Hart of the Issue: A promise of unconditional love

By John M. Hart, III, Esq.

It’s February, and while we are growing tired of the chilly dismal days, we make a last-ditch effort to warm our hearts with Valentine’s Day.  It’s a holiday that clearly pales in comparison to Christmas, or even New Year’s, but it’s something that gives us a reason to celebrate and breakaway from the humdrum of winter. 

Dunmore is certainly well-equipped to handle this holiday. Flowers, cards, and chocolates are the staple gifts. And Dunmore is blessed with chocolatiers. 

While my fondest memories of chocolate as a kid came from Easter or Halloween, there would be an occasional chocolate-covered strawberry that I would pilfer from the counter, as they clearly were not for me. For a kid, Valentine’s Day meant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spiderman, or Power Ranger Valentine’s Day cards that I would get at Fay’s or Jamesway and eagerly distribute amongst classmates at school.

But Valentine’s Day gifts can get rather pricey too. Some people go all out on their significant other with jewelry.  My wife and I personally celebrate with a nice night out for dinner, oftentimes not even on Feb. 14, because to us, it’s not about the hype of the holiday, but just another opportunity for us to enjoy one another’s company. 

For those extremely love-struck souls, Valentine’s Day is a stereotypical day for them to pop the question… the BIG question.  There are pros and cons to proposing to your significant other on Valentine’s Day.  One glaring pro that sticks out to me is that the forgetful spouse will never forget when their anniversary is!  

Another pro is that the couple will save money on gifts since the present exchange will be consolidated into one event. As a lawyer, there is one con that I cannot ignore and would caution people before proposing on Valentine’s Day.

If you’ve gotten serious enough to consider proposing to your significant other, then you need a ring.  And rings are more expensive than flowers or even the finest decadent silky-smooth morsel of chocolate our local confectioners’ shops can prepare.  

As traditions evolved, a ring has become more than just a sign of commitment.  It is also an investment, because oftentimes, people think they have to spend a large chunk on an engagement ring as proof of their willingness to enter into this agreement.  And that’s the magic word for us lawyers… agreement.

I recall sitting in Contracts class in law school when this question was posed.  If an engagement is called off and the one individual decides not to marry the other, who gets the ring? And I’ve actually had clients call to ask this same question, so I’m glad I was listening in class that day.  And like most other answers to client’s questions, this response is the same… it depends.  Different states address this fact pattern differently and because there is so much variation amongst courts from state to state, the question becomes rather complicated.  

In Pennsylvania, the general rule is that an engagement ring is considered a conditional gift, meaning that it is given with the expectation that the wedding will take place. If the wedding is called off by the person who received the ring, they are typically expected to return the ring to the person who gave it to them. 

That doesn’t sound too complicated, so why is it?  The simple answer is that lawyers use creativity.  

There may be exceptions to this rule depending on the specific circumstances of the situation. 

A legal matter involves laws and facts.  And when the law isn’t clear, or even on your side for that matter, a lawyer will use the facts to their advantage.  Let’s say you do propose on Valentine’s Day and your significant other says yes and you give that person a ring. What other facts would be needed if the wedding is called off and the ring recipient refuses to return the ring?  Arguably none.  Who’s to say that ring wasn’t a Valentine’s Day gift.  In addition to the ring, were there other gifts exchanged? Was the ring the only thing?  

Maybe it seems obvious that it was an engagement ring, but that’s an argument left up to a jury to decide.  Facts split numerous ways and there are always two sides to every story. It is always best to consult with an attorney if you have any questions about the legal implications of returning an engagement ring in Pennsylvania. 

And fortunately, people have known enough to call Hart Law in the past on this very issue.  If you’re one of those unlucky individuals who has a wedding called off, contact  us and we’ll go over the law with you, and certainly discuss the facts of your specific circumstances. 

So, enjoy Valentine’s Day–and if you don’t want any surprises–stick to the flowers and chocolates.  Perhaps consider proposing on another day of the year if you want to avoid ambiguity.  Oh, and it goes without saying, but it would be wise to avoid the other holidays for the same reasons above.

The Hart of the Issue: Our New Year’s Resolutions

 If you’re like me, then the start of a new year means dieting.  Throughout the year, I track my weight with a spreadsheet, and it looks like the blueprints to a roller coaster.  And the incline from Thanksgiving to Christmas makes for an embarrassing peak, with a necessary fall to follow.  But unlike a roller coaster, the ride down is never fun, and it seems to take longer, much longer, than the anticipating climb up. 

And so, begins the big diet that starts the year. It’s not all bad.  With dieting comes saving money.  A typical work week at Hart Law includes luncheons with clients, colleagues, and employees alike.  While I usually will pack myself a lunch each day, there’s almost always those inescapable phone calls from friends who’d like to grab a bite.  Or when I ask what my legal assistant is having for lunch, she’s on her phone looking up Door Dash for local restaurants to grab a burger, tacos, or a hoagie.  When we moved our offices to Dunmore, the temptations multiplied!  The amount of incredible culinary options within a 3-block radius from HART LAW is out of sight!  And so are my feet after throwing caution to the wind during the holidays and eating everything I got my hands on. 

There’s no way to get around it, dieting is difficult, and reluctance to start one is at an all-time high right after the holidays. But the start of a new year means a fresh slate to put bad habits behind us and we are at least able to make our best efforts to better ourselves.  Positive reinforcement makes it easier.  Plus, we’re all on board with starting fresh so I recommend finding others who have committed to the same resolutions so you can adhere to your plan together.  It’s not difficult to find friends who are also starting up a diet this month.  

But dieting is only one of the common New Year’s resolutions. A quick online search shows that the most popular resolutions involve dieting, fitness, and finances.  When talking about finances it used to be spend less and/or save more.  Traditionally, people have been limited in how they can positively impact their financial position because income is a fixed figure for most employees.  However, there has been a growing trend in “side hustles”. There are a number of ways someone can earn additional income through modern approaches.  And we’re not talking about mowing lawns, shoveling sidewalks, or opening up lemonade stands.  People are finding new ways to bring in some additional income and they’re often doing it without much additional effort or consumption of time in their already busy day. 

Many people are utilizing today’s technology to earn some additional cash.  Some are doing so passively, by investing in unique areas of business such as crowdfunding and real estate investment trusts. Others are enjoying the ease of part time platforms such as shopping for Instacart, delivering for DoorDash (as mentioned earlier), or driving for Uber.  You can even rent your car out on Turo.  It’s like AirBnB for your vehicle!  These opportunities have all of the legwork taken care of for you.  You just have to be willing to dedicate some down time to “turn the meter on” and drive or shop or rent. 

For those who are more ambitious starting a small business can also be a way to earn additional income.  Whether it be a novel idea or a business that is tried and true that they’re passionate about, there are many new small businesses popping up everywhere.  I personally have been learning of them through the City of Scranton’s Office of Economic and Community Development. As solicitor for OECD, I review applications for small grants and larger loan-to-grants through various programs that Scranton has to offer.  This aspect of my position gives me great insight to the growing number of small businesses in our community.  I’ve seen breweries, pet bakeries, spice markets, and even a gourmet mushroom store open up over the past few months. I’ve seen people who have a passion for “yard sailing” who go around looking for used furniture that they can refurbish and resell for a profit.  And I’ve come across “home chefs” who sell their signature dishes right out of their homes.

However, there are many risks that come along with side hustles.  If you happen to enjoy the work and don’t mind if your side job succeeds or fails, then it’s still a win as long as you are having fun.  But if your new venture starts gaining traction and you see the potential of turning it into a successful business then a bit more consideration is needed to plan your next steps.  Creating a successful small business involves many legal considerations. 

Having a lawyer on your team can help you navigate the legal landscape and avoid potential pitfalls.  To start, you must decide the legal structure of your company.  There are several options to choose from such as a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, or limited liability company. Each structure has its own advantages and disadvantages, and HART LAW can help you determine the best structure for your business and handle all of the legal work required to get you up and running. 

As your business grows, you will inevitably have to enter into a variety of contracts, including leases, vendor agreements, and employment contracts.  Whether you need these contracts drafted on your behalf or you are asked to enter into a contract that’s been put in front of you, HART LAW can help you understand the terms of these contracts and ensure your rights are protected. And if your new business is novel with a lot of creativity intertwined with your venture, you may need to look into protecting your intellectual property. 

And of course, with the good, comes the bad.  If your business becomes involved in a legal dispute, having a lawyer can be invaluable, whether it be in court or in negotiations, a lawyer can help you reach a resolution that is favorable to your new business.  

Having an attorney during the infancy of your startup is the most beneficial way to protect yourself from the potential pitfalls that can come your way as your business grows. If you’re looking for complete legal assistance from the start and to be there along the way, there are some firms that are starting to offer subscription-based legal services. I know about this because HART LAW offers this new arrangement of legal services.  

While I’m reluctant to go on a necessary diet, many people are reluctant to call an attorney.  The problem is that often times, attorneys get a call after the otherwise preventable issue has spiraled out of control. Whether it be a contract that went south, or even having no contract at all or being sued and not having the proper business structure in place to protect you and your assets, an attorney is needed, but the issue might have been avoided or at least mitigated if they were called sooner. (Remember the idiom penny wise and pound foolish?) 

In an effort to avoid these catastrophes, having a legal service subscription plan can take the reluctance out of making that initial phone call.  Subscription-based legal services offer affordable and predictable legal fees, with a fixed monthly or annual fee. These types of plans allow for convenient access to legal advice, which is beneficial if you have multiple legal issues or need ongoing legal support.  Additionally, since HART LAW is a general practice handling several areas of law, they can provide comprehensive legal services to small businesses.  Having a subscription plan provides you with a wide range of legal services, such as contract review, business formation, estate planning, and legal assistance with disputes and to obtain positive results.

Overall, it’s important to remember that resolutions, whether related to dieting, fitness, or finances, take time and effort to achieve, but the start of a new year is a good time to make a fresh start towards improving ourselves. Know that we’re all in the same boat.  We get to start the year fresh with a positive approach to reach the goals that we’ve set.  If your resolution is to start up a new business and you intend to be successful, having a lawyer on your team from the inception can provide peace of mind and help you avoid potential legal issues down the road.  It is worth taking the time to contact HART LAW because they’re knowledgeable and experienced in working with small businesses and can provide valuable guidance and support throughout the process of starting and growing your business.

The Hart of the Issue: “Wheelin’ but not Dealing”

By John M. Hart, III, Esq. 

Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday are the “power three” shopping days that kick off the holiday shopping spree, or at least in our household.  I have a hardline rule of not preparing for Christmas, not even uttering a word about it, until Thanksgiving has come and gone, despite every effort our commercial society tries to force it upon me. 

I refuse to listen to Bing Crosby sing the classics until after Thanksgiving.  I don’t like “watering down” Thanksgiving, as I believe it’s a strong enough holiday to stand on its own.  Thanksgiving has always been a favorite holiday of mine, but it certainly does act as a proper conduit to kick off the holiday season.  To me, Thanksgiving signifies the end of Autumn.  But then a very busy weekend comes after Turkey Day because it means taking down fall decorations, packing them away, retrieving Christmas decorations, unboxing, and putting them up to make the perfect holiday décor throughout the house.  

And while I’m playing the storage room shuffle, it always makes for the ideal time to tidy up the joint since half of our totes in the storage room are comprised of Fall and Christmas decorations alone. But if these “holiday chores” weren’t enough for this busy weekend, we have to be cognizant of the amazing deals that are at play.  The gloves come off midnight on Friday, and no, I’m not standing in line somewhere to get a good price on a TV, or a bloody nose from an elbow that may come with it–but I am staying up late after a full day of turkey-eating to get those midnight deals.  

Shopping for family, friends, co-workers, business associates, etc., is paramount from Black Friday on, and there are many channels which I tap for gifts.  With the various areas to shop come different methods of transacting business, and it can be beneficial to know what you’re dealing with and more importantly, who you’re dealing with when you find that perfect gift for someone.

There’s the traditional form of shopping in retail stores, which serves a purpose beyond just getting a gift.  It’s still an event, something to look forward to doing with your family, something to do on an otherwise mundane weekday after work. Plus, it makes a great setting for people-watching and gives you an excuse to eat out at a local restaurant. 

Then there’s online shopping which… let’s face it, takes the fun out of it but is just so darn simple and convenient.  I can relax in my recliner, watch Die Hard (one of my favorite Christmas movies, and don’t try telling me it’s not a Christmas movie) and shop on my phone or tablet ordering virtually everything I need and have it delivered right to my doorstep–usually for free. It’s just very difficult to avoid online shopping these days.  But some items I need might require a bit more looking.  Some items might need to comply with my budget!  And that’s when I turn to online to shop locally.      

I used to love perusing through the Paper Shop when that was a big thing.  Then came a game changer known as Craigslist.  And when that first came out, it was fantastic, until the scams poured through and made it unbearable. Often, when a deal seemed too good to be true, it was.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still check it out from time to time, but it’s no longer my go-to when looking for local items. 

Shortly after Craigslist came phone apps or in-app features.  Let-Go and Facebook Marketplace started tapping into the used market scene and it was a new and convenient way to shop.  Now we’re at a place where not only can we view the profile of the individual selling an item to ensure they’re legit, but we can even see their ratings based on their past transactions and even rate them after doing business with them ourselves. 

The local online shopping has certainly come a long way from the days where we’d read through newsprint ads and kid ourselves into thinking that the one-line description of an item was flawless and a great deal, to nowadays where we are more familiar with what we’re attempting to buy before even physically seeing it. But we still must transact with people in person, and with that comes potential issues.

I’m sure some of you, if not many, have heard horror stories of deals gone wrong.  Perhaps some stories are exaggerated, but I do recall back when I was working at the District Attorney’s Office here in Lackawanna County, prosecuting a case where one of these transactions escalated quickly. This particular case was a perfect example of the phrase unclean hands.  

From my loose recollection, it involved an individual who was looking to buy some form of jewelry on Let-Go or FB Marketplace.  When the buyer and seller met up, the buyer snatched the item and high-tailed it to his vehicle with no intention of paying for it.  But the buyer chose the wrong seller to swindle.  The seller quickly pursued after the buyer in his own vehicle, following him for miles until the buyer got out of his car to get away on foot. The seller was “packing” and pulled out a gun and pointed it at the buyer.  He then phoned in to the police to have the buyer taken into custody and kept the business end of his handgun on the buyer until law enforcement arrived.  

Was this an appropriate response… some people might think so, while most didn’t.  I’m not here to offer legal advice, and nothing in my articles shall be construed as such. Common sense tells me not to go seeking trouble.  If my life isn’t at risk, I’d steer clear from escalating a situation. 

These stories shouldn’t deter you from shopping online for local items. These types of people have always been around and will always be there.  I’ve heard the same kind of stories from people selling items on Craigslist, only to have their dirt bike taken for a “test drive” around the block, never to be seen again, to even someone trying to sell a car face-to-face at a flea market.  The seller agreed to throw in a spare set of wheels with mounted tires.  The buyer agreed to buy the car and took the wheels right then and there claiming he’d return for the car and sign a bill of sale.  Only he never came back.  Instead, he just made out with nice new wheels for the great price of free.    

Fortunately, there are measures everyone can take to attempt to avoid these potentially dangerous encounters. Just months ago, the Dunmore Borough created a “safe transfer zone” in front of the Dunmore Police Station.  This helps lessen the stress that can come with online local purchases.  The area is under video surveillance, typically has numerous people around, and is right next to the local police station should any issues arise.  It’s a wonderful feature that this great Borough has to offer.  

Additionally, when dealing with local online transactions, make sure to do your due diligence with the seller.  These new apps may allow you to do a bit more thorough vetting, but scams are still out there.  Be sure to avoid any form of cash apps prior to meeting the person and seeing the item. Cash is still king, but it is understandable that some people simply don’t deal with it these days.  Venmo, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, etc. are all great options, but avoid sending any money until the product is in hand.

There are many other ways to shop for things you might need for the holidays and there will always be someone trying to pull a fast one somewhere.  Just be careful and cautious when shopping.  Remember to apply common sense and please avoid the temptation of doing all of your shopping online! Trust me I understand the appeal. There are several Die Hard movies that I have to watch during this holiday season, and it would certainly be easier to get my shopping out of the way at the same time, but we cannot forget our traditions.  

Go to stores, shop local, shop online-local, grab a bite to eat while you’re out and about, or simply “people-watch” while you’re buying a pair of socks as a stocking stuffer.  And if any legal issues happen to fall upon you during a holiday transaction, give us a call.