If you have not already received it, you likely will in the coming weeks receive an automated email from the PLCB regarding the renewal of your liquor license.  I wanted to circulate some information to avoid any confusion about the current requirements regarding your liquor license renewals.

In order to provide licensees with some relief during the pandemic, the PLCB has deferred the requirement to renew your liquor license and pay the accompanying fees in 2020 until December 1st.  For many licensees, this assistance came too late because by the time the PLCB implemented this deferral, they already paid their renewal fee for 2020.

  • If you have already paid your renewal fee for 2020, there is nothing else you need to do for this year.
  • If you did not pay your renewal fee for 2020, the PLCB has allowed licensees to continue to operate even if they have not yet completed the renewal process and paid the fees.  This deferral is set to expire on December 1, 2020.

So if you still need to renew your license for this year, please make plans to do so by November 30.  To be clear, the PLCB has only deferred the time to pay the fee. They have NOT waived it altogether…. more on that below.

Deadline for Restaurant and Hotel Licensees

Your filing deadline depends on which district you are in.  Late fees are imposed beginning 60 days BEFORE your license expires.  Do not confuse your license expiration date with the deadline to renew.  If you do so, the PLCB will charge you a $100 late fee.

Deadline for Manufacturer Licensees (Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries)

Your filing deadline is also 60 days BEFORE your license expires, but PLCB districts for these licenses are different than the districts for retail licenses. (Why the PLCB needs to have different districts for different types of licenses, I do not understand).  Please make sure to check which district you are in and then refer to the PLCB’s email blast to see when your filing deadline will be.

Again, do not confuse your license expiration date with the deadline to renew, or you will be charged a $100 late fee.

Currently, because of the deferral I explained above, if your renewal for next year is upcoming, you may choose to wait until November 30, 2020 to file your renewal without the imposition of a late fee.  As things currently stand, after November 30, the PLCB will again implement the late fee and begin requiring renewals in order to continue operating.

PA House Bill No. 2783 May Waive the 2021 Renewal Fee

As of right now, license renewals are still going to be processed as usual for 2021.  However, there is legislation pending that could waive the renewal fee for 2021.  This was introduced to provide licensees with some additional relief during the pandemic, but also because the legislature recognized that many licensees never got the benefit of the deferral because they already renewed their license by the time the deferral was implemented.

The Bill currently introduced in the House would provide relief from payment for one year if a licensee lost more than 25% of revenue because of the pandemic.  Please keep an eye out for any notices from the PLCB or news regarding license renewals.

To the extent the above bill is not passed this fall, please remember that you need to complete your license renewal on time, and what is “on time” depends on what type of license you have and which PLCB district you are located in.

~~~

The PLCB doesn’t explain any of the above very well and many licensees pay the late fee.  You give the state enough money each year, save yourself the late fee and submit your renewal before the renewal deadline! If you missed the changes regarding other restaurant news during COVID-19, find out more about outdoor dining and selling mixed drinks to go here.

Aaron Zeamer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He practices in a variety of areas, including Business Law and Liquor License matters. Aaron works frequently with commercial real estate agents, brokers, restaurant and bar owners, breweries, distilleries, and wineries to facilitate the sale and transfer of PA liquor licenses.

So you made the jump and finally decided to go paperless on all of your billing and banking!  Think of all the space and trees you will save eliminating that excess paper from your daily life.  But what happens if you can no longer access those accounts?

I don’t mean what happens if you lose a password or accidentally lock yourself out.  I mean, what happens if you personally can no longer access those accounts due to death or incapacity?  What about your PayPal account? Your Etsy shop?  Your frequent flyer miles?  Your social media accounts?

Recent changes to Pennsylvania Estate Law

Until this July, the law in Pennsylvania was murky at best as to what happens to those digital assets.  However, Pennsylvania recently joined 46 other states in adopting laws to allow for fiduciary access to digital assets.  Under the right circumstances, your

  • agent under a power of attorney
  • executor under a will, or
  • trustee

can request access to your digital assets in order to properly administer your estate or manage your finances.  Under the right circumstances, someone else could have complete access to your assets and accounts.

While the terms of use agreements are still ultimately in control of how much access a fiduciary may have, how often do you read those terms in complete detail?  You may inadvertently be giving someone total access to your digital assets and not realize it. This open door can include transcripts of any chats you have had on the platform.

How do you protect your assets and privacy?

First, make sure you appoint someone you trust not to invade your privacy unnecessarily.

Second, read the terms and conditions to determine if there is any way to limit your fiduciary’s access to your digital assets.

Third, discuss with your attorney whether or not you want to include access to digital assets in your estate planning documents.

Finally, check to see if the platform has an online tool to appoint someone access.  Pennsylvania law allows the online tool to trump all other directives, regardless of when the directive was made.

What are these online tools?  What types of accounts use them?  What does this act actually look like in practice?  Check back soon for additional articles giving more details about the online tools and more practical applications of the act on real-life situations.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning and Estate Administration.

On Tuesday, Governor Wolf announced that starting September 21st, restaurants may (but are not required to) increase their indoor seating capacity to 50%. This accommodation will finally provide some relief to the industry many believe has been the most significantly impacted by the Governor’s mitigation efforts.

On its face, this increased occupancy appears to be good news, but it comes with a catch that may significantly impact many operators.

Restrictions and Requirements

Most notably, along with the ability to increase occupancy to 50%, the most recent changes also prohibit the sales of alcohol after 10 p.m.  They also continue the prohibition on bar seating and continue the requirement that any alcohol sold for on-premises consumption be served in the same transaction with a meal. These changes were outlined in a press release, but we are waiting on a final Order from the Governor.

The other nuance that came with this Order requires that in order to increase capacity to 50%, the establishment must self-certify that they will implement and follow all of the public health measures and orders currently in place and issued by the Governor/Department of Health.  This process has not yet been finalized, but it appears that it will be handled online and require the business owner to

  • review the current restrictions
  • indicate they understand and will comply with those restrictions, and
  • state their maximum indoor capacity according to the fire code.

This self-certification must be completed by October 5 if businesses wish to continue with the 50% capacity.

When the Governor’s Office announced the increase in capacity, many initially celebrated the move. However, with the additional restrictions imposed along with the increase, it is in many ways a step backward.  In a time when every sale counts, limiting the sales of alcohol to 10 p.m. will hurt even more.

PA House Bill No. 2513 May Remove the Governor’s Restrictions

At a time when so much of the news is bad, perhaps I can end this update with some potential good news in the works.  Back in May, a Bill was introduced in the House that essentially removed all of the current restrictions imposed by the Governor since July 15.  You might remember that was the date the Governor reduced capacity to 25%, required food to be served with alcohol, prohibited bar seating, and otherwise got us to where we are today.

House Bill 2513 has recently gotten a lot of traction, in part because many legislators have heard from the hospitality industry that the current restrictions are putting them out of business.  The Bill has been passed in the House and is now moving in the Senate, with urgency.  If this Bill passes, it appears it will do so with broad bipartisan support and would hopefully be veto-proof.  So even if the Governor isn’t happy with it, he may not have a choice.

This Bill would be a huge help to the industry, one in desperate need of a win. I’ll provide additional updates on this Bill as it progresses through the legislature.

Aaron Zeamer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He practices in a variety of areas, including Business Law and Liquor License matters. Aaron works frequently with commercial real estate agents, brokers, restaurant and bar owners, breweries, distilleries, and wineries to facilitate the sale and transfer of PA liquor licenses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every facet of our lives.  With many people still out of work, some are struggling to figure out how they are going to make rent while putting food on their tables.  This became even more of a reality knowing that the Governor’s temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures ended on August 31.

Earlier this week, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a temporary moratorium on evictions that will extend to the end of the year.  Previous orders regarding evictions were given at the local and state levels. However, this ban on evictions prevents only those that are a result of tenants not making payment.  The Order does not apply to tenants who

  • engage in criminal activity
  • threaten the health or safety of other residents
  • damage the property, or
  • violate the lease in some other way.

And in no way does the Order forgive rent or prohibit a landlord or property owner from charging late fees or penalties under the lease. You can find a full copy of the Order here.

This unusual move has raised a lot of questions. Some of them are easier to answer than others.  While I’m sure more questions will arise over the coming days, we have put together a few answers for you below.

Who is covered under the new Order?

Only certain tenants are eligible for protection, and they must proactively seek out that protection.  The quick answer is that eligible renters are those who qualified for a stimulus relief check based on the CARES Act income requirements and would become homeless if evicted.

The Order protects tenants who certify the following:

  • They have used their best efforts to obtain government assistance for housing
  • They are unable to pay their full rent due to a substantial loss of income
  • They are making their best efforts to produce timely partial payments of rent and
  • They would become homeless or have to move into a shared living setting if they were to be evicted.

In addition, they must be able to show that one of the following financial criteria apply:

  • They expect to earn no more than $99,000 as an individual or $198,000 if they file a joint tax return in 2020
  • They were not required to report any income to the IRS in 2019, or
  • They have received an Economic Impact Stimulus Payment under the CARES Act.

What many tenants may not realize is that in order to qualify for these protections, each adult member of the property must sign a sworn declaration to all of the above and provide a copy of this declaration to their landlord. This declaration also states that the tenants understand that they are still responsible for rent and will be required to pay all back rent, including any fees and penalties, once the moratorium is lifted at the end of the year.

Because the rule is brand new, there are many questions that we do not have answers to.  These are things like:

  • Does the tenant need to provide any proof that they exhausted all of their efforts for government assistance, or is their signature on the declaration all that is required?
  • Does the tenant need to show proof that they received a stimulus check or a 2019 tax return?
  • Does the loss of income need to be COVID related?

What happens when the moratorium is lifted?

As mentioned above, the Order does not relieve a tenant’s responsibility to pay rent.  All rent due, including any late fees and interest as outlined in the lease, will continue to accumulate and the tenant will have to pay all of it.  This means that, come January, most tenants are going to find themselves saddled with a very large balance due to their landlord.

Whether or not landlords may be willing to work with tenants in making payments towards this balance remains to be seen, but it is probably not likely considering these landlords may have gone months without seeing any income from rental properties. In other words, once the ban on evictions is lifted, the courts could be bombarded with mass eviction actions.

The short of it is, this Order does not serve to prevent evictions; it will only delay the process until after December 31.  Tenants need to know they will still be on the hook for each month’s rent and should try to plan ahead accordingly.  Landlords and tenants should also pay attention to whether this moratorium is upheld in Court and if the government creates any new programs to assist people in paying rent.

Kathleen Krafft Miller is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University and regularly advises individuals on legal matters related to family law and domestic relations issues.

Back in April, I wrote about Student Loan Forbearance During Coronavirus under the CARES Act. Under the CARES Act, federal student loan payments were put on automatic forbearance by the U.S. Department of Education until September 30, 2020.

On August 8, 2020, with a little less than two months left on the original forbearance period, President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum to the Secretary of Education continuing student loan payment relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Memorandum, the President authorized the Secretary of Education to

  • provide deferment to borrowers as necessary to continue the temporary cessation of payments and
  • waive all interest on student loans held by the Department of Education until December 31, 2020.

This means that until December 31, 2020, loan payments are suspended, collections are stopped, and interest is waived on Department of Education-held student loans.

Borrowers can continue to make payments if they choose to do so, which may allow some borrowers to pay off their loans more quickly and at a lower cost.

Many student loan servicers are in the process of updating their accounts to reflect the forbearance extension. Keep an eye on your account, especially towards the end of September, to make sure that the extended forbearance period has been applied to your account.

Bear in mind, this only applies to federal student loans. If you are having difficulty paying your private or other non-federal student loans, contact your loan servicer to discuss repayment options to avoid penalties and credit implications.

Laura McGarry is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Penn State Law and provides legal counsel to individuals and businesses in Lancaster and surrounding communities.

The COVID-19 Relief Pennsylvania Small Business Assistance Program is not brand new. Initially, it was anticipated to have four rounds of grants lasting until October 2020. The CARES Act passed in late March is providing the funding.  $96 million has already been distributed with about $104 million remaining for small businesses.

However, like everything else in 2020, things have changed.  Additional restrictions on bars and restaurants along with the falling GDP has caused Pennsylvania to rethink the distribution of these grants.

Now, instead of four rounds, there will be two rounds to get the money to those who need it.  The first round is already complete.  The second round opens on August 10, 2020.

Eligible Businesses

Your business must be physically located in Pennsylvania, certified to do business in Pennsylvania, and generate at least 51% of its revenues in Pennsylvania.  It must also have had less than $1 million in annual revenue before the pandemic and fewer than twenty-five full-time employees as of February 15, 2020.

Ineligible Businesses

  • Businesses that are in default with taxes or fees owned to Pennsylvania or the IRS (this does not include businesses on a payment plan).
  • Non-profits, churches, and other religious institutions
  • Government-owned entities
  • Businesses with no revenue loss or additional costs due to COVID-19
  • Businesses that are engaged in an activity that is illegal under Federal, State, or local law
  • Businesses that are engaged in socially undesirable activities or considered predatory in nature, such as pawnshops, rent to own, and adult bookstores
  • Businesses that obtained a loan from Pennsylvania or any federal agency and are currently delinquent or have defaulted on in the past seven years on said loan
  • Businesses that are primarily engaged in the business of lending
  • Passive real estate companies and investors
  • Private clubs or businesses which limit the number of memberships for reasons other than capacity

What you need to know?

Applications opened on August 10, 2020 and are due by midnight on August 28, 2020.

The grant decisions are being made by Pennsylvania nonprofit lenders (community development financial institutions).  In Lancaster County, those lenders are Community First Fund and Assets Lancaster.

They are prioritizing businesses that

  • are owned by low- or moderate-income owners
  • are located in areas of need
  • were most impacted by the economic shutdown
  • are owned by people from historically disadvantaged groups, and
  • are women-owned businesses

 

What grant amounts could you receive?

The grant amounts will be between $5,000 and $50,000 based on your business’s annual revenue: 

Eligible Business Annual Revenue Grant Amount Available
Up to $50,00.00 $5,000.00
$50,001.00 to $75,000.00 $10,000.00
$75,001.00 to $100,000.00 $15,000.00
$100,001.00 to $250,000.00 $20,000.00
$250,001.00 to $500,000.00 $25,000.00
$500,001.00 to $750,000.00 $35,000.00
$750,001.00 to $850,000.00 $40,000.00
$850,001.00 to $1,000,000.00 $50,000.00

 

What can you use the funds for?

Your business may use the funds for:

  • Payroll costs and costs related to group health benefits
  • Mortgage interest payments (so long as those payments are not mortgage prepayments or principal payments)
  • Rent payments
  • Utility payments
  • Working capital to cover the costs of reopening the business after being fully or partially closed during the state-mandated business closures
  • Any expenses incurred related to COVID-19, including, but not limited to, PPE, employee training to ensure compliance, specialized equipment, and barriers

How do you apply?

  • Review the application instructions.
  • Provide a government-issued photo ID
  • Provide a business’s financial information:
    • Revenue from March 1-March 31, 2019
    • Revenue from March 1-March 31, 2020
    • Most recently submitted Federal Tax Return for business and personal.
  • Provide proof of business registration with the Department of State.
  • Provide Bank Account information.

To apply with Community First Fund, click here.

To apply with Assets Lancaster, click here.

Nichole Baer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Stetson University, College of Law and practices in several areas, including BusinessCommercial Real EstateEstate Planning, and Estate Administration.

Since March, various entities and political subdivisions have created loan and grant programs to assist businesses and individuals facing COVID-19 related losses and damages.  We have discussed in prior blogs a series of larger programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program. However, this post focuses on funding opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Dairy CARES Reimbursement Program

The Dairy CARES Reimbursement Program is designed for Pennsylvania dairy farmers who have experienced financial losses due to discarded or displaced milk during the COVID-19 pandemic during the period of March 6, 2020 through September 30, 2020.  The farmers may apply for payments to reimburse the losses they received.  All dairy farmers who experienced a loss due to discarded or displaced milk are eligible to apply, even those farmers who were assessed a fee by their cooperative for all milk discarded.

Each farm will be entitled to a minimum of $1,500.  Those farmers who experienced losses higher than $1,500 will be entitled to an additional pro-rata share of the remaining funds in the COVID-19 Dairy Assistance Program.  Click here for the Dairy CARES Reimbursement Program application.  

FFFI COVID-19 Relief Fund

The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (the “FFFI”) is a public-private funding program that invests in new or expanding grocery stores and other healthy food retail outlets in Pennsylvania.  FFFI provides a one-time grant to eligible applicants aimed at increasing access to healthy, affordable food.   In addition to the one-time grant, FFFI created a new fund called the FFFI COVID-19 Relief Fund, which will provide grants to food retail businesses impacted by COVID-19.

Applicants must be entities that operate and provide services in Pennsylvania and have 50% or more of their revenue from the sale of staple and perishable food to consumers or direct to retail.  The business must have operated prior to March 2020 and stayed in operation except for temporary closures due to COVID-19.  The fund will favor entities that serve customers that live in low- to moderate-income areas.  The grants may be used for a variety of expenses, including, but not limited to, infrastructure improvements, equipment purchases, inventory, innovative food access technology, and costs to expand access.

Award amounts will be up to $1 million for large or regional anchor supermarkets, up to $500,000 for full-service traditional grocery stores, and up to $100,000 for neighborhood markets and food enterprises (such as farmers’ markets and urban farms).  Interested applicants may find more information on the FFFI application here.

Coronavirus Food Assistance Program

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (the “FSA”) created the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to provide financial assistance to producers of agricultural commodities who

  • have suffered a 5% or greater price decline or
  • had losses due to market supply chain disruptions as a result of COVID-19.

Eligible commodities include wool, livestock, dairy, specialty crops, and non-specialty crops.  The grant payments are subject to a per person and legal entity payment limitation of $250,000.  Applications for the FDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program are being accepted now through August 28, 2020.

While this post is not comprehensive, the opportunities listed here should provide help to those in the agricultural industry who are struggling during COVID-19. If you would like to talk to one of our attorneys about these or any other programs, contact us anytime.

Nichole Baer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Stetson University, College of Law and practices in several areas, including BusinessCommercial Real EstateEstate Planning, and Estate Administration.

This blog post will cover a couple of updates to the Paycheck Protection Program (the “PPP”) since it launched in April. In the past month, more details have emerged about applying for loan forgiveness as well as the audit risk, disclosure of some PPP recipients, and application deadline.

Extension of Application Deadline

On July 4, 2020, the President signed a new law which extended the application deadline for the PPP from June 30, 2020 to August 8, 2020.  There is approximately $132 Billion left in PPP funds for Borrowers to apply for.

Forgiveness of PPP

How Do I Apply for Loan Forgiveness?

In order to receive loan forgiveness, you must complete and submit the “Loan Forgiveness Application” to the lender servicing the loan.  You must use SBA Form 3508 or 3508EZ or a lender equivalent form.

You may use the EZ form if one of the following is true:

  1. Borrower is self-employed and has no employees; or
  2. Borrower has employees but did not reduce their salaries or wages during the covered period by more than 25% and did not reduce the number of hours worked by the employees; or
  3. Borrower had employees, but did not reduce their salaries or wages during the covered period by more than 25%. AND, due to complying with laws requiring the business to reduce hours or stay closed during the covered period, the Borrower was unable to operate during the covered period at the same level the Borrower was operating its business prior to February 15, 2020.

The lender will review your application for forgiveness and issue its decision within 60 days to the U.S. Small Business Administration (the “SBA”).  After an internal review of the loan and the forgiveness application, the SBA will then remit the forgiveness amount to the lender no more than 90 days after the lender issues its decision to the SBA.

This means from the date of submission of the Loan Forgiveness Application, the Borrower may have to wait up to 150 days for confirmation that their loan is forgiven.  Note: The notification of forgiveness will come from the lender and not from SBA.

When Can I Apply for Loan Forgiveness?

The SBA released an interim final rule on June 22, 2020 which details when a Borrower can apply for forgiveness.  If you have used all the loan proceeds you want forgiven, the rule states: “a borrower may submit a loan forgiveness application any time on or before the maturity date of the loan – including before the end of the covered period [8 weeks or 24 weeks depending on the date you obtained your loan].”

As stated, the rule does permit you to apply for forgiveness early – before the lapse of their respective covered period.  The problem with seeking forgiveness early is the employer forfeits a safe harbor provision that permits them to restore salaries/wages of employees by December 31st to avoid the reduction in loan forgiveness provided.   If you have not reduced the wages of your employees, you do not have to worry about this provision.

Audit Risks

The SBA has not issued any more information regarding a safe harbor for audits, a serious concern for Borrowers as the application required minimal documentation and multiple certifications.

One audit risk is a Borrower must have had economic uncertainty due to COVD-19.   In prior guidance, the SBA did provide a small safe harbor provision for Borrowers.  If a Borrower received a loan under $2 million, the SBA will consider the loan made in good faith based on economic uncertainty and will not inquire further.

This does not prohibit the SBA from auditing a loan under $2 million for other reasons, such as the credit elsewhere certification.  PPP did not require documentation of a lack of credit elsewhere (which SBA disaster loans typically require). Instead, the Borrowers had to certify that they did not have sufficient access to credit.  However, it is unlikely this will be a huge audit risk for Borrowers as traditional lines of credit were difficult to obtain for many businesses during the pandemic.

Disclosure of PPP Loans

On July 6, 2020, the SBA released some data they maintained regarding the PPP loans issued as of July 6, 2020. However, that release was limited to Borrowers who had received loans of $150,000 or more.  For Borrowers who received more than $150,000, the SBA disclosed the name, address, how many jobs retained, and the lending bank to the public.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

  • Approximately 4.9 million loans were issued by the SBA totaling $521 billion dollars.
  • Pennsylvania businesses received PPP funding totaling $20.7 billion. 26,095 loans in Pennsylvania were for more than $150,000.
  • Approximately 85% of Pennsylvania’s PPP loans were worth less than $150,000.
  • Pennsylvania loan recipients reported 1.8 million jobs retained due to the PPP money, data which is self-reported.
  • The average loan size for a PPP nationwide was $107,000.
  • S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is encouraging private schools with significant endowments to return PPP funds. Three private schools in Lancaster received PPP loans.
  • A lawsuit was filed on May 12, 2020 in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to obtain more transparency as less than 15% of all loans issued have been disclosed to the public.
  • The U.S. Catholic Church received approximately $1.4 billion in PPP loans. Of that, the Archdiocese of New York received a loan between $5 and $10 million.
  • The Any Rand Institute received a loan between $350,000 and $1 million.
  • The U.S. Transportation Secretary’s family business (Foremost Maritime) received a loan of between $350,000.00 and $1 million. The U.S. Transportation Secretary is the wife of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
  • Restaurant chains P.F. Chang’s and Chopt received aid of between $5 million and $10 million. TGI Fridays received at least $5 million in PPP loans.
  • Many news organizations received PPP loans including Forbes Media (about $5 million), the Washington Times (at least $1 million), and the Daily Caller (at least $350,000).
  • As of July 6, 2020, over $30 billion in loans were returned partially due to public outcry. However, some loans were returned as businesses weren’t able to meet the original requirements of spending the funds. Those who returned funds include Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain ($20 million), Shake Shack ($10 million), and AutoNation ($77 million).

Laws and regulations remain a moving target for COVID-19-related relief.  As such, the laws and regulations discussed today may change soon.  Please consult with a legal professional regarding the updates to the Paycheck Protection Program if you have any legal concerns.

Nichole Baer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Stetson University, College of Law and practices in several areas, including BusinessCommercial Real EstateEstate Planning, and Estate Administration.

The ability to quickly share information with a large number of people is one of the powerful things about the Internet. But with great power comes great responsibility.

Or at least it should.

Particularly for the major tech platforms, content moderation – making sure the information being shared is accurate – is vital. But for many years, a variety of actors have taken advantage of the lack of oversight to disseminate information that lacks factual basis or distorts the truth. It is a new form of propaganda that can change political thought, what we believe about science and technology, even our behavior with each other.

So how can you protect your business from misinformation being spread about you? You have to learn the rules of content moderation.

Facebook’s Supreme Court

Recently, several tech companies have started looking for ways to prevent or reduce the impact of misinformation spread by users on their platforms. Twitter, for example, prohibits the promotion of political content.

Facebook is taking a different approach.

In November 2018, Facebook committed to creating a supreme court of sorts to be a decision-maker on certain content moderation issues. While the board will be independent, including being funded by a trust, certain types of posts will not be moderated. And Facebook has clearly stated that the board’s decisions will not create binding precedent as would be expected from a court of law.

Then, a few weeks ago, Facebook announced the names of the twenty individuals who make up its content moderation board. Whether these measures will work is anyone’s guess. They are finally taking actions to address the impact their platforms are having on our society, but is it enough?

What Misinformation Can You Stop?

Unfortunately, from a legal perspective, it can be difficult to stop users from spreading misinformation online. However, you can prevent certain types of misuse, like:

  • Content that steals a business’s trademark or copyrighted content
  • Posts that contain objectively false statements (like “I got food poisoning from this restaurant” when the person has never eaten there), and
  • Fake posts by a competing business trying to drive your customers away

But many other statements do not rise to the level where the law can help, like:

  • A negative review from a disgruntled customer, even one that is being unreasonable
  • Posts with subjective statements (like “this is the worst business ever”), and
  • A competitor comparing the quality of its services to your business’s services

Even when you have content that you could stop, enforcement can be difficult if you have to first unmask an anonymous user. And it gets even tougher if the user is based outside the U.S.

Protecting Your Business

So what can you do to help protect yourself? I suggest trying these steps to do your own content moderation:

  1. Make sure you are aware of what is being said about you online. Saving a Google alert for your business or name is a great start.
  2. If you find harmful content, take a close look at the terms of service for the platform where that content is posted. Many companies have their own procedure for trying to get reviews taken down.
  3. If you can post a response to the criticism, think about doing so. But do not argue with the reviewer. Instead, acknowledge the negative feedback and try to take the conversation “offline” by asking them to call you or contact you directly to try to resolve the situation. Remember, you are not responding to try to convince the complaining customer… you are doing so that other people seeing the review see how you responded.
  4. If you are suffering economically because of the post, contact a technology attorney you trust to get more information about whether you might have the basis to file a lawsuit.

For even more information, check out our other blog posts about Technology Law here at the Lancaster Law Blog. Or contact me directly for a consultation about your online criticism nightmare.

Brandon Harter is a litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School,  advises clients on issues of Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and chairs the firm’s Tech Law Group.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania received $3.9 billion in aid from the federal CARES Act for the coronavirus pandemic.  In May, the Pennsylvania General Assembly directed $175 million of that aid to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) to provide help to renters and homeowners struggling to make ends meet.  Of that $175 million, $150 million will be used for rent assistance, and $25 million will be used for mortgage assistance.

Applying for Rent Relief

In order to qualify for rent relief:

  1. the applicant must be unemployed after March 1, 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic or must demonstrate a minimum 30% drop of annual income and
  2. the applicant’s income cannot be higher than the median income for the county they reside in.

PHFA will give assistance on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the deadline to apply is September 30, 2020.

The maximum grant is $750 a month for up to six months for rent due between March 1 and November 30.  They will make payments directly to the landlord.

Applications are now being accepted.  To apply, fill out the three applications located at https://www.phfa.org/pacares/rent.aspx and provide the documentation required.  You must also find your county on the “County Contact List”  to find where to submit your application and who will process it.

The county contact to mail the application and documentation for Lancaster County is:

Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority

28 Penn Square, Suite 200

Lancaster, PA 17603

717.394.0793

rent@lchra.com

http://www.lchra.com

Applying for Mortgage Relief

In order to qualify for mortgage relief:

  1. the applicant must be unemployed after March 1, 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic or must demonstrate a minimum 30% drop of annual income
  2. the applicant’s income cannot be higher than the median income for the county they reside in
  3. the applicant must live in their home, and
  4. the mortgage must be at least thirty days past due.

The PHFA will give assistance on a first-come, first-serve basis, and the deadline to apply is September 30, 2020.

An applicant can get up to $1,000 a month for a maximum of six months for first or second lien mortgage payments due between March 2020 and December 30.  Payments will be made directly to the lender and may consist of a one-time payment or an initial payment in addition to assistance for future mortgage payments.  The lender may also apply on behalf of the homeowner.

Applications are now being accepted.  To apply, fill out the application located at https://www.phfa.org/pacares/mortgage.aspx and provide any documentation required in the three applications.

If you need any assistance or have any questions about this program, be sure to contact your attorney.

Nichole Baer is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Stetson University, College of Law and practices in several areas, including BusinessCommercial Real EstateEstate Planning, and Estate Administration.