbix and systems coordinator Carol Cafiero] on administrative leave with pay is not a reflection of any wrongdoing on their part. It is a standard, prudent step in an investigation such as this one," the district said in a statement Friday, confirming a report by the Philadelphia Enquirer.

Under Fire: Dismissed Game Creators Sue Activision

A real exchange of fire is happening at the company known for publishing the incredibly successful game series Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The two top executives of Infinity Ward, a development studio arm of Activision, were dismissed on Monday and by Wednesday, were returning fire via a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Los Angeles. At stake is $36 million plus in royalties and some argue, possibly the entire structure of the game creation system.

So, your fiancĂ© turned out to be a con-artist? That's the lesson allegedly learned by Roger Adler, a hopeless romantic who popped the question six weeks into dating and placed a $58,000 ring on the finger of Rena Hope Friedman.

But he was not the first man to place a ring on her finger. And his ring was not the first ring that she had tried to keep, after supposedly sabotaging the engagement. 

So, is there a law out there that vindicates Roger Adler? 

That's a complicated question. Engagement ring law varies by state. Many states classify engagement rings is a conditional gifts, most often conditioned on actually going through with the marriage (rather than simply saying yes). 

But that's not always the case.

So in Roger's case, who gets the ring?

Update: Costa Mesa Day Laborer Law on Hold

As discussed in a prior post on this blog, the city of Costa Mesa, in southern California, recently passed a city ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of work or donations from passing cars by persons on the street. A police sting to enforce the law resulted in the arrest of 12 day workers who were then deported. The ACLU, in conjunction with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued, saying the ordinance prevented certain types of speech based upon its content, an action prohibited under the U.S. Constitution.

The District of Columbia made a monumental move to legalize gay marriage. 

The Supreme Court declined to interfere with a new Washington D.C. law that allows same-sex couples to tie the knot. The Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act came into effect on Wednesday, and expanded the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. As a result, same-sex couples in D.C. can now apply for a marriage license, after a waiting period of three business days.

Many couples were rejoicing in the District of Columbia, lining up at 6 in the morning outside a D.C. courthouse, as D.C. became the fifth U.S. jurisdiction to legalize gay marriage, joining the ranks of New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts. By the end of the day, the D.C. Superior Court had given out approximately 150 marriage licenses to gay couples, in contrast with the average 10 marriage licenses per day. 

The Homestar Program Encourages Energy Efficient Plans

President Obama arrived in Savannah, Georgia this week. When he did arrive, he discussed the Homestar program. The Homestar program is named after Energy Star, which is the labeling system used by the government for energy efficient items. The program is intended to help homeowners with their own energy efficient plans in the form of government rebates.

USA Today reports that these government rebates for home energy efficient plans are estimated to be rebates ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 dollars, or 50% of the cost for upgrades that are simple, for up to $3,000 per home. Such simple upgrades would include: installation of new windows, insulation, etc. We discussed President Obama's earlier plan for such a program when is it was dubbed as "Cash for Caulkers" by the press in this blog.

Will Your State Law Ban Employer Credit Checks?

It would seem that the responsible thing to do if you are in financial trouble, or behind on your bills, is to go out and get a job to pay off your debts. Not so fast. If your potential employer runs a credit check, they may decide not to hire you for the very reason you need that job in the first place. Sounds like a classic catch-22, but with much bigger numbers attached. Finally, some states are considering helping job seekers out of this particular quagmire.

Anthem Blue Cross Sued by Consumer Watchdog

Much has been written of late about the activities of health insurance provider Anthem Blue Cross in California. First, the insurer announced a rate hike of 39 percent, resulting in hearings in Washington and Sacramento. Then, California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner announced an investigation into possible violations by the company of California regulations and law. Now, according to The Los Angeles Times, Anthem is being sued by Consumer Watchdog for claimed violations of the state's health and safety and business codes. 

Bunning Beaten: Job Benefits Extension Bill Passes

On March 2, the Senate finally passed the much needed job benefits extension bill, held up for the last week by Kentucky curmudgeon, Sen. Jim Bunning. Curmudgeon may be a strong word, but any Senator who flips off ABC News crews, probably has it coming.

A Hurricane researcher is suing his former employer in a wrongful discharge lawsuit. He claims that his former employer pushed him out of his job because they didn't like the findings of his research.

Dr. Ivor van Heerden claims that Louisiana State University "engaged in illegal reprisal" against him while he was the deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center. He alleges that the reprisal was due to his critical research as well as his harsh testimony regarding the failure of the levees in New Orleans in 2005.

Dr. van Heerden's contract, which is slated to end in May of 2010, is not being renewed by the University. Although LSU failed to comment on the "confidential personnel matters," Dr. van Heerden accuses LSU, according to CNN, of putting "the bureaucratic interests of university officials above the health and safety of millions of people who live in the path of the hurricanes that threaten the Gulf Coast every year."

Happily Even After: Cohabitation Agreements

The NY Post reports that more and more New Yorkers are not only cohabitating, they are also more interested in cohabitation agreements. When people move in together, they think it will be happily ever, sometimes until the relationship reaches an expiration date. That's when they realize that setting forth the guidelines for who gets what may be necessary. A cohabitation agreement is a legal contract between two unmarried individuals who live together. The agreement legally establishes how you will handle property, assets, or pet custody should one of the partners move out or die.

According to the NY Post, which cites the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of people who are cohabitating increased dramatically by 88% from 1990 until 2007. Why is there such a sudden increase? It may be due to fear. Newser quotes a lawyer as saying, "The divorce rate is so high, that people are just petrified of getting married." As a result of this increase of couples who fear marriage, there has been an uptick in cohabitation agreements.

Utah Proposes Bill to Verify Workers' Immigration Status

Utah could become the first state to require businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to check workers' immigration status, under threat of criminal prosecution.

The proposed bill would require that employees are legally able to work in the United States or employers could face criminal charges.

According to the Associated Press, lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 251, which imposes criminal penalties for business owners who do not verify their workers' immigration status. Employers who fail to comply could face a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Gay marriage proponents are toasting a modest victory in Maryland this week.

Although not an absolute legal victory, gay couples are seeing an increase in the rights afforded to them under Maryland law. The Attorney General of Maryland, Douglas F. Gansler, released an opinion on Wednesday that sent cheers and applause from gay-rights advocates. 

The opinion, while not necessarily legalizing gay marriage, is a significant step in the direction of legalizing gay marriage, as it will be recognizing gay marriage in other states, 

According to the ruling, same-sex couples are afforded the same benefits from state agencies as heterosexual couples. Some of these rights could be health insurance, spousal legal privilege, property rights, the right to file wrongful death suits and possibly some state tax benefits. 

The Obama Administration appears poised to use a method called "reconciliation" to pass a new health-care bill. 

If you're like the rest of America, which incidentally seems to include many news anchors, you might be asking, "what is reconciliation?"

First of all, they are talking about budget reconciliation.

Well... what is budget reconciliation?

More Facebook Faux Pas: This Time It's the Teacher

You may have seen recent posts on this blog and others regarding the First Amendment lawsuits stemming from postings students have made on Facebook. Depending on the various facts of the cases, courts have come to the conclusion that some of this speech is protected under the First Amendment and some is not. Now, according to a report by the Pocono Record, an East Stroudsburg University sociology professor was put on administrative leave for her posting on Facebook.

The Supreme Court To Evaluate a Portion of the Patriot Act

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on one portion of the Patriot Act. The case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project asks the Court to define that part of the Act making it illegal to provide "material support" to any organization the government has designated a terrorist organization. Those critical of the law say that currently, the government's definition of "material support" is so broad, even peace activists are open to prosecution for aiding terrorists. They argue this violates constitutional rights protecting freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Get In Line: Jobless Wait on Benefit Extensions

As of this week, not only do COBRA benefits subsidies hang in the balance, so do jobless benefits, which are also due to expire soon. According to the Florida Sun Sentinel, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is struggling to find a way to extend unemployment benefits.

The current extension expired as of today.