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

stock certificate 1First a books and records proceeding. Then a declaratory judgment action. Then dissolution proceedings. Six years of litigation including two appellate rulings, just to establish who’s a shareholder and who’s not, all because the owners of two closely held corporations formed decades ago never bothered to issue stock certificates or otherwise attend to corporate formalities.

It didn’t help that the two corporations, formed in the 1960’s, never elected pass-through taxation as subchapter S corporations, hence the companies never issued form K-1’s identifying the shareholders and their stock percentages.

In last week’s appellate ruling in Zwarycz v Marnia Construction, Inc., 2015 NY Slip Op 06239 [2d Dept July 22, 2015], which affirmed a June 2014 post-trial decision by Westchester County Supreme Court Justice Robert DiBella, the plaintiff Michael Zwarycz overcame the absence of a stock certificate or any other direct evidence of share ownership to establish his 50% interest in two corporations that own residential apartment buildings in Yonkers, New York.

Zwarycz’s victory last year before Justice DiBella turned bittersweet, however, when his follow-up petitions to dissolve the two corporations based on deadlock and internal dissension were dismissed by a different judge. Those November 2014 rulings are the subject of Zwarycz’s pending appeals. Continue Reading Fifty Years a Stockholder, Six Years to Prove it in Court

Del Ct Chancery 2Viewing the arc of Delaware Chancery Court jurisprudence over the last two decades implementing that state’s Limited Liability Company Act, and witnessing the Delaware legislature’s frequent amendments to the statute in reaction to judicial developments, you can’t help but detect a pattern of maintaining the unique attributes of the Delaware LLC, as compared to other forms of business entity, by:

  • rigorously promoting freedom of contract (in the form of the LLC agreement) and its corollary, “you made your bed now lie in it”;
  • deciding internal governance disputes within the bounds of the interplay of the Delaware LLC Act’s default rules and the LLC agreement; and
  • strongly disfavoring judicial intervention based on open-ended notions of fairness (the main exception being when managers take on fiduciary duties by agreement or by default under the statute).

Stated simply, in Delaware certainty trumps indeterminacy.

Well, not always, as seen in a first-impression ruling last week by Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster in In re Carlisle Etcetera LLC, C.A. No. 10280-VCL (read here), in which the court held that the assignee of an LLC membership interest, who as a non-member and non-manager lacked standing to seek involuntary dissolution under Section 18-802 of the Delaware LLC Act, nonetheless had standing to seek equitable dissolution under the Chancery Court’s common-law authority as a court of equity.  Continue Reading Delaware Chancery Court Endorses Equitable Dissolution of LLC

shutterstock_121625548It’s not that I get nostalgic about derivative lawsuits (or Oldsmobiles), it’s just that it feels like we’re in a brave new world when it comes to adapting hoary corporate doctrine to that unincorporated upstart known as the limited liability company.

The clash between old and new looms in a derivative action concerning an LLC pending before Erie County Commercial Division Presiding Justice Timothy J. Walker called Univest I Corp. v Skydeck Corp., Index No. 2014-811644. The case stems from a dispute between the 50% managing member (BDC) and 50% non-managing member (Univest) of 470 Pearl Street, LLC, which was formed in 2004 for the purpose of acquiring for future development a parking lot in Buffalo, New York. Pending the development, BDC and Univest agreed to lease the parking lot to a BDC affiliate known as Skydeck Corp. The lease granted 470 Pearl the right to terminate the lease on 60-days notice.

In 2014, Univest, acting in 470 Pearl’s name, issued a termination notice to Skydeck under authority of an unusual provision in 470 Pearl’s operating agreement that gave either member the unilateral right “to cause 470 Pearl to terminate” the Skydeck lease. Two lawsuits followed Skydeck’s refusal to vacate. In the first, Justice Walker granted Univest a declaratory judgment upholding its termination notice and ordering Skydeck, pending further order, to pay an increased monthly rent (read amended complaint here and the court’s order here).

Shortly afterward, Univest commenced a derivative summary eviction proceeding on behalf of 470 Pearl, naming both Skydeck and BDC as respondents (read petition here). Now, let me pause the story for a moment. I’m not a landlord-tenant lawyer. If you’d asked me, before I looked into the Univest case, whether a non-controlling, non-managing corporation shareholder or LLC member could bring an eviction proceeding against the corporation’s or LLC’s tenant, I’m sure I would have guessed “no” for at least two reasons. First, I would have assumed the governing statute in Article 7 of the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law somehow limits standing to seek relief to the owner or its authorized agent. Second, evicting a third-party tenant strikes me as quintessential management action. Imagine the chaos if any minority owner of a real estate operating company could take it upon themselves to launch eviction proceedings. But I would have guessed wrong. Gorbrook Associates, Inc. v Silverstein, 40 Misc 3d 425 [Dist. Ct. Nassau County 2013], a case of apparent first impression, held that a non-controlling, minority shareholder may bring derivatively an eviction proceeding.  Continue Reading Not Your Father’s Derivative Action

The statutes and judge-made law governing dissolution and other claims among co-owners of closely held business entities can vary significantly from state to state. Depending on the states, there also can be much in common, which is why I like to keep an eye on developments outside New York, and not just Delaware which tends to have the most advanced business-law jurisprudence.

Below are five business divorce cases decided by appellate courts outside New York that made a splash in 2014. As you might expect, four of the five involve that relatively new business entity form, the limited liability company. The one involving a traditional business corporation, however, likely made the biggest splash.

Ritchie v Rupe, 2014 WL 2788335 [Tex. Sup Ct June 20, 2014]. The Lone Star State takes the prize for the most controversial business divorce decision in 2014, thanks to the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Ritchie which, as one commentator put it, effectively “gutted the cause of action for shareholder oppression in Texas.” A Texas intermediate appellate court ruling in 1988, which had been followed ever since, recognized a compulsory buyout remedy for oppressed minority shareholders under a broad test for oppression mirroring New York’s reasonable-expectations standard. No more. The Ritchie court, in a 6-3 decision, narrowly defined oppressive conduct by majority shareholders as “when they abuse their authority over the corporation with the intent to harm the interests of one or more of the shareholders, in a manner that does not comport with the honest exercise of their business judgment, and by doing so create a serious risk of harm to the corporation.” The Ritchie majority then applied the coup de grâce by construing the applicable Texas statute as limiting the remedy for oppressive conduct to the appointment of a “rehabilitative receiver.” Bye bye buyout. For a more detailed analysis of Ritchie‘s impact on Texas business divorce litigation, check out my friend Ladd Hirsch’s posts here, here, and here on his Texas Business Divorce blog.   Continue Reading Round-Up of Recent Business Divorce Cases From Across the Country

Ready to take a pop quiz? Here we go:

  1. Can a 50% shareholder of a closely held corporation petition for judicial dissolution under the deadlock statute, Business Corporation Law § 1104?  __ Yes  __ No
  2. Can a 50% shareholder of a closely held corporation petition for judicial dissolution under the oppressed shareholder statute, Business Corporation Law § 1104-a?  __ Yes  __ No
  3. Can a 50% shareholder of a closely held corporation petition for judicial dissolution under common law?  __ Yes  __ No
  4. Can a 50% shareholder of Company A, who also is a director of Company B in which Company A holds a majority interest, petition for judicial dissolution of Company B under common law?  __ Yes  __ No

Let’s see how you did. If you answered “Yes” to #1, you’re right. But that was easy. Without even looking at the statute, BCL § 1104, logic tells you that a shareholder who possesses half the available voting power — that is, not enough to secure majority approval for shareholder or board action but enough to block the other 50% shareholder from doing the same — should be able to seek dissolution where deadlock results from disagreement with the other 50% shareholder. Continue Reading Take the 50% Shareholder/Dissolution Pop Quiz!

The rules of standing to seek judicial dissolution of closely held New York business corporations can be confusing. Correction: they are confusing.

Here I’m not referring to disputes over whether someone is a shareholder at all, or holds a specific percentage. I’ve posted many an article on this blog about dissolution cases in which the petitioner’s stock ownership was challenged for lack of documentation and/or as inconsistent with the entity’s organic instruments, tax returns and other business records.

Rather, I’m referring to the statutory criteria for standing and the judicial application of those criteria to situations in which a challenge is raised concerning whether a particular, otherwise-uncontested ownership interest confers eligible holder status as to the entity whose dissolution is sought.

Let’s start with the statutes.

Section 1104 of the Business Corporation Law.  This statute authorizes a petition for judicial dissolution based on director or shareholder deadlock and internal dissension brought by “the holders of shares representing one-half of the votes of all outstanding shares of a corporation entitled to vote in an election of directors.” Note that the statute requires the petitioner to own voting shares, and that it specifies a 50% voting interest — no more, no less. Continue Reading Understanding Standing in Corporate Dissolution Cases