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!

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

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

USA

It’s true that the statutory and common-law rules at play in business divorce cases can vary widely from state to state. But it’s also true that court decisions in one state can influence courts in other states, and can provide business divorce lawyers with fresh ideas and novel arguments. I like to think of it as legal cross-pollination.

For many years, one of the nation’s leading authorities on business organization law, Professor Elizabeth Miller at Baylor Law School, has been collecting, curating, and publishing detailed synopses of cases from around the country involving LLCs and other unincorporated business entities, with a large complement of dissolution, breach of fiduciary duty, and other cases featuring disputes among business co-owners. It’s a terrific resource for keeping up with nationwide case law developments. Some of Professor Miller’s summaries can be found online, but the best way for lawyers to gain access to them on a regular basis is to join the LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities Committee of the ABA’s Business Law Section. That’s the same committee that sponsors the incomparable LLC Institute every year.

Professor Miller’s most recent sampling of (non-Delaware) partnership and LLC cases was presented at a session of the 2017 Spring Meeting of the Business Law Section in New Orleans. I’ve selected from it and further distilled in the following summaries a quintet of business divorce cases from a quintet of states other than New York. Continue Reading Business Divorce Nation: Five States, Five Cases

jurisdiction1I can count on one hand the number of federal court cases I’ve featured on this blog since I started it almost 10 years ago — and that’s no coincidence.

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, requiring either the presence of a claim arising under federal law — so-called federal question jurisdiction — or the opposing litigants are citizens of different states — so-called diversity jurisdiction.

Federal question jurisdiction rarely exists in business divorce cases involving the internal affairs of closely held business entities which are the peculiar province of state law. Federal courts are especially loathe to decide judicial dissolution cases, to the point where they routinely exercise their discretionary power to abstain from exercising jurisdiction even in dissolution cases where diversity exists (read here).

Inevitably there are some small number of diversity suits filed in federal court asserting state-law claims other than dissolution between business co-owners. Even in these cases, however, there is a potential trap for the unwary plaintiff if the subject business entity is a limited liability company, as nicely illustrated by a Manhattan federal judge’s decision last month in Sullivan v Ruvoldt, Opinion and Order, 16 Civ. 583 [SDNY Mar. 24, 2017]. Continue Reading Beware Diversity Trap in Federal Court Business Divorce Cases Involving LLCs

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

powerlessAn appellate decision last week sounds alarm bells for minority members of New York LLCs that have no operating agreement and for anyone considering becoming a minority member of an LLC without first having in place an operating agreement.

By the same token, the decision provides opportunities for majority members of existing LLCs without operating agreements to cement and expand their control powers.

Last week’s unanimous decision by the Manhattan-based Appellate Division, First Department in Shapiro v Ettenson, 2017 NY Slip Op 00442 [1st Dept Jan. 24, 2017], affirmed the lower court’s order enforcing an operating agreement signed by two of the LLC’s three co-founding, co-equal members, adopted two years after the LLC’s formation without the signature or consent of the LLC’s third member. Among other features, the operating agreement departed from the statutory default rule by authorizing the reduction of the percentage interest of a member who fails to satisfy a capital call approved by the majority, which is exactly what the two majority members did following their adoption of the agreement, along with eliminating the minority member’s salary. Continue Reading Thinking About Becoming a Minority Member of a New York LLC Without an Operating Agreement? Think Again

Martini2Oh, the things that can happen when the LLC members identified in the company’s operating agreement differ from those identified in official documents submitted to government agencies.

Recently, this blog reported on one case in which the court found in favor of two individuals on their claimed LLC membership interests as evidenced by an application for a food service permit filed by the LLC with the New York City Health Department naming them and the defendant as members, notwithstanding an operating agreement that identified the defendant as the LLC’s sole member. That case involved ownership of a hot dog franchise.

From hot dogs we move to martinis. On an interesting set of facts, Brooklyn Commercial Division Justice Lawrence S. Knipel recently ruled the other way. In the whimsically captioned Cupcake & Boomboom, LLC v Aslani, 2016 NY Slip Op 32310(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Nov. 22, 2016], the outcome was anything but whimsical for the defendant. Justice Knipel discredited documents the LLC submitted to the New York State Liquor Authority (“SLA”) as part of an application to obtain a liquor license, including an operating agreement intentionally misidentifying the members. Instead, the court credited an earlier, inconsistent operating agreement as determinative of the members’ ownership status, thereby reducing the defendant’s claimed interest from 50% to 10%. Continue Reading Operating Agreement Trumps Falsified Liquor License Application In Dispute Over LLC Membership

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?