How to Handle Hot-Button Legal IssuesFebruary 1, 2017

From 'Bathroom Bills' to Open Carry By
February 1, 2017

How to Handle Hot-Button Legal Issues

From 'Bathroom Bills' to Open Carry

ACF-2017-0203-FebMar-Legal_Issues-860x418When the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2 in 2016, it required that schools, colleges and government buildings limit use of multi-occupancy bathrooms based on a person’s gender at birth rather than their gender identity. The national reaction was swift. Musicians cancelled concerts; the National Basketball Association moved its All-Star Game to another state; and businesses reconsidered setting up or expanding offices.

ACPA-College Student Educators International, which works with students and educators involved in student affairs programs at colleges and universities, found itself in a tight spot. They had an assessment institute scheduled in Charlotte six weeks after the bill became law. Executive Director Cindi Love, Ed.D., was certain members would be uncomfortable going to North Carolina after the law’s passage. Not only did the association have a long-held commitment to equity and inclusion, but members had previously expressed concern about going to states with discriminatory laws.

“I’ve designed clauses that say if something unanticipated comes up that causes a significant percentage of attendees to note strong objections to the host group, the group can cancel or attrition will be waived.”
— Joshua L. Grimes, Esq.

When Indiana was considering a 2015 religious freedom law that allowed business owners to use their beliefs as a legal defense if they discriminated against LGTBQ people, the association asked members how they would feel about hosting future events in the state. “Over one-third responded and said they didn’t want us to go there if this legislation passed,” Love says. Based on that finding, Love and her team made the decision to move their assessment institute from Charlotte to Baltimore. They were able to do it with few monetary consequences because of force majeure and discrimination clauses they’d recently started including in their event contracts.

Planners will face more site selection quandries in 2017, as so far this year, another 16 states have introduced 22 “bathroom bills.”

Social and Political Issues

“We’re seeing more and more that there are social and political issues that come up that cause meetings to want to avoid certain cities and states and hotels,” says Joshua L. Grimes, Esq., a Philadelphia attorney who has worked with the meetings industry for more than 20 years.

Cancellations such as this are not included under typical force majeure clauses. However, “I’ve designed clauses that say if something unanticipated comes up that causes a significant percentage of attendees to note strong objections to the host group, the group can cancel or attrition will be waived,” Grimes says. “You’re not to get this with every hotel, but you need to ask for it. If you don’t ask you don’t get it.”

In ACPA-College Student Educators International’s case, their hotel didn’t charge penalties as long as they moved to a venue within the same chain. Members were not penalized for cancelling their rooms. They did have to pay rebooking fees for their airline tickets, but in some instances the association covered those costs.

Love remains an advocate for including discrimination and revised force majeure clause in contracts, and surveying members before issues arise to assess whether they’re supportive of avoiding states or companies that support particular policies. She also recommends communicating the association’s values to hotels, third-party site selection companies, and anyone else involved in choosing convention venues.

“Early and deeply, engage them on issues that matter to your population,” she says. “Make sure that’s part of the criteria they’re using in their search. They shouldn’t be bringing you a hotel group that has a history of excluding.”

Love also believes it may be necessary for associations to reconsider the criteria they use for site selection. “We’re used to picking locations based on whether it’s a destination, and asking questions like, Will our members enjoy the amenities?” she says. “Now we have to look much more deeply at questions like, Are our members going to feel safe? Are they going to be able to move around freely?” That may mean paying more for conference facilities, but if location will affect attendance, it may be worth it.

Open Carry and Other Gun Laws

Changes to gun laws in many states — and the controversy that’s caused — are causing some planners to create safety policies or educate members about local firearms regulations before traveling to meetings and conventions.

“Laws have expanded recently, meaning more states allow people to bring guns into public spaces,” Grimes says. Compounding concerns is that some states even allow weapons in bars and restaurants. “It creates more of an issue of liability,” he notes. “Liquor is a hard enough issue for the hospitality industry, and when you put guns into the mix, it gets worse.”

Associations concerned about weapons at events should first understand the gun laws in states where they’re hosting meetings. “When you’re meeting in a state that allows people to bring guns into a convention, you should think about whether your organization needs to create a ‘no guns’ policy, a ‘no concealed weapons’ policy, or a ‘no guns at events with alcohol’ policy,” Grimes says. “Whatever policy you create needs to be communicated to attendees so they know beforehand.”

Can you buck state law in creating your own policy? “It depends on the state,” Grimes says. “It may get tricky in states where there are very broad firearms laws. You may not be allowed to ban them outright, but you may be allowed to ask attendees to check them at the door. There’s always something you can do.” The policies you can create also depend on the venue, so check with them before making too many plans.

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) fielded regular inquiries about firearms laws in advance of its annual joint meeting with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Antonio in 2016. A large percentage of the membership is academics, says Executive Director Jack Fitzmier, and they tend to oppose expansion of guns laws in general. However, they were very concerned about recently passed laws that allowed for open carry on college campuses in Texas. Some members who believed the law would limit academic freedom vowed to boycott the San Antonio meeting in protest.

AAR and SBL issued an in-depth letter to members in advance of the meeting to educate them about concealed carry laws in San Antonio and beyond. “Everyone needs to recognize that the bulk of the states in the union provide for concealed carry, so people could have guns almost anywhere,” Fitzmier says. The letter provided a detailed description of the laws in San Antonio and Texas so people knew exactly what they were before attending the meeting.

The letter also helped communicate to members that the associations were working to keep the meeting as gun-free as possible. Because AAR and SBL were the only groups occupying a large atrium space at the local convention center, they were allowed to post signs stating that people were not allowed to bring firearms into the meeting.

One of the most helpful actions the associations took in advance of the gathering was meeting with the police officer in charge of the convention center district. “He told us that in the times he’d been around the convention center, he’d only on a few occasions seen someone with a weapon on their hip,” says Fitzmier. “The convention center wasn’t bristling with weapons — not that anyone thought that was the case. But it made us feel at ease.”

For associations considering a safety or no-firearms policy for a meeting, Fitzmier has this advice: “Consult your membership broadly and pay attention to concerns on either side. You should also get in touch with the CVB, and they can put you in touch with the appropriate people to learn more about local policies. We found the convention bureau and police department to be extremely helpful.”

On the other hand, if an association decides to allow guns, it’s important to discuss that with your insurance company. “I believe insurance premiums could be affected if you choose to allow firearms at your event,” Grimes says. He also strongly recommends barring guns from events with alcohol. “It’s just too risky,” he says. “It’s just like you wouldn’t let someone drink too much and drive.”

Disease Outbreaks/Public Health Problems

Recent concern over the Zika virus and its presence in Florida provides a good case study for what associations should do when a public health problem breaks out in a host community. Depending on the circumstances, it may not be necessary to cancel or reschedule a meeting even if frantic phone calls from members start pouring in.

“Our general recommendation is to give or direct people to the information they need and let them make their own decisions,” says Laurie Sherwood. She’s a partner at the California law firm Walsworth WFBM LLP who specializes in the travel, tourism and hospitality industry. “It’s not a good idea to keep information from travelers.” In the case of Zika, she recommends that clients share information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of State.

If enough people decide to withdraw from the meeting, work with hotels, airlines and other stakeholders to see what kinds of assistance they can provide. Hospitality industry partners often were able to help planners who had to postpone or cancel meetings due to the Zika outbreak, Sherwood says.

While associations can’t control what attendees do, they should be sensitive to whether or not staff members want to attend meetings in communities affected by public health issues. “It isn’t advisable to force employees to go,” Sherwood says. “It’s a workplace safety issue because the destination for the meeting becomes the temporary workplace.”

Legalized Recreational Marijuana

Recreational marijuana is now legal in seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia, and that’s leading to some new issues meeting planners have to consider.

“We’re seeing companies that will bring marijuana to your meeting, just like a bartender would bring alcohol,” says Grimes. “If you’re going to have an event where you specifically endorse using marijuana, you definitely need to talk to your insurance company and create parameters around it.” As is the case with alcohol, people who consume too much marijuana can create a liability for sponsoring organizations.

Even if the association doesn’t sanction marijuana use at a meeting, chances are some attendees will try it if given the opportunity. Associations are wise to make some effort to educate attendees about smart usage and good decision-making when impaired. Remind them to take taxis rather than driving, and to watch out for each other.


Sherwood reinforces the importance of understanding the legal issues around cybersecurity, particularly how to properly respond if attendees’ personal information is compromised.

“There are state and federal legal frameworks that govern personal data,” she says. “Companies need to make sure they’re familiar with those and complying.”

One of the most important things associations must do is have good plans in place for handling personal data. “It’s a good practice to have a plan for how you are storing and maintaining that information,” Sherwood says. “Have a policy to protect that information, and make sure the people who are gathering that data are using the proper systems.” If a third-party company is maintaining the data, make sure there’s language in the contract that indemnifies and holds the association harmless in case of a data breach.

There are many federal and state laws that regulate the collection and use of personal information. Some of these laws may require that companies have a plan for how they respond to data breaches and identify certain individuals to carry out the response plan. At the very least, having a data breach response plan is considered best practice for organizations that collect personal information.

A vital part of that response plan is how the association will inform people that their data has been stolen. For that reason, it’s important to keep a record of all personal details you’re collecting. Meeting attendees need to know exactly what information may have been stolen so they can take appropriate action.

Data breaches can lead to regulatory penalties and civil lawsuits. For that reason, some associations are considering cybersecurity insurance. The decision to purchase it should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Sherwood says. However, it may be most beneficial for associations that gather a high volume of sensitive information, such as credit cards, medical records and social security numbers; those that serve a large number of people; or associations with an unusually high risk of a cyberattack due to their industry.

Room Poaching, Other Housing Issues

Not all of the legal issues vexing meeting planners are of the headline-grabbing variety. Room poaching is still an issue in many cities. Room poaching happens when a third-party booking service — or an individual or group perpetrating a fraud — contacts conference attendees and offers to book their hotel room at a discount.

“There are several issues with this,” Grimes says. “First among them is that your attendees might not actually get the rooms they were promised. The caller might be a total fraud and not have anything to sell. Or they might sell rooms that aren’t part of room block. That means the association might not get credit for filling the room block.”

To avoid room poaching, make it very clear to attendees how they should book their rooms (and why alternatives may not be safe). If you’re utilizing a third-party booking service, make sure the name is clearly communicated; room poachers often have official-sounding titles like Housing Bureau. If attendees report room poaching, recommend that they call the hotel where they’ve booked a room to confirm they actually have a reservation, Grimes says. Then obtain as much information as possible about the offender and get in touch with them.

“Call them, send them a letter, or get a cease and desist order,” Grimes says. “Or work with the local convention and visitors bureau to get them to stop. A lot of times the same companies poach in the same cities, so the CVBs know about them. Ask if they can help you head off problems.”

Grimes cautions against ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away, especially if you always use the same convention city. “Chances are the issue is only going to get worse.”

The other housing-related issue facing planners is attendees booking accommodations through websites such as Airbnb. While there’s usually no legal issue for associations, many planners have found themselves dealing with upset convention attendees after their plans have gone awry.

“An Airbnb may not be in the location someone thinks it is, or it may not be clean,” Grimes says. “In New York, certain rentals are illegal, so your attendees could sign on and when they show up, they find they have nothing. When that happens, they go to the meeting planner and ask them to help.

“The bottom line for Airbnb is that if people are going to use it, there’s often a moral obligation for the planner to look into it and give attendees guidance about whether it makes sense for them,” Grimes continues. Helping attendees understand how to best use the service — and why staying at the convention hotel may make more sense — will help reduce headaches later on.

Independent Contracting, Employee Requirements

Independent contracting has become more of a hot-button issue as more associations contract out portions of their meeting planning or service provision. Independent contracting is regulated by state law. While most states have laws that are similar, there are nuances to them, so make sure you’re familiar with them before hiring contractors.

Generally, though, whether or not someone is an independent contractor has to do with how much control the association has over them, Sherwood says. “If a company hires someone to lead a tour or something, are they doing all or part of the trip? Are they using the company’s equipment to do their job? How much is the company directing them? How are they paying them?”

Just because a company plans to issue a 1099 to a service provider doesn’t necessarily mean a court will see that person as an independent contractor. There need to be other relevant indicators as well. “Across the board we find it more difficult to prevail when you’re trying to argue that someone is an independent contractor,” Sherwood says.

For employees, associations should consider issuing this reminder before people hit the road: “Keep in mind that employee issues, roles, policies and laws may still govern employment even if you’re not in your employment setting,” Sherwood says. “If your company has an employee handbook, company policies will generally still apply. All the general rules around employment, including sexual harassment, still apply.” AC&F 

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