With a genuine sense of loss, we bid adieu to Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich, who retired at the end of May after more than three decades of service on the bench, including nearly ten years as a Justice of the Commercial Division. Her accomplishments are many and varied. She is a detailed and scholarly writer. She ran an orderly and efficient part. Invariably well prepared, she asked probing questions at oral argument, arriving quickly at the “nub” of the issue. It was a pleasure and a luxury to be a litigant in her part.

Justice Kornreich also knew and understood as well as any judge the complexities and dynamics of business divorce cases.

As a testament to Justice Kornreich’s quality as a jurist, this blog has written about her opinions on many an occasion, with some of her decisions receiving repeat treatment. Rather than quantify her massive body of work, this week’s post will summarize a half dozen or so of Justice Kornreich’s more memorable decisions in the area of business divorce. You can click on the case name to read the earlier post. Continue Reading A Trip Down Business Divorce Lane with Recently Retired Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich

The Lowbet Realty saga, featuring the dissolution court’s rarely used authority to rescind an unauthorized sale of the corporation’s realty under Business Corporation Law § 1114, has finally ended after six years with a decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirming the lower court’s order letting stand the realty’s sale to a bona fide purchaser for value. Matter of Hu (Lowbet Realty Corp.), 2018 NY Slip Op 03529 [1st Dept May 16, 2018].

Title companies across the city undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief.

Lowbet Realty involves one of the most brazen, contemptuous heists of corporate assets amidst a dissolution proceeding you’ll ever encounter. The shorter version — click here and here for more detailed accounts in my two prior posts about the case — is the story of an estranged husband and wife who co-owned a single-asset realty holding company known as Lowbet Realty Corp. formed in 1980 and managed solely by the 25% shareholder-wife as the titular president after the 75% shareholder-husband in 1995 returned to live in China permanently.

In 2006, the husband removed his wife as president and named himself and his son as sole officers, even while his wife continued for years afterward to control the property consisting of a 19-unit residential apartment building. In 2011, after the corporation was administratively dissolved for failure to file franchise reports, the husband filed a petition for judicial supervision of the corporation’s winding up and liquidation, at which time the court issued an order prohibiting both husband and wife from participating in the management of the realty or removing corporate assets absent court approval. Continue Reading Bona Fide Purchaser Avoids Rescission of Minority Shareholder’s Unauthorized Sale of Corporation’s Realty

Mediation, as commonly understood in the context of alternative dispute resolution, employs a neutral third party to facilitate negotiation and voluntary agreement between the parties. Unlike arbitration, the mediator does not conduct an evidentiary hearing, is able to “caucus” separately with each side, and does not impose a solution or issue a legally binding award.

Or so I thought, until I came across last week’s appellate ruling in Korangy v Malone, 2018 NY Slip Op 03767 [1st Dept May 24, 2018], in which the court affirmed an order dismissing claims by one 50% LLC member against the other 50% member based on the outcome of a prior, “binding mediation” conducted pursuant to a provision in the LLC’s operating agreement addressing member deadlock.

When I did a little online research, I found commentary about binding mediation — in which mediators usually impose a legally enforceable resolution only after they fail to produce a voluntary settlement — both negative (“a trap for the unwary”) and positive (“more cost effective than arbitration”). I also got the sense that the inclusion of mandatory, binding mediation clauses in commercial contracts, insofar as it has achieved any significant level of acceptance, mostly is confined to standardized transactions such as construction and reinsurance contracts.

Whatever their utility in those contexts, does it make sense to include an ex ante provision for binding mediation as a deadlock-breaking device in a shareholders or operating agreement, such as the one in Korangy v Malone? I doubt it, but let’s first take a look at the case. Continue Reading Anyone Think Binding Mediation to Break Deadlock Is a Good Idea?

The Nobel Prize symbolizes the apex of human achievement in the arts and sciences. It is no guarantee, however, that its recipients are equally adept when it comes to their own business endeavors.

Dr. Günter Blobel, pictured accepting his Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1999 for his revolutionary work in molecular cell biology, shortly afterward formed a business venture with two others — one his research assistant, the other a corporate lawyer — to commercialize a patented process called Chromovert, used in cell discovery assays. Almost two decades later, their company, Chromocell Corp., appears to be flourishing.

Not so for Dr. Blobel’s relationship with his fellow shareholders, eventually naming them defendants in a lawsuit he brought in Manhattan Supreme Court, seeking to enforce an alleged oral agreement to equalize his ownership stake. It didn’t turn out well for Dr. Blobel, whose suit was dismissed earlier this year by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley in Blobel v Kopfli, 2018 NY Slip Op 30298(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 13, 2018].

Five days after the court’s decision, Dr. Blobel succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Continue Reading No Prize for Nobel Laureate in Fight for Bigger Stake in Biotech Company

Lawyers are famous for arguing seemingly inconsistent positions at the same time. We practitioners lovingly refer to the technique as “arguing in the alternative.” The famous Texas trial lawyer, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, gave a vivid example:

Say you sue me because you say my dog bit you. Well, this is my defense: My dog doesn’t bite. And second, in the alternative, my dog was tied up that night. And third, I don’t believe you really got bit. And fourth, I don’t have a dog.

A litigator’s stock in trade, arguing multiple positions at once can be vital to advance the client’s interests and to preserve arguments for later appellate review. Sometimes, though, one comes across arguments so seemingly in tension that they don’t quite seem able to coexist. A recent appellate decision, Alam v Uddin, 2018 NY Slip Op 02763 [2d Dept Apr. 25, 2018], involved a rather odd array of apparently conflicting arguments on both sides. Continue Reading Corporate Frankenstein “Partnership to Form a Corporation” Lives Another Day

Transactional lawyers who assist clients in the formation and restructuring of business entities, and the litigators who clean up the transactional lawyers’ occasional messes, each have lessons to learn from last week’s appellate ruling in 223 Sam, LLC v 223 15th Street, LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 03118 [2d Dept May 2, 2018].

The lesson for transactional lawyers is, when you go to the time, trouble and client expense of negotiating and preparing a shareholders or operating agreement, every time you transmit via email or other means a copy of the unsigned agreement, no matter how preliminary or advanced the draft, include a proviso that there is no binding agreement until the parties exchange fully signed copies. Or better yet, put the proviso in the body of the agreement. Or both.

For litigators, the lesson is twofold. First, litigation, like a prize fight, usually goes a number of rounds before there’s a victor (or, more likely, a settlement). An early round win, such as defeating the adverse party’s bid for a preliminary injunction, is no guaranty the other side won’t prevail, with or without an assist from a panel of appellate judges. Second, if you’re litigating a governance or ownership dispute between putative co-owners of a realty holding entity, it’s usually not a good idea to file a lis pendens against the real property unless you (or your client) are prepared to pay the other side’s legal fees to secure its cancellation. Continue Reading If LLC Agreement Must Be in Writing, Must it Be Signed?

You know there’s something unusual going on in a case involving a dispute between co-members of an LLC — a form of business entity that didn’t exist in New York until 1994 — when the key legal precedents cited in the parties’ briefs date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By any measure, Horowitz v Montauk U.S.A., LLC, No. 16-3912 [2d Cir. Apr. 20, 2018], is an unusual case, stemming from a fiercely contentious battle between 50/50 co-owners for control of a highly successful restaurant and night spot called The Sloppy Tuna located on the beach in Montauk, New York, a popular summer resort on the eastern tip of Long Island. The dispute, which is still going strong after four years, has spawned at least a half dozen lawsuits in state and federal courts in New York and Georgia, and landed operational control of The Sloppy Tuna in the hands of a court-appointed receiver.

Horowitz is a lawsuit brought in federal court by one of The Sloppy Tuna’s 50% members (Member #1) seeking injunctive relief and damages against the restaurant entity, a New York LLC (Restaurant), for trademark infringement based on the alleged unauthorized use of various trademarks and domain names related to The Sloppy Tuna that Member #1 registered in the name of his solely-owned company (Montauk).

The threshold issue teed up for the court in Horowitz — this post won’t address the several other issues addressed in the court’s opinion — and the reason I call the case unusual, is whether the Restaurant’s other 50% member (Member #2), who was not named as a party to the trademark action and who did not move to intervene in the action personally, under governing New York law has the right to defend the suit derivatively on behalf of the Restaurant. Continue Reading Court Grants 50% LLC Member Derivative Right to Defend Action Brought by Other 50% Member’s Solely Owned Company

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