Recently, in two separate cases, two New York judges construing two LLC agreements of two LLCs formed under the laws of two different states — Delaware and Nevada — came to the same conclusion when faced with the same argument by the LLCs’ controllers who contended that minority members waived the right to institute litigation asserting derivative claims based on provisions in the agreements requiring managerial or member consent to bring an action on behalf of the company.

In both cases, the judges rejected the waiver argument after finding that the language of the provisions upon which the controllers relied did not expressly prohibit derivative claims. The more interesting question not reached, at least in the case of the Delaware LLC for reasons I’ll explain below, is whether the statute authorizing derivative claims is mandatory or permissive.

Talking Capital

The first case, Talking Capital LLC v Omanoff, 2018 NY Slip Op 30332(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 23, 2018], involves a New York-based, three-member Delaware LLC in the factoring business, providing financing to telecommunications firms that route international calls. The suit was filed by one of the members against the other two and their principals, at heart alleging derivative claims for usurpation of business opportunity, breach of the LLC agreement, and breach of fiduciary duty by forming a competing entity in league with the LLC’s third-party lender. Continue Reading Can LLC Agreement Waive Right to Sue Derivatively? Not in These Two Cases

In business divorce litigation, petitioners / plaintiffs often want to start the case with a bang. A common tactic is to file a petition / complaint simultaneously with an injunction motion. Often there is a real need for an injunction – the respondent / defendant may be engaging in activities that could cause real, irreparable harm.

But often another objective is that if the injunction motion succeeds, it will be an early win in the case, set the stage favorably for the litigation to come, put significant leverage on the respondent / defendant by restricting its freedom to operate the business, and possibly result in a speedier resolution of the case. If the injunction motion or complaint itself has vulnerabilities, however, a case meant to start with a bang may end with an unceremonious whimper. That is just one lesson from a recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Pappas v 38-40 LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 30329(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 22, 2018]). Continue Reading Operating Agreement Dooms Derivative Claims by Deceased LLC Member’s Estate

“We are poster-boys for why family members should not go into business together.”

So says respondent Paul Vaccari in his affidavit opposing the petition of his brothers Richard and Peter seeking to dissolve their jointly owned corporation that owns a five-story, mixed-use building in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, housing the operations of Piccinini Brothers, a third-generation wholesale butcher and purveyor of meat, poultry and game established by the brothers’ grandfather and great-uncle in the 1920’s.

The family-owned business at the center of Vaccari v Vaccari, 2018 NY Slip Op 30546(U) [Sup Ct NY County Mar. 28, 2018], decided last month by veteran Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten, is a classic example of fraying family bonds in the successive ownership generations caused by divergent career interests and sibling sense of injustice over disparate treatment by their parents.

While Vaccari will not go down in the annals of business divorce litigation as a landmark case, it does add incrementally and usefully to the body of case law addressing the grounds available or not to establish minority shareholder oppression. Justice Bransten’s opinion also serves as an important reminder to counsel in dissolution proceedings of their summary nature and of the potentially high cost of noncompliance with the Commercial Division’s practice rules. Continue Reading Shareholder Oppression Requires More Than Denial of Access to Company Information

There’s a lot to digest in last week’s decision by the Court of Appeals — New York’s highest court — affirming and modifying in part the intermediate appellate court’s ruling in Congel v Malfitano, a “wrongful dissolution” case I previously covered here and here, in which a minority partner in a general partnership that owns a shopping mall, whose former 3% interest had a stipulated top-line, pro rata value of $4.85 million, after massive valuation discounts and a seven-figure damages award for the majority’s legal fees, ended up with a judgment against him for about $1 million.

Let’s begin with a synopsis of Judge Eugene M. Fahey’s opinion for the court:

  • Instead of focusing, as did the lower courts, on whether the partnership met Partnership Law § 62 (1) (b)’s durational criteria of “definite term” or “particular undertaking,” the court decided the wrongfulness of the minority partner’s unilateral dissolution without recourse to the statute, and instead employed a purely contractual approach in affirming the lower courts’ finding of wrongful dissolution based on the partnership agreement’s “clear and unequivocal terms” providing the exclusive means by which the partnership could be dissolved.
  • The court affirmed the lower courts’ application of 35% marketability, 66% minority, and 15% goodwill discounts, which collectively erased around 80% of the stipulated top-line valuation. As to the minority discount, based on the objectives and policies underlying the “terminological difference” between the statutes, the court refused to read into Partnership Law § 69 (2) (c) (II) — which requires the court to determine the “value” of the partner’s interest when the remaining partners elect to continue the business following a wrongful dissolution — the case law disallowing any minority discount under the “fair value” standard found in sections 1118 and 623 of the Business Corporation Law governing buyouts in shareholder oppression and dissenting shareholder cases. Two of the panel’s seven judges dissented from this part of the court’s decision and would have disallowed the minority discount as a matter of law.
  • In the one bright spot for the minority partner, the court’s opinion struck the approximately $1.6 million (plus 9% interest) damages award for the majority’s legal fees, holding that the award contravened the so-called American Rule under which each side pays its own litigation expenses absent a contractual or statutory fee-shifting provision, and that the damages recoverable under Partnership Law § 69 are only designed to compensate for legal fees or other losses “incurred in carrying out separate acts necessitated by the breach.”

The court remitted the case to the trial court to recalculate damages (I’ll explain below). As best as I can tell, the likely net effect of the rulings will be to swing the judgment from around $1 million against the minority partner to around $1 million in his favor — still a jaw-dropping reduction from the pro rata value of the partnership interest he gave up.

Continue Reading New York’s High Court Takes Fresh Approach to Wrongful Dissolution, Sustains Valuation Discounts, Limits Damages in Partnership Case

New York’s business-entity statutes, like those across the nation, provide minority owners with the right to dissent from a merger and to be paid the fair value of the dissenter’s ownership interest. Now assume the dissenter also has an employment agreement with the pre-merger entity containing a non-compete provision. Can the post-merger surviving entity enforce the non-compete against an owner who exercises the statutory right to dissent? Does the answer depend solely on the terms of the employment agreement, or does the statutory protection of minority rights embedded in the merger statutes require a different analysis?

Those questions are especially important to certain professional organizations such as medical and accounting practices which traditionally bind their shareholders — or members, in the case of professional LLCs — to employment agreements containing non-compete and/or non-solicitation provisions, and which, due to accelerating market forces, experience significant merger activity.

In a recent first-impression decision by an intermediate appellate court in Colorado, the court denied enforcement of non-compete and liquidated damages provisions in an anesthesiologist’s shareholder employment agreement following his dissent from a merger. While the decision explicitly refused to construe the agreement’s enforceability without consideration of the dissenter’s statutory rights, implicitly it left undecided whether a firm can contract around those rights to enforce restrictive covenants against a dissenter who exits the practice and competes post-merger. Continue Reading You Dissented From a Merger. Are You Bound by Your Non-Compete?

How can majority business owners legally rid themselves of a problematic minority owner? Not by transferring the business’s assets to another entity for no consideration. That was the conclusion of Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich last month in a lawsuit over a minority shareholder’s stake in Bareburger, Inc., owner of its namesake restaurant chain.

The Bareburger Litigation

In Stavroulakis v Pelakanos, 2018 NY Slip Op 50180(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb 13, 2018], Bareburger had no written shareholders agreement. Stavroulakis owned 16% of the corporation. He and his co-owners were friends before founding the business. After Bareburger took off, Stavroulakis’ co-owners complained that he was not involved enough to justify his ownership so, as related by Justice Kornreich, they did something rather drastic:

Unbeknownst to him and without his consent, after plaintiff moved to Greece, the defendants, who collectively owned the rest of the Company, transferred all of the Company’s assets to other entities in which defendants (but not plaintiff) have an interest. They did so for no consideration either to plaintiff or the Company, rendering the Company an empty shell.

Continue Reading The Cash-Out Merger Solution to the Problem Minority Owner

Almost always there are elements of acrimony and intense emotion in litigation between co-owners of closely held business entities. The degree of toxicity can vary widely from case to case, although it tends to show up more conspicuously in litigation involving family-owned ventures.

Claims by non-controlling shareholders accusing controlling shareholders and directors of financial or other managerial abuses frequently are styled as derivative claims seeking recovery on the corporation’s behalf for harm to the corporation. In such suits, under the right circumstances the accused may challenge the accuser’s standing to pursue derivative claims based on conflict of interest.

Conflict of interest usually entails some tangible pecuniary interest held or asserted as a direct claim by the accuser that is adverse to the corporation or otherwise at odds with the claims asserted on behalf of the corporation. But a number of court decisions in New York also have cited as a factor in the analysis the accuser’s “animus” or “retaliatory” motive directed against the accused. The legal theory, akin to that applied in class actions, is that the accuser’s personal hostility and the resulting acrimony undermine the accuser’s ability to fairly and adequately represent the interests of the shareholders and the corporation.

Last year I posted about the decision in Pokoik v Norsel Realties in which a trial judge dismissed for lack of standing derivative claims brought by individuals holding an aggregate 11% interest in a realty-holding limited partnership. Among the reasons cited by the judge was that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate on this record that they are free from personal animus” as evidenced by the lead plaintiff’s “litigious nature” including several prior lawsuits against the defendants (including family members) alleging similar mismanagement claims, leading the court to conclude that the lawsuit was being wielded by the plaintiffs as “‘a weapon in the total arsenal’ so as to gain leverage in the other disputes.”

If, based on that decision, anyone thought freedom from personal animus is now part of the required showing by a derivative plaintiff, think again. Last week, the Manhattan-based Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated the derivative claims against some (but not all) of the named defendants. Continue Reading Appeals Court Reinstates Derivative Claims Dismissed for Conflict of Interest Where Parties’ Relationship Not “Especially Acrimonious”

We call it deadlock dissolution when a 50% shareholder of a close corporation, who claims to be at an impasse with the other 50% shareholder, asks the court to dissolve and liquidate the corporation. New York’s deadlock dissolution statute, unlike its statutory cousin for minority shareholder oppression petitions, does not give the non-petitioning 50% shareholder the right to avoid dissolution by acquiring the petitioner’s shares for “fair value” as determined by the court, nor do the courts have statutory or common-law authority to compel a buyout. Absent a settlement, the litigation outcomes are binary: either dissolution is granted, in which case the court usually will appoint a receiver to sell the corporation’s assets, or it’s denied, in which case the co-owners continue indefinitely their fractious co-existence.

There’s one particular subspecies of deadlock dissolution that may not be motivated primarily by the usual disputes over finance, personnel, owner compensation, budget, distributions, or other such operational issues. Rather, sometimes a deadlock dissolution petition is brought when the two owners disagree whether to dissolve or continue to operate a functioning business. The petitioner may need the liquidity for unrelated financial reasons, or in contemplation of retirement, or because he or she believes the optimal time to sell the business or its assets is at hand. Perhaps the two owners also discussed a buyout but couldn’t agree on terms. Over time, as resentments fester and pressures grow, one or both owners typically undertake unilateral actions affecting the business, or block management actions advanced by the other, that push the standoff to crisis mode and into the hands of lawyers and judges.

A recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla shows how a deadlock dissolution petition of this existential sort can play out. Continue Reading One 50% Shareholder Wants to Sell or Liquidate the Business. The Other Wants to Keep It Going. Is That Deadlock?

Unlike the LLC statutes in many other states, New York’s LLC Law does not authorize the LLC or any of its members to seek judicial expulsion of another member, no matter how egregious the member’s behavior. As the Appellate Division ruled in Chiu v Chiu, the only way to expel (a/k/a dissociate) a member of a New York LLC is if the operating agreement so provides.

A carefully tailored expulsion provision in an operating agreement, paired with a reasonably fair buyout, can provide a salutary mechanism for protecting the LLC against a member who engages in wrongful or illegal conduct, jeopardizes the LLC’s licensing or legal status, or consistently fails to perform his or her delegated responsibilities. On the other hand, an expulsion provision that uses subjective or overly broad criteria to define expulsion trigger events can encourage opportunistic behavior by the control faction against the minority, especially if expulsion is accompanied by a forced buyout of the expelled member on unfair financial terms. LLC guru Tom Rutledge wrote a very informative article on the topic, about which I interviewed him for my podcast, in which he gives a roadmap of the various considerations involved in designing and implementing an effective expulsion provision in an LLC agreement.

It’s one thing when all of the LLC’s members consent to an operating agreement authorizing member expulsion. However well or poorly drawn, however fair or unfair its terms, that’s called freedom of contract. You made your bed, now lie in it. But what about an operating agreement adopted by a control faction, without the consent of the minority, authorizing member expulsion at the control faction’s behest? Or how about an operating agreement with expulsion and lopsided buyout provisions adopted without minority consent, after the breakout of hostilities with the minority?

Which points back to Shapiro v Ettenson, a case I’ve written about several times before (here, here, and here). For those unfamiliar with the case, in Shapiro the lower and appellate courts construed LLC Law § 402 (c) (3) (“Voting Rights of Members”) as permitting holders of a majority interest in the LLC to adopt an initial, binding operating agreement long after the LLC was formed and commenced business, without the consent of the minority member. The operating agreement adopted in that case, among other things, converted the LLC from member-managed to manager-managed, authorized additional capital calls, the dilution of the membership interest of a non-contributing member, and member expulsion for cause. Continue Reading LLC Member Expulsion: What Hath Shapiro Wrought?

Under the right set of facts, New York courts occasionally find remedies for LLC owners not explicitly authorized in the Limited Liability Company Law (“LLC Law”). Judges have a natural inclination to try to find solutions for legal problems where existing law falls short, which is part of how the common law came to be.

One striking example is the LLC derivative cause of action. In Tzolis v Wolff, 10 NY3d 100 [2008], the Court of Appeals ruled that members of an LLC “may bring derivative suits on the LLC’s behalf, even though there are no provisions governing such suits in the Limited Liability Company Law,” and even though the Legislature considered, but rejected, including a derivative right of action in the LLC Law.

Another remedy not found in the LLC statutes is the so-called “equitable buyout” in LLC dissolution proceedings.

In a nutshell, an equitable buyout grants an LLC member the possibility upon dissolution of the company (under circumstances yet to be well defined by the courts) of the ability to purchase the other member’s interest as an alternative to liquidation and sale of the company’s assets at auction. An equitable buyout results in one member involuntarily selling his or her equity to the other, and the other member becoming the business’s sole owner. The entity’s existence continues post-buyout – despite ostensibly being “dissolved.” Continue Reading The LLC Equitable Buyout: Past, Present, Future