Ethics and Weddings

I was contacted yesterday afternoon by a local television reporter about La Renaissance, a local banquet hall that is facing foreclosure but has allegedly continued to take deposits from its customers.  Some of these customers have weddings scheduled to take place after the hall is scheduled to be sold at auction.  The auction was supposed to take place a few weeks ago but was postponed due to the blizzard.  

Was it unfair for a banquet hall facing foreclosure to continue to accept deposits from customers?  I was interviewed on camera [here’s a link to the story] and was asked that question.  I am shown saying that it is unfair and deceptive for a business to take deposits from unknowing customers on the eve of foreclosure and that this conduct violates consumer protection laws.  That was a fair representation of my answer to the question, but I did have more to say on the subject than depicted.

As someone who started a small business, I understand the pressures that businesses can face.  The only chance that a struggling business has to survive is to get more customers and to bring in more money.  An ethical business should be concerned with multiple constituencies.  Yes, its customers are important, perhaps even paramount.  But, businesses should also be concerned about employees who depend upon a paycheck. Many of those employees have families, and a business should be concerned about them as well.  A struggling banquet hall probably has creditors that are owed money, and these creditors likely include other small businesses such as food vendors, cleaning companies, and landscapers.  Those companies also have employees with families.  So, there is nothing unethical about a small business struggling to keep things afloat.

But, there comes a point when a rational business owner must acknowledge that the situation is not salvageable.  There is something seriously wrong with continuing to take deposits from customers when there is no reasonable hope that a business can deliver what has been promised.   The situation with La Renaissance is particularly sad, because some of these customers are young couples planning their weddings.  I do not know the details of these transactions, but I fear that the outcome will not be good.

Buy Local/Fair Trade Speaker – Dan Finn

Local Fair Trade

The Buy Local and Fair Trade movements help local businesses, improve local economies, and promote economic justice and sustainability.  Anyone interested in learning more is invited to to the Humanist Association of CT’s monthly dinner series event tomorrow, Feb. 26. Our guest speaker will be Dan Finn, Director of Pioneer Valley Local First.   We will be at the Wood-N-Tap in Rocky Hill.  All are welcome, and attendees are encouraged (but not required) to respond via Meetup.

Leave Brittney Alone!

Griner blocks UConn guard Bria Hartley

( John Woike, Hartford Courant / November 16, 2010 )

UConn fans have been waiting for tonight’s game against Baylor – the last time that dominant center Brittney Griner will be coming to Connecticut.  Today’s article by John Altavilla in the Hartford Courant touches upon something that has been bothering me for some time.  There have been more than a few cruel comments on social media about Ms. Griner, and I wish the assholes doing this would knock it off.  I came across an excellent blog post in Fit and Feminist: The Misgendering of Brittney Griner.  The blogger, who is identified as “Caitlin”, writes:

I’m not going to repeat the things I saw about Brittney Griner; I’ll leave that to your imagination.  I will say that I find our culture’s ongoing obsession with policing gender completely baffling, and the misgendering of Griner is no exception.

In case you are not familiar with Griner, she’s the totally sensational junior who plays for the Baylor Bears.  She’s 6’8″, has a wingspan that is wider than most people are tall, she dunks hard and blocks like a wall, and has been noted for her androgynous looks.  She also happens to have a pretty deep voice.

Thus, her detractors say, she must be a man!

Of course, you don’t have to have a long memory to recall just how many times a similar criticism – that a woman is a man, is a lesbian or is a doper or is just a plain freak – has been leveled at a woman who dominates her sport.

It is a shame that society scores masculinity and femininity by how far an individual’s physical traits differ from the typical traits of the opposite sex.  Most women athletes don’t look to be judged for their femininity, and no civil society should countenance this crap.  Griner is a spectacular athlete who is changing the way the woman’s game is played.

I just hope she doesn’t change it too much tonight!


Darwin Day Screen Shot

Channel 12 was good enough to cover the Darwin Day Dinner sponsored last night by the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism for Fairfield County and other organizations.  This screen shot shows a stylish Australopithecus couple immediately above a news stream: “Vatican says conclave to elect new pope could be held earlier in March.”

Synchronicity is the experience of observing two causally unrelated events and perceiving them as related. A famous example is watching the Wizard of Oz while listening to Dark Side of the Moon – If you haven’t tried “Dark Side of the Rainbow, check it out.  Darwin’s theory has much to say about why we see connections in unrelated things.  MIchael Shermer’s book and Ted Talk are good places to  learn more.  Sometimes, though, it is better to just enjoy synchronicity’s fruit!

Why Do We Celebrate Darwin Day?


Charles Darwin’s birthday is today – February 12.  It is a big deal among the science and humanist communities.  Local groups in Fairfield County hold an annual banquet  to honor the event (rescheduled to Feb 16 due to the storm – you can still register).

The International Darwin Day Foundation’s website has a good explanation for why we celebrate Darwin’s Birthday on or around February 12:

Charles Darwin as a Symbol for the Celebration of Science and Humanity

Celebrations are an important part of every culture. They provide a tradition and a common bond to be shared among those who make up their culture, permitting them to experience a meaningful connection to one another and to the principles to which they subscribe. Unfortunately, most celebrations are based on ancient traditions that are relevant to only a specific country or culture, and they have often been, and continue to be, the source of serious conflicts.

At this juncture in history, the world has become so small and interdependent that we need a Global Celebration to promote a common bond among all people. The Darwin Day Celebration was founded on the premise that science, like music, is an international language that speaks to all people in very similar ways. While music is both intellectual and entertaining, science is our most reliable knowledge system, and it has been and continues to be acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity. Moreover, evolution via genetic variation and natural selection, introduced by Darwin, has become the central organizing principle in biology. In addition, evolution also plays a central role in astronomy and cosmology, where it refers to the way that stars, galaxies and the entire universe ‘change over time.’ To study biology while neglecting evolution would be like studying physics without Newton’s laws that govern the universe or chemistry without the periodic table. Clearly, Darwin himself has become an internationally acclaimed figure, whose influence on progressive modern thought continues to be both profound and pervasive (Ernst Mayr, Darwin’s Influence on Modern Thought, Scientific American, July 2000).

Current research in the field of genetics, including that on the human genome, has conclusively shown that all humans are essentially identical and that we are genetically related to all other living things on this planet. Thus an enlightened view of genetics is one of unity and equality among all humans and also one that fosters a deeper sense of respect and appreciation for all life. Today the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rests in our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of genetics. Therefore, we conclude that Charles Darwin is a worthy symbol on which to focus, in order to build a Global Celebration of Science and Humanity that is intended to promote a common bond among all people of the earth.

Phil Plait, the “Bad Astronomer” on Slate, suggests celebrating Darwin Day by making a contribution to the National Center for Science Education.  Great idea!

Happy Darwin Day!

32 Inches of Bliss

taken from our front door

taken from our front door

This was a historic blizzard, and all we had was a busted snow blower. Linda and I ventured out Saturday morning to combat 32 inches of fluffy obstruction with hand shovels. She kept a close eye on me, mentioning the phrase “heart attack” more than once. After about an hour, we had made noticeable but minimal progress. Then, salvation arrived with a glorious frozen white plume. Aldo, our next door neighbor, approached with a snow blower that could easily steal my broken contraption’s lunch money.

He attacked our driveway and walks with precision. I was not an idle spectator; removal of snow that high is a two person operation. I used the shovel to move snow into a cleared path. In this way, we managed to clear everything in a little over an hour. I thanked him profusely, and he was very gracious about it. I did, however, hear that phrase “heart attack” again. I suppose people will have that concern when they see a plus-sized, middle-aged man lifting epic quantities of snow with a shovel.

Yesterday morning, I saw Dan, another neighbor, struggling to clear his driveway with his snow blower. I was happy to have an opportunity to “pay it forward”, and I climbed over the more than 5 foot pile left by a city plow at the foot of his driveway. Together, we cleared him out. A short time later, I noticed that another neighbor, Dave, was struggling to remove snow with his snow blower. So, I again trudged through waist high snow to help him. After we cleared his walk and a fire hydrant along the way, we noticed that his next door neighbors had not yet touched their driveway. They were in Florida and not returning until Wednesday. So, Dave and I cleared their driveway and walkway. As we finished, I told Dave how grateful I was that he had contributed his snow blower to that task. “Yeah”, he responded, “and it feels good to help out.” Yep.

The house shown in the photo is typical of the homes on my street. Neighborhoods like mine with big houses and large yards can be isolating. It is a sad irony that, as many achieve success, they buy large homes in the belief that they will find greater happiness, even though one of the keys to happiness is belonging to a close community. The great thing about historic blizzards is that they provide opportunities to help and to be helped. What a great weekend!

If anyone is annoyed because they were misled by this entry’s title, shame on you! But, rather than disappoint completely, here’s something that is both educational and more in line with what you were seeking.

Psychic Fraud

New York police are going to war with “psychic” Sylvia Mitchell. The NY Times reports that Mitchell stole $28,000 from one client and managed to take $120,000 from a second. The second victim also claims that Mitchell convinced her to leave the country.

In their most benevolent form, so-called psychics provide entertainment, and the only harm is the price of admission. All too often, however, vulnerable people are duped into paying high fees in the futile hope of obtaining “spiritual” guidance or contacting departed loved ones. This is when cheap entertainment crosses the line into a con job. The main difference between Sylvia Mitchell’s alleged crimes and what happens every day in storefront medium shops nationwide is that Mitchell had wealthier “clients”.

Perhaps some of these “practitioners” believe the nonsense that they sell, but there are no documented cases of anyone having psychic powers. Anyone who thinks that they can prove otherwise should claim their million dollar prize from James Randi.

The hard question is how to protect vulnerable consumers without unduly restricting people’s right to spend their money on foolishness or restricting their right to believe whatever they wish. It seems that state consumer protection departments could require so-called psychics, mediums, and spiritual advisors to be registered. No, we don’t want to license them, because licensing connotes some level of competence or skill in a recognized trade or profession. Registered psychics could be required to give written disclosures advising clients that there is no scientific evidence that psychics possess supernatural powers and that their services are for entertainment purposes only. The disclosures could also caution against requests for additional payments for more in-depth services or advice. Departments of consumer protection could then receive complaints and refer con artists for prosecution.

Could psychics continue to make a living if they were regulated? How should I know – I don’t have a crystal ball! But, if they could not, that might not be a bad thing for consumers.


Debt Collector Harassment

Phone call - collector

I was interviewed in a news story that aired last night about aggressive debt collection practices. Part of my law practice includes suing debt collectors that violate the law. Examples of illegal conduct include making threats to arrest the debtor, harassing the debtor at work, and discussing the debt with the debtor’s family and neighbors.

Many within the debt-collection industry complain that these lawsuits are brought by greedy lawyers who are just looking for fees. Although there are doubtless some lawyers who fit that description, most consumer lawyers perform a vital public service in bringing these cases.

Connecticut along has over 900 licensed debt collectors who operate in our state. That number does not include the “debt buyers”, who buy defaulted accounts for purposes of trying to collect them. Although state and federal agencies can enforce the laws that prohibit aggressive harassment, the marketplace is just too big for them to tackle the problem: collectors and debt-buyers make over one billion contacts with debtors annually.*

In order to supplement public enforcement by the government, the debt collection laws encourage consumers to bring private lawsuits – and they encourage attorneys to represent the consumers. That way, the consumers can enforce the laws themselves by hiring private attorneys who can get paid by the collectors if a violation is proven. The possibility of these lawsuits provides an incentive for collectors and debt-buyers to play by the rules.

Imagine a scenario where there were no private lawsuits and there was little risk of negative consequences for breaking the rules. A debtor might have $1,000 that could be used to pay her debts. If she owed $2,000 to each of five different creditors, she might pay $200 to each of them. Or, perhaps she’d pay it all to the creditor that charged the highest interest rate. The important thing is that, if all of the collectors play by the rules, then they each have a fair shot at collecting some of the money. But, if one of the collectors starts harassing the debtor and makes her life a living hell, she might decide to give all of the money to the rule-breaker just to stop the harassment. The honest collectors that complied with the law get nothing. These laws don’t just protect consumers; they also protect honest and ethical businesses by preventing the rule-breakers from gaining an unfair advantage.

Yes, people who owe a debt should repay what they owe (although there are many justifications not to pay a debt – perhaps a topic for another day). But, debtors are people, and they should be treated with decency and respect.

*U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Credit Cards: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act Could Better Reflect the Evolving Debt Collection Marketplace and Use of Technology,” GAO-09-748, September 2009, p. 35.

Boy Scouts of America in Identity Crisis

The Boy Scouts of America have decided to defer a decision on whether to change their longstanding ban on gays. Seems that pressure from troops sponsored by conservative religious groups has had the desired effect.  The Supreme Court has held that, as a private organization, BSA is free to exclude gays from its ranks. Yet, BSA continues to receive special government benefits in terms of access to public land and buildings, transportation by military, and Eagle Scouts who enter the military service start out at a higher compensation level.  So, the government is complicit in this discrimination.

Public opinion has shifted against the ban, with a solid majority favoring the inclusion of gays and minorities.  BSA was feeling the economic impact of that shift, as benefactors are starting to withhold support in protest.  So, BSA leadership tried to walk the tightrope and implement a new policy that permitted troops to exclude gays without requiring them to do so.  It wasn’t enough for many troops sponsored by conservative Christian churches, that they could continue to discriminate; they want all gays out of all troops   Some have threatened to leave BSA to form a Christian scouting organization.

And, as usual, practically nobody even mentions that BSA continues to ban atheists and agnostics who refuse to swear an oath to do their duty to God, denying many the benefits of scouting.

I’ve said before that BSA is, overall, a wonderful program that teaches wonderful values to boys.  I have coached kids who have been involved in scouting, some of whom have become Eagle Scouts, and they are without exception outstanding young men with whom I have been proud to associate.  I also have good friends who were scouts as kids and who have remained active volunteers, and I know that they are doing wonderful work and are improving our community as a result.

But, I am saddened when I see children dragged into protests that espouse hateful messages.  BSA is facing an identity crisis, and it may not survive as a unified organization.  The tragedy is that children and young men are the primary victims of the inability of “adults” to adjust to a pluralistic society.

photo from NY Times

Connecticut Considers Assisted Suicide Law

My friend Doug Peary testified yesterday at the Connecticut legislature in support of a proposed assisted suicide law.  Doug has had to watch his father, his sister, and his wife endure end of life suffering due to illness.  He spoke in favor of a proposed law that would permit physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to mentally competent patients who are in great pain and who do not have long to live.

No person should have to endure great pain, and no person should be forced to watch their loved ones suffer.  If you live in Connecticut and you agree, contact your legislators and let them know!