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Know your rights: No one has to accept a check

By By Richard Alderman
Sept. 28, 2013 at 4:28 a.m.


I work eight hours a day at a local company. The work is not physically hard but still tiring. My boss gives us a short lunch break but no other rest breaks during the day. Doesn't the law require that workers get short rest breaks during the day?

My understanding of Texas and federal law is that there is no requirement an employer gives employees a rest break. I agree, it would be the right thing to do and probably would help employee morale and productivity, but there is no legal requirement.

I was going to sue a contractor for doing faulty work. Before I had a chance to do anything, he filed suit in justice court against me for not paying the full amount. Do I still have the right to file my claim?

You may still file your claim, but you do not file it as a separate lawsuit. You file what is called a "counterclaim" in the contractor's lawsuit. You also need to file an "answer" to his lawsuit explaining why you did not pay and don't owe him any money. The court then hears both claims and rules on them at the same time.

I have a power of attorney for my 87-year-old mother. The nursing home where she is staying has started sending her bills to me. Am I responsible for her debts because of the power of attorney?

If they are sending you her bills to pay on her behalf, you should not be concerned. On the other hand, if they are sending bills to you for her obligations, you need to make it clear that you are not a responsible party. The power of attorney gives you the right to sign documents and act on behalf of your mother. It does not impose any liability upon you for her debts. For you to be responsible to the nursing home, you must agree to pay. Unless you have signed something or otherwise agreed to pay her bills, you have no liability.

My attorney does not handle bankruptcy matters. How do I find an attorney who is competent in bankruptcy? I owe so much money; I think I need to file bankruptcy.

If you are satisfied with your present attorney, the first thing you should do is ask him or her for a referral. You also should speak with friends and relatives to find out if they have dealt with a bankruptcy attorney. Finally, many attorneys are "board certified" in consumer bankruptcy. You can find their names in the yellow pages or online.

I am 67 years old. I don't pay property taxes because of my over-65 exemptions. Someone just told me that when I die, my estate would have to pay all the back taxes plus interest. Is this true?

It is not true. Your estate will not owe any taxes based on you asserting your exemptions. Your question, however, points out the difference between a tax "exemption" and a tax "deferment." Under the property tax system, you pay taxes based on the value of your property. Some portion of that value is "exempt," and no taxes are due on that portion. The amount of the exemption increases at age 65. In your case, there are no taxes due because the amount of the exemption is greater than the value of your property. On the other hand, if you owe taxes even when the exemption is applied, you have the right to defer the taxes when you reach age 65. This means that you do not have to pay when the taxes are assessed. The taxes, however, are still owed. Taxes, plus interest, must be paid when you die or sell the property. If you had your taxes deferred, your estate would have to pay the taxes plus interest after your death.

Is it true that if I sue a business that ripped me off I may get three times my damages? Someone told me that was what Texas law said.

The law they are talking about is the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. This law protects you against false, misleading and deceptive acts and practices. Under the law, if you show the business acted "knowingly," you may recover up to three times your damages. To see what this law says, visit my website, peopleslawyer.net.

We rent a small house. I was just told that our renters have a dog and that it bit a child. Our lease doesn't even allow pets. Are we, as the owners, liable for the medical bills of this child?

You are not liable simply because you own the property. Your liability, if any, must be based on your own "negligence." In other words, you must have done something unreasonable or refused to do something reasonable, and that conduct or inaction must have caused in the incident.

For example, as the owner, you probably have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to insure that your tenants are not misusing the property or acting in a manner dangerous to others. If you know a tenant has a dangerous dog and that the tenant is letting the dog run wild, you might have an obligation to intervene, for example, telling the tenant to keep the dog on a leash, evicting the tenant or calling animal control. If you do not do anything and the dog bites someone, you could be considered negligent and liable. On the other hand, a landlord has no duty to police tenants or their animals and has no liability if an animal bites someone.

If this is the first you heard of this, I don't see any way you have liability.

Do you want to know more about your legal rights? Will you be in Houston on Saturday?

On that day, the Center for Consumer Law at the University of Houston Law Center will present the latest session of the People's Law School. This free program is your chance to learn more about your legal rights, and get help with basic legal problems. As more than 50,000 people have learned, knowing your legal rights can help avoid problems and resolve disputes.

At the People's Law School, there will be classes in fourteen different areas of law.

We will teach classes in everything from consumer law and debt collection, to family law, basic business and landlord-tenant rights. There will be classes in finding the law on the Internet and using justice court, as well as specialists teaching you about bankruptcy, health insurance, employment and immigration law. A local volunteer judge, attorney or law professor will teach each class, and everyone receives extensive written material.

The People's Law School will be held at the Law Center on the main campus of the University of Houston.

Everyone may select three courses to attend. As I said, the program is free, but you must register in advance. To register or get more information, go to peopleslawyer.net.

Class begin promptly at 9 a.m., but arrive early for complimentary coffee and donuts. I look forward to seeing you Saturday.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a website at peopleslawyer.net.

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