After two years, 300+ docket entries, and 12 motions, a lawsuit among members of a Delaware LLC that owned a 5-story apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (the “UES Building”) acquired to provide short-term rentals for international leisure and corporate travelers, and whose business was decimated by anti-Airbnb legislation, is barely past the pleadings stage and likely can look forward to years more litigation.

Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Jennifer G. Schechter’s recent decision in Favourite Ltd. v Cico, 2018 NY Slip Op 32781(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 30, 2018], permitting the LLC and some of its members to file an amended pleading against the LLC’s former managing members, addresses several issues of interest including whether the legislature’s action automatically triggered dissolution under the operating agreement’s arguably conflicting provisions, and whether the former managers’ attempted reinvestment of proceeds from the UES Building’s sale in another property violated the operating agreement’s purpose clause.

According to the Second Amended Complaint ultimately allowed by the court, the two defendants as sole managing members of Upper East Side Suites, LLC, formed in Delaware in 2007, solicited investors from Italy’s business community who contributed $4.75 million to buy the UES Building to operate a short-term rental business. What allegedly followed is a scheme by the defendants of “self-dealing, mismanagement, waste of assets, fraud, and forgery that resulted in the loss of every cent of the $4.75 million invested.” Continue Reading Outlawing of LLC’s Short-Term Rental Business Brings Long-Term Litigation

Last month gave us three noteworthy post-trial decisions in three different cases from three different states, all centering on disputes among business co-owners over the ownership and exploitation of the businesses’s core intellectual property. While each case stems from a unique set of facts, they all have in common failures to allocate IP ownership by means of clear contractual undertakings ex ante and/or failures to exercise due diligence at inception or during the life of the business.

The first highlighted case hails from New York, involving an extremely high stakes financial dispute between family members comprising the minority and controlling shareholders of the famous Palm restaurants located throughout the United States and elsewhere. The second case comes from Delaware, in which the court ordered dissolution of a limited liability company where the 50% member who licensed to the LLC the patented technology on which rested its entire business plan, as it turned out, did not own the rights. In the third case, from Arkansas, the judge dismissed a one-third LLC member’s claims for copyright infringement and dissolution after finding that he was equitably estopped from enforcing his copyrights in the company’s principal software products.

Derivative Suit Over Palm Restaurant IP Yields $120 Million Award

The original Palm Restaurant was founded in Manhattan in 1926 by Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi, who ran it with their wives. Today, despite the ubiquity of Palm-branded restaurants throughout the U.S. and worldwide, the original corporation formed by Pio and John, now owned by third-generation family members, does not operate a single restaurant. Rather, its sole asset consists of the enormously valuable Palm IP consisting of a series of trademarks and service marks, and design elements including its menu and distinctive restaurant décor, all of which is licensed to independent Palm restaurant operators as well as Palm restaurants owned in whole or with other investors by two family members, Bruce Bozzi and Walter Ganzi, who also happen to own 80% of the original Palm corporation that owns the IP, which I’ll called Palm IP Corp. Continue Reading IP Disputes Among Private Business Co-Owners Dominate Three Recent Cases

Let me say up front, I don’t claim to know the answer to the question posed in this post’s title, or pretend there’s a simple yes-or-no answer. It very well may be that the answer depends on the unique facts and circumstances in any given case, including the one discussed below.

Having said that, take a look at a Schedule K-1 in the tax return of a limited liability company. I’ll make it easy; click here for the 2017 K-1 form available on the IRS’s website. Now tell me, in the Part II “Information About the Partner” section of the form, do you see a check box for a taxpayer who is a non-member/assignee/holder of an economic interest in an LLC?

That’s right, you don’t. As pertains to LLCs, the only choices are “LLC member-manager” or “other LLC member.”

I’m not a tax expert, but I’m fairly confident it makes no difference whether one or the other of those boxes is checked for a non-member assignee of an LLC interest, at least for tax purposes. But it can make a night-and-day difference for state law purposes to a litigant seeking to enforce rights as the assignee of a membership interest — be it to secure judicial dissolution, to enforce management, voting or inspection rights, or to prosecute derivative claims — and who relies solely on a K-1 as proof of his, her, or its member status.

It makes a difference because, under New York statutory and case law, absent provision in an operating agreement to the contrary, an assignee, non-member holder of an economic interest in an LLC has no standing to assert any of those rights or to obtain any of those remedies.

I’ve encountered the issue a number of times in my business divorce travels, almost always involving LLCs with no written operating agreement and that don’t observe governance formalities. It’s also an issue that surfaced in a recent decision in which the court held that the plaintiff, whose complaint asserts both direct and derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duty, and who was not an original member of the subject LLC and acquired his interest by undocumented assignment, established his member status based on his K-1, apparently in the absence of any written agreement with the other members or other evidence of any formal consent to his admission as a member. Rosin v Schnitzler, 2018 NY Slip Op 32320(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Sept. 4, 2018]. Continue Reading Is a Schedule K-1 By Itself Enough to Prove LLC Membership?

It’s no surprise that the quorum requirements found in close corporation by-laws and LLC operating agreements rarely step into the limelight in business divorce disputes. After all, the typical quorum provision for meetings of shareholders, directors, and LLC members and managers requires attendance by a bare majority of voting shares or membership interests or, at the board or managerial level, a bare majority of the board of directors or managers. In other words, it’s usually not the holding of the meeting that generates the dispute, it’s the action taken at the meeting by the control faction that generates the dispute.

In the case of closely held entities with two owners having equal interests and control, a quorum provision requiring majority attendance effectively requires attendance by both owners. If owner #1 doesn’t attend the meeting, not because of some benign reason but due to a disagreement with owner #2 over the action proposed by the latter to be voted upon at the meeting, that produces a deadlock the same as if both owners attended the meeting and cast conflicting votes. Deadlock is deadlock, meeting or no.

Now imagine a closely held entity that has three or more voting shareholders or members, or three or more members of the board of directors or managers, with a quorum provision requiring the presence at a meeting of all the shareholders or members, or of all the directors or managers. With such an entity, a dissenter with minority voting power who couldn’t otherwise defeat a proposed action requiring majority approval, nonetheless can block the action simply by not showing up at the meeting. So much for majority rule.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine the scenario because that’s what happened in Casilli v Natan, 2018 NY Slip Op 32621(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 12, 2018], recently decided by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley. In her decision, Justice Masley was invited to substitute the statutory default rule under LLC Law § 404, requiring the presence at meetings of a majority in interest of the members, for an “unworkable” quorum provision in the LLC’s operating agreement requiring the presence of all. Not surprisingly, at least to this writer, Justice Masley declined the invitation. Continue Reading Think Twice Before Putting 100% Quorum Requirement in By-Laws or LLC Agreement

When a minority shareholder petitions for judicial dissolution under § 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law based on the majority’s alleged oppressive conduct, looting, waste, or diversion of corporate assets, BCL § 1118 kicks in, granting the corporation and the other shareholders the right to halt the dissolution proceeding and to convert it to a stock appraisal proceeding, by electing to purchase the petitioner’s shares for “fair value” determined as of the day before the date on which the petition was filed.

New York’s highest court, in Matter of Pace Photographers, Ltd., described § 1118’s election to purchase as “a defensive mechanism [to § 1104-a] for the other shareholders and the corporation, giving them an absolute right to avoid the dissolution proceedings and any possibility of the company’s liquidation” while, at the same time, “the minority is protected by a court-approved determination of fair value and other terms and conditions of the purchase.”

How is the election exercised? Who can exercise it? Can it be exercised conditionally? When can it be exercised? Once exercised, can it be revoked? Read on for the answers. Continue Reading A Deep Dive Into the Election to Purchase in Dissolution Proceedings

Consider the following hypothetical: The operating agreement of an LLC vests management authority in its two members. In practice, and by informal mutual consent, only one of the members actively manages the LLC’s business and financial affairs. (Not an altogether unusual arrangement, by the way.) When things go awry between the two members, and the active member accuses the inactive member of engaging in misconduct violating fiduciary duties owed to the LLC and to the active member, can the inactive member disclaim those fiduciary duties on the ground he owes no such duty as a de facto non-managing member?

A disclaimer of the sort was raised and rejected in a ruling earlier this month by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Barry Ostrager in Marcus v Antell, 2018 NY Slip Op 32527(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 5, 2018], where the court relied on a strict application of New York’s LLC Law § 401 (b) (ii) providing that any member of a member-managed LLC “shall have and be subject to all of the duties and liabilities of a manager provided in this chapter.”

It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Continue Reading Does an Inactive Member of a Member-Managed LLC Owe Fiduciary Duties?

Much digital ink has been spilled on this blog (here, here, here, and here) and elsewhere (Tom Rutledge’s terrific article can be read here) concerning the ability of LLC controllers to adopt or amend an operating agreement without the consent of all members.

In New York, Shapiro v Ettenson kicked things off, holding that the majority members of an LLC validly adopted a post-formation operating agreement without the minority member’s consent. The agreement in that case eliminated the minority member’s salary, authorized dilution of a member interest for failing to make mandatory capital contributions (the majority members issued a capital call promptly after the amendment), and member expulsion (the majority members expelled the minority member soon after the court upheld the LLC agreement).

Next came Ho v Yen where the court denied interim injunctive relief to a minority member who challenged the majority members’ adoption of a post-formation LLC agreement that authorized member expulsion and buy-out at book value (the majority members expelled the minority member within days after the amendment).

The appellate panel in Shapiro rested its holding on LLC Law § 402 (c) (3) which speaks to the majority’s right not only to adopt an operating agreement but also to amend it subject, of course, to any contrary provision in the operating agreement and certain statutory carve-outs in LLC Law § 417 (b). But since the vast majority of operating agreements that I’ve seen expressly require the consent of all members to amend, I figured I’d have a long wait before seeing a case that tests the limits of the non-unanimous amendment power.

My wait wasn’t nearly as long as I expected. Last month, in Yu v Guard Hill Estates, LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 32466(U) [Sup Ct NY County Sept 28, 2018], Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla denied a motion to dismiss a minority LLC member’s claims against the majority members for breaching their fiduciary duty by adopting, without the minority member’s consent, amendments authorizing mandatory capital calls and foreclosing upon the interest of a member who fails to contribute. What makes the case even more interesting is that the pre-existing operating agreement signed by all the members included a provision generally authorizing amendment by vote of members holding 51% of the member interests.  Continue Reading Does This Decision Put the Brakes on Non-Unanimous Amendments to Operating Agreements?

What’s a weaponized LLC? It’s one whose operating agreement gives the controlling majority members the authority to dilute, remove from management, or expel a non-controlling minority member, typically for failing to satisfy a mandatory capital call or engaging in conduct the majority determines to be a breach of specified standards of conduct.

Weaponization can occur openly or stealthily. Openly, the dilution, removal, or expulsion powers are spelled out explicitly in the operating agreement signed by all the members. Stealthily, the operating agreement authorizes amendment of the operating agreement by the majority, i.e., without minority consent, effectively allowing such powers to be added at a later time of the majority’s choosing.

Few tears normally are shed when a minority member is diluted, removed from management, or expelled under the express provisions of an operating agreement to which the minority member knowingly subscribed. As the saying goes, you made your bed, now lie in it.

Does the minority member hit with the stealth variety via an amendment to which he or she never consented deserve any greater sympathy? More importantly for litigators, does the majority’s adoption and implementation of such measures for the purpose of squeezing out the minority member, or otherwise gaining leverage in a dispute not necessarily related to the LLC’s governance and business affairs, provide the minority member with grounds to seek judicial dissolution of the LLC? Continue Reading Judicial Dissolution and the Weaponized LLC

C’mon, New York lawyers, do you really want to spend your time, your client’s money, and bother the court litigating a dead-end claim that your client rightfully expelled his or her LLC co-member for alleged misconduct, however egregious, when you don’t have an operating agreement that says your client can do it?

Despite clear law on the subject, some have not gotten the word as made evident by Justice O. Peter Sherwood’s ruling last month in Matter of Goyal (Vintage India NYC, LLC), 2018 NY Slip Op 31926(U) [Sup Ct NY County Aug. 7, 2018].

First, some background: Over ten years ago, in one of my earliest posts on this blog, I observed that, in contrast to states whose LLC statutes authorize judicial expulsion a/k/a dissociation of a misbehaving member, New York’s LLC Law does not authorize a judicial expulsion remedy, and that non-judicial member expulsion can only occur if and under the circumstances specified in the operating agreement.

Two years later, a far more consequential observer, namely, the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Chiu v Chiu specifically held that courts lack authority to order expulsion of an LLC member for alleged misconduct, absent language in the operating agreement expressly providing for an expulsion remedy. Continue Reading Repeat After Me: You May Not Expel a Member of a New York LLC Unless the Operating Agreement Says So

In the judicial dissolution case that John (“Jake”) Feldmeier brought after resigning as the highly paid president of the family-owned business, the central issue over which he and his opposing siblings fought was whether the siblings’ subsequent refusal to issue shareholder distributions, as Jake claimed, was the discontinuation of a longstanding practice of awarding de facto a/k/a disguised dividends to shareholders in the form of bonuses or, as the siblings contended, was the continuation of a company policy over which Jake himself presided for many years whereby the owners and managers made good-faith business judgments to award merit-based bonuses to officers and employees.

In support of his claim, and in opposition to his siblings’ summary judgment motion, Jake invoked the granddaddy of all New York minority shareholder oppression cases, Matter of Kemp & Beatley, Inc., in which the state’s highest court upheld an order of judicial dissolution in favor of terminated employee-shareholders who similarly complained about the non-issuance of dividends where the evidence showed, prior to their departures, that the company historically awarded de facto dividends based on stock ownership in the form of “extra compensation bonuses.”

In opposition to Jake’s claim, and in support of their summary judgment motion, the siblings argued, on the law, that the reasonable-expectations standard for oppression formulated in Kemp, a case brought under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law, did not apply to Jake’s non-statutory claim for common-law dissolution — Jake, as a 12% shareholder, lacked standing under Section 1104-a’s 20% minimum — and, on the facts, that Kemp was distinguishable because, unlike in that case, prior to Jake’s departure and with his active participation and approval as company president, bonuses were paid disproportionately to stock ownership and not at all to non-employee shareholders.

So who prevailed? Continue Reading Past is Prologue: Refusal to Adopt Dividend Policy After Petitioner Resigns Not Ground for Dissolution