Family-Owned Businesses

OppressionFranklin C. McRoberts, counsel in the Uniondale office of Farrell Fritz and a member of the firm’s Business Divorce Group, prepared this article.


An earlier post on this blog, examining a post-trial decision in Matter of Digeser v Flach, 2015 NY Slip Op 51609(U) [Sup Ct Albany County Nov. 5, 2015], described the minority shareholder’s dissolution claim under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law as a “classic case of minority shareholder oppression.” The Albany-based Appellate Division, Third Department, recently agreed with that assessment in affirming the lower court’s order finding sufficient grounds for dissolution.

The appellate panel’s unanimous decision in Matter of Gould Erectors & Rigging, Inc., 146 AD3d 1128, 2017 NY Slip Op 00228 [3d Dept Jan. 12, 2017], affirmed in every respect Albany County Commercial Division Justice Richard M. Platkin’s post-trial decision to dissolve two affiliated construction businesses. Here’s a quick recap of the case as it unfolded at the trial level.

Background

The story begins with two father-son pairs. The petitioner, Henry A. Digeser, is a 25% shareholder of two New York corporations, Gould Erectors & Rigging, Inc. (“Gould”) and Flach Crane & Rigging Co., Inc. (“Flach Crane”). The respondent, John C. Flach, owns the remaining 75%. Digeser’s father was a close friend and business colleague of Flach’s father, who founded the companies, and served on the businesses’ boards. Eventually, the younger Digeser got involved in the businesses and became an owner. Continue Reading An Oppression How-To: Revoke Employment, Profit Sharing and Control

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

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

Hirsch 2015 bio picture“What’s a marital business divorce?” you ask. Just what it sounds like: a business divorce wrapped inside the marital divorce of spouses who hold joint ownership interests in a closely held business entity.

Fighting over kids, money, the house, and the business? Sounds messier and possibly more destructive of business value than an ordinary, non-marital business divorce. But it needn’t be, says attorney Ladd Hirsch in a recent interview for the Business Divorce Roundtable podcast, a link to which appears at the bottom of this post.

Ladd is a partner at the Dallas office of Diamond McCarthy LLP where he focuses his practice on complex business litigation including business divorce, which is how our paths crossed some years ago. Ladd has carved out a niche within a niche, working with family law practitioners in marital divorce cases to optimize value for the soon-to-be-exes who either legally co-own a business or, in community property states, are deemed to co-own a business whose shares are held by one spouse but nonetheless included in the marital estate and subject to division or sale by the family court. Continue Reading Optimizing Value in a Marital Business Divorce

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

Ben Means

Business divorce on steroids. That’s how I describe the tenor of litigation that can erupt when members of a family-owned business have a falling out.

No one has devoted more scholarship to the challenging intersection of law and conflict in the family-owned business than Benjamin Means, Associate Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall a two-part online interview of Ben that I posted a few years ago (read here and here), in which he answered a series of questions about his groundbreaking law review article entitled Non-Market Values in the Family Business. The article uses social science and expansive notions of contractual relations in advocating for courts to give greater weight to what he calls “family values” in adjudicating corporate dissolution and other disputes among shareholder-members of the same family. Continue Reading Conflict in the Family-Owned Business: Interview With Professor Benjamin Means

WillThere’s been very little case law defining the powers of the executor of a deceased LLC member under New York LLC Law § 608, enabling the executor or other estate representative to “exercise all of the member’s rights for the purpose of settling his or her estate or administering his or her property, including any power under the operating agreement of an assignee to become a member.”

Perhaps the dearth of section 608 case law stems from the fact that even the most basic LLC operating agreements usually include provisions governing the disposition of a deceased member’s interest.

For example, the agreement may trigger mandatory redemption or buy-out of the deceased member’s interest. Or, as in the Budis case, it may track the default rules under sections 603 and 604 permitting the assignment of LLC interests to any person who, unless admitted as a member by the surviving members, obtains only an assignee’s right to receive the distributions and allocations of profits and losses the deceased would have received, i.e., receives no voting rights and therefore lacks member standing to participate in management, seek judicial dissolution, sue derivatively, demand access to books and records, etc.

A case from neighboring Connecticut may help to fill in at least some of the gaps in New York’s section 608 case law. A decision last month by the Appellate Court of Connecticut — that state’s intermediate appellate court — in Warren v Cuseo Family, LLC, AC 37239 [May 3, 2016], dealt with an interesting set of facts involving the estate of the majority owner of a family-owned LLC and produced an unusual but not surprising ruling giving the executor extraordinary power as temporary receiver to wind up the LLC’s affairs in order to settle the decedent’s estate. Continue Reading Executor of Deceased Majority Member Appointed Receiver to Wind Up LLC


1 2 3

Stratospheric real estate values in New York City have bestowed great wealth on those lucky or wise enough to have invested before or in the early stages of the city’s demographic, cultural, and commercial renaissance over the last 25 or so years.

The dramatic rise in property values also has spawned more than its fair share of business divorce litigation by exacerbating the divergence of interests among co-owners, between those who desire to sell and take their profit and those who prefer to hold and/or develop the property. This phenomenon is especially observable in family-owned real estate holding companies where the potential for intra- and inter-generational conflict is more pronounced.

Take the case of the Kassab brothers, who co-own through two holding companies a nondescript, outdoor parking lot also home to a flea market near downtown Jamaica, Queens. The property consists of three contiguous parcels with a footprint of about 42,000 square feet. Under existing zoning the properties are buildable as of right to about 380,000 square feet. Recent valuation estimates for the undeveloped properties, which were acquired by the Kassabs between 1992 and 2001 at a small fraction of current value, start over $14 million.

In 2013, the younger brother owning 25% sued to dissolve the holding companies — one organized as a corporation, the other as a limited liability company — claiming oppression and freeze-out by his elder brother owning the other 75%. The younger brother claims the freeze-out tactics are designed to force him to sell his interest to his elder brother for a pittance. The elder brother counters that he has no desire to deprive his younger brother of his ownership rights and that his younger brother is attempting to force him to sell the properties due to the younger brother’s supposedly dire financial straits.

Last week, the case produced not one, not two, but three separate appellate decisions addressing a potpourri of rulings on issues of vital interest to business divorce counsel. Summaries follow after the jump. Continue Reading One Parking Lot, Two Brothers, Three Decisions

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

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”