As yoga continues to spread in the United States, legal issues confronting studio owners and teachers loom ever so larger. It’s crucial for studio owners and teachers to be aware of the responsibilities and risks surrounding their profession. Lawyer and yoga teacher Gary Kissiah represents both teachers and studio owners, counseling them on protecting themselves from trademark problems, liability lawsuits and more. Here, he details a few common issues facing studios and teachers today.
Tax liability: independent contractor or employee?
The problem: More often than not, teaching is a part-time gig. But even for those lucky full-timers, their classification as a worker by the studio can be confusing. Federal and state governments, including the Internal Revenue Service, require that studios properly characterize their teachers as either independent contractors or employees. More than two-dozen states and the IRS are cracking down and auditing businesses in an attempt to net some additional income for their governmental budgets. The fines are steep, and the penalties severe, if a studio is found to have mischaracterized its teachers as independent contractors rather than as employees.
The solution: Studio owners should draft clear, intelligible agreements for their teachers that establish the workers’ classification by meeting the independent contractor tests under both state and federal law. Check the state laws, which may differ from federal statutes. Make sure that as independent contractors, your teachers run independent businesses, have full control over their teaching responsibilities and expenses, and do not receive any employee-type benefits; this will draw a clear line. It is important that teachers submit invoices for the classes they teach.
Personal injury: protection from legal action
The problem: Though it’s rare, students can sue a studio and a yoga teacher for injuries suffered during a class, workshop or clinic. Firstly, because yoga continues to grow in popularity, personal injury lawyers see more and more opportunities to take on cases. Secondly, teacher training programs are also increasing across the world, resulting in an abundance of teachers. Many studios allow those new, inexperienced teachers to perform corrections, including being hands-on, opening the door to personal injury lawsuits
The solution: Implement policies and strategies to prevent and protect against such lawsuits. Craft a clear waiver form releasing the studio and its teachers from liability, including in classes, workshops, retreats, clinics and teacher trainings. (It’s very common for studios’ releases to exclude teachers.) Make sure your insurance covers your specific style of yoga; know the exclusions to your policy (e.g., some policies exclude partner and aerial yoga); and studios should carefully train teachers in order to minimize potential harm to students. Finally, all studios should run their business as a legal entity, like an LLC, to protect their personal assets.
Intellectual property: Use caution with trademarks, branding etc.
The problem: When opening new studios, rebranding with new logos, using music in class or even launching a new website, it’s crucial to make sure this doesn’t infringe on existing trademarks or copyrights. If it does violate someone else’s trademark or copyright, the studio owner could be subject to a cease-and-desist order and damages.
The solution: Use the free federal trademark search database “Trademark Electronic Search System” at tess2.uspto.gov to find out if anyone has registered a trademark in your name or brand. Also, use search engines to see if anyone is using your name or brand. For music or photo use, make sure you have explicit permission from the author or photographer, or make sure it’s public domain and free to use.
Find out more about yoga law when Gary Kissiah presents at the Yoga Journal LIVE conference in San Francisco on Thursday, January 16, 2014, from 2:45 p.m. to 4 p.m.. Purchase his books offering extensive legal information at garykissiah.com/books.