Contract Basics: The Pen Actually Can Be Very Mighty

You would be hard-pressed to find an adult in the United States who never has signed a contract. You rent an apartment; you sign a contract. You enroll your children in daycare; you sign a contract. You borrow money for school; you sign a contract. You join a gym; you sign a contract. This does not include the plethora of subscription services so common these days like entertainment streaming, cell phones, music services, product delivery services and so many more. We execute many contracts without a second thought, but not all contracts are created equally. Signing on the dotted line for that hotel room or rental car does not carry the same weight as entering into an agreement to buy or sell real estate, but the legal obligation you create when doing so remains the same.

Although the law is concerned where a contract is procured through fraud, misrepresentation, or duress, the courts aim to preserve our autonomy to contract with one another freely. The law does not concern itself with whether the terms of the agreement are reasonable or whether any party possessed enough knowledge to enter the agreement. The parties to any contract can have different levels of sophistication, and bargaining power might be unequal, but each one is legally bound to know the terms of the contract entered. The stroke of that pen comes with a duty to understand the document, and that is where many fall short.

Contracts can be difficult to understand simply because of the manner in which they are drafted. The legalese in many standard provisions can seem unintelligible to most, and some contracts will contain dozens of these confusing terms. However, ignorance is no excuse under the law, particularly when an agreement contains a provision indicating that the parties agree that its terms are fair, just, and reasonable. It is customary for contracts to contain such provisions which serve to cut off future challenges to that contract by one manner or another. These can be explicit waivers of rights, such as waiving your right to a jury trial to resolve future disputes, or implicit waivers like the one above. When you agree in writing that the contract is reasonable, you waive your right to challenge its reasonableness in the future even if you did not understand what you were signing.

While most would think to enlist the help of an attorney for contract drafting or negotiating, contract review is just as important. Agreements involving large sums of money or long-term obligations are most critical. A 5-year service contract can look great today, but circumstances can change for either party over that long a period, and that must be considered. An agreement requiring a sizable non-refundable down payment could result in a great loss if the agreement falls through for a reason other than a breach. From lawn service contracts to pre-nuptial agreements, any legally binding document must be reviewed thoroughly to ensure that you understand both your obligations and your rights under it.

Whether you need a contract drafted, negotiated, or reviewed, the experienced attorneys at Cornerstone Law can help. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.

My Student’s Discipline at School Was Excessive – What Should I Do?

If your child is a K-12 student and has received discipline that you think is excessive, what options do you have? Can you sue the school or do anything to demand a lesser punishment? The answers to these questions depend on a few factors, but the most important factor is whether your student attends a private or public school. This article is specific to questions about Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade education. Different rules apply to the college level and other types of schools. As always, this article is not legal advice—each situation is different, and you should consult an attorney about the facts of your case.

Public School Students and Their Rights

In the public school setting, administrators are bound to follow the Constitution in making disciplinary decisions. This might sound strange at first because the Constitution doesn’t mention schools. But the federal Constitution does require that everyone has a right to due process when faced with punishment by a government entity as well as Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Our federal courts also recognize the Fourteenth Amendment as providing “substantive due process” rights that prohibit revoking someone’s rights in a way that violates various norms or rules. And of course, everyone has a First Amendment right to express their opinions and beliefs without fear of government reprisal, as well as to hold their religious views without interference by a government employee or entity.

Punishment handed out by a public school must comply with the provisions of the Constitution. This means that if a child is punished for expressing a First Amendment-protected viewpoint or for their religious beliefs, then the school is liable for this violation of Constitutional rights. In addition, schools must follow due process rights when punishing a student. They must give a student notice and a hearing before administering punishment.

The Supreme Court has drawn a general line at ten days of suspension. Punishment over ten days requires substantial due process rights, including a more formal hearing, often in front of the school board. The student and his or her parents have a right to present documents and witnesses, and should have the right to cross-examine the school’s witnesses and to present argument as to why lesser or no punishment should be considered. When students are punished for less than ten days, they still have a right to notice and a hearing, but the hearing can be informal and brief.

Students Rights and Private School

Private schools are generally not bound by the Constitution because, by their nature, they are private, not government-owned. As a result, like any private entity, they are free, as a general rule, to have rules or punishments that are not “fair” across the board.

But a few important restrictions still apply to private school discipline. First, private schools are still required to abide by the terms of their contract with the parents. Because parents are paying for their student’s education, what is laid down in any contract documents will be important.

Contract documents are not just the formal documents parents signed when they brought their child to the school. The documents that form a contractual relationship between parents and the school can include emails and correspondence with the school, and in most cases, also includes the parent or student handbooks that lay out expectations the parties can rely on.

Where a student is expelled, a refund or a partial refund may be required and to the degree that a student’s education is interfered with as a result of being expelled, there may also be damages available to the parents. Furthermore, if specific wrongdoing can be proven, a private party including a teacher or school may be liable if they harmed the student in more specific ways.

Conclusion

At Cornerstone Law Firm, our attorneys have helped parents and students in both public and private schools to stand up for their rights and receive vindication after wrongful suspensions, expulsions, and punishments. Our work has involved students who were expelled, suspended, or who lost “privileges” relating to extracurricular activities. Our attorneys are well situated to help you determine your rights and figure out how to handle a situation that you’re faced with. Call us today for a consultation and let us help you determine what steps to take.

Changing your name in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania law, you are free to request a change of your legal name to one of your choosing. You may petition the Court to permit a change to your first, middle or last name, or all of them. The process involves two major steps, but it doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated. In today’s blog, we’ll talk through the steps and discuss why you need a lawyer to help.

There are two basic steps to getting a name change done in Pennsylvania. First, you’ll need to file a petition explaining to the Court of Common Pleas in the county where you live why you need or want the name change. This petition is not a standard form but rather allows the drafting attorney to fill in various details about you for the judge’s understanding. You will want to include the reasons for the potential change. You should also include information about your criminal background, if any, and financial situation. These details allow the Court to assess that you are pursuing the name change for legitimate reasons, and not to hide from creditors or escape a criminal background. A good petition will go a long way toward persuading the presiding judge to grant your request.

Second, you’ll need to go through a hearing—basically a very brief trial (without a jury, just a judge) on why you want the name change and whether there is any reason you should not receive one. Courts are granted broad discretion in the name change process, and they will order a hearing so they can see you and any relevant witnesses in person. The judge in your case may want you to testify or may simply have some questions for your attorney. Some name change hearings are informal, and some end up being lengthy. Having an attorney present to answer questions from the judge and make any arguments necessary to secure your name change is important.

Because the trial court judge in your county gets broad discretion on making the decision, appeals are very difficult to bring. If your county judge doesn’t grant your request, taking it up to the Superior Court is not likely to bring about a different outcome. This is why it’s important to do the petition and hearing well in the first place.

Name changes are common after marriage (where no hearing is required), when a child wants to take a different parent’s name, and for religious reasons. Name changes don’t have to be scary, and they can provide an opportunity for a psychological fresh start. If you want to seek a change in your name, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your situation.

May 2021 Update

May 2021 has been filled with trials and advanced litigation for the attorneys of Cornerstone Law Firm. On the civil side, attorney Joel Ready spent time litigating a partnership dispute in Lehigh County court, giving advice to several businesses to avoid personnel and human resources litigation, promulgating discovery in personal injury cases based in Berks County and preparing for a summer of trials. A number of Cornerstone Law’s criminal clients were able to obtain trial dates this month, allowing them to finally pursue their innocence in a proceeding before a jury.

On the transactional side, several businesses hired Cornerstone Law Firm to draft contracts and to create new bylaws and other operating agreements for their businesses and nonprofits. These ranged from employment agreements to more complex inter-business cooperation agreements, and also agreements to resolve potential areas of dispute between rival businesses.

Attorney Crossett has been involved in several mediation for personal injury clients, obtaining settlement for car accident victims and those injured in other accidents. Furthermore, Attorney Crossett has finalized complex land deals this month for clients with conflicting real estate claims.

At Cornerstone Law Firm we are happy that the world is slowly getting back to normal, and we are looking forward to the nice weather in the summer months!

Four steps to take when you’re served with a false Protection from Abuse Order

Four steps to take when you’re served with a false Protection from Abuse Order

Protection from Abuse Orders, or PFAs, are the mechanism that Pennsylvania uses to protect someone claiming to be the victim of domestic violence. Some states refer to this as a “restraining order,” but in Pennsylvania, the concept is strictly limited to former or current sexual partners or members of the same household. Furthermore, to obtain a PFA, someone has to show that they are afraid of imminent harm at the hands of the defendant. If you’ve been served with a PFA Order and told not to contact someone, here are four things you need to consider immediately in preparing to defend yourself.

  1. Do not contact the person who filed the PFA

First, it is important for you to know that a Protection From Abuse Order is first entered against you “ex parte.” This means it is ordered by a judge without you present or knowing about it. Under Pennyslvania law, you will almost always first hear about someone’s allegations that you abused them from a Sheriff serving you with an order. Shockingly to most defendants, this Order is entered by a Court before you ever have a chance to defend yourself. It is vital that you not contact the person alleging abuse, as this is illegal pursuant to the Court Order. Unfortunately, many PFA defendants make that their first course of action. It’s natural to think this is a misunderstanding that can be cleared up, or to confront the person about what’s in the PFA. It’s natural—but it’s also illegal, and will land you in hot water. This is true even if the victim contacts you and says it was a mistake to file against you. Don’t respond to them: call an attorney.

Until your hearing, you are legally prohibited from contacting the person who filed the PFA against you and doing so is a criminal offense. You can be charged with an Indirect Criminal Contempt, which is a misdemeanor, and which can come with jail time. In other words, you can end up in jail for violating a PFA based on false facts. Your violation of the PFA is an independent crime known as Indirect Criminal Contempt in Pennsylvania. Your first call should be to a PFA attorney—not to the alleged victim.

  1. Determine your goals—and the other person’s—in formulating a response.

PFAs are usually not filed in a vacuum. They often precede a divorce or custody action. Is the person filing the PFA against you doing so out of spite or are they hoping to get you out of a house so they can change the locks? Do they really believe you’ve been emotionally abusive, or is this a cynical ploy on their part? Is the goal to make it hard for you to move forward with custody? Understanding what the other side is attempting to do in filing a PFA is vital to determining your next steps.

As discussed below, a PFA can be consented to in some situations, meaning you might wish to agree to the entry of an order prohibiting you from contacting this person. This is especially true if basic agreements in a parallel criminal case or custody action can be resolved as part of such an agreement. In other situations, consenting to a PFA would be disastrous. The goals of the parties are a major piece to determining your next step.

  1. Gather your evidence

A challenge to defending against false PFAs is in the very nature of the charge. It usually comes down to “he said, she said” in court, and it requires showing that the person claiming abuse is lying or grossly exaggerating. What evidence can you produce to show this is false? Was the argument legally caught on video in the house? Sometimes surveillance footage from a doorbell or security system is available. Did the alleged victim text you about the argument later? In some cases, an alleged victim has written a narrative about what happened for a third party, clearly stating there was no physical abuse. This can be important as well.

Of course, sometimes, there is no “hard” evidence about the alleged assault. It really is one person’s story against another. Having an experienced trial attorney on your side becomes even more important in these cases. Poking holes in a story without hard evidence is a challenge, but it can be done.

  1. What do you get if you “win” or “lose?”

Perhaps the most important issue is understanding the legal standard required of someone requesting a PFA and understanding what you get when you “win” or “lose.” If you prevail in defending against a PFA, no one is required to reimburse you for legal costs, and the PFA petition is dismissed. It can be refiled upon a showing of a new instance of abuse—but not for the matters in the original PFA.

“Losing” on a PFA is more serious in that it results in the entry of an order against you to prohibit you from contacting the alleged victim. It can also have a negative impact on your custody case, if one is ongoing, and potentially can be factored into a divorce decree in certain circumstances.

But PFAs can also be entered by agreement, and usually do not carry similar penalties. A PFA can be entered without a judge finding wrongdoing where both parties agree that they don’t object to an order prohibiting one person from contacting the other. In some cases, both parties consent to PFAs between each other. Sometimes PFAs are a mechanism to ensure that both parties feel that they can move on with their lives without constantly fighting over whether their communications cross the line.

But this doesn’t mean that consenting to a PFA is a good idea. Depending on your divorce, custody and financial situations, PFAs can have profoundly negative impacts on your life. A good PFA lawyer can help you decide whether consenting to a PFA with certain agreements can be better than fighting over the PFA, or whether it is a bad idea.

Conclusion: Consult with an experienced PFA lawyer

Having a PFA entered against you can be a serious problem, and can create issues for you and your family. Understanding what your options are in defending a PFA can put you and your family in a position to ensure that you aren’t harmed by the entry of a Protection From Abuse Order. If you’re local here in Berks County, call the attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to discuss your Protection From Abuse Order and how we can help you.

Civil Forfeiture Can Lead to Injustice

A recent article in WITF, a central Pennsylvania news organization, addressed a growing issue in Pennsylvania – asset forfeiture abuse.

Cornerstone Law Firm Attorney Joel Ready was interviewed in the WITF article:

Berks County defense lawyer Joel Ready, who has represented clients whose belongings have been seized through civil forfeiture, said this thinking turns the U.S. Constitution on its head.

“Anybody who had $500 taken out of their pocket by the government and told, ‘Well, you’re going to have to prove that you didn’t do anything to get this back,’ is going to understand that this is a profound injustice,” Ready said. “Most people can’t afford to hire a lawyer to come in and get that money back.”

Read the full article here.

Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is the limit on how long after an injury occurs in which the injured victim may bring suit. In other words, the statute of limitations is the amount of time that you have to sue someone after they’ve hurt you. Once the statute of limitations runs out, the victim loses any rights to seek compensation from the wrongdoer.

The statute of limitations can be longer or shorter, depending on the state, and depending on the case that is being brought. In Pennsylvania, for injuries based on negligence, such as car accidents, slip and fall cases, or other cases in which someone’s failure to observe reasonable standards of care led to an injury, the statute of limitations is two years. For breach of contract, the statute of limitations is four years. In some rather unusual cases, such as lesser known common-law causes of action, the statute of limitations is six years. For claims related to privacy and defamation, the statute of limitations is only one year.

There are some exceptions to the statute of limitations bar against a lawsuit. One is called the discovery rule. If the victim did not know or have a reason to know about the injury until after the statute of limitations has run, the statute of limitations may be “tolled” or delayed to allow the victim a longer stretch of time within which to bring suit. The discovery rule is narrow, and fairly limited in Pennsylvania. It will only revive the statute of limitations long enough for the person to bring suit within a reasonable time. In extremely unusual situations where a wrongdoer has intentionally misled someone about their statute of limitations, courts will sometimes invoke the “equitable tolling” doctrine which allows someone to bring suit within a reasonable time after they’ve learned of the statute of limitations. This also is a rare situation, and neither of these exceptions should be relied on by a victim except in the most exceptional of situations.

The bottom line is you typically have a fairly limited amount of time in which to bring a lawsuit if you wish to bring one. Your rights do not remain open forever and you can lose them if you don’t act quickly. Having a litigation lawyer who understands the statutes of limitations in Pennsylvania and the various equitable doctrines built on them can help you determine in which category your case properly falls. For example, depending on the type of car accident you were in, your lawsuit may actually be a breach of contract action against an insurer. Having an attorney who can walk you through these sorts of distinctions may mean the difference between successfully bringing suit or not bringing suit at all. Regardless, you’re encouraged to discuss your rights immediately with an attorney if you believe that you or a loved one have been harmed by someone else’s actions or negligence. A litigation attorney can help you sort through the many complex legal doctrines that will affect your case and help you to understand your rights. Call the attorneys at the Cornerstone Law Firm today and let us help you determine your rights.

I lost at the Magisterial District Court! What’s Next?

If you’ve lost a civil case at the Magisterial District Court, you still have options. But, you need to act quickly. After most civil cases at the Magisterial District Court, you have 30 days to appeal the decision of the Magisterial District Judge. When you appeal, you may seek a different ruling from a higher court. In some cases, you may have less time than that such as in landlord/tenant matters. In these cases, you only have 10 days to appeal.

If you decide to appeal, you will have the opportunity to have a trial de novo. This means that your trial will be re-done all over again in front of a judge at the Court of Common Pleas. It will not merely be a review of the record at the Magisterial District Court. Rather, it will be a brand-new trial, all over again—a second bite at the apple.

While the Magisterial District Court is intended to be a broadly accessible court where non-lawyers can represent themselves if they wish, at the Court of Common Pleas this is not recommended. At the Court of Common Pleas, complex procedural rules are in place. Failure to follow these rules can result in a dismissal of your case or even an entry of judgment against you.

If you’ve recently litigated a case at the Magisterial District Court and you’re not happy with the outcome, call Cornerstone Law Firm and speak with one of our litigation attorneys today. We can help you determine your rights and figure out whether an appeal is a good idea for you. Similarly, if you’ve won a judgment at the Magisterial District Court and it’s been appealed, call us today and discuss how we can ensure that you receive a more permanent victory at the next level.

October 2018 Recap

The month of October has been productive at Cornerstone Law Firm. Attorney Crossett successfully settled two car accident cases for clients, helping them to receive financial compensation for their pain and suffering. David also attended several “depositions,” a part of the civil litigation process that allows testimony under oath before trial in order for both parties to better understand the case at hand.

Attorney Ready has been all over eastern Pennsylvania this month, driving to Union County to obtain dismissal of criminal charges for a client, and holding several hearings in Berks County criminal court. Joel also filed a lawsuit for 401k benefits unlawfully denied to an employee. He also helped several clients analyze their rights as creditors in bankruptcy court. Finally, Attorney Ready filed several deeds for clients changing ownership of homes.

At Cornerstone Law, we solve problems of all kinds. Call us today to let us know how we can help you solve your problem.