Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP is pleased to announce that Mikayla Godwin has earned a Certified Paralegal credential from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).  In addition to being a certified paralegal, Mikayla holds an Associate in Arts in Paralegal Studies from Harrisburg Area Community College and has worked as a legal assistant since 2011.  She currently provides support to Attorneys Julie Miller and Julia Vanasse and works closely with many of the firm’s clients on a daily basis.

NALA certification is earned after successful completion of a Knowledge Exam and a Skills Exam and requires continuing education and recertification every five years. Following is an excerpt from the NALA website regarding the certification:

Use of the CP credential signifies that a paralegal is capable of providing superior services to firms and corporations. The credential has been recognized by the American Bar Association as a designation which marks a high level of professional achievement. The CP credential has also been recognized by over 47 legal assistant organizations and numerous bar associations.

Congratulations, Mikayla!

Many of my families who are fostering to adopt children through the Dependency System spend months to years waiting for the day when their foster child is legally free for adoption. Many of those families have experienced pain, turmoil, disappointment, frustration, and always, the joy of raising a beautiful child. However, when they meet with me to move forward with the finalization of their adoption, they simply cannot believe that the process of doing so is as easy as I tell them that it is.

So, when you finally get to that magic moment when your foster child is legally free for adoption and your caseworker says now it is time to proceed to a finalization hearing, here’s what you can expect:

Many County adoption workers will provide the information necessary for me to prepare your Adoption Petition. Each County varies a bit, and when a County Agency and an affiliated Agency are involved, we all work as a team to get the information necessary to prepare your Petition. That can include information provided from your County caseworker, from your affiliated Agency caseworker,  and directly from you.  Once all the information I need to prepare the Adoption Petition has been provided, I prepare the Petition and schedule a time to meet with you to review the Petition and discuss the finalization process.  Fortunately, that process is relatively simple when considering what many families have already been through to get to the place where they are sitting down with me to review and sign their Adoption Petition. Continue Reading We Can Finally Finalize Our Adoption: What Now? – Part I of II

Just because your terms of service say you’re not liable, doesn’t mean you aren’t. Like the fine print at the bottom of a contract, website terms of use are a place for businesses to protect themselves. But they are not a substitute for thinking carefully about how you interact with your customers – particularly if you collect any information from those visiting your website (which chances are, you do).

Take YouTube, for instance. Buried deep within YouTube’s Terms of Service is the following paragraph (quoted as of the date of this post):

You affirm that you are either more than 18 years of age, or an emancipated minor, or possess legal parental or guardian consent, and are fully able and competent to enter into the terms, conditions, obligations, affirmations, representations, and warranties set forth in these Terms of Service, and to abide by and comply with these Terms of Service. In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.

Why is there language about being over 13? Because collecting information from children without parental consent violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA. (For a deeper dive into COPPA and how it applies to you, see Part I and Part II of the Lancaster Law Blog’s series on COPPA).

Now you might be thinking, “I don’t collect any user information”. But if you’re measuring your marketing, you are probably wrong. Collecting information includes things as simple as tracking where a user is from (i.e. geolocation data) or a user name that can be tracked across multiple websites (like a Google account). Either of these features may come built into the tools you use to monitor your website traffic.

So… is YouTube safe from COPPA by including this boilerplate disclaimer? The Federal Trade Commission doesn’t think so. YouTube is currently under investigation because some of its content is obviously geared towards children. And like many statutes designed to protect the public, COPPA’s standard looks beyond the disclaimer to other factors like the subject matter, the use of cartoons or child-like activities, and advertising directed to children. Just as you cannot evade your legal duties an employer merely by calling someone an independent contractor, you cannot evade COPPA’s duties with a disclaimer.

Does that mean you shouldn’t bother with a COPPA disclaimer? Not at all. An appropriate disclaimer is an important piece of evidence in establishing your intent. But you need to back that up by making sure your content and advertising are not geared toward children. And if your content is geared towards children, embrace it! Just make sure your website collects information only from users whose parents have provided consent.

This is yet another example of when copying language you found online can fall short. Take the time to consult with your legal counsel so your terms match what you do and how you do it.

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

All digital evidence, whether emails, computer files, or text messages, comes with metadata. Metadata is nothing more than “data about data,” i.e. things your phone or computer keeps track of about a digital file. Some of the most common examples are the “last accessed date” (when a file was last opened) and its “creation date” (when a file was first created).

Great, so metadata exists. So what? I get this question all the time. Particularly from opposing counsel when I’ve demanded that he or she reproduce a set of documents with metadata, usually after he or she has already provided a PDF copy. But I’m not asking for metadata in a fit of gamesmanship or to drive up litigation costs. I do it because metadata can be as valuable as the content itself. Continue Reading Metadata is NOT an Excuse to Make Your Lawsuit More Expensive

Up until April 26, 2019, short-term vacation rentals (like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, etc.) were probably allowed in zoning districts where single family homes are permitted. In April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that a short-term vacation rentals are not permitted as a single family use.

What do municipalities do now?

First, we should review how the Courts got to this point. It is an interesting development. The first case (Marchenko) dealt with a homeowner who rented her home for less than 25% of the year. The second case (Shvekh) had homeowners who rented their home for about half the year. The third case (Slice of Life) has an owner who bought the property solely as an investment, and never lived there at all. The Commonwealth Court said the first was OK, and then the next two cases built on that decision.  Continue Reading New Ruling Says that Short-Term Vacation Rentals are NOT Permitted in Single Family Zoning

Did you know that Pennsylvania law requires corporations and fictitious name registrations to “officially publish” advertisements in order to be effective? This requirement applies to domestic and foreign business corporations and nonprofit corporations, as well as fictitious names registered in Pennsylvania.

The advertising requirement is a nuance of entity formation that is often missed and could prove costly in the long run. For example, in the context of a corporation, failure to follow corporate formalities can be used as an argument to pierce the corporate veil, which could impose personal liability on the shareholders of the corporation. Continue Reading Advertising Requirements for Corporations and Fictitious Names in Pennsylvania

When “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018, her family thought she died without a Will. There were many questions about what would happen to her estate and what Aretha’s wishes were upon her death.

In legal terms, it was believed that Aretha died intestate, or without a Will. You can read more about Pennsylvania’s intestate laws and how an estate is handled when someone dies without a Will here.

In many cases, when someone dies without a Will, it can cause controversy in an already grieving family. For Aretha Franklin, we can only assume that the vast size of her estate and the legacy attached to it left her heirs wondering Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Continue Reading Oh Me, Oh My It’s Time to Get Your Estate Plan in Order: Lessons from Aretha Franklin’s Death and Her Handwritten Wills

This post is part of our ongoing series translating the lawyer-gibberish of Pennsylvania lawsuits into something understandable. For the definitions of the terms in bold check out the post that launched this series. A list of the posts in the series is at the end of this article.

After lawyers have collected enough information through interrogatories (written questions) and requests for production of documents, it is usually time for depositions. But what are depositions and what do you need to know about them?

What is a Deposition?

A deposition is a formal interview conducted under oath to get information that the witness knows about the case. Starting with the lawyer who wanted the deposition (sometimes referred to as the one “calling” the deposition), each party’s attorney gets to ask questions. The answers are written down by a court reporter into a transcript that can be used later.

Who Can be Deposed?

Any person can be asked to sit for a deposition, including the parties to the lawsuit and other third parties. If you are a party to the lawsuit, the other lawyer only needs to ask and send your lawyer a notice about the deposition. Third parties receive subpoenas to attend a deposition and may also be asked to bring documents with them (just like a request for production of documents). Unless something unusual happens, a person can only be deposed one time per lawsuit. Continue Reading Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language (Part V) – It’s Your Turn to Talk

At the end of 2018, Pennsylvania passed the “Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act” or ASAIA for short. ASAIA is designed to eliminate fraudulent claims by pet owners asserting a need for an “emotional support animal” in order to bypass the Association’s rules on pets. I have written a number of articles on support and assistance animals. These are very difficult and confusing issues for Associations (and landlords) to decide. Let’s look at the ASAIA to see if it actually simplifies these questions.

To review, there are two federal laws to consider: The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and The Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). The ADA says that a service dog is permitted in all public places. A service dog is a dog that is specially trained to perform a task that is directly related to a person’s disability. Section 504 of the FHA applies to providers of housing – like a landlord or condominium association. The FHA says that a housing provider needs to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation could be an “assistance animal.” Unlike a service dog, an assistance animal does not need to be specially trained to perform a task. An assistance animal can be an animal that relieves the symptoms of a disability. Today, we see people with disabilities such as anxiety or depression using an animal to provide emotional support.

Does the Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act change existing requirements?

Photo credit: guillermoluis21 on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

I think the Act is a good effort by the General Assembly. At the end of the day, unfortunately, I do not think it makes a big change in the way that associations (and landlords) need to deal with disabled individuals. Here are the reasons why:

  1. The ADA and FHA are both federal laws. I am not sure that a state law can be more restrictive toward disabled persons than the federal law. I think that most, if not all, of the federal requirements remain in place despite the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
  2. Under the ADA (which deals with service animals), a housing provider is only permitted to ask two questions. They are:  (i) “Is this a service animal that is required because of a disability?” and (ii) “What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?” These are the only questions that are permitted, even if a person’s disability is not readily apparent. Section 3 of the ASAIA says that an association can request documentation for either service or support animals. I do not believe that the ADA allows an association to ask for documentation for a service animal.
  3. The FHA (which, for our purposes, deals with support animals) permits an association to request documentation when someone asks for a reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), however, limits this request only to situations where a disability is not readily apparent. HUD says that the housing provider is permitted to request documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional to confirm that the animal alleviates the effect or symptoms of a disability. A HUD notice states:  “Such documentation is sufficient if it establishes that an individual has a disability and that the animal in question will provide some type of disability-related assistance or emotional support.”

Compare this to Section 3(b) of ASAIA.  The HUD guidance and ASAIA are generally the same. However, ASAIA seems to require more specific information. For example, ASAIA requires the documentation to be based on “direct knowledge” of the person’s disability and need for the support animal. Arguably, the FHA requires the same kind of reliable documentation. But the standard that needs to be met under the FHA has been pretty easy to establish. To the extent that ASAIA allows an association to ask for more documentation, the association needs to be careful.

Associations should not think that ASAIA allows them to make an independent judgment about whether the emotional support animal is needed. Simply put, if an association gets (i) a letter from a mental health professional that says (ii) a unit owner has a disability like anxiety or depression, and that (iii) the animal provides some sort of assistance or emotional support, the association needs to provide the reasonable accommodation. The association should not be using its judgment to determine whether the medical professional is correct or not. In this way, the ASAIA does not make that much of a change to the existing situation.

The final two portions of ASAIA are great news. Section 4 provides that an association (and landlord) is not liable for injuries caused by a service dog or support animal. Sections 5 and 6 create criminal penalties to misrepresent the need for a service dog or support animal. The penalties are more severe for people that fake documentation or fit an animal with a harness or vest that falsely indicates the animal is a service animal. I do not believe these are pre-empted by federal law. Hopefully they will make people think twice about misrepresenting the need for a support animal.

All of the associations that I work with want to provide accommodations for people who really, truly need emotional support animals. This is difficult to do when people can go online and get the required paperwork for $69.95 to “document” their need. [Note: A quick Google search of “emotional support animal certification” brings up about 10 million results. I am not going to link to any of these providers.] Although the Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act might not be perfect, I hope it can help associations (and landlords) to make better decisions in this area.

Aaron Marines is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including BusinessCommercial Real EstateLand Use, Land Planning and Zoning matters.

Photo credit: guillermoluis21 on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Now that April 15th has passed, the dust is still settling about how tax changes impacted taxpayers and many of us were surprised at the effects. The effects of the new tax laws also changed child and spousal support payable in Pennsylvania.

As of January 1, 2019 new guidelines are now in effect. These have been put in place largely to deal with the issue that alimony and temporary alimony or support payments to a spouse are no longer tax deductible by the person paying support, nor includable as income by the recipient. These new guidelines pertain to any new orders after January 1, 2019, but not the modification of prior orders. So it’s important to understand whether your case will be calculated under the old or new guidelines, as it makes a difference. Continue Reading New Tax Laws and Changes to Pennsylvania Support Guidelines