NewYorkCourtofAppealsIn a controversial ruling last year in Congel v Malfitano, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed and modified in part a post-trial judgment against a former 3.08% partner in a general partnership that owns an interest in a large shopping mall, and who unilaterally gave notice of dissolution, finding that

  • the partnership had a definite term and was not at-will for purposes of voluntary dissolution under Partnership Law § 62 (1) (b) based on the partnership agreement’s provisions authorizing dissolution by majority vote, notwithstanding a 2013 ruling by the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court) in Gelman v Buehler holding that “definite term” as used in the statute is durational and “refers to an identifiable terminate date” requiring “a specific or even a reasonably certain termination date”;
  • the former partner’s unilateral notice of dissolution therefore was wrongful; and
  • having wrongfully dissolved the partnership and upon the continuation of its business by the other partners, under Partnership Law § 69 (2) (c) (II) the amount to be paid to the former partner for the value of his interest properly reflected a 15% reduction for the partnership’s goodwill value, a 35% marketability discount, a whopping 66% minority discount, and a further deduction for damages consisting of the other partners’ litigation expenses over $1.8 million including statutory interest.

The Appellate Division’s decision, which I wrote about here, and the former partner’s subsequent application for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, which you can read here, reveal, to say the least, a remarkable result: the former partner, whose partnership interest had a stipulated topline value over $4.8 million, ended up with a judgment against him and in favor of the other partners for over $900,000.

But the story’s not over. Last week, the Court of Appeals issued an order granting the former’s partner’s motion for leave to appeal. Sometime later this year, the Court of Appeals will hear argument in its magnificent courtroom pictured above and issue a decision in the Congel case which likely will have important ramifications for partnership law whatever the outcome. Continue Reading Court of Appeals to Decide Controversial Partnership Dissolution Case

Litigating

There’s little doubt in my mind that “business divorce” has achieved name recognition as a distinct subgenre of commercial litigation whose regular practitioners, by dint of experience dealing in and out of court with the many and varied legal and practical issues arising from dysfunctional family and non-family owned closely-held businesses, offer clients a level of expertise not shared by civil litigation generalists.

I like to think that my blog, in its tenth year and still chugging along, has contributed to the enhanced recognition along with the efforts of a small but growing cadre of fellow bloggers, contributors of articles in legal publications, and speakers at bar association programs and business valuation seminars.

Now, with the publication of a smartly constructed and well-written treatise called Litigating the Business Divorce (Bloomberg BNA 2016), the law practice of business divorce truly has come of age.

LBD, as I’ll call it, is the fruit of a two-year project led by contributing editors Kurt Heyman and Melissa Donimirski in collaboration with an all-star cast of contributing authors. Kurt is a partner and Melissa a senior associate at the firm of Heyman Enerio Gattuso & Hirzel LLP in Wilmington, Delaware. Kurt, a seasoned business divorce litigator whom I’ve known for about ten years and whom I interviewed last year for my podcast, is a founding Co-Chair of the Business Divorce Subcommittee of the ABA Business Law Section, Business and Corporate Litigation Committee. Continue Reading Announcing Must-Have Treatise on Business Divorce Litigation

limited partnershipNotwithstanding the ascendency of the limited liability company, the Delaware limited partnership continues to serve as an important, tax-advantaged vehicle for certain capital-intensive ventures — especially in the energy sector — featuring centralized management and limited liability for large numbers of passive investors.

Late last month, the Delaware Supreme Court handed down two noteworthy decisions springing from suits by limited partners challenging the fairness of conflicted transactions by general partners that were approved by conflicts committees. In one, the high court affirmed Chancery Court’s order rejecting a claim based on the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing where the transaction’s approval by the conflicts committee complied with the agreement’s safe harbor provision and thus contractually precluded judicial review. Employees Retirement System v TC Pipelines GP, Inc., No. 291, 2016 [Del. Sup. Ct. Dec. 19, 2016].

In the other, Supreme Court reversed Chancery Court’s post-trial decision holding the general partner liable in damages owed directly to limited partners for a conflicted, over-priced  “dropdown” transaction by the general partner. The high court disagreed with Chancery Court’s application of the Tooley standard, instead finding that the claims were exclusively derivative and that the post-trial, pre-judgment acquisition by merger of the partnership extinguished the plaintiff limited partner’s standing to seek relief. El Paso Pipeline GP Company, LLC v Brinckerhoff, No. 103, 2016 [Del. Sup. Ct. Dec. 20, 2016].

Together, the two decisions re-affirm the primacy of contract in the realm of alternative entities including limited liability companies, limited partnerships, and master limited partnerships. Continue Reading Limited Partners Take a Licking in Two Delaware Supreme Court Decisions

Top 10BI’m pleased to present my 9th annual list of this past year’s ten most significant business divorce cases. The list includes important appellate rulings by the First and Second Departments on dissolution of foreign business entities, shareholder rights to inspect book and records, and valuation of partnership interests, along with an interesting mix of trial court rulings on issues affecting LLC members and fair value appraisals. I’ve also included a likely bellwether New Jersey Supreme Court ruling concerning grounds for LLC member expulsion. All ten were featured on this blog previously; click on the case name to read the full treatment. And the winners are:

  1. Matter of Raharney Capital, LLC v Capital Stack LLC, 138 AD3d 83, 2016 NY Slip Op 01425 [1st Dept Feb. 25, 2016], which brought to an end a longstanding departmental split over the question whether New York courts have jurisdiction over dissolution suits involving foreign business entities, with the First Department in Raharney agreeing there is no jurisdiction.
  2. Matter of Pokoik v 575 Realties, Inc., 143 AD3d 487, 2016 NY Slip Op 06648 [1st Dept Oct. 11, 2016], an appellate ruling of apparent first impression in New York in which the court upheld shareholder inspection rights concerning the books and records of the corporation’s wholly-owned subsidiary.
  3. Huang v Northern Star Management LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 32194(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 24, 2016], one of only a handful of New York cases involving challenges to cash-out LLC mergers in which Justice Charles E. Ramos of the Manhattan Commercial Division denied a preliminary injunction sought by a minority shareholder who alleged that the merger violated the LLC’s operating agreement.
  4. IE Test, LLC v Carroll, 2016 WL 4086260 [NJ Sup Ct Aug. 2, 2016], an important ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court in which it reversed the lower court’s judicial expulsion of an LLC member under a narrowed construction of that state’s enabling statute mirroring the Revised Uniform LLC Act’s expulsion provision.
  5. La Verghetta v Lawlor, 2016 NY Slip Op 30423(U) [Sup Ct Westchester County Mar. 9, 2016], a highly detailed and thorough fair-value appraisal opinion by Westchester County Commercial Division Justice Alan D. Scheinkman involving a chain of fitness clubs in which the court confronted dueling expert appraisals whose methodology and conclusions of value were light years apart and ultimately fashioned its own appraisal that, among other important findings, rejected a discount for lack of marketability.
  6. Congel v Malfitano, 141 AD3d 64, 2016 NY Slip Op 03845 [2d Dept May 18, 2016], a controversial ruling currently before the New York Court of Appeals on a pending application for leave to appeal, in which the Second Department upheld a wrongful dissolution judgment against a minority partner and further imposed a 66% discount for lack of control on the value of the partner’s interest.
  7. Gilbert v Weintraub, Short Form Order, Index No. 602290/15 [Sup Ct Nassau County Jan. 29, 2016], presenting the novel issue whether a co-manager of an LLC with no operating agreement can resign as manager while retaining his member status and engage in competitive business activity, where Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Timothy S. Driscoll held that further factual development was needed to determine whether it was reasonable for the resigned manager’s fiduciary duty to extend beyond his resignation and, if so, for how long.
  8. Matter of Hudson (Pure Lime USA, Inc.), Short Form Order, Index No. 600127/16 [Sup Ct Nassau County June 16, 2016], in which Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Stephen A. Bucaria dismissed a 50% shareholders’ dissolution petition alleging director deadlock where the governing shareholders’ agreement authorized one of the respondent’s designees on the four-member board to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie vote.
  9. MFB Realty LLC v Eichner, 2016 NY Slip Op 31242(U) [Sup Ct NY County June 24, 2016], in which Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla dismissed derivative claims by a purported LLC member for lack of standing based on the plaintiff’s failure to obtain the required super-majority consent to its admission as a full-fledged member of the LLC notwithstanding it having obtained such consent to the initial assignment of the interest.
  10. Fakiris v Gusmar Enterprises LLC, 53 Misc 3d 1215(A), 2016 NY Slip Op 51665(U) [Sup Ct Queens County Nov. 21, 2016], where Queens County Commercial Division Justice Martin E. Ritholtz denied a motion to dismiss claims for breach of fiduciary duty brought against a non-member designated as tie-breaker under the LLC’s operating agreement, finding factual issues whether the tie-breaker engaged in any misconduct.

shareholderWhat makes a shareholder a shareholder? What makes an LLC member a member?

The simplicity of the questions belies the difficulties and endlessly unique fact patterns encountered in case after case involving close corporations and LLCs in which one faction claims the other has no ownership interest in the entity and therefore lacks standing to seek judicial dissolution or other remedies predicated on violation of owner rights.

That’s not to say there aren’t common characteristics of such ownership contests. Usually they spring from one or more of the following circumstances: lack of shareholder or operating agreement; lack of certificated interests or other formal ownership documents; lack of transparency of tax returns and other business documents requiring owner identification; prior, inconsistent representations in tax returns or court proceedings; and, sometimes, intentional concealment of ownership interests to avoid creditors, tax authorities, ex-spouses, etc.

Last month, in a pair of noteworthy decisions, Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Stephen A. Bucaria rejected challenges to claimed ownership interests in two very different cases, one involving a close corporation and the other an LLC, in both of which one party unsuccessfully claimed to be the sole owner. In the corporation case, Justice Bucaria granted summary judgment upholding the contested 4% stock ownership as evidenced by a stock purchase agreement and stock certificate notwithstanding the shareholder’s sworn testimony in a prior, unrelated case denying that he was a shareholder. In the LLC case, Justice Bucaria granted preliminary injunctive relief in favor of two individuals claiming one-third membership interest each as evidenced by documents provided to a franchisor and municipal agency, notwithstanding an operating agreement naming the adverse party as sole member. Continue Reading Sole Owners of Close Corporation and LLC Discover They’re Not So Sole

BarberYet another voice, that of Greg Barber, CFA, of Barber Analytics in San Francisco, has joined the growing debate in business valuation and legal circles over the controversial application of the discount for lack of marketability in New York statutory fair value proceedings involving dissenting shareholder appraisals and elective buy-outs of minority shareholders in dissolution cases.

Greg is a corporate valuation expert who focuses on valuations for statutory and mediated minority shareholder buyouts. Greg published a thought-provoking article in the October 2016 New York State Bar Association Journal entitled Marketability Discounts in New York Statutory Fair Value Determinations in which he critically analyzes the leading New York appellate decisions applying the marketability discount in fair value cases — namely, Blake, Seagroatt, and Beway — and highlights what he argues are the “misunderstandings, miscommunications, and inconsistences” entangling the discussion among appraisers, attorneys, and the courts. A copy of Greg’s article is available on his website here.

I followed up Greg’s article with an interview of him for my Business Divorce Roundtable podcast, a link to which appears at the bottom of this post.

Continue Reading Marketability Discount Revisited: Interview With Greg Barber

SushiThe Japanese word “omakase” translates as “I’ll Ieave it up to you” and is used by patrons of sushi restaurants to leave the selection to the chef rather than ordering à la carte.

The minority member of an LLC that operates a high-end Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn featuring omakase service, and who sued for judicial dissolution, recently learned a different meaning of omakase, as in, don’t leave it up to the court to protect you from being frozen out by the majority member when you don’t have a written operating agreement, much less a written operating agreement containing minority-interest safeguards.

The hard lesson learned by the petitioner in Matter of Norvell v Guchi’s Idea LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 32307(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Nov. 18, 2016], has been taught before, starting most prominently with the First Department’s 2013 decision in Doyle v Icon, LLC and reinforced by that court two years later in Barone v Sowers, holding that minority member claims of oppressive majority conduct including systematic exclusion from the LLC’s operations and profits, in the absence of a showing that the LLC is financially unfeasible or not carrying on its business in conformity with its operating agreement, do not constitute grounds for judicial dissolution under LLC Law § 702. Continue Reading Another Frozen-Out Minority LLC Member’s Petition for Dissolution Bites the . . . Sushi?

tie-breaker[N.B. Younger readers of this post may be forgiven for not catching the title’s play on the refrain of a certain 1976 hit song by one of the oldest and most hirsute recording groups around. Click here if you’re still stumped.]

LLC deadlock’s been on my mind more than usual of late, after interviewing LLC maven John Cunningham for a podcast and last week co-presenting with John a webinar on the subject for the ABA Young Lawyer’s Division.

During the webinar’s Q&A session, a listener asked about potential liability of an appointed deadlock tie-breaker. I mentioned that I had not seen any cases involving the issue. Lo and behold, several days later up popped a decision by Queens County Commercial Division Justice Martin E. Ritholtz presenting exactly that issue, in which the court denied the tie-breaker’s motion for summary dismissal of a claim brought against her for breach of fiduciary duty by one of two 50/50 members of a family-owned LLC. Fakiris v Gusmar Enterprises LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 51665(U) [Sup Ct Queens County Nov. 21, 2016]. Continue Reading She’s a Tie-Breaker, She’s a Risk Taker

Freeze-out2Unless otherwise provided in the operating agreement, majority members of LLCs formed under New York law — and under the LLC laws in most other states — effectively can expel a minority member by implementing a merger with another company owned by the majority members. The so-called freeze-out merger (a/k/a cash-out merger) compels the minority member to accept cash for his or her membership interest in lieu of equity in the surviving entity. The statutes generally protect the frozen-out member to the extent of providing the right to dissent from the merger and to demand a fair-value judicial appraisal.

As best as I can tell, until last month there were exactly four reported court decisions in New York involving challenges to LLC freeze-out mergers, each of which I’ve covered on this blog. In three of them — the Stulman case, the Alf Naman case, and the Slayton case — trial judges rejected various procedural and substantive objections to the mergers by the minority members. In the fourth case (SBE Wall), the trial judge denied a motion to dismiss an action seeking to invalidate a freeze-out merger, but the merger was never enjoined or rescinded and the case eventually settled.

Along comes a fifth case decided last month by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Charles E. Ramos — who also decided the Stulman case — in which he denied the frozen-out minority members’ preliminary injunction motion seeking to enjoin the merger’s implementation after finding no basis for the minority members’ claim that the merger breached the operating agreement. Huang v Northern Star Management LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 32194(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 24, 2016]. Continue Reading Court Finds No Breach of Operating Agreement, No Basis to Enjoin LLC Freeze-Out Merger

CondoThis post concerns an atypical form of business organization — the condominium — in the context of disputes over access to books and records. Access to books and records is a subject that has garnered increased judicial attention in recent years as more New York litigants and their counsel discover the utility of commencing summary proceedings to enforce statutory and common-law inspection rights of shareholders in traditional corporations and of members of LLCs.

What I find most interesting is the seemingly expansive approach the courts have taken in upholding inspection rights regardless of business form based on common law rather than statute, as reflected in two cases decided last month involving condominiums.

Unincorporated Condo vs. Incorporated Co-op

The most recent government census data tallies over 300,000 co-op apartment units in New York City and over 100,000 condominium units. The approximate 3:1 ratio is destined to shrink, however, as the number of new and converted condominium buildings coming onto the market in recent years has far exceeded new and converted co-op buildings, among other reasons, due to the strong preference for condominium ownership by foreign buyers and less onerous restrictions on re-sale. Continue Reading Courts Expand Books and Records Access for Condo Owners