Who paysThere are two breeds of buy-outs in corporate dissolution proceedings: voluntary and involuntary.

When a minority shareholder petitions for judicial dissolution on grounds of oppression, New York’s statutory scheme gives respondents the option to avoid a dissolution contest voluntarily by electing within 90 days to purchase the petitioner’s shares for “fair value” in an amount either to be agreed upon by the parties or determined by the court in an appraisal proceeding.

The buy-out statute (Business Corporation Law § 1118) grants the right of election to “any other shareholder or shareholders or the corporation” which, as a practical matter, leaves it up to the controlling shareholders whether to purchase the shares individually or through the corporation. Not surprisingly, in my experience the election overwhelmingly is made by the corporation. After all, who wants to undertake personal liability voluntarily, especially before the court determines the value of the petitioner’s shares and the terms of payment? Continue Reading Who Pays When the Court Compels a Buy-Out?

LLCIf there’s a common theme to the trio of LLC cases highlighted in this post, it’s that having a well-crafted written operating agreement is no guarantee there won’t be a litigation dust-up, while not having a written operating agreement greatly enhances the odds of a legal dispute among members at some point down the road.

Let’s start with the well-crafted operating agreement in Estate of Calderwood v Ace Group International LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 30591(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 29, 2016], in which Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich ruled that upon the death of the subject Delaware LLC’s majority member, under the express terms of Sections 9.7 and 7.1 of the LLC Agreement (read here), his estate was deemed a “Withdrawing Member” with no management rights and retaining solely the right to receive distributions. Continue Reading LLC Case Notes: Member Expulsion, Withdrawal, and LLC Purpose

DiscountOn the heels of last week’s post titled The DLOM Debate Heats Up, a timely new ruling by a New Jersey intermediate appellate court adds yet another interesting twist to the application of the discount for lack of marketability in fair value proceedings involving dissenting shareholder appraisals and oppressed minority shareholder buyouts.

New Jersey courts have a more restrictive approach to DLOM in fair value contests than New York courts, generally reserving it for “extraordinary circumstances” involving inequitable or coercive conduct by the seller. This latest New Jersey ruling doesn’t make new law but, to this observer at least, its application and quantification of DLOM seem equally if not more reliant on legal doctrine and, in particular, free-floating equity considerations than on empirically-based appraisal theory and methodology.

The New Jersey Appellate Division’s unpublished decision in Wisniewski v Walsh, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3001 [App. Div. Dec. 24, 2015], caps an astonishing 20-year litigation saga involving a family-owned trucking business taken over from the founding father by three siblings, one of whom sued the other two under New Jersey’s oppressed shareholder statute. In 2000 the trial judge ruled that the petitioner himself was the oppressor and ordered him to sell his one-third interest to the company or his siblings for fair value to be determined by the court. Continue Reading Court Applies 25% Marketability Discount Despite “Strong Indicators of Liquidity”

equityWhen 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 Dissociated LLC Member Faces “Equitable” Forced Buy-Out

ExpulsionPresently 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 Involuntary Member Dissociation Under RULLCA

pushLong Island’s dense population and surfeit of privately owned businesses small, medium, and large assure the Commercial Division judges of the Nassau County Supreme Court more than their fair share of disputes between business co-owners. What’s amazing is the range of business divorce cases heard by that court, from AriZona Iced Tea involving a multi-billion dollar, internationally known brand to the smallest mom-and-pop shops where you wonder how the fight can be worth the legal bills.

One thing in common between the high-stakes AriZona Iced Tea case and, on the other end of the spectrum, the pending fight between two co-owners of the Gusto Latino Bar & Restaurant, a neighborhood watering hole located in Hempstead, New York, is that both cases took about five years to resolve. There the similarity ends. And, again, you have to wonder how the Gusto Latino case, in which the invested dollar amounts cited in the court’s decision wouldn’t even qualify as a rounding error in the AriZona Iced Tea case, possibly has justified five years of litigation expense.

So why am I writing about it? Not because there’s anything particularly compelling about its facts or the parties’ claims. Essentially it’s a garden variety case where parties go into business together without a shareholders’ agreement after which there’s a falling out and one side claims the other either is not a shareholder or, at most, holds a minority interest. We’ve all seen dozens of similar cases.

Rather, the Gusto Latino case is noteworthy because of the novel remedy devised by the presiding judge. For those who read this blog regularly, you’ve already guessed correctly that when I mention a novel remedy in a Nassau County Commercial Division business divorce case, chances are I’m referring to a decision by that court’s senior member, Justice Stephen A. Bucaria, who, as I’ve noted before, is not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to creative solutions to intractable shareholder disputes. Continue Reading First a Judicial Nudge, Then a Push to the Buy-Out in Shareholder Dispute

BuybackIf you’ve got an owner-operated, closely held business entity that pays no dividends, and it features controlling and non-controlling ownership interests, generally it’s a good idea to include in the owners’ agreement provisions for the compulsory buyback of the non-controlling owner’s interest upon termination of employment.

The reasons are fairly obvious. The last thing anyone needs is an outside owner with trapped-in capital, possibly having to go out-of-pocket for taxes on phantom income, who may feel compelled to challenge the controller’s financial and management decision-making, possibly through a books-and-records demand and/or a lawsuit asserting derivative claims or seeking judicial dissolution, as the only means available to pressure the controller into a reasonable buyout.

While I’m a fan of such forced buybacks, I’m less wild about buyback provisions that reduce the amount to be paid for the equity interest of a non-controlling owner whose termination is for cause. I get the idea — to incentivize an owner/employee to keep to the straight and narrow — but too many times I’ve seen trumped-up terminations for cause by a financially incentivized controller followed by litigation brought by the financially penalized, expelled owner who contests cause, especially when the alleged misconduct is claimed to fall within a broad, catch-all category such as violation of company policy or failure to perform duty.

Case in point: last week’s appellate ruling in Matter of Bonamie, 2015 NY Slip Op 06191 [3d Dept July 16, 2015]. Bonamie involves a company called Ongweoweh Corp. which, according to its website, was founded in 1978 by Frank Bonamie in upstate New York and is “a Native American-owned, pallet management company providing pallet & packaging procurement, recycling services and supply chain optimization programs.” According to this trade publication, in 2010 Frank’s son Daniel became the company’s CEO and president. Continue Reading The Hidden Cost of a Devalued Buyback Upon Termination for Cause

ValuationIf you’ve studied New York dissolution law, you know that, unlike proceedings involving close corporations, there’s no statutory authority for a court-ordered buy-out when a member of a limited liability company petitions for judicial dissolution under LLC Law § 702.

You also know, especially if you follow this blog, that notwithstanding the absence of such authority, on a few occasions New York courts have invoked their common-law powers of equity to compel buy-outs in LLC dissolution cases, or have reached the same result by characterizing the buy-out as a form of liquidation.

The selected valuation date can make a critical difference in determining the value of an equity interest in the business. In dissolution proceedings involving close corporations, the statute authorizing a buy-out election, Business Corporation Law § 1118, stipulates valuation as of the day before the filing of the petition. We don’t have similarly definitive guidance on the LLC side because there’s no enabling statute, but the few LLC cases decided so far suggest some answers. Continue Reading Court-Ordered LLC Buy-Outs: What’s the Valuation Date?

The statutes and judge-made law governing dissolution and other claims among co-owners of closely held business entities can vary significantly from state to state. Depending on the states, there also can be much in common, which is why I like to keep an eye on developments outside New York, and not just Delaware which tends to have the most advanced business-law jurisprudence.

Below are five business divorce cases decided by appellate courts outside New York that made a splash in 2014. As you might expect, four of the five involve that relatively new business entity form, the limited liability company. The one involving a traditional business corporation, however, likely made the biggest splash.

Ritchie v Rupe, 2014 WL 2788335 [Tex. Sup Ct June 20, 2014]. The Lone Star State takes the prize for the most controversial business divorce decision in 2014, thanks to the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Ritchie which, as one commentator put it, effectively “gutted the cause of action for shareholder oppression in Texas.” A Texas intermediate appellate court ruling in 1988, which had been followed ever since, recognized a compulsory buyout remedy for oppressed minority shareholders under a broad test for oppression mirroring New York’s reasonable-expectations standard. No more. The Ritchie court, in a 6-3 decision, narrowly defined oppressive conduct by majority shareholders as “when they abuse their authority over the corporation with the intent to harm the interests of one or more of the shareholders, in a manner that does not comport with the honest exercise of their business judgment, and by doing so create a serious risk of harm to the corporation.” The Ritchie majority then applied the coup de grâce by construing the applicable Texas statute as limiting the remedy for oppressive conduct to the appointment of a “rehabilitative receiver.” Bye bye buyout. For a more detailed analysis of Ritchie‘s impact on Texas business divorce litigation, check out my friend Ladd Hirsch’s posts here, here, and here on his Texas Business Divorce blog.   Continue Reading Round-Up of Recent Business Divorce Cases From Across the Country

The under-reporting of cash receipts a/k/a skimming by restaurant owners and other cash-intensive businesses costs many billions of dollars in lost tax revenues each year and, when detected by audit, can lead to stiff penalties and even criminal prosecution. When the business has multiple owners, not all of whom are in on the skimming, it also can constitute grounds for judicial dissolution, as illustrated in a fascinating post-trial decision last week by Brooklyn Commercial Division Presiding Justice Carolyn E. Demarest in Cortes v 3A N. Park Ave. Rest Corp., 2014 NY Slip Op 24329 [Sup Ct, Kings County Oct. 28, 2014].

Any publicly aired business divorce involving allegations of looting can be a nasty affair. Throw into the litigation mix the specter of under-reported taxes and it becomes positively toxic, which is the flavor I got from reading Justice Demarest’s detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law in her 24-page ruling which, ultimately, found that the controlling shareholders skimmed about $3.7 million and conditionally ordered dissolution of the corporation, contingent upon the controllers’ buy-out of the plaintiff’s shares for over $1.2 million.

Background

The Cortes case involves a 150-table Mexican restaurant, bar, and nightclub called Cabo, located in Rockville Center on Long Island. In 2003, the plaintiff, Porfirio Cortes, acquired for $50,000 a 16.67% stock interest in the restaurant’s operating company, in which the remaining shares were owned equally by defendants Angelo Ramunni and Domenick DeSimone. The purchase agreement gave the corporation the right to repurchase Cortes’s shares in the event he resigned his designated position as managing partner though, oddly, it did not specify a price or a pricing mechanism. Continue Reading Restaurant’s Cash-Skimming Majority Owners Forced to Buy Out Minority Shareholder or Face Dissolution