Lady Justice

Welcome to another edition of Winter Case Notes in which I clear out my backlog of recent court decisions of interest to business divorce aficionados by way of brief synopses with links to the decisions for those who wish to dig deeper.

And speaking of digging deeper, if you don’t already know, New York’s e-filing system has revolutionized public access to court filings in most parts of the state. The online e-filing portal (click here) allows searches by case index number or party name. Once you find the case you’re looking for, you’ll see a chronological listing with links allowing you to read and download each pleading, affidavit, exhibit, brief, decision, or other filing. No more trips to the courthouse basement to requisition paper files!

This year’s synopses feature matters that run the gamut, from a claimed de facto partnership, to several disputes pitting minority against majority shareholders, to an LLC case in which the court resolved competing interpretations of a somewhat murky operating agreement. Continue Reading Winter Case Notes: De Facto Partnership and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

4CThe case I’m about to describe involves an unusual clash of two fundamental principles of corporate governance for closely held corporations:

Principle No. 1:  Stock transfer restrictions may be used to preserve continuity of ownership and management within a family or other control group, without violating the common law rule against unreasonable restraints on alienation of property.

Principle No. 2:  Controllers owe a fiduciary duty to treat all shareholders fairly and evenly when authorizing and issuing new shares, and must have a bona fide business purpose for any departure from precisely uniform treatment.

The clash came to a head in a decision this month by Brooklyn Commercial Division Justice Lawrence Knipel involving 4C Foods, a well-known, fourth generation, family-owned business that manufactures and markets under the 4C® brand grated Italian cheeses, bread crumbs, iced tea, and drink mixes. The suit pits Nathan Celauro, a non-managing, minority owner holding directly or beneficially about 22% of 4C’s voting and non-voting shares, against his cousin John Celauro, the managing majority shareholder who controls or has aligned with him the remaining 78%. (Disclosure: Farrell Fritz represents the minority shareholder in the case.)

The case and Justice Knipel’s decision in Celauro v 4C Foods Corp., 2016 NY Slip Op 31917(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Oct. 12, 2016], is the latest in a series of litigations and court rulings between two factions of the Celauro family beginning around 2005, following the death of Nathan’s father the year before. About 20% of the father’s voting and non-voting shares passed to his wife either directly or to trusts under her control, with the remaining 2% going directly to Nathan. Continue Reading Too Clever By Half? Court Permits Suit Challenging Share Increase Tied to Transfer Restrictions

tie-breakerThe New York Business Corporation Law offers the 50% shareholder of a close corporation two avenues to judicial dissolution: deadlock at the board or shareholder level or internal dissension under BCL § 1104, and oppressive actions by the directors or those in control of the corporation under BCL § 1104-a.

The 50% petitioner faces an important strategic decision whether to invoke one or the other (or both) of the statutes. That’s because § 1104-a — but not § 1104 — triggers the respondent’s elective right under BCL § 1118 to acquire the petitioner’s shares for fair value. As I’ve written previously, often a 50% petitioner may gain greater negotiating leverage by proceeding solely under § 1104 based on deadlock, thereby depriving the other 50% faction of a statutory buy-out opportunity.

I can only speculate whether a strategic decision of that sort was at work in 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 the 50% shareholders’ § 1104 dissolution petition that superficially asserted director deadlock, but 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. How can there be deadlock, the winning argument went, when the parties had a tie-break provision specifically designed to avoid deadlock? Continue Reading Tie-Breaker in Shareholders Agreement Defeats Deadlock Dissolution Petition

deathThe death of a shareholder amidst a court battle for control of a closely held business can have a dramatic effect on the direction and outcome of the case.

We saw it happen in my post a few weeks ago about the Catalina Beach Club case which started as a deadlock dissolution case between feuding 50/50 factions, but was discontinued abruptly after the petitioning faction gained voting and board control by acquiring an additional 25% interest from the estate of one of the respondent shareholders who died a few months after the suit began, much to the chagrin of the surviving 25% respondent now downgraded to non-controlling, minority shareholder.

Not one but two deaths in another, fractious family-owned business resulted in shifts in control with game-changing consequences for the positions and leverage of the litigants. The resulting travails of two generations of the Lewis family are laid bare in a recent decision by Albany Commercial Division Justice Richard M. Platkin in Heller v Lewis, 2015 NY Slip Op 51867(U) [Albany County Dec. 21, 2015], in which he denied preliminary injunctive relief sought by the majority-turned-minority faction. Continue Reading Death of a Shareholder

shutterstock_121625548It’s not that I get nostalgic about derivative lawsuits (or Oldsmobiles), it’s just that it feels like we’re in a brave new world when it comes to adapting hoary corporate doctrine to that unincorporated upstart known as the limited liability company.

The clash between old and new looms in a derivative action concerning an LLC pending before Erie County Commercial Division Presiding Justice Timothy J. Walker called Univest I Corp. v Skydeck Corp., Index No. 2014-811644. The case stems from a dispute between the 50% managing member (BDC) and 50% non-managing member (Univest) of 470 Pearl Street, LLC, which was formed in 2004 for the purpose of acquiring for future development a parking lot in Buffalo, New York. Pending the development, BDC and Univest agreed to lease the parking lot to a BDC affiliate known as Skydeck Corp. The lease granted 470 Pearl the right to terminate the lease on 60-days notice.

In 2014, Univest, acting in 470 Pearl’s name, issued a termination notice to Skydeck under authority of an unusual provision in 470 Pearl’s operating agreement that gave either member the unilateral right “to cause 470 Pearl to terminate” the Skydeck lease. Two lawsuits followed Skydeck’s refusal to vacate. In the first, Justice Walker granted Univest a declaratory judgment upholding its termination notice and ordering Skydeck, pending further order, to pay an increased monthly rent (read amended complaint here and the court’s order here).

Shortly afterward, Univest commenced a derivative summary eviction proceeding on behalf of 470 Pearl, naming both Skydeck and BDC as respondents (read petition here). Now, let me pause the story for a moment. I’m not a landlord-tenant lawyer. If you’d asked me, before I looked into the Univest case, whether a non-controlling, non-managing corporation shareholder or LLC member could bring an eviction proceeding against the corporation’s or LLC’s tenant, I’m sure I would have guessed “no” for at least two reasons. First, I would have assumed the governing statute in Article 7 of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law somehow limits standing to seek relief to the owner or its authorized agent. Second, evicting a third-party tenant strikes me as quintessential management action. Imagine the chaos if any minority owner of a real estate operating company could take it upon themselves to launch eviction proceedings. But I would have guessed wrong. Gorbrook Associates, Inc. v Silverstein, 40 Misc 3d 425 [Dist. Ct. Nassau County 2013], a case of apparent first impression, held that a non-controlling, minority shareholder may bring derivatively an eviction proceeding.  Continue Reading Not Your Father’s Derivative Action

What are the current, hot topics in the law of business divorce? I’ve been thinking about this in preparation for a speaking engagement later this month, and thought I’d preview my choices for the hot-topic list in the hope that some interested readers might offer their own ideas about unsettled areas of the law governing dissolution cases and other types of disputes among co-owners of closely held business entities.

Not surprisingly, a majority of the topics I’ve come up with concern limited liability companies, which first came into being in New York in 1994. Case law applying the LLC Law got off to a tepid start — it wasn’t until 2010 that an appellate court authoritatively construed LLC Law § 702 governing judicial dissolution — but the pace of court decisions concerning LLCs has quickened in recent years as the LLC slowly but surely has supplanted the traditional business corporation as the preferred form of entity for privately-owned companies.

So, without further ado, here’s my list of hot topics in business divorce:

Equitable Buy-Out in LLC Dissolution Cases.  In contrast to oppressed minority shareholder dissolution petitions involving closely-held corporations (see Business Corporation Law § 1118), the LLC Law has no provision authorizing courts to compel a buy-out of the complaining or respondent LLC members as a remedy in judicial dissolution cases brought under LLC Law § 702. There nonetheless have been several appellate decisions affirming or ordering a compulsory buyout as an “equitable” remedy, of which the most notable is the Second Department’s 2013 ruling in Mizrahi v. Cohen where the court compelled a buy-out requested by the petitioner of the respondent member’s 50% interest. These few cases, each involving their own, peculiar set of facts, provide little guidance as to the circumstances under which courts will or won’t grant an equitable buy-out, or as to the interplay between equitable buy-out and LLC agreements that may limit dissolution remedies. It also remains to be seen whether buy-out awards in LLC cases will be based on the fair value standard used in statutory buy-outs of oppressed minority shareholders. Continue Reading Hot Topics in Business Divorce

They say this summer has been unusually cool in the Northeast, but it’s been a hot one for business divorce litigation, judging from the number of recent court decisions involving various and sundry disputes among co-owners of closely held businesses. So, once again, it’s time for my annual summertime post featuring a few, short summaries of recent decisions of interest in business divorce cases.

First, we’ll look at a decision by Justice Melvin Schweitzer in a battle between 50/50 ownership factions over control of an international translation services company with over 3,000 employees. Next up is Justice Carolyn Demarest’s ruling denying a change of venue in a corporate dissolution case. Last is a decision by Justice Marcy Friedman in which she addressed an interesting statute of limitations defense in a drawn-out dissolution case.

Shareholder of Parent Corporation Has Standing to Sue Derivatively to Remove Subsidiary’s Director But Not for Dissolution

Elting v Shawe, 2014 NY Slip Op 32126(U) [Sup Ct, NY County July 24, 2014]. It’s not everyday you encounter business divorce litigation on the scale of this case, involving a firm with over 3,000 employees and revenues over $350 million. The subject company is a closely held Delaware holding corporation owned 50/50 by two individuals who also comprise its two-director board, and its wholly owned New York subsidiary providing international translation services. One owner-director sued the other for alleged financial and management abuses, asserting direct and derivative claims seeking the defendant’s removal as an officer and director of the subsidiary under BCL §§ 706 (d) and 716 (c), and also seeking deadlock dissolution of the subsidiary under BCL § 1104 (a). Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Director Removal and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

Housing cooperatives, or “co-ops” as they’re commonly known, occupy an unusual niche among forms of joint stock enterprises. Like any corporation, the tenant-shareholders have a common interest in maximizing for everyone’s benefit the value of the co-op’s assets, i.e., the apartment building and its common elements, but being neighbors who live above, below and beside one another, the tenant-shareholders also have intrinsically competitive interests regarding rights of access, use, development, transferability, etc., that can have a direct, disparate impact on quality of life and the resale value of their individual apartment units.

In large co-ops, where no single tenant-shareholder has a significant percentage of voting power, the centralized management authority of a democratically elected board of directors, exercised pursuant to the co-op’s by-laws, can regulate and mute any divergence between common and individual stockholder interests. Such centralized management, as in any corporation with widely dispersed ownership, effectively compartmentalizes decision-making at the board and shareholder levels.

But not all co-ops are large. In Manhattan and other parts of New York City there are many small co-op properties, including converted walk-up tenements and industrial loft buildings, with as few as four, five or six units where each tenant-shareholder may have a seat on the co-op’s board of directors and material voting power, thereby melding into one the theoretically distinct realms of director and shareholder authority and likewise conflating common and individual concerns.

Which also means that relations between tenant-shareholders in small co-ops can fall victim to the same kinds of infighting and dissension that afflict any small, closely held, owner-operated business enterprise. Some years ago I wrote about a Brooklyn co-op shareholder who petitioned for judicial dissolution of a five-unit co-op on grounds of oppressive conduct by the majority shareholders, which led to a statutory buy-out and contested valuation proceeding (read here and here). A Manhattan appellate panel’s decision last month in Akasa Holdings, LLC v Sweet, 2014 NY Slip Op 01822 [1st Dept Mar. 20, 2014], illustrates another kind of co-op shareholder dispute involving a battle for board control of a four-unit co-op, pitting one tenant-shareholder owning a majority of the voting shares against the other three tenant-shareholders. Continue Reading Legal Battle Over Board Seats Splits Neighbors in Manhattan Co-op

 

Kensington Publishing Corporation, founded in 1974 by the late Walter Zacharius, is the largest independent publisher of mass-market books in the United States. When Zacharius died in 2011 at the age of 87, his obituary in the New York Times described Kensington as “a leading purveyor of bodice-rippers and other romance genres.”

Zacharius left behind his second wife, Suzanne, and two children from his first marriage, Steven and Judith. The three of them are now locked in a legal battle for control of Kensington, with Suzanne, who inherited 59% of the voting shares, pitted against her two stepchildren who own most of the remaining voting shares.

Why the battle for control when Suzanne owns a clear majority of the voting equity? The answer lies in a 2005 voting agreement made by Walter and his two children which effectively gave Steven and Judith the power, following Walter’s death, to vote his shares in any election of Kensington’s directors. The children subsequently have used their board control to frustrate Suzanne’s stated goal, to sell her majority interest in Kensington to a “major publishing house,” and allegedly to withhold distributions as part of a squeeze-out plan. Continue Reading Voting Agreement Triggers Fight for Control of Family-Owned Publishing House