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

In the annals of business divorce litigation and assorted other disputes between co-owners of closely held business entities, the cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing likely wins the prize for the claim least understood by practitioners and most frequently dismissed by judges.

As I’ve written before, and as Professor Dan Kleinberger noted in his guest post on this blog, at least part of the confusion comes from its name. Start with the term “implied covenant.” To the average reader, it connotes a duty imposed by law without regard to the parties’ intentions and without mutual consent, like a fiduciary duty (the implied covenant often is referred to as the “implied duty”). Next comes “good faith,” connoting something done sincerely and honestly, without malice, disloyalty, or a desire to deceive or defraud. Finally comes “fair dealing.” Fair is fair is the opposite of unfair, right? Put them all together, and you’ve got what sounds like an all-purpose “lite” version of some quasi-fiduciary duty, enabling a court of equity to apply free-floating standards of honesty and fairness to adjust relations between business partners.

By and large, court decisions out of the Delaware Chancery Court have done a far better job than their New York counterparts in explaining the implied covenant’s strictly contractual roots and its parsimonious reach. A particularly good example is Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III’s recent Memorandum Opinion in Miller v HCP & Co., C.A. No. 2017-0291-SG [Del Ch Feb. 1, 2018], in which he dismissed a suit brought by a minority member of an LLC alleging that the controller breached the implied covenant by selling the company for $43 million to a third party via private sale rather than conducting an open-market sale or auction to ensure maximum value for all members under the operating agreement’s waterfall. Continue Reading Will Someone Please Re-Name the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing?

The test for judicial dissolution of LLCs under LLC Law § 702, as laid down in 1545 Ocean Avenue, initially asks whether the managers are unable or unwilling to reasonably permit or promote realization of the LLC’s “stated purpose” as found in its operating agreement.

I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of operating agreements, in their purpose clauses, use the phrase “any lawful business” which, not coincidentally, mirrors the enabling language found in LLC Law § 201, authorizing LLCs to be formed for “any lawful business purpose.” Boiler-plate or not, using “any lawful business” in the purpose clause can be a prudent drafting technique to avoid future conflict or need to amend the operating agreement should the LLC’s business model change in response to future events. Of course, there are some circumstances, often involving single asset real estate holding companies, when stating a specific purpose is the more prudent technique.

Which is why last summer’s decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department in Mace v Tunick was such an eye opener. In Mace, the court held that the “any lawful business” purpose clause in the operating agreement at issue did not state any purpose, and on the basis that the lower court had engaged in impermissible fact-finding on a pre-answer dismissal motion, reversed the lower court’s summary dismissal of the minority member’s dissolution suit and remanded the case for further proceedings.

If “any lawful business” states no purpose, I queried in my prior post on the case, does “the primary focus of the judicial dissolution standard under 1545 Ocean Avenue — whether the LLC’s managers are willing or able to achieve its stated purpose under the operating agreement — merely becomes a waystation on the road to more protracted litigation proceedings requiring discovery and evidentiary hearings”?

I still don’t have the definitive answer to that question, but I can tell you what happened in Mace on remand to the lower court, and after the lower court conducted a trial. Continue Reading The Purposeless Purpose Clause Makes a Comeback — Or Does It?

Business valuation contests in court, including those arising out of shareholder and partnership disputes, inevitably boil down to a battle of the appraisal experts, among whom Chris Mercer of Memphis-based Mercer Capital is one of the best known and most accomplished.

A listing of Chris’s professional accreditations, publications, speaking engagements, and expert witness engagements could fill a small book. To those who follow statutory fair value appraisal cases in New York, you know that Chris has played an outsized role as testifying expert in some of the most important and precedent-setting cases, including the Ferolito (AriZona Iced Tea) case, the Giaimo case, the Chiu case, and the recent Kassab case. Chris and some of his many publications also have been featured on this blog (here and here) and as the first guest on my Business Divorce Roundtable podcast doing a deep dive into the divisive discount for lack of marketability.

I recently invited Chris back onto the podcast to talk about a blog post of his entitled “A Reluctant Expert Witness Confesses” which in turn is based on a talk he gave last Fall at a business valuation conference. I assure you Chris’s “confessions” are not of a criminal nature although, as you’ll hear Chris describe, when he testified as an expert for the very first time in an imposing courtroom setting, as he was given the oath the thought involuntarily flashed through his mind, “I’m guilty!”

Rather, in our conversation Chris shares a series of interesting and often colorful insights he’s gained over many years of testifying as an expert business appraiser about the do’s and don’ts of testifying, his likes and dislikes about being an expert witness, what engagements he’ll take and which ones he won’t, and a number of other observations about his experiences as an expert on and off the witness stand.

It’s up close. It’s personal. It’s fun. I invite you to listen by clicking on the link at the bottom of this post.

By the way, if you’re a business divorce lawyer or business appraisal expert who’d like to share with podcast listeners a real-life experience from one of your cases for a Business Divorce Stories episode (no need to use real client, company or case names), please get in touch with me by phone or email and I’ll be happy to set up a recording session in person or via Skype.

As LLCs have become the dominant form of closely-held business in New York, cases involving dissolution of partnerships have become more and more rare. Section 63 of the Partnership Law is the statute governing judicial dissolution of New York general partnerships. The last time this blog wrote about a general partnership dissolution under Partnership Law § 63 was Summer 2015, a testimonial to how uncommon they have become.

After a lengthy interlude, along comes Magid v Magid, 2017 NY Slip Op 32603(U) [Sup Ct NY County Dec. 14, 2017].

Magid involved a fact pattern familiar to this blog’s regular readers – an entity owned by siblings, an income-producing property, a rising real estate market, some family members who want to sell, others who do not. Litigation ensues. Usually, the various dissolution statutes under the Business Corporation Law (BCL) or the Limited Liability Company Law (LLC Law) provide the standards to resolve the dispute.

In Magid, Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten considered the applicable standards for judicial dissolution – particularly based on deadlock – under Partnership Law § 63. Magid raises the question – is the standard for judicial dissolution based on deadlock under Partnership Law § 63 any different than under BCL § 1104, the deadlock statute for corporation dissolutions? Continue Reading Rare Partnership Dissolution Decision Applies Deadlock Standard to Dissolution Under Partnership Law

The steady flow and scholarly character of Delaware Chancery Court opinions in company valuation contests provide an important resource and learning tool for business divorce practitioners, appraisers, and judges in New York and elsewhere.

Over the years, I’ve reported on a number of Chancery Court decisions in statutory fair value cases arising from dissenting shareholder proceedings. In this post, I highlight two recent post-trial opinions by Vice Chancellors Sam Glasscock (photo left) and Tamika Montgomery-Reeves (photo right) addressing valuation and what I’ll call quasi-valuation in more atypical settings.

In the first case, Vice Chancellor Glasscock applied a fair value standard to resolve a buy-out settlement agreement between ex-spouses who co-owned two operating companies and a real estate holding company. In the second case, Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves determined whether a biotechnology start-up company was insolvent for purposes of appointing a receiver under Section 291 of the Delaware General Corporation Law. Continue Reading Delaware Chancery Court Rulings Address Valuation and Insolvency Disputes

This winter forever will be remembered in the Northeast as the winter of the “bomb cyclone,” which gets credit for the 6º temperature and bone-chilling winds howling outside as I write this. So in its honor, I’m accelerating my annual Winter Case Notes synopses of recent business divorce cases, which normally don’t appear until later in the season.

This year’s selections include a variety of interesting issues, including LLC dissolution based on deadlock; the survival of an LLC membership interest after bankruptcy; application of the entire-fairness test in a challenge to a cash-out merger; an interim request for reinstatement by an expelled LLC member; and a successful appeal from a fee award in a shareholder derivative action.

Deadlock Between LLC’s Co-Managers Requires Hearing in Dissolution Proceeding

Advanced 23, LLC v Chamber House Partners, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 32662(U) [Sup Ct NY County Dec. 15, 2017].  Deadlock is not an independent basis for judicial dissolution of New York LLC’s under the governing standard adopted in the 1545 Ocean Avenue case but, as Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla explains in her decision, when two co-equal managers are unable to cooperate, the court “must consider the managers’ disagreement in light of the operating agreement and the continued ability of [the LLC] to function in that context.” In Advanced 23, the co-managers exchanged accusations of bad acts and omissions, e.g., one of them transferring LLC funds to an unauthorized bank account, raising material issues of fact as to the effectiveness of the LLC’s management and therefore requiring an evidentiary hearing, which is just what Justice Scarpulla ordered. Of further note, in a companion decision denying the respondent’s motion to dismiss the petition (read here), Justice Scarpulla rejected without discussion the respondent’s argument that judicial dissolution under LLC Law § 702 was unavailable based on a provision in the operating agreement stating that the LLC “will be dissolved only upon the unanimous determination of the Members to dissolve.” In that regard, the decision aligns with Justice Stephen Bucaria’s holding in Matter of Youngwall, that even an express waiver of the right to seek judicial dissolution of an LLC is void as against public policy. Continue Reading Winter Case Notes: LLC Deadlock and Other Recent Decisions of Interest