ExitI wish I could tell you this post will answer the question posed by its title, but it won’t. Let’s start with a few basic, non-controversial propositions concerning the default duties of LLC members and managers under the laws of New York and, I would hazard a guess, most if not all other states:

  • Managers of a manager-managed LLC owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the LLC and its members.
  • Non-managing members of a manager-managed LLC do not owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the LLC and its members.
  • Members of a member-managed LLC owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the LLC and its members.

Now let’s tamper with the last of the above default rules. Assume the Acme company is a two-member, 50/50, New York LLC whose articles of organization do not designate it as manager-managed hence its management is “vested” in its members subject to provision otherwise in its operating agreement as authorized by LLC Law § 401 (a). Further assume Acme’s operating agreement expressly vests sole management authority in one of the two members. Does Acme’s other, non-managing member owe fiduciary duties? About two years ago, in Kalikow v Shalik which I wrote about here, Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano answered that question in the negative, reasoning that § 401 (a)’s vesting of management powers in the members is made subject to the operating agreement, and that LLC Law § 409 (a) imposes duties on LLC “managers” with no mention of non-managing members. So far so good. Now let’s try another, stickier variation. Assume Acme has no operating agreement, that from inception its two 50/50 members jointly managed it, but there came a time when one member announces to the other that he “withdraws” from all management responsibility — but still maintaining his membership interest and entitlement to his pro rata share of Acme’s profits — following which he forms and operates a competing business. Has the “withdrawn” member taken on the status of a non-managing member and successfully shed his fiduciary duties, thereby permitting him to compete freely against his own company? Continue Reading Can LLC Members Walk Away From Fiduciary Duties?

equityWhen it comes to LLC jurisprudence, equity’s on a roll.

A few major examples come to mind: the recent Carlisle case in which the Delaware Court of Chancery enforced “equitable dissolution” of an LLC upon the petition of the assignee of a membership interest who lacked standing under the dissolution statute; the Mizrahi case in which a New York appellate panel ordered an “equitable buy-out” of a 50% LLC member upon petition by the other 50% member in the absence of a statutory buy-out remedy; the Gottlieb decision in which another New York appellate panel gave birth to common-law “equitable accounting” claims.

Add to the growing list of equity-driven rulings for these contract-centric creatures of statute an unpublished decision last week by a New Jersey intermediate appellate court in All Saints University of Medicine Aruba v Chilana, No. A-2425-13T1 [N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 27, 2015], directing the lower court on remand to consider ordering a forced sale of a dissociated LLC member’s interest as a “common law equitable remedy” for “common law breaches of duty” notwithstanding the appellate court’s recognition that neither the applicable dissociation statute nor the LLC’s operating agreement authorized a compulsory sale. Continue Reading Dissociated LLC Member Faces “Equitable” Forced Buy-Out

pizzaA self-described “world-renowned Neapolitan pizza chef” won a round in court earlier this month in a dispute with his business partner over control of a popular pizzeria located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The court’s opinion by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice O. Peter Sherwood in Manzella v Caporuscio, 2015 NY Slip Op 31870(U)[Sup Ct NY County Oct. 6, 2015], granted summary judgment for the chef/majority member on his counterclaim against the minority member for breach of fiduciary duty and modified a prior Consent Order to authorize termination of the minority member’s employment for cause.

The case involves a Greenwich Village restaurant called Keste Pizza and Vino founded in 2009 by pizza chef Roberto Caporuscio. Since 2012 the business is co-owned by Caporuscio and Sandra Manzella as 55% and 45% members, respectively, of Keste Group LLC. Keste has a fairly standard operating agreement for member-managed LLCs, giving Caporuscio as majority member the controlling vote with a few exceptions requiring unanimous consent such as the admission of a new member.

Keste’s operating agreement (read here) doesn’t mention much less guarantee a member’s “employment” by the LLC. What it does say — which apparently stiffened spines on both sides in the lead-up to litigation — is that “[n]otwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in the provisions of this Agreement, the Members agree that Caporuscio and Manzella shall have primary responsibility for running the day-to-day operations of the Company” (¶ 4.1). Continue Reading Pizza Chef with Bigger Piece of LLC Pie Allowed to Terminate Minority Member’s Employment

Hit or MissPartnership dissolution cases have an especial poignancy, more so than cases involving other forms of business entities.

I think it’s because general partnerships are a dying breed of business association, supplanted in our litigious society by limited liability entities such as S corporations and LLCs.

The occasional partnership dissolution cases that land in court these days tend to involve family or multi-family real estate partnerships formed decades ago, in which one or more of the original partners have passed away or are approaching retirement and looking either to exit or to transfer their partnership interest and/or management role to their children. Fittingly, along with elderly parties the statutes governing the disputes are found in the superannuated New York Partnership Law, essentially unchanged since its adoption in 1919.

Such was the case in Breidbart v Olshan, Decision and Order, Index No. 003610/12 [Sup Ct Nassau County May 27, 2015], involving a realty partnership formed in 1977 to acquire and develop under a long-term lease a commercial office building in Lake Success on Long Island. The partnership, known as Boundary Realty Associates, consisted of three partners: Olshan (50%), Rosenberg (25%), and Breidbart (25%). The written partnership  agreement provided that the partnership would employ as managing agent for the first three years a firm owned and operated by Olshan at a fixed commission of 4% of gross rental income. The agreement also provided for termination of the partnership in 2020 or sooner upon the consent of a majority in interest of the partners. Continue Reading Decision Yields Hits and Misses for Plaintiff in Partnership Dissolution Case

RegretA Manhattan appellate panel’s unanimous decision last week in Brummer v Red Rabbit, LLC, 2015 NY Slip Op 02912 [1st Dept April 7, 2015], affirmed the dismissal of an LLC member’s claims for fraud and fiduciary breach based on the controller’s alleged concealment of impending equity investments by a pair of venture capital firms while the member was negotiating a partial buy-out of his membership interest.

The court held that the controller’s allegedly false representations regarding the company’s value and non-disclosure of investor interest “were neither relied upon nor material to plaintiff’s decision to sell.”

It’s an interesting contrast, to put it mildly, with the PF2 Securities case that I wrote about last week, in which a trial court refused to dismiss a minority shareholder’s fiduciary breach claim also based on an allegedly under-valued buy-out and the controller’s alleged withholding of financial information. In that case, the court held that the shareholder was “entitled to receive a fair market value for his stock after fair and complete disclosure and valuation.”

The complaint in Brummer (read here) alleged that around 2005 the plaintiff invested $25,000 in consideration of a 7% membership interest in a start-up venture called Red Rabbit that delivers “healthy” meals and snacks to New York metro area schools. After a period of modest growth, in 2010, the controlling member offered to buy back 6% for $28,500 using a percentage-of-revenue formula based on 2010 annual revenue of $475,000. He subsequently raised the offer to $40,000 which the plaintiff accepted, leaving plaintiff with a 1% membership interest. Continue Reading Another Case of Seller’s Remorse Bites the Dust

VennDo controlling shareholders of a close corporation have an affirmative duty of financial disclosure when negotiating a buy-out of a minority shareholder? If so, what’s the source of the duty? Is it part of, or appurtenant to, a common-law fiduciary duty of loyalty or care? Or might it derive from the statutory right to seek judicial dissolution for the controllers’ oppressive acts?

Those weighty questions are prompted by a decision last month in which the court denied a motion to dismiss a minority shareholder’s counterclaim against the majority shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with a disputed buy-out agreement. The court’s decision in PF2 Securities Evaluations, Inc. v Fillebeen, 2015 NY Slip Op 30436(U) [Sup Ct NY County Mar. 26, 2015], invoked in tandem the majority shareholders’ fiduciary duty and the minority shareholder’s rights to be “free of oppressive conduct” and “in the event of a consensual buy-out . . . to receive a fair market value for his stock after fair and complete disclosure and valuation.”

The case involves a financial consulting firm called PF2 that uses mathematical models to evaluate collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The defendant co-founded the company in 2007 and held a one-third stock interest. According to PF2’s complaint (read here), the defendant was responsible for developing the mathematical models and collecting data to evaluate CDOs. The complaint alleges that in 2012, as a result of the defendant “failing to fulfill his role as a director/partner of PF2,” the company negotiated “a generous buyout and employment contract” with the defendant “through various conversations and emails.” The complaint’s gravamen is that the defendant wrongfully competed with PF2 and misappropriated its proprietary information both before the buy-out when he was still a shareholder and afterward while he was in PF2’s employ. Continue Reading Blurring the Lines Between Oppression, Duty of Disclosure, and Fiduciary Breach

Hardcore students of business divorce will remember Pappas v. Tzolis as a roller coaster ride through the trial and appellate courts in which, ultimately, New York’s highest court dismissed claims against a 40% LLC member who bought out his 60% co-members for $1.5 million, allegedly while concealing from them that he already had lined up a buyer for the LLC’s sole asset — a 49-year lease on a Manhattan commercial property — for $17.5 million. The court held that a provision in the buy-out agreement, stating that the buying member “has no fiduciary duty to the . . . sellers in connection with [the sales of their interests],” was a complete defense to the sellers’ claims that the buyer breached a duty to disclose the alleged $17.5 million offer. (Read here my post about the Court of Appeals’ November 2012 ruling.)

Pappas was decided on a pre-answer, pre-discovery motion to dismiss the complaint. The procedural posture required the court to assume the truthfulness of the complaint’s factual allegations. The defendant 40% member, Steve Tzolis, did not have to admit or deny that, in fact, he secretly had negotiated a $17.5 million sale of the LLC’s lease to a major real estate developer, Extell, before buying out his partners for $1.5 million. All we outside observers knew for certain was that the $17.5 million sale occurred about seven months after the buy-out of the member interests.

At least some of the mystery has now been revealed, courtesy of a subsequent lawsuit brought by one of the two disappointed sellers, Steve Pappas, against a law firm that, according to Pappas, represented him and/or the LLC in connection with the buy-out agreement while simultaneously assisting Tzolis’ secret negotiations to sell the lease to Extell. Our informational gain is of little comfort to Pappas, whose case against the law firm recently was thrown out as an impermissible end-run around the preclusive effective of the Court of Appeals’ ruling in the prior case. Pappas v Schatz, 2014 NY Slip Op 30946(U) [Sup Ct NY County Apr. 9, 2014]. Continue Reading Pappas v. Tzolis: A Revealing Epilogue

If you Google the names Edward Kalikow and Eugene Shalik, you’ll notice a distinct pattern in the search results dating before and after 2006. Before that date, you’ll come across numerous trade publications trumpeting significant real estate development projects across the country involving Messrs. Kalikow and Shalik as longtime, successful, Long Island-based business partners. But after 2006, pretty much all you’ll find are numerous court decisions in multiple, nasty lawsuits between the two gentlemen and their affiliated entities fighting over all sorts of matters big and small. So what happened in 2006?

As best as I can glean from the public record, that’s the year Kalikow’s mother died, leaving behind a will naming Shalik as executor and apparently giving a good portion if not the bulk of her estate, including valuable real estate partnership interests left to her by her late husband, to a charitable foundation of which Shalik is trustee. Kalikow’s subsequent challenge to the will’s disposition of the partnership interests, alongside a host of other business disputes precipitated by the poisonous atmosphere, evolved into a litigation juggernaut still going strong after eight years of zigzagging through surrogate’s court, civil court, tax court, arbitration and appellate tribunals.

One of the more recent legal spats, involving a single-asset realty company owned by the two of them 50/50, led to an interesting decision earlier this year by Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano in which the court addressed the question whether the non-managing member of a New York limited liability company owes any fiduciary duty to the LLC or its other members. The court’s decision in Kalikow v. Shalik, 2014 NY Slip Op 24099 [Sup Ct, Nassau County Feb. 26, 2014], also considered whether a common-law claim for contribution exists when one of two LLC members, both of whom personally guaranteed the LLC’s mortgage debt, voluntarily pays down a portion of the debt to avoid a default.  Continue Reading Court Dismisses Fiduciary Breach, Contribution Claims Against Non-Managing LLC Member

I recently wrote about the Kensington Publishing case in which the two children of the deceased business founder’s first marriage took control of a successful publishing house — to the consternation of the founder’s surviving second wife who inherited a majority of the company’s voting shares — by means of a voting agreement signed by the father without his wife’s knowledge several years before he died. In that case, the second wife, who was stymied in her effort to sell her majority stake on a control basis to a major publishing house, failed to convince the court to invalidate the voting agreement which port-mortem left board control in her stepchildren’s hands even upon a sale of the shares to an outside buyer.

The tables are turned in a new decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Charles E. Ramos, in Serota v Scimone, 2014 NY Slip Op 30924(U) [Sup Ct, NY County Apr. 8, 2014], where it’s the second wife who prevails over the sons of her deceased husband’s first marriage by means of a different kind of dead-hand control mechanism involving a blanket delegation of LLC management authority to an outside contractor allied with the second wife and her son from her own prior marriage.

The Management Agreement in question, made by the ailing patriarch and business founder less than a month before his death, left his sons with ownership of a realty empire but with virtually no power to control it even though they automatically became the LLCs’ designated managers after their father died. Continue Reading Father’s Dead-Hand Control of LLCs Frustrates Sons’ Takeover of Realty Empire