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

shareholderWhat makes a shareholder a shareholder? What makes an LLC member a member?

The simplicity of the questions belies the difficulties and endlessly unique fact patterns encountered in case after case involving close corporations and LLCs in which one faction claims the other has no ownership interest in the entity and therefore lacks standing to seek judicial dissolution or other remedies predicated on violation of owner rights.

That’s not to say there aren’t common characteristics of such ownership contests. Usually they spring from one or more of the following circumstances: lack of shareholder or operating agreement; lack of certificated interests or other formal ownership documents; lack of transparency of tax returns and other business documents requiring owner identification; prior, inconsistent representations in tax returns or court proceedings; and, sometimes, intentional concealment of ownership interests to avoid creditors, tax authorities, ex-spouses, etc.

Last month, in a pair of noteworthy decisions, Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Stephen A. Bucaria rejected challenges to claimed ownership interests in two very different cases, one involving a close corporation and the other an LLC, in both of which one party unsuccessfully claimed to be the sole owner. In the corporation case, Justice Bucaria granted summary judgment upholding the contested 4% stock ownership as evidenced by a stock purchase agreement and stock certificate notwithstanding the shareholder’s sworn testimony in a prior, unrelated case denying that he was a shareholder. In the LLC case, Justice Bucaria granted preliminary injunctive relief in favor of two individuals claiming one-third membership interest each as evidenced by documents provided to a franchisor and municipal agency, notwithstanding an operating agreement naming the adverse party as sole member. Continue Reading Sole Owners of Close Corporation and LLC Discover They’re Not So Sole

shorts

It’s late August, when the lure of the seashore and vacation plans push aside all but the most serious work-related endeavors, and when I share with my readers a few short summaries of recent decisions of interest in business divorce cases.

First, we’ll look at a decision in a dispute among former law firm partners in which the court upheld a partnership agreement amendment by the defendant majority partners, reducing the plaintiff’s percentage interest after he announced his intention to withdraw but before the actual withdrawal became effective. Next up is a relatively rare decision in an LLC dissolution case granting a motion to disqualify defense counsel under the advocate-witness rule of professional conduct. In the third case highlighted below, the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed a books-and-records action for lack of standing where the shares issued to the plaintiff never existed.

Court Enforces Eve-of-Withdrawal Reduction of Partnership Interest

Zohar v LaRock, Short Form Order, Index No. 14826/10 [Sup Ct Nassau County July 25, 2016]Article 8-B of New York’s Partnership Law authorizes regulated professional practices to organize as registered limited liability partnerships. The LLP form is highly popular with law firms because it offers the same limited liability protection afforded corporation shareholders and LLC members, except for their own professional negligence or malpractice. The LLP otherwise is subject to the same statutes and common-law rules governing general partnerships, which give partners great leeway in ordering their own affairs in their partnership agreement. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Partnership Interest Reduction and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

consentThe pick-your-partner principle is universally embedded in the default rules of limited liability company enabling acts, including Sections 601 through 604 of the New York LLC Law which permit free assignment of distributional and other economic rights appurtenant to a membership interest but require the other members’ consent before an assignee is granted full member status with voting and other rights associated with membership in an LLC.

The distinction between a “mere” assignee versus a transferee with member status can become a battle ground when a putative LLC member who received his, her or its interest by assignment brings legal action against the LLC’s managers for dissolution, access to books and records, or asserting derivative claims on behalf of the LLC. That’s because by statute and/or common law, the suing party’s requisite legal standing to assert such claims depends on having member status.

A recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in MFB Realty LLC v Eichner, 2016 NY Slip Op 31242(U) [Sup Ct NY County June 24, 2016], in which she dismissed derivative claims by a mere assignee of LLC interests, starkly illustrates the distinction and the importance of compliance with the LLC agreement’s provisions for bestowing member status on assignees. Continue Reading Operating Agreement’s Two-Step Consent Provision Foils Assignment of LLC Member Interest

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

OppressionNew York and most other states have judicial dissolution statutes protecting minority shareholders in close corporations against “oppressive actions” by controlling shareholders and directors. In many of those states, including New York, courts define oppression as conduct that defeats the minority shareholder’s “reasonable expectations.” The reasonable-expectations standard necessarily is a flexible one that allows courts to address the myriad circumstances under which minority shareholders, who generally lack exit rights and whose shares have no public market, face squeeze-out or freeze-out by the majority.

If I had to describe the classic case of minority shareholder oppression, it would be (1) an owner-operated business (2) that pays no stock dividends (3) in which the majority shareholder terminates the minority shareholder’s employment (4) thereby cutting off the minority shareholder’s sole source of economic benefits in the form of salary and bonus (5) while also removing the minority shareholder from the board of directors (6) thereby depriving the minority shareholder of any voice in company management.

I’ve pretty much just described the circumstances present in Matter of Digeser v Flach, 2015 NY Slip Op 51609(U) [Sup Ct Albany County Nov. 5, 2015], a post-trial decision handed down earlier this month by Albany County Commercial Division Justice Richard M. Platkin in which the court concluded that the petitioning minority shareholder established grounds for dissolution of two affiliated construction companies. Continue Reading A Classic Case of Minority Shareholder Oppression

No SaleA bitter feud among third-generation owners of a family business has yielded a notable court decision upholding the plaintiff’s standing to seek common-law dissolution and to assert shareholder derivative claims in the face of the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s shares automatically were redeemed by operation of the shareholders’ agreement upon the termination by the defendants of the plaintiff’s husband’s employment.

Sounds complicated? Not really.

Queens County Commercial Division Justice Duane A. Hart’s decision in Berger v Friedman, Short Form Order, Index No. 702322/15 [Sup Ct Queens County Oct. 27, 2015], centers on a wholesale distributor of electrical parts and equipment founded in 1945 by the grandparents of the three sibling litigants who each acquired a one-third interest from their parents in 1993. The siblings entered into a shareholders agreement (read here) naming each of them as an officer and director, requiring their unanimous consent for specified “major actions,” and defining a series of trigger events compelling stock redemption at a defined purchase price and on specified terms. Continue Reading Court Rejects Majority’s Gambit to Compel Buyback of Shares in Family-Owned Business

limited partnershipA post I wrote two years ago referred to the limited partnership as “the dinosaur of business forms in New York” destined for “virtual extinction” due to New York’s outmoded partnership laws coupled with the meteoric rise of the limited liability company. As the years roll by, the limited partnership’s obsolescence is especially pronounced for those governed by New York’s Uniform Limited Partnership Act of 1922 (“NYULPA”) codified in Article 8 of the New York Partnership Law, applicable to limited partnerships formed prior to, and exempted from, the New York Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act of 1991 (“NYRULPA”) codified in Article 8-A of the Partnership Law.

The rarity of new business divorce cases involving NYULPA-governed limited partnerships makes it all the more intriguing when one comes along, as happened earlier this month in a case called Doppelt v. Smith, 2015 NY Slip Op 31861(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 1, 2015], decided by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten.

Doppelt doesn’t disappoint, thanks to its holding that a provision in a limited partnership agreement, authorizing voluntary dissolution upon the majority vote of the limited partners, precluded the plaintiff’s claims seeking judicial (involuntary) dissolution. Although neither the court nor the parties labeled it as such, and while the defendant in his briefs referred to plaintiff’s lack of “capacity” to seek judicial dissolution, I believe a more apt description of the court’s holding is that, effectively, it enforced a contractual waiver of the limited partner’s statutory right to seek judicial dissolution. Continue Reading Court Enforces Waiver of Limited Partner’s Right to Seek Judicial Dissolution — Or Did It?

winding roadThe Delaware Supreme Court last week refused to rehear its affirmance of Chancery Court’s post-trial decision in a case called Zutrau v Jansing. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court last May affirmed a post-trial decision in a closely related case involving the same parties. The two appellate decisions effectively close out a tenaciously fought, seven-year litigation saga involving a minority shareholder’s largely unsubstantiated, multi-faceted attack on the majority shareholder’s management and financial stewardship of a small, New York-based Delaware corporation specializing in proxy servicing.

The litigation history includes an initial books-and-records proceeding in New York followed by serial suits in New York and Delaware asserting a variety of claims for unlawful termination of the minority shareholder’s employment; direct and derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duty; breach of contract; and a challenge to the validity and fairness of a reverse stock split that cashed out at fair value the minority stockholder’s shares while litigation was pending concurrently in New York and Delaware courts. [Disclosure: The defendants are clients of my firm which served as co-counsel in the New York litigation and acted as lead counsel in connection with the reverse stock split.]

The case spawned a plethora of pretrial motions, lengthy trials in New York Supreme Court and Delaware Chancery Court, and appeals in both jurisdictions. Ultimately, the courts rejected the plaintiff’s claims for unlawful termination of her employment and contract breach, rejected the bulk of her claims against the majority shareholder for breach of fiduciary duty, upheld the validity of the reverse stock split, and upheld the company’s fair value appraisal with modest adjustments. Continue Reading Business Divorce Case Reaches End of Long and Winding Road