A couple of interesting things caught my eye about an otherwise garden-variety lawsuit brought by a dissident LLC member in which Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Stephen A. Bucaria issued a decision earlier this month granting a motion to reargue and reinstating the previously dismissed complaint asserting that the controlling members withheld the plaintiff’s pro rata share of distributions.
First, the prior order of dismissal last July in Webster v Forest Hills Care Center LLC (read here) was another in a series of rulings by Justice Bucaria, which I highlighted on this blog a year ago, in which he dismissed lawsuits asserting various and sundry claims among co-owners of close corporations and LLCs while granting leave to file either a new action or an amended pleading seeking judicial dissolution. Justice Bucaria based these rulings on the ancient principle of partnership law barring “piecemeal” adjudications among “squabbling” partners and requiring them, as stated by the Court of Appeals in Gramercy Equities Corp. v Dumont, 72 NY2d 560 , either to “settle their own differences amicably or dissolve and finally conclude their affairs by a full accounting.”
The plaintiff in Webster, a 15% member of two affiliated LLCs that own and operate a nursing home, declined the invitation to sue for dissolution. Instead, she filed a motion asking Justice Bucaria to reconsider and to vacate his dismissal order on the ground that he had “misunderstood” her claims seeking an accounting and damages for withheld distributions (read complaint here) and that, contrary to the court’s characterization of her position, she had not argued that the LLCs were unable to carry on their business in accordance with the operating agreements. The plaintiff disavowed any intention, desire, or grounds to dissolve the LLCs and argued that the partnership rule reflected in Gramercy Equities does not apply to LLCs. Continue Reading
New York and most other states have judicial dissolution statutes protecting minority shareholders in close corporations against “oppressive actions” by controlling shareholders and directors. In many of those states, including New York, courts define oppression as conduct that defeats the minority shareholder’s “reasonable expectations.” The reasonable-expectations standard necessarily is a flexible one that allows courts to address the myriad circumstances under which minority shareholders, who generally lack exit rights and whose shares have no public market, face squeeze-out or freeze-out by the majority.
If I had to describe the classic case of minority shareholder oppression, it would be (1) an owner-operated business (2) that pays no stock dividends (3) in which the majority shareholder terminates the minority shareholder’s employment (4) thereby cutting off the minority shareholder’s sole source of economic benefits in the form of salary and bonus (5) while also removing the minority shareholder from the board of directors (6) thereby depriving the minority shareholder of any voice in company management.
I’ve pretty much just described the circumstances present in Matter of Digeser v Flach, 2015 NY Slip Op 51609(U) [Sup Ct Albany County Nov. 5, 2015], a post-trial decision handed down earlier this month by Albany County Commercial Division Justice Richard M. Platkin in which the court concluded that the petitioning minority shareholder established grounds for dissolution of two affiliated construction companies. Continue Reading
A bitter feud among third-generation owners of a family business has yielded a notable court decision upholding the plaintiff’s standing to seek common-law dissolution and to assert shareholder derivative claims in the face of the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s shares automatically were redeemed by operation of the shareholders’ agreement upon the termination by the defendants of the plaintiff’s husband’s employment.
Sounds complicated? Not really.
Queens County Commercial Division Justice Duane A. Hart’s decision in Berger v Friedman, Short Form Order, Index No. 702322/15 [Sup Ct Queens County Oct. 27, 2015], centers on a wholesale distributor of electrical parts and equipment founded in 1945 by the grandparents of the three sibling litigants who each acquired a one-third interest from their parents in 1993. The siblings entered into a shareholders agreement (read here) naming each of them as an officer and director, requiring their unanimous consent for specified “major actions,” and defining a series of trigger events compelling stock redemption at a defined purchase price and on specified terms. Continue Reading
When it comes to LLC jurisprudence, equity’s on a roll.
A few major examples come to mind: the recent Carlisle case in which the Delaware Court of Chancery enforced “equitable dissolution” of an LLC upon the petition of the assignee of a membership interest who lacked standing under the dissolution statute; the Mizrahi case in which a New York appellate panel ordered an “equitable buy-out” of a 50% LLC member upon petition by the other 50% member in the absence of a statutory buy-out remedy; the Gottlieb decision in which another New York appellate panel gave birth to common-law “equitable accounting” claims.
Add to the growing list of equity-driven rulings for these contract-centric creatures of statute an unpublished decision last week by a New Jersey intermediate appellate court in All Saints University of Medicine Aruba v Chilana, No. A-2425-13T1 [N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 27, 2015], directing the lower court on remand to consider ordering a forced sale of a dissociated LLC member’s interest as a “common law equitable remedy” for “common law breaches of duty” notwithstanding the appellate court’s recognition that neither the applicable dissociation statute nor the LLC’s operating agreement authorized a compulsory sale. Continue Reading
This week I’m departing from my usual, case-focused, long-form post due to time constraints of an impending trial. Instead, I’m putting a well-deserved spotlight on two recently published articles of special interest to business divorce practitioners.
The first concerns one of my favorite topics, on which I’ve written several posts (here, here, here, and here), about whether the courts of one state have subject matter jurisdiction over involuntary dissolution petitions for a business entity formed in another state. The article, entitled Judicial Dissolution: Are the Courts of the State that Brought You In the Only Courts that Can Take You Out?, is co-authored by Peter B. Ladig and Kyle Evans Gay and is published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Business Lawyer (available here).
Ladig and his firm, Morris James LLP, represented one of the members of a Philadelphia-based newspaper publishing company organized as a Delaware LLC in a recent, high-profile dissolution case that initially played out as a game of jurisdictional ping-pong between the Pennsylvania and Delaware courts. Ultimately the Pennsylvania court sided with Ladig’s client and ruled against its own jurisdiction, allowing the case to proceed unobstructed in the Delaware Court of Chancery. It therefore comes as no surprise that Ladig’s thoroughly researched, scholarly article strongly supports the argument against subject matter jurisdiction to dissolve foreign business entities. Continue Reading
A self-described “world-renowned Neapolitan pizza chef” won a round in court earlier this month in a dispute with his business partner over control of a popular pizzeria located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The court’s opinion by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice O. Peter Sherwood in Manzella v Caporuscio, 2015 NY Slip Op 31870(U)[Sup Ct NY County Oct. 6, 2015], granted summary judgment for the chef/majority member on his counterclaim against the minority member for breach of fiduciary duty and modified a prior Consent Order to authorize termination of the minority member’s employment for cause.
The case involves a Greenwich Village restaurant called Keste Pizza and Vino founded in 2009 by pizza chef Roberto Caporuscio. Since 2012 the business is co-owned by Caporuscio and Sandra Manzella as 55% and 45% members, respectively, of Keste Group LLC. Keste has a fairly standard operating agreement for member-managed LLCs, giving Caporuscio as majority member the controlling vote with a few exceptions requiring unanimous consent such as the admission of a new member.
Keste’s operating agreement (read here) doesn’t mention much less guarantee a member’s “employment” by the LLC. What it does say — which apparently stiffened spines on both sides in the lead-up to litigation — is that “[n]otwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in the provisions of this Agreement, the Members agree that Caporuscio and Manzella shall have primary responsibility for running the day-to-day operations of the Company” (¶ 4.1). Continue Reading
A post I wrote two years ago referred to the limited partnership as “the dinosaur of business forms in New York” destined for “virtual extinction” due to New York’s outmoded partnership laws coupled with the meteoric rise of the limited liability company. As the years roll by, the limited partnership’s obsolescence is especially pronounced for those governed by New York’s Uniform Limited Partnership Act of 1922 (“NYULPA”) codified in Article 8 of the New York Partnership Law, applicable to limited partnerships formed prior to, and exempted from, the New York Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act of 1991 (“NYRULPA”) codified in Article 8-A of the Partnership Law.
The rarity of new business divorce cases involving NYULPA-governed limited partnerships makes it all the more intriguing when one comes along, as happened earlier this month in a case called Doppelt v. Smith, 2015 NY Slip Op 31861(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 1, 2015], decided by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten.
Doppelt doesn’t disappoint, thanks to its holding that a provision in a limited partnership agreement, authorizing voluntary dissolution upon the majority vote of the limited partners, precluded the plaintiff’s claims seeking judicial (involuntary) dissolution. Although neither the court nor the parties labeled it as such, and while the defendant in his briefs referred to plaintiff’s lack of “capacity” to seek judicial dissolution, I believe a more apt description of the court’s holding is that, effectively, it enforced a contractual waiver of the limited partner’s statutory right to seek judicial dissolution. Continue Reading
I’m pleased to publicize three upcoming continuing education programs of special interest to business divorce practitioners, business appraisers, and the broader universe of lawyers and other professionals interested in the myriad issues concerning limited liability companies and related unincorporated business entities.
The LLC Institute. The first one, which I’ll be attending but not presenting at as I did last year, is the 4th annual meeting of the LLC Institute, a two-day program being held on November 12 and 13, 2015, at the Le Meridien Arlington and Waterview Conference Center in Arlington, Virginia. The LLC Institute is sponsored by the LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities Committee of the American Bar Association under the leadership of Committee Chair Thomas Rutledge who has put together an exciting program for this year’s meeting, with something for everyone who practices in the field.
The LLC Institute’s program reflects the Committee’s mission to be the pre-eminent annual gathering of academic and practicing attorneys for the exchange of ideas and information on what is now the dominant organizational form, the LLC, as well as related developments in the law of related business organizations. The gathering’s aim is to provide practical insight and guidance as to the law of LLCs as well as the place of the LLC in related fields such as securities regulation, the Uniform Commercial Code, taxation, and bankruptcy. Continue Reading
Presently fourteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (2006). RULLCA legislation is pending in three other states. Regrettably, New York is not one of them.
One of RULLCA’s innovative features, carried over from the original Uniform LLC Act (1996), is its provision in Section 602(6) authorizing judicial expulsion (“dissociation”) of a member who:
(A) has engaged, or is engaging, in wrongful conduct that has adversely and materially affected, or will adversely and materially affect, the company’s activities;
(B) has willfully or persistently committed, or is willfully and persistently committing, a material breach of the operating agreement or the person’s duties or obligations under Section 409; or
(C) has engaged in, or is engaging, in conduct relating to the company’s activities which makes it not reasonably practicable to carry on the activities with the person as a member.
New Jersey adopted RULLCA effective March 2013 for all new LLCs and made applicable to all existing New Jersey LLCs as of March 2014. However, even before adopting RULLCA, New Jersey’s previous LLC Act included a provision substantially mirroring RULLCA’s Section 602(6). Continue Reading
The Delaware Supreme Court last week refused to rehear its affirmance of Chancery Court’s post-trial decision in a case called Zutrau v Jansing. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court last May affirmed a post-trial decision in a closely related case involving the same parties. The two appellate decisions effectively close out a tenaciously fought, seven-year litigation saga involving a minority shareholder’s largely unsubstantiated, multi-faceted attack on the majority shareholder’s management and financial stewardship of a small, New York-based Delaware corporation specializing in proxy servicing.
The litigation history includes an initial books-and-records proceeding in New York followed by serial suits in New York and Delaware asserting a variety of claims for unlawful termination of the minority shareholder’s employment; direct and derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract; and a challenge to the validity and fairness of a reverse stock split that cashed out at fair value the minority stockholder’s shares while litigation was pending concurrently in New York and Delaware courts. [Disclosure: The defendants are clients of my firm which served as co-counsel in the New York litigation and acted as lead counsel in connection with the reverse stock split.]
The case spawned a plethora of pretrial motions, lengthy trials in New York Supreme Court and Delaware Chancery Court, and appeals in both jurisdictions. Ultimately, the courts rejected the plaintiff’s claims for unlawful termination of her employment and contract breach, rejected the bulk of her claims against the majority shareholder for breach of fiduciary duty, upheld the validity of the reverse stock split, and upheld the company’s fair value appraisal with modest adjustments. Continue Reading