Under the Mohawk Maintenance doctrine, named after a case decided by New York’s highest court, the seller of a business including its good will is under an implied covenant not to solicit the seller’s former customers. Yet to be decided by the same court, although it’s come close on a couple of occasions, is whether a stock buyout resulting from an election to purchase in a dissolution proceeding likewise triggers the implied covenant. The key issue in these cases in whether the sale is deemed to be one “under compulsion” and therefore not within the Mohawk Maintenance rule. Lower court decisions have been less than uniform in their approach and the results.
A dissolution case decided earlier this year raised the issue anew in an interesting context. In Matter of Autz, 16 Misc 3d 1140(A) (Sup Ct Nassau County 2008), the antagonists were minority and majority shareholders in a professional corporation that operated walk-in medical clinics. The petitioner sought dissolution as an oppressed minority shareholder under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law (BCL). The majority shareholder did not elect to purchase the petitioner’s shares. Rather, he consented to dissolution and asked the court (a) to determine that the corporation is not a going concern, and (b) to order a liquidation sale of the corporation’s hard assets and the division of its receivables. The petitioner sought a sale of the corporation as a going concern, inclusive of good will, along with a determination that such a sale is voluntary and therefore imposes a restrictive covenant upon the unsuccessful shareholder-bidder.
In a decision by Justice Leonard B. Austin of the Nassau County Supreme Court, Commercial Division, the court ruled that there was evidence that the corporation had saleable good will, but that a transfer of shares resulting from an involuntary dissolution, in the absence of an election to purchase the petitioner’s shares for fair value under BCL Section 1118, is a sale under compulsion and thus does not implicate the non-solicitation covenant.
Like so many other issues that come to haunt partners who find themselves embroiled in business divorce litigation, covenants not to compete or to solicit customers and employees are most efficiently dealt with in a shareholders agreement made at the beginning of the relationship.