Author: Stanley Jaskiewicz

A coalition of business groups and local politicians faced down Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s aggressive COVID-19 rules – and won.

In Butler v. Wolf, federal judge William Stickman blocked many restrictions imposed on Pennsylvania businesses early in the pandemic to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

But not all of them – the severe capacity limits on restaurants, for example, remain in force. Although those challenging the rules were businesses harmed by their effect, the court did not rely upon the rules’ practical impact. Instead, it relied heavily upon prior case law, and complex legal analysis. Not surprisingly Governor Wolf immediately appealed – and the federal appeals court immediately halted (for now) the effect of Judge Stickman’s original ruling.

“There’s no sense debating a ruling that will be appealed — two of three federal judges upheld what we did. But what’s not up for debate is that our early and decisive action saved lives.”

Unfortunately for the business opponents of Wolf’s aggressive limits on the state’s economy, the appeal will likely succeed, in the view of constitutional law scholars. Both a case cited by the Butler court, and the judicial philosophy of the ruling, were considered out of date when I studied constitutional law – 40 years ago. In fact, the cases reaching that result date from the 1930’s, and predate the New Deal era governmental intervention in the economy that we take for granted today.

(In the short run, however, Judge Stickman denied the stay almost immediately because of what he viewed as a lack of evidence justifying the need for restrictions on gatherings, and the inconsistency of their application to different types of events.)

Nonetheless, the far-reaching ruling 6 months into the crisis raises many questions, not only practical ones for both businesses and their customers, but also legal issues that could quickly undermine the ruling.

  • Why does this matter now, since many of the restrictions have already been relaxed? The court highlighted that Wolf’s rules have only been “suspended”, not rescinded.
  • Should a court even get involved in the middle of a public health emergency? The court answered that it had to protect constitutional rights.

Formally, the court ruled that public health concerns do not get “judicial deference” six months into the crisis, especially when many businesses were permitted to remain open even under Wolf’s stringent rules, notwithstanding the health concerns.

  • Were the state’s unilateral decisions on which businesses were “life-sustaining” – and therefore allowed to remain open, even when similar or nearby firm were not – arbitrary? The court agreed, applying constitutional principles of equal protection and due process.
  • Will ruling affect Philadelphia’s own strong rules? Not for now – the plaintiffs were all from western PA, and did not challenge Philadelphia’s rules.

So should businesses go back to the ways things were before the crisis?

Certainly not.

At a practical level, the virus is still here. I don’t think the virus has read Judge Stickman’s opinion yet – and would not care about it even if a virus could read. Its sole purpose is to infect another cell, to propagate itself. While many mitigation efforts have helped, Pennsylvanians are still becoming infected and dying – including a clergyman I greatly admired. More importantly, both the CDC and many local governments have issued safety rules, which remain in effect, independently of limits on the state’s rules.

In addition, the CDC acknowledges that it is constantly learning about the virus and its risks. Today’s recommendations and prohibitions may be different by tomorrow. In fact, there have been so many new rules concerning COVID-19 that professional advisors with whom I speak agree that it has been difficult to keep up with all of them.

One thing hasn’t changed, however – the economic effect of the virus. Many businesses may never return, especially in sectors most affected by safety concerns, such as hotels, or restaurants.

Just as occurred in March, at the start of the crisis, Congress is considering significant stimulus relief. After spending trillions to avoid a crash earlier this year, no one wants to slip backward for want of another few billion here or there. Of course, election year politics and other pressing virus related issues have complicated closing the next stimulus deal – unemployment benefits, liability protection for businesses and schools that reopen, and blanket PPP forgiveness, among others.

So our next steps in Pennsylvania will resemble what we have all done for the last six months – watching each day for glimmers of hope in the latest news.

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Have you read the Small Business Administration’s latest revision of the rules for its Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) yet? If not, that’s OK – the rules just changed again.

I am exaggerating, but not by much.  At times, rules were issued and revised on almost a daily basis. Major changes occurred in the night, or over weekends. But was that any way to spend $659 billion – one of the largest economic programs in our history? Congress certainly didn’t plan to save the economy on an ad hoc basis, when it first began to act in April. Similarly, many states’ planned on closings measured in weeks – over six months ago. But as job losses kept rising, Congress was ready to try anything that might work – and to change when it the economy continued to sputter.

For example, the Paycheck Protection Flexibility Act in early June fixed some of the problems that arose in the early funding, particularly requirements to rehire employees – even though many businesses were closed by government order. But giving money away wasn’t easy. In just six months, 24 separate PPP “interim” final rules were announced, according to a lenders’ trade group.  https://www.naggl.org/resource/resmgr/ppp/IFR_Chart.docx

Of course, the PPP wasn’t the only effort to spend our way out of the problems.  So many federal, state and local relief efforts were approved that it became difficult to keep up with all of them. So what have 5,212,128 approved PPP loans, totalling $525,012,201,124 bought us?

(The data is through the program close on August 8, 2020, according to the SBA’s PPP dashboard.  https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/coronavirus-relief-options/paycheck-protection-program.)

Not much, apparently. But Congress worked so much that the legislators needed a vacation. As a result, President Trump reacted by to bypassing Congress with Executive Orders of questionable legal legality to try to fix some of the problems, and avoid further economic meltdown. But across the nation, businesses remain closed.

One respected political journal proclaimed, “The Paycheck Protection Program Was a Flop”.  (https://slate.com/business/2020/07/paycheck-protection-program-was-a-flop.html)

At the same time, PPP fraud became a stumbling block to further relief.  “Paycheck Protection Fraud Is Massive and Unsurprising”, as massive fraud became apparent in loans to ineligible borrowers, or without any job preservation.  (www.forbes.com/sites/peterjreilly/2020/08/29/paycheck-protection-fraud-is-massive-and-unsurprising/#7dfbb8ac4df6)

Despite their pain, larger businesses ignored significant relief programs, particularly the Main Street Lending program perceived to be expensive and onerous. Schools that tried to reopen have switched to online learning – with all of the problems it presents for students from families without reliable internet access, or for those with disabilities. On a positive note, the national unemployment rate climbed fell from a high of 14.7% in April, to 8.4% in August, perhaps as a result of the PPP largesse.

Continuing its frenetic pace, Congress will likely consider another massive relief bill when it returns from its recess. However, further aid must overcome political disputes over key provisions:

  • Maintaining increased unemployment benefits that ended in late July.
  • “Liability reform” to protect reopening schools and businesses against claims by both employees, students and customers who may contract the virus.
  • Restoring lost business deductions for routine expenses paid with PPP funds – causing increased taxes for businesses already hammered by the effects of the virus.
  • Another round of PPP grants and stimulus payments – they worked so well the first time, why not spend again?
  • Blanket PPP forgiveness for borrowers under $150 million (85% of all such loans), to avoid the delays and expense of manual review of millions of loans for compliance with the complex program rules.
  • Emergency relief for hospitality and transit firms, as safety concerns discourage both business and personal travelers.
  • Support for the Postal Service, critical for both Presidential voting and shopping “by mail”.

Despite all of the stops and starts since March, one thing has become absolutely clear: “man plans, the virus laughs”. Until a vaccine has been finalized and tested for safety, the virus is in control. Business and political planning can only remain a hope – contingent on the success of our public health efforts, and universal compliance with its recommendations. Clear rules will also help – conflicts between states and federal leaders’ advice don’t help to build a national consensus on how to beat the virus. We need the same unanimity our country had in times of crisis, such as World War 2, or the oil shortages of the 1970s.

With US coronavirus deaths alone approaching 200,000, our leaders, political and cultural, must now help build that consensus to restore our economy and our health. Without it, as the Grateful Dead once sang, “Ain’t it a shame?”

P.S.: While you were reading this, the PPP rules changed again.

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Was your business lucky enough to get a Paycheck Protection Loan?

If so, I am sure that you appreciated the cash relief.

But it wasn’t free money.

You – and your accountant – should be planning, now, for how to repay it.

The program’s rules have already been amended many times, without notice.

In other words, you must pay attention, to make certain that you will be able to obtain loan forgiveness, by showing that you used the funds for their intended purpose – to maintain payroll.

Certainly, you should ask your bank lender what it will require – but the bank may not yet know either.

Even worse, regulators have already announced audits of borrowers.

In response, many borrowers have already given back their loan proceeds. No one wants a call from a federal inspector, and the bad publicity that will come with it.

One rule even created a safe harbor for giving the money back – and the deadline has already been extended once, to May 14.

With loan rules seemingly being made up day to day, SGRV business lawyer Stanley Jaskiewicz recommends that borrowers plan, now, to keep detailed records of precisely how they used the funds, speaking in a series of interviews with a CBS affiliate news radio show. https://kcbsradio.radio.com/articles/answering-your-questions-about-small-business-aid

To simplify that process, he also recommended keeping all loan funds in their own, separate account.

Please contact Stanley Jaskiewicz directly at 215-241-8866, or sjaskiewicz@sgrvlaw.com, if you have questions about your Paycheck Protection Program loan, or other effects of the COVID-19 Stay at Home Orders on your businesses.

In addition to assisting clients with the Paycheck Protection Program, Jaskiewicz has also drafted letters for employees of essential businesses to carry while commuting to work in locations where such travel is otherwise prohibited.

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This year’s flood of privacy policy updates seem like déjà vu all over again, to quote the noted American intellectual, Yogi Berra.

Such notices to US businesses hit their stride in 2017, ahead of the May 25, 2018 effective date of the GDPR, the European data privacy law known officially as the “General Data Protection Regulation”. 

However, many correctly (in my opinion) chose not to do anything in response.  Whether the result of legal advice, or simple “why should I care” attitude, a purely domestic US business probably had no obligation to act under the European rule.

This year’s boom of such notices, however, hits much closer to home. 

The California Consumer Privacy Act was passed in June, 2018.  It regulates many firms that obtain personal information about “consumers”, defined as California residents – over 12% of everyone in the US, according to recent US Census data.  https://www.census.gov/popclock/?intcmp=w_200x402

Since California is the world’s fifth largest economy, according to recent US government data, US businesses can’t ignore its requirements.

Although California law’s doesn’t become effective until 2020 – seemingly leaving plenty of time for changes, or typical legislative postponements, especially after the law’s hasty passage in June – compliance could take some time.

•             Any business that sells to California consumers must give accurate privacy policy notices.

•             Businesses must police their supply chain for compliance with California’s law, whether or not the suppliers are located in California.

•             The law gives consumers the right to know what personal information about them is collected, how it is used, and even to require that it be eliminated from business records – the so-called “right to be forgotten”.

•             The law also gives consumers the right to sue for violations, including in class actions.

But why should businesses be concerned about yet another “urgent” call to action, or dire warning? 

After all, no one who spent money on Y2K compliance wants to repeat that fiasco.

But this time should be different:

•             Businesses today collect more and more data in the ordinary course, whether online, or through smartphone apps. 

•             After many highly publicized data breaches, consumers and lawmakers alike will demand more protection as the price of giving up that data for free.

•             The e-commerce revolution has led to much more data collection, regardless where a business or consumer may actually be located.

•             California regulators are known to be relentless.

•             The breadth of duties under the new law could take some time and considerable expense.

So, to answer the question in the title of this article – what to do now? – businesses should begin to understand what data they collect, where it is stored, and, more importantly, how it is protected.

For further guidance in this area, please contact Stanley P. Jaskiewicz, Esquire, at 215-241-8866 or sjaskiewicz@lawsgr.com or Ned Dunham, Esquire, at 215-241-8802 or edunham@lawsgr.com.

 

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