abstentionCivil litigation in federal court can be a luxury experience. The quality of the judiciary is superb. Federal judges often give their cases substantial individualized attention. Lawsuits progress relatively quickly. The procedural rules in federal court have been litigated nationwide, so lawyers can easily find case law on almost every procedural nuance. Yet, business divorce cases are almost never litigated in federal court. Why?

The Friedman Decision

In 1994, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit all but sealed the courthouse door to business dissolution cases in federal court, at least in the territorial jurisdiction of the Second Circuit, which includes New York. Continue Reading Federal Court No Mecca for Business Divorce Litigants

No U TurnArticle 11 of the Business Corporation Law governs dissolution of closely held New York business corporations. Article 11 has existed, more or less in its current form, for decades. Some of its provisions have been heavily litigated, including Sections 1104 and 1104-a governing judicial dissolution for deadlock and oppression, and Section 1118 governing buyout of a minority’s interest in an oppression proceeding. Other provisions have received surprisingly little attention.

In Morizio v Roeder, 2017 NY Slip Op 50248(U) [Sup Ct Albany County Feb. 17, 2017], Albany County Commercial Division Justice Richard M. Platkin addressed one of these latter, relatively-overlooked sections.

Section 1116 of the Business Corporation Law governs the circumstances in which a party who sues for dissolution may later change his or her mind and withdraw the claim for dissolution. The key language of the statute provides that a petitioner who wishes to withdraw his or her claim must “establish” to the court “that the cause for dissolution did not exist or no longer exists.”

What does that mean? Only a few courts have considered the issue, including a decision last year by Justice Timothy Driscoll in the Cardino case. As it turns out, a leading case to consider the legal standard to withdraw a dissolution claim was an earlier decision in the Morizio litigation. Continue Reading Withdraw a Dissolution Claim? Not So Fast

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

door“Marriage is tough, business relationships may be tougher.”

Wise words from someone who should know — Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Timothy S. Driscoll, who presided over matrimonial cases before joining the Commercial Division where he has adjudicated some of the thorniest business divorce cases such as the AriZona Iced Tea donnybrook.

The quoted words appear in an oral argument transcript in a case called Cardino v Feldman pending before Justice Driscoll involving a fight between 50-50 owners of a construction company operated by the defendant Feldman. It’s a factually and procedurally complex matter, the details of which I’ll spare readers in favor of focusing on the main takeaway from Justice Driscoll’s recent decision in the case, namely, that once a business owner asserts a claim for judicial dissolution under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law — even if not pleaded in strict accordance with the statute — it’s very difficult to reverse course after the other shareholder timely elects to purchase the petitioner’s shares for fair value under BCL Section 1118. Continue Reading Once Opened, The Door to Judicial Dissolution and Buy-Out Is Hard to Close

SurchargeHidden in plain view in Section 1104-a (d) of the New York Business Corporation Law, which authorizes an oppressed minority shareholder to petition for judicial dissolution, is a provision empowering the court to adjust stock valuations and to “surcharge” those in control of the corporation for “willful or reckless dissipation or transfer” of corporate assets “without just or adequate compensation therefor.”

A second, fleeting reference to surcharge appears in Section 1118 (b) of the buy-out statute, empowering the court in its determination of the stock’s fair value to give effect to any surcharge “found to be appropriate” under Section 1104-a.

The ordinary definition of surcharge, at least in the context of settling accounts, is to show an omission for which credit ought to have been given. But what does it mean in its statutory setting, and how has it been applied by the courts? Continue Reading The Elusive Surcharge in Dissolution Proceedings

Not VerifiedIn one of my first posts on this blog I warned about the dire consequences (i.e., dismissal) of bringing a summary proceeding for corporate dissolution under Article 11 of the Business Corporation Law by filing a petition verified by the petitioner’s attorney rather than by the petitioner, unaccompanied by the petitioner’s sworn affidavit attesting to the merits of the petition’s alleged grounds for dissolution.

What about the other way around, that is, when a respondent opposing a dissolution petition files an answer to the petition verified only by his or her attorney, also unaccompanied by a sworn affidavit of the respondent attesting to the facts offered in opposition to dissolution?

Not surprisingly, the consequences are equally dire — for the respondent, anyway — as illustrated by the court’s recent decision in Matter of Salcedo (Hispanos Car Service, Inc.), 2016 NY Slip Op 31143(U) [Sup Ct Richmond County May 11, 2016], granting a dissolution petition in the absence of “admissible evidence” contradicting the petition’s allegations. Continue Reading How Not to Oppose a Dissolution Petition

Guillotine

Capital punishment for the corporation.” That’s how the Maryland Court of Appeals — that state’s highest court — in Bontempo v Lares, 444 Md. 344 [2015], recently referred to the remedy of judicial dissolution made available by statute in most states, including New York, to oppressed minority shareholders of closely held corporations.

I would not go so far as to suggest that our corporate jurisprudence is experiencing something akin to the growing anti-death penalty movement in our criminal jurisprudence, but the thoughtful majority opinion for the Maryland high court in Bontempo marks a heightened regard for the diverse interests at stake when considering an appropriate remedy for oppressive conduct by those in control of the corporation, and highlights the breadth of less drastic, alternative remedies available to trial courts.

Bontempo also merits attention at a more granular level for its discussion of the interplay and distinction between remedies available to an oppressed minority shareholder qua shareholder versus qua fired employee. Continue Reading Less Drastic Measures: Maryland Case Highlights Non-Dissolution Remedies for Oppressed Minority Shareholders

surviveRare is the petition for LLC dissolution not immediately greeted by a motion to dismiss by the non-petitioning members.

Don’t get me wrong. Pre-answer motions to dismiss are a staple of all kinds of litigation including business disputes. It’s just that, in my experience, as compared to more pedestrian matters such as contract disputes based on nonpayment or delivery of defective goods, the open-endedness of the standard for judicial dissolution of LLCs gives the non-petitioning member greater room and incentive to argue that the petition does not adequately allege grounds for relief and therefore should be dismissed out of the gate.

The member seeking dissolution and his or her counsel have choices to make that can affect the odds of surviving an early dismissal motion:

  • File for dissolution by summons and complaint in a plenary action, or by petition in a special proceeding?
  • If utilizing a special proceeding, commence it by order to show cause or by notice of petition?
  • Whether using a complaint or petition, allege the bare minimum facts or lay out detailed testimonial and documentary evidence as if it were a summary judgment motion?

Continue Reading Surviving a Motion to Dismiss in LLC Dissolution Cases

Del Ct Chancery 2Viewing the arc of Delaware Chancery Court jurisprudence over the last two decades implementing that state’s Limited Liability Company Act, and witnessing the Delaware legislature’s frequent amendments to the statute in reaction to judicial developments, you can’t help but detect a pattern of maintaining the unique attributes of the Delaware LLC, as compared to other forms of business entity, by:

  • rigorously promoting freedom of contract (in the form of the LLC agreement) and its corollary, “you made your bed now lie in it”;
  • deciding internal governance disputes within the bounds of the interplay of the Delaware LLC Act’s default rules and the LLC agreement; and
  • strongly disfavoring judicial intervention based on open-ended notions of fairness (the main exception being when managers take on fiduciary duties by agreement or by default under the statute).

Stated simply, in Delaware certainty trumps indeterminacy.

Well, not always, as seen in a first-impression ruling last week by Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster in In re Carlisle Etcetera LLC, C.A. No. 10280-VCL (read here), in which the court held that the assignee of an LLC membership interest, who as a non-member and non-manager lacked standing to seek involuntary dissolution under Section 18-802 of the Delaware LLC Act, nonetheless had standing to seek equitable dissolution under the Chancery Court’s common-law authority as a court of equity.  Continue Reading Delaware Chancery Court Endorses Equitable Dissolution of LLC