Grounds for Dissolution

Brothers1Like most civil cases, the vast majority of business divorce disputes get resolved before trial, which is disappointing for us voyeurs since only at trial with live witnesses undergoing cross examination does one get the full flavor of the case’s factual intricacies, credibility issues, and the emotional undercurrents.

Even rarer are written post-trial decisions by judges with detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which is why I was so pleased recently to come across a trio of expansive post-trial decisions by Queens County Justice Timothy J. Dufficy in three business divorce cases involving family-owned businesses.

One of them, Shih v Kim, was featured in last week’s post on this blog, in which a romantically-involved couple started a business while engaged and continued as business partners even after the engagement broke off — until the defendant went rogue by diverting cash to himself and diverting business to a competing company.

The two other cases form interesting bookends, metaphorically speaking. Both involve businesses run by brothers. Both involve challenges to the documented ownership of the business. In one case, Justice Dufficy rejected a bid to establish an undocumented, de facto partnership interest and dismissed the case. In the other, Justice Dufficy upheld the documented, 50/50 ownership of an LLC, granted dissolution, and appointed a receiver. Let’s take a closer look. Continue Reading A Pair of Unbrotherly Business Altercations Go to Trial

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

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

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

egregiousKurt Vonnegut observed in his novel Deadeye Dick that the word “egregious,” which “most people think means terrible or unheard of or unforgivable has a much more interesting story than that to tell. It means ‘outside the herd.'”

He’s right. The original Latin ēgregius did indeed translate as “standing outside the herd” in the non-judgmental sense of exceptional, and it wasn’t until the late 16th century that the word took on its modern, disapproving sense.

I’ll grant you it’s a bit of a leap from etymology to business divorce, but in the court decision I’m about to describe, the meaning of the word “egregious” took center stage in a minority shareholder’s lawsuit seeking common-law dissolution of a closely held corporation.

The court’s decision last month in Braun v Green, 2016 WL 4539488 [Sup Ct NY County Aug. 31, 2016], sprang from a dispute between fellow shareholders in a Florida corporation whose sole asset is a commercial realty development near Houston, Texas. The plaintiff 8% shareholder, Braun, sourced the investment opportunity and presented it to the defendant 92% shareholder, Green, who provided all of the needed capital. Continue Reading Non-Egregiously Aggrieved Minority Shareholder Can’t Sue for Common-Law Dissolution

The tiny state of Delaware plays an enormous role in this country’s corporate life. Delaware has long been the overwhelmingly preferred state of incorporation for publicly owned companies, and its cutting-edge (many would also say pro-management) enabling acts for closely held business entities have made it an exporter to the other 49 states of countless privately owned corporations, limited partnerships, and limited liability companies that have no connection to Delaware other than their state of formation.

The Delaware judicial system serves an integral role in maintaining the state’s corporate hegemony. The Delaware Court of Chancery is widely viewed as the country’s preeminent business-law trial court by virtue of its broad jurisdiction over Delaware business entities both public and private, and thanks to a judicial selection process that promotes the best and brightest candidates for the court’s judgeships including one Chancellor and four Vice-Chancellors whose typically thorough and scholarly written opinions are closely followed by lawyers and judges throughout the country.

Business divorce practice nationwide is no less susceptible to the influence of the Delaware legislative and judicial juggernaut. In New York, as in other states that are home to many Delaware-formed business entities, the internal affairs doctrine mandates application of Delaware law to disputes among entity co-owners, and jurisdictional constraints require owners seeking the ultimate remedy of judicial dissolution to do so in the Delaware Chancery Court. The Chancery Court’s interpretation of Delaware business entity statutes governing internal relations among co-owners of closely held business entities also has had significant influence over the interpretation of counterpart statutes in other states by their judiciaries. (A prominent example of this is the Second Department’s 2010 decision in the 1545 Ocean Avenue case which drew heavily upon Delaware Chancery Court precedent in setting the standard for judicial dissolution of LLCs under Section 702 of New York’s LLC Law.)

HeymanLadigAll of which is why I’m excited to invite readers to listen to my most recent podcast episode on the Business Divorce Roundtable entitled “Business Divorce, Delaware Style” featuring my interview of two leading Delaware litigators — Kurt Heyman (photo left) and Pete Ladig (photo right) — talking about what it’s like to litigate business divorce cases in the Chancery Court and current developments in Delaware law affecting such cases including important decisions I’ve written about on this blog in the TransPerfect, Carlisle, and Meyer cases.

Click on the link at the bottom of this post to hear the interview.

Kurt Heyman is a founding partner of Proctor Heyman Enerio LLP in Wilmington, Delaware, where he focuses his practice on corporate governance, partnership and limited liability company disputes in the Delaware Court of Chancery. Kurt lectures and writes extensively on business divorce and other corporate governance topics, he’s Co-Chair of the Business Divorce Subcommittee of the ABA Business Law Section, and he leads the Business Divorce and Private Company Disputes group on LinkedIn.

Pete Ladig is Vice Chair of the Corporate and Commercial Litigation Group at Morris James also in Wilmington. Pete concentrates his practice in the areas of corporate governance and commercial litigation, stockholder litigation, fiduciary duties, partnership and limited liability company disputes, and class action and derivative litigation. He’s also active in the ABA Business Divorce Subcommittee and has published articles on business divorce topics including a must-read post on his firm’s blog called What Is Business Divorce? Pete also co-hosts a podcast called CorpCast discussing corporate and commercial law in Delaware.

If you’re interested in business divorce, you’ll certainly enjoy listening to my interview of Kurt and Pete, both of whom speak on the subject with great authority, insight, and passion.

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

BreakupIt seems that every time I comment on the dearth of business divorce cases involving partnerships in an era increasingly dominated by limited liability companies, up pops a new and interesting decision in a dispute among partners in a general or limited partnership. In this instance, I’m proven wrong by not one but by three recent decisions involving partnership disputes although, I have to point out in my own defense, two of the three spring from what I call legacy partnerships formed in the 1980’s, i.e., before the advent of LLCs in New York.

Camuso

The first is Camuso v Brooklyn Portfolio, LLC, 50 Misc 3d 1226(A), 2016 NY Slip Op 50273(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Mar. 8, 2016], which is making its second appearance on this blog.

My previous post examined a decision almost two years ago by Brooklyn Commercial Division Presiding Justice Carolyn E. Demarest in which she determined that a real estate partnership agreement’s transfer restrictions gave way to a marital divorce settlement conveying half of one partner’s 50% interest to his ex-wife where the other 50% partner, who never formally consented to the conveyance as required by the partnership agreement, nonetheless subsequently ratified the transfer in the partnership tax returns and by prior judicial admissions. Continue Reading A Potpourri of Partnership Breakups