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5 Delaware Lawyers Reveal the Hottest Topics on the State's Legal Scene

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Lori Brewington • Senior Attorney at Richards, Layton & Finger

Wilmington
Specialty: Labor Law
Hot Topic: Workplace Sexual Harassment

The #MeToo movement is hitting Delaware. The state’s new sexual harassment law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020. New guidelines strengthen Delaware’s existing laws and expand federal protections, making this state’s antiharassment statutes among the toughest in the country. “It’s an exciting time and real change is happening,” says Lori Brewington, senior attorney with Richards, Layton & Finger.

Delaware’s new law requires mandatory sexual harassment education for companies with 50 or more employees. “There has to be interactive training with employees and a supervisor component,” Brewington explains. “Delaware is one of only six states that mandates that training component, which even federal law doesn’t do.” Delaware’s law also protects unpaid interns, which federal law does not, and defines harassment and retaliation.

“If you’re being harassed, who do you contact besides the company’s internal HR person?” Brewington asks. “What are you entitled to under the law if you’ve been harassed? These are great questions and important conversations.”

Brewington credits the #MeToo movement with sparking these changes and others still to come. She cites statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reporting that, from 2017 to 2018, the EEOC had a 50 percent increase in lawsuits challenging sexual harassment.

Brewington is already hard at work on what may be the next hot topic in labor law: marijuana use in the workplace. “Employees can’t be discriminated against if they are legal card holders, but employers have concerns if you are under the influence and impaired at work,” she explains.

Lori Brewington, Senior Attorney at Richards, Layton & Finger in Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography

Gretchen Knight, Partner at Morris James Attorneys-at-Law in Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography

Gretchen Knight • Partner at Morris James Attorneys-at-Law

Based in Wilmington with practices throughout Delaware
Specialty: Family Law
Hot Topic: Same-Sex Divorce

“Divorce is divorce, except when it’s not.” That’s how Gretchen Knight, a partner with Morris James, explains the evolving case law surrounding same-sex divorce. An unfortunate but not surprising outgrowth of same-sex marriages, these divorces can get dicey around the issue of equitable division of assets. “Often times, same-sex couples were together for many years before same-sex marriage was legalized and they got married,” Knight explains. “Because the laws are relatively new, we’re dealing with distinctions between assets acquired while they were a couple but before they were legally married.”

Those assets include houses, money, artwork and other significant purchases. “Recently, there has been some attempt to address property acquired in contemplation of marriage,” Knight says. “Otherwise, we deal with it either by negotiating or by addressing it in another court.”

Custody arrangements can also be difficult. In same-sex divorces, one person may be a biological parent while the other adopted the children. Delaware law “now recognizes children born during a same-sex marriage as the children of both parties, regardless of whether there was a formal adoption and despite the possible absence of any biological connection,” Knight says. “Both parties to a marriage that produces a child have custodial rights.” 

Gary Linarducci, Senior Partner at Linarducci Law in New Castle, Delaware

Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography

Gary Linarducci • Senior Partner at Linarducci Law

New Castle
Specialty: Social Security and Disability
Hot Topic: Social Security Solvency

Gary Linarducci wants to set the record straight about Social Security. Contrary to claims by many politicians and pundits, the Social Security fund will not run out of money. “Social Security has a date when it will stop paying full benefits,” explains Linarducci, a senior partner with Linarducci Law. “It’s easy for Congress to move that date to keep Social Security solvent, so that’s more of a political issue than a financial issue.”

In fact, Linarducci believes Social Security has worked “extremely well” since it was created. “It really is a lifeline for many people, and it will be increasingly important because we don’t have the pension system that we used to,” he says. People don’t stay in jobs for 30 years, nor do they save as they did in previous generations. Linarducci believes that younger people are not expecting to get anything from Social Security when they retire, but he thinks otherwise. “I’m optimistic that the fund will be there in the future, especially because they are paying into it,” he says.

Disability is another hot topic, mostly because new judges have been appointed and Delaware courts are getting out from under a backlog of cases. “We had a nationally low approval rating [on disability cases], but now we have new administrative law judges and Delaware’s approval rating has risen significantly,” Linarducci says.

Nina Pappouli, Partner at Gregory & Pappoulis​ in Wilmington, Dover and Millsboro, Delaware

Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography

Nina Pappoulis • Partner at Gregory & Pappoulis​

Wilmington, Dover and Millsboro​
Specialty: Personal Bankruptcy
Hot Topic: Student Loan Debt Forgiveness

The soaring cost of higher education is a national issue playing out in Delaware bankruptcy courts, says Nina Pappoulis, a partner with Gregory & Pappoulis. Many college students graduate with an overwhelming amount of loans they must repay on a tight schedule. It’s a widespread problem in Delaware, Pappoulis says, and getting out from under that financial burden isn’t easy. Even declaring personal bankruptcy doesn’t resolve the debt. “In order for debtors to have forgiveness as part of filing, they’d have to submit a complaint against the student loan company,” she explains. “As it stands, a debtor has to meet a three-prong test to qualify for student loan debt forgiveness, and it is a difficult burden to meet.”

Federal bankruptcy code governs student loan debt, and only the president and Congress can change its structure. That’s why student loan debt is a hot topic for the 2020 presidential race. Pappaoulis can’t evaluate the likelihood of student loan debt reform, but she does say that two bankruptcy judges were just added to the district of Delaware. “Local judges can’t change federal law, but they rule on the individual cases,” Pappaoulis says.

College loans aren’t the only debts that lead people to declare personal bankruptcy. In fact, Pappaoulis says those loans aren’t even in the top three contributors. No. 1 is medical bills. “More than 95 percent of people filing for personal bankruptcy have suffered medical injury or illness,” Pappaoulis says. Unemployment and divorce rank second and third respectively. Sometimes, two or three of those components combine. “It’s unfortunate, but we hope to guide them through the process and support them,” she says.

F. Michael Parkowski, Senior Partner at Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze in Dover, Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington, Delaware

Photo by Justin Heyes, Moonloop Photography

F. Michael Parkowski • Senior Partner at Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze

Dover, Rehoboth Beach, Wilmington
Specialty: Environmental Law
Hot Topic: Clean Water Rule

Wetlands may not seem like the hottest legal topic, but protecting them, and the rest of the environment, will certainly be an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. That’s because the Trump Administration made significant changes to the Environmental Protection Agency, including the recent repeal of the Clean Water Rule, instituted in 2015 under President Barack Obama. Distinguishing federal wetland from state wetlands is one of the contentious issues. “There’s been quite a bit of federal and state regulation of wetlands,” explains F. Michael Parkowski, senior partner with Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze. “The Clean Water Rule had an expansive impact on land use. The question is which laws—federal or state—govern which waterways.” Delaware doesn’t have jurisdiction over freshwater wetlands, only over tidal wetlands, Parkowski says, so what takes place on federal level has a lot of significance.

State laws are also being modified. Parkowski says the Delaware Coastal Zone Act has undergone changes for the first time in many years. “Many companies grandfathered into the act are no longer in existence, so the focus of the amendments is to find ways to use those properties if they’ve been cleaned up and remediated,” he explains.

Environmental remediation is making strides in Delaware thanks to state legislation that governs Superfund sites. “We have a good bit of commercial development that includes cleanup of sites that would otherwise be wastelands,” Parkowski says.

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