Two years ago, in Littman v. Magee, 54 AD3d 14 (1st Dept 2008), the Manhattan-based Appellate Division, First Department, made waves with a decision in which it reinstated a complaint for breach of fiduciary duty and fraudulent inducement by an LLC member who sold his minority interest to the majority, gave them a comprehensive release and, over a year later, after the majority sold the company at a substantial premium, claimed he had been misled as to the true value of his interest.  My write-up of the decision (read here) referred to Littman as "lowering the bar" for claims of this sort by making broad pronouncements that seemingly elevated beyond the power of release the purchaser-fiduciary’s duty to disclose to the seller all material facts bearing on the transaction.  At the time, with some degree of concern, I posed the question, "After Littman, can business owners pursue and exploit the profitable sale of their business or its assets without risk of liability to a former partner whose interest was acquired at a cheaper price?"

In a recent pair of decisions, the First Department effectively has enervated Littman‘s broad pronouncements regarding the inefficacy of releases vis-à-vis the fiduciary duty of disclosure.  In Centro Empresarial Cempresa S.A. v. America Movil S.A.B. de C.V., 2010 NY Slip Op 04719 (1st Dept June 3, 2010) (hereafter "Centro"), and Arfa v. Zamir, 2010 NY Slip Op 06070 (1st Dept July 13, 2010) (hereafter "Arfa"), lower courts had denied motions to dismiss fraudulent inducement claims by LLC members who entered into transactions which included an exchange of general releases.  In both cases, the plaintiffs argued, and the lower courts agreed, that under Littman a general release does not insulate a fiduciary from liability for failing to disclose the fiduciary’s own wrongdoing.  On appeal in both cases, the First Department reversed the lower courts’ orders and directed dismissal of the claims, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to allege facts sufficient to set aside their releases.  In both cases, the First Department expressly distinguished Littman by limiting it to its particular facts.

Interestingly, both appellate decisions were authored by Associate Justice David Friedman who was not on the panel that decided Littman as were none of the other Arfa panel members and only one of the Centro panel members.  As related below, the one Centro panel member who also decided Littman — Associate Justice Catterson — was half of a two-judge dissent in Centro.

In this Part One of a two-part series, I report on the Centro decision.  In next week’s Part Two, I’ll report on the Arfa decision.

The Centro Decision

Centro involved a dispute between minority and majority members of a Delaware LLC that owned an Ecuadorian mobile telephone company known as Conecel.  In March 2000, the majority member Telmex (controlled by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim) acquired a 60% interest in Conecel.  Telmex simultaneously entered into two agreements with the plaintiff minority members.  The first stipulated that, in the event Telmex rolled up its Latin American telecommunications interests into one entity for the purpose of an equity offering, the plaintiffs would have the right to exchange their interest in Conecel for an interest in the new entity (the "Roll-Up Agreement").  The second agreement gave plaintiffs the right to put their Conecel interests to Telmex at specified intervals spread over 6 1/2 years at a fixed price based on Conecel’s 1999 valuation (the "Put Agreement"). 

The plaintiffs alleged that Telmex’s formation in late 2000 of a new company known as America Movil triggered their right of exchange under the Roll-Up Agreement.  They further alleged that over the next year Telmex dodged most of their requests for financial information necessary to determine the exchange rate, and that the information they did extract painted a false, bleak picture of the company’s finances.

Having been led to believe that Conecel was in financial difficulty, in March 2002 the plaintiffs exercised their first put right under the Put Agreement by selling 50% of their membership interests to Telmex for $64 million.  After another year of alleged obfuscation and misrepresentation by Telmex of Conecel’s financial condition, in March 2003 Telmex offered to purchase the plaintiffs’ remaining 50% interest ahead of the Put Agreement’s schedule at the same floor price of $64 million.  In July 2003, Telmex and the plaintiffs entered into a Purchase Agreement for the remaining 50% which also included a broad general release in Telmex’s favor of all claims relating to the plaintiffs’ membership interests in Conecel.

Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that, years after the buy-out of their interest, Telmex’s alleged dishonesty was exposed as a result of an audit of Conecel by the Ecuadorian tax authority which allegedly revealed that Conecel’s true financial results in 2001-03 were considerably better than represented by Telmex when it offered to purchase plaintiffs’ interests.  Plaintiffs claimed that, had Telmex honored their right to negotiate an exchange of their Conecel units for America Movil shares, plaintiffs would have owned America Movil shares worth more than $1 billion as of May 30, 2008 (the date of the complaint).

The lower court, in an unreported December 2008 decision dictated on the record by Justice Richard B. Lowe III, denied Telmex’s dismissal motion in which Telmex contended that the general release given by plaintiffs barred their claim.  Telmex appealed.

Over a vigorous two-judge dissent, a three-judge majority reversed the lower court’s order and dismissed the complaint.  The self-responsibility theme of Justice Friedman’s majority opinion is struck early, in his description of the facts, when he notes that

It is undisputed that the Purchase Agreement [including the general release] was the product of rigorous, arm’s length negotiations between sophisticated parties, all of whom were advised by their own expert legal counsel.             

The legal analysis portion of Justice Friedman’s opinion initially establishes that the plaintiffs’ fraudulent inducement claim falls squarely within the scope of the broad release given in the Purchase Agreement, and that "[w]hether or not plaintiffs had reason to suspect that defendants were misrepresenting the value of Conecel in the negotiation of the 2003 transaction, they cannot reasonably contend that they did not intend to release possible fraud claims as to that matter of which they were unaware."

Justice Friedman then strongly rejects the central premise of plaintiffs’ Littman argument, keyed to Telmex’s fiduciary status as the controlling member of Conecel, writing as follows:

While Telmex LLC, as the holder of the majority interest in TWE (and, through TWE, Conecel) owed plaintiffs certain fiduciary duties, the foregoing principles apply (at least among sophisticated parties advised by counsel) even where the releasee is a fiduciary.  If Telmex LLC’s fiduciary status alone sufficed to prevent it from obtaining the dismissal of this action based on the 2003 release, the implication would be that a fiduciary can never obtain a valid release without first making a full confession of its sins to the releasor, regardless of the releasor’s sophistication and the arm’s length nature of the negotiations from which the release emerged. This is not the law.  Such a rule would render useless and meaningless any release of a party that owed the releasor a fiduciary duty, thereby unjustifiably impinging on the freedom of commercial actors to order their own affairs by contract and, moreover, contravening the public policy favoring the settlement of business disputes. We are not aware of any precedent compelling us to accept such an absurd result.  [Citations omitted.]

The plaintiffs, Justice Friedman continues, "entered into the 2003 transaction well aware that defendants had not given them access to the internal financial records of Conecel" and "should have insisted on access to Conecel’s internal books and records" and, moreover, should have sued if necessary to obtain the information.  He also notes that during the period in question, "relations between the parties were adversarial, if not outright hostile, thereby negating as a matter of law any inference that business entities as sophisticated as plaintiffs were relying on defendants for an objective assessment of the value of their investment."

Justice Friedman distinguishes Littman in a footnote.  He does not confront Littman‘s broad pronouncements, but instead focuses on the specific factual allegations in that case, writing as follows:

[In Littman], a general release in the agreement for the sale of the plaintiff’s interest in a closely-held business was held not to bar a fraud action against a former fiduciary at the pleading stage because the complaint was deemed to allege that the defendant fiduciary had told the plaintiff that no further documentation bearing on the valuation of the enterprise existed, thereby exonerating the plaintiff from the need to investigate further (54 AD3d at 19). Here, plaintiffs do not allege that defendants told them that no information about Conecel’s financial condition beyond the minimal amount that had been shared with plaintiffs was in existence. In addition, the Littman plaintiff alleged that he was induced to sell out in part by a "threat[] that if [he] did not agree to the proposed sale, approximately $1 million in income would be allocated to him for the year 2004, while no distribution would be made to him to cover the taxes resulting from that allocation" (id. at 16). No such threat or duress is alleged here.

Justice Friedman’s opinion also distinguishes Littman‘s doctrinal forebear, Blue Chip Emerald v. Allied Partners, 299 AD2d 278 (1st Dept 2002), where the First Department upheld a fraudulent inducement claim involving a buy-out of a minority partner who alleged that the majority kept secret a third-party offer for the company’s sole asset at a substantially higher price.  Here’s what he says about Blue Chip:    

It was critical to the result in Blue Chip that the plaintiff in that case did not have "at its disposal ready and efficient means" for ascertaining whether such an oral agreement (or an offer in the relevant price range) even existed (299 AD2d at 280).  Here, by contrast, plaintiffs were well aware that Conecel did have a value, and nonetheless chose to cash out their interests without either insisting on verifying defendants’ representations as to that value or, on the other hand, conditioning the deal on the accuracy of the information they did receive.  Indeed, as previously discussed, plaintiffs here were well aware that they were not in possession of all the information they believed they were entitled to when they sold their interests.

In a lengthy dissent, Associate Justice James M. Catterson sharply takes the majority to task for "overlook[ing] the well-established precept that releases ‘must be knowingly and voluntarily entered into’, and propound[ing], instead, the view that an effective release is one in which the releasor is hoodwinked by the releasee" (citations omitted). Citing Littman, Justice Catterson writes that a general release "will not insulate a tortfeasor from allegations of breach of fiduciary duty, where it has not fully disclosed alleged wrongdoing," and therefore the plaintiffs in Centro

were reasonably justified in their expectations that the defendants would disclose any information in their possession that might affect plaintiffs’ decision on their best course of action especially as to signing the release that the defendants now argue bars this action.

Justice Catterson also disagrees with what he calls "the majority’s attempt to distinguish Littman," writing that

The majority does so on the basis that the plaintiff in Littman was told that no further documentation bearing on the valuation of the enterprise existed, thus exonerating him from the need to investigate further whereas here the plaintiffs were not so told. I fail to see how being told that no documentation exists provides a better basis for exoneration than receipt of publicly filed documents. In the instant case, whatever message was being conveyed by the defendants’ stonewalling, it was not incumbent on the plaintiffs to suspect that the defendants were defrauding a governmental agency by publicly filing false information.

On June 21, 2010, the plaintiffs in Centro filed a notice of appeal to the New York Court of Appeals which they are allowed to do as of right because of the two-judge dissent.  It will be most interesting and important to see how the state’s highest tribunal resolves the clash of judicial philosophies evident in the dueling opinions of the Centro majority and dissenters.           

Update May 2, 2011:  The oral argument of the appeal in Centro to the Court of Appeals was heard on April 27, 2011.  Click here to watch the video.