The practical lesson for entrepreneurs of the case I’m about to describe is, never sign complex business agreements without your lawyer, and never ever sign such agreements in the last week of August when your vacationing lawyer is unreachable.

Deals to forge new business enterprises have a pace and momentum all their own. Business considerations, financial considerations, ownership considerations, legal considerations, tax considerations, personality considerations, and more — all have to coalesce and achieve critical mass in support of a meeting of the minds on the deal’s material terms to be memorialized in a binding, enforceable, written agreement.

The dynamics of the negotiations and externalities sometimes create a seize-the-moment mentality that induces one or both sides to push to sign an agreement that’s not fully baked, either to prevent a change of mind or with the expectation that remaining open issues can be cleaned up later. In even more extreme situations, the parties commit time and capital to the new venture while the negotiations are ongoing, that is, acting and treating each other as business partners before the deal is consummated.

Eagle Force Holdings, LLC v Campbell, Mem. Opinion, C.A. No. 10803-VCMR [Del Ch Sept. 1, 2017], decided earlier this month by Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves of the Delaware Court of Chancery, is one of those extreme cases. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the case, in which the court found unenforceable the transaction documents for a new venture, including signed operating and contribution agreements, is the heavy involvement of sophisticated legal counsel on both sides throughout the process — except for the critical moment when the two principals met alone and signed what was labeled a “draft” agreement just before the start of the Labor Day holiday weekend when their respective lawyers were unreachable. Continue Reading Don’t Let the Deal Get Ahead of the Documents

If you haven’t yet listened to prior episodes of the Business Divorce Roundtable (a) it’s time you did and (b) absolutely you won’t want to miss the latest episode (click on the link at the bottom of this post) featuring first-hand, real-life, business divorce stories told by business appraiser Tony Cotrupe of Melioria Advisors (photo left) and attorney Jeffrey Eilender of Schlam Stone & Dolan (photo right).

Tony’s and Jeff’s stories have a common element: both involve the contentious break-up of a poisonous business relationship between two brothers. The similarity ends there. In my interview of Tony, he puts us inside a fast-paced and ultimately successful effort by the feuding second-generation owners of a propane distributorship, guided by their respective lawyers working in collaboration, to avoid litigation by engineering a buy-out of one brother by the other based on Tony’s business appraisal as the jointly retained, independent evaluator. It’s a happy ending to what otherwIse could have turned into a drawn-out courtroom slugfest.

Courtroom slugfest aptly sums up Jeff’s story as counsel for the brother owning the minority interest in Kassab v. Kasab, a case I’ve featured on this blog several times including last month’s post-trial decision giving the other brother the opportunity to buy out the minority interest upon pain of dissolution if he doesn’t (read here, here, and here). Jeff’s insider analysis of the case provides unique insights into a multi-faceted, roller-coaster-ride of a case involving novel issues under the statutes and case law governing business corporations and limited liability companies.

If you’re a lawyer, business appraiser or business owner with a business divorce story you’d like to share for a future podcast, drop me a line at pmahler@farrellfritz.com.

 

Regular readers of this blog know it’s been anything but summer doldrums in the world of business divorce, what with case law developments such as the Appellate Division’s potentially far-reaching ruling on the purposeless purpose clause and LLC dissolution in Mace v Tunick reported in last week’s post, and the astonishing story of minority shareholder oppression in the Twin Bay Village case also reported earlier this month.

This year’s edition of Summer Shorts picks up the summer pace with short summaries of three must-read decisions by New York and Delaware courts on three very different business divorce topics: use of a Special Litigation Committee to evaluate derivative claims brought by LLC members (New York); grounds for dissolution and the court’s remedial powers in shareholder oppression cases (New York); and LLC deadlock dissolution (Delaware).

Appellate Ruling Rejects Appointment of Special Litigation Committee in LLC Derivative Suit Where Not Authorized By Operating Agreement

LNYC Loft, LLC v Hudson Opportunity Fund I, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 06147 [1st Dept Aug. 15, 2017].  In Tzolis v Wolff, New York’s highest court recognized a common-law right of LLC members to sue derivatively on behalf of the LLC. Subsequent lower court decisions have clarified other aspects of the right by analogy to corporation law, such as requiring the plaintiff LLC member to allege pre-suit demand or demand futility. In shareholder derivative suits involving corporations, the board’s inherent authority to appoint a Special Litigation Committee composed of independent and disinterested directors to assess derivative claims is well established and, when properly implemented, can result in the court’s dismissal of derivative claims based on the SLC’s conclusion that the claims do not merit prosecution by the corporation. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Three Must-Read Decisions

WARNING: Contractarians may find the following post disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

Now that I’ve got your attention, consider this:

  • Under the standard for judicial dissolution of a New York LLC prescribed in the landmark 1545 Ocean Avenue case, the primary, contract-based inquiry is whether the LLC’s managers are unable or unwilling to permit or promote the stated purpose of the entity, as found in the LLC’s operating agreement or articles of formation, to be realized or achieved.
  • The typical, broad purpose clause found in untold thousands of standardized and customized LLC agreements provides that the LLC’s purpose is “any lawful business,” mirroring Section 201 of the LLC Law (“A limited liability company may be formed under this chapter for any lawful business purpose or purposes”).
  • When a fully integrated operating agreement states that the LLC’s purpose is “any lawful business,” may a minority member of an LLC nonetheless seek judicial dissolution based on extrinsic (parol) evidence that those in control of the LLC are operating it for a lawful business purpose that departs from the LLC’s alleged original lawful business purpose?

Until last week’s decision by the Brooklyn-based Appellate Division, Second Department — the same court that gave us 1545 Ocean Avenue — in Mace v Tunick, 2017 NY Slip Op 06170 [2d Dept Aug. 16, 2017], I would have answered that question “no” with support from a number of case precedents in New York and other jurisdictions including that hotbed of contractarian jurisprudence known as Delaware. After Mace, it appears that the “any lawful business” purpose clause may be as good as no purpose clause. Continue Reading Does Your LLC Agreement Have a Purposeless Purpose Clause?

In 1981, three partners formed a general partnership to own and operate a rental property. Their partnership agreement fixed a 30-year term, to 2011. In 2003, the partners formed a new LLC maintaining the same ownership percentages as the partnership, to which the partnership transferred the property for purposes of refinancing the existing mortgage loan.

In 2016, after failing to secure a buy-out agreement, the holder of a 45% interest sued to dissolve the LLC under New York LLC Law § 701 (a) based on the 2011 expiration date in the partnership agreement.

But wait, you say, didn’t the LLC supersede the partnership and, if so, how can the LLC’s duration be governed by the termination date in the partnership agreement? Unless there’s an LLC agreement that provides otherwise, isn’t the LLC’s existence perpetual by default? And how can the owners hold themselves out to the world as an LLC while acting as partners among themselves? After all, it was the mortgage lender that likely required the transition from partnership to LLC as a condition of the loan, among other reasons, precisely to avoid the risk associated with a general partner’s unfettered right to dissolve the partnership at any time for any reason.

An interesting set-up, indeed, for a decision last week by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Golder v 29 West 27th Street Associates, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 31527(U) [Sup Ct NY County July 17, 2017], in which she denied a motion to dismiss the dissolution petition upon finding “a material issue of fact exists as to whether a written operating agreement exists as to the LLC’s term of duration.” Continue Reading It’s a Partnership! No, It’s an LLC! No, It’s Both!

Pay attention to your K-1s or they may come back to bite you, is the lesson of Bruder v Hillman, Docket No. A-5055-15T1 [N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 27, 2017], decided last week by a New Jersey appellate panel which rebuffed a limited partner’s attack on the validity of the partnership’s conversion to a limited liability company.

The court’s opinion describes the plaintiffs as “sophisticated real estate investors”  who in 1984 formed a New Jersey limited partnership to own and operate a large apartment complex in Virginia which some years later filed for bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy case settled in 1992 with a restructure agreement and an amended partnership agreement under which the defendants invested almost $12 million and took control of the partnership as general partner, with the plaintiffs retaining limited partner interests. Continue Reading In Dispute Over Partnership’s Conversion to LLC, Court Finds No Duty to “Spoon-Feed” Sophisticated Investor

Food-Fight1A little over three years ago I reported on the first round of a fascinating “food fight” among four siblings, each of whom is a 25% shareholder of a Brooklyn-based, second-generation food distributor known as Jersey Lynne Farms, Inc. (the “Corporation”), and each of whom also is a 25% member of Catarina Realty, LLC (the “LLC”) which leases its sole realty asset to the Corporation.

The occasion back then was the court’s decision in Borriello v Loconte denying a dismissal motion in a derivative suit brought by Dorine Borriello on the LLC’s behalf in which she alleged that her three siblings breached fiduciary duty by leasing its realty to the Corporation at a drastically below-market rent and by imposing on the LLC certain expenses that ought to be borne by the Corporation as tenant.

In 2011 — the same year her siblings entered into the challenged lease — they ousted Dorine as a director, officer, and employee of the Corporation. In 2012 Dorine and her siblings negotiated a Separation Agreement and General Release setting forth terms for payment of compensation and benefits along with non-compete and non-disclosure provisions. The agreement left intact Dorine’s 25% stock interest in the Corporation.

Dorine’s derivative suit filed in 2013 claimed that the 2011 below-market lease rendered the LLC unprofitable while increasing the Corporation’s income used to pay salaries and other benefits to her siblings. The first round went to Dorine when the court ruled that her General Release did not encompass her derivative claim and enjoined her siblings from advancing their legal expenses from LLC funds.

In the end, however, and subject to any appeals Dorine may bring, it appears that the siblings have won the food fight’s final rounds. Continue Reading “Food Fight” Sequel Ends Badly for Ousted Sibling

NY

DelawareThe common perception among practitioners familiar with the business entity laws of New York and Delaware is that Delaware law generally is friendlier to, and more protective of, majority ownership and management interests.

Two recent cases — one from each state — highlight at least one important area where the common perception does not apply: majority rights under the statutory default rules to adopt or amend an LLC operating agreement without the consent of all the members.

The difference between the two states can have critical consequences for both majority and minority members of the many LLCs that, for better or worse, are formed without a written operating agreement.

The New York case is one I previously wrote about on this blog. Last January, in Shapiro v Ettenson, the Appellate Division, First Department, in a case involving a three-member LLC that was formed without a written operating agreement, affirmed a lower court’s decision construing Section 402 (c) (3) of the New York LLC Law (“except as provided in the operating agreement . . . the vote of a majority in interest of the members entitled to vote thereon shall be required to . . . adopt, amend, restate or revoke the articles of organization or operating agreement”) to permit the two-member majority to adopt a written operating agreement almost two years after the LLC was formed and began operating, without the third member’s consent and notwithstanding certain provisions in the agreement that modified the statutory default rules adversely to the third member. Continue Reading Delaware Ruling Highlights Difference With New York Over Amending LLC Agreements

StandingThe rules of “standing” in business divorce litigation generally require that the plaintiff have an ownership interest in the business entity at the time of the alleged wrongful conduct and, for derivative claims brought on the entity’s behalf, throughout the litigation.

In Lewis v Alcobi, 2017 NY Slip Op 30664(U) [Sup Ct NY County Apr. 6, 2017], Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Anil C. Singh considered whether a parent’s assignment of her young daughter’s membership interest in a limited liability company as security for the other parent’s unpaid debt deprived the daughter of standing to sue, despite the daughter’s claim to have received no consideration for the assignment.

The case provides useful lessons for litigating disputes of this sort and, perhaps more importantly, for transactional attorneys considering the use of LLC membership interests to secure payment obligations. Continue Reading Assignment of LLC Interest Defeats Standing Despite Alleged Lack of Consideration

Buy-SellAt least on paper, shotgun provisions in shareholder and operating agreements provide an elegant and efficient buy-out solution when business owners can’t get along and need a divorce. In a two-owner company, the one who “pulls the trigger” names a price at which he or she either will buy the other’s interest or sell to the other. The other owner has a specified amount of time to decide which. Since the offeror doesn’t know who will be the buyer, in theory there’s a great incentive to name an objectively fair price. The agreement usually also will prescribe payment terms. No need for appraisal. No fuss. No muss.

I’m not aware of any data-based studies on the subject, but I believe experienced lawyers would concur that shotgun clauses, although frequently included in owner agreements, are rarely invoked. Why is that? I can only speculate that owners generally prefer other ways to achieve a breakup without the uncertainty of knowing who will end up with the business. Also, owners are reluctant to be the trigger-puller, that is, there’s a natural preference to be the one with the option to buy or sell at a price named by the other.

Shotguns also can suffer from informational and financial asymmetries between the owners, a problem highlighted in my two-part, online interview of Professors Landeo and Spier some years ago (here and here). As Professor Spier described it: Continue Reading Aim Carefully Before Pulling Trigger on Shotgun Buy-Sell Agreement