The dog days of August are upon us, a perfect time as I do each year to offer vacationing readers some lighter fare consisting of summaries of a few recent decisions of interest involving disputes between business co-owners.

This year’s summaries include a partnership appraisal case from Nebraska in which the usual “battle of the experts” turned into a romp for one side, a New York case in which one side insisted that a written “Shareholder Agreement” was not really a shareholder agreement, and a federal court decision from Illinois in which the court rejected the argument that it should abstain from hearing a statutory dissolution claim.

A Train Wreck of a Valuation Case

If you want a lesson in how not to litigate an appraisal proceeding, look no further than Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP v Assam, 300 Neb. 670 [Sup Ct Aug. 3, 2018], in which the Nebraska Supreme Court recently affirmed the appraisal court’s determination, pursuant to the buy-out provisions of a law firm partnership agreement, of the $590,000 fair market value of a withdrawn partner’s 23.25% partnership interest. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Partnership Appraisal and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

Shareholders A and B are the sole shareholders of a real estate holding corporation. Their shareholders’ agreement includes provisions that:

  • guarantee each of them a seat on the two-member board of directors and appoint each as co-president;
  • prohibit their removal from the board with or without cause;
  • in the event of death, disability, or resignation, authorize the vacant board seat to be filled by the departing shareholder’s child;
  • require majority (i.e., effectively unanimous) board consent for all board actions;
  • require 55% (i.e., effectively unanimous) shareholder consent for all actions needing shareholder approval.

Under these provisions, neither A nor B can take any action at the board or shareholder level without the other’s consent. Sounds like a perfect set-up for a deadlock dissolution petition in the event A and B reach impasse on some critical issue jeopardizing the corporation’s viability, doesn’t it?

What if I now add that Shareholders A and B own 49% and 51%, respectively, of the corporation’s common shares? Can Shareholder A still bring a deadlock dissolution petition?

Not according to a recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Balkind v Nickel, 2018 NY Slip Op 31703(U) [Sup Ct NY County July 16, 2018], in which she dismissed a deadlock dissolution petition filed under Section 1104 of the Business Corporation Law brought by a 49% shareholder, despite his co-equal board and shareholder control. Continue Reading 49% Shareholder Can’t Seek Deadlock Dissolution Despite Shareholders’ Agreement Granting Co-Equal Control

When you think about protecting a business firm’s intellectual property (IP), usually you think about protecting it from infringement by external actors.

But there also are internal threats — even mortal ones — to the business when the owners don’t take adequate steps to allocate and memorialize ownership rights in the business-related IP as between the company and those responsible for its creation.

Two recent cases illustrate the point.

What’s In a Name?

The first, from New York, involves a popular Manhattan restaurant serving Southern cuisine, called Root & Bone, operated by the eponymously named Root & Bone LLC. The company was formed in October 2013 by its three members, the plaintiff Freedman and defendants McInnis and Booth, each holding a one-third membership interest. Continue Reading Dissension Follows When Business Owners Don’t Put Their IP House in Order

When three gentlemen in their mid-eighties, one of whom is in a nursing home with failing health and onset dementia, are the key players in a disputed shareholder buy-out transaction, what are the odds they’ll all be around to give evidence in a lawsuit brought four years later?

If you answered slim or none, you’d be right in the case of Gourary v Laster, 2016 NY Slip Op 04287 [1st Dept June 12, 2018], where the absence of testimony by the two deceased principals and the deceased lawyer for one of them doomed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of an enfeebled 50% shareholder who, about six months before he died, sold for $5.75 million his 50% stake in a realty holding company to the other 50% shareholder’s son-in-law who, less than a year later, sold the company’s realty to a third party for $32 million.

The case involves a corporation named 121-131 West 25th St. Corp. that was co-owned equally by Paul Gourary and Oliver Laster since the 1940’s when the corporation acquired a 12-story commercial building in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. In 2005, after the ailing Gourary was admitted to a nursing home, Laster’s son-in-law, Scott Macomber, expressed an interest in acquiring either a 50% interest in the realty or buying Gourary’s 50% stock interest. Continue Reading Dead Men Tell No Tales of Shareholder Buy-Outs Gone Sour

Three recent court decisions from three different states — New York, Pennsylvania, and Alabama — add to the rogue’s gallery of valuation cases stemming from poorly conceived and/or poorly implemented buy-sell agreements among shareholders or LLC members.

Each one, in its own way, teaches a valuable lesson for lawyers charged with drafting such agreements, and also highlights the wisdom of consulting with appraisal experts at the time of drafting.

New York: The Nimkoff Case

The Nimkoff case is an old friend of this blog, and I do mean old. I first wrote about the case in its infancy, in 2010 (read here). Eight years later, following discovery and a dozen or so motions, the case has yet to be tried.

Nimkoff is a fight over the value of a 3.6% membership interest in a single-asset realty holding LLC owned by a group of medical doctors. The plaintiff is the wife-executrix of one of the doctors, whose death in 2004 triggered the LLC’s obligation to purchase the deceased member’s interest for a “Stated Value” in accordance with the operating agreement which also required that the Stated Value be updated annually. Continue Reading Lessons From a Trio of Dysfunctional Buy-Sell Agreements

The hard-fought business divorce litigation between Nissim Kassab and his brother Avraham has provided plenty of fodder for this blog over the last several years (here, here, here, and here) with more to come, as evidenced by Queens County Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Dufficy’s decision earlier this month dismissing Nissim’s second attempt to plead a claim for judicial dissolution of the brothers’ realty-holding company known as Mall 92-30 Associates LLC (“Mall”), which owns an unimproved lot in a prime development location in downtown Jamaica, Queens, valued around $10 million.

Justice Dufficy’s ruling in Matter of Kassab v Kasab, 2018 NY Slip Op 50934(U) [Sup Ct Queens County June 11, 2018], comes on the heels of a post-trial decision last year in a related case brought by Nissim in which Justice Dufficy conditionally ordered dissolution of their corporation known as Corner 160 Associates, Inc. (“Corner”) which owned two unimproved lots adjoining Mall’s lot. Justice Dufficy’s order gave Avraham the option to buy out Nissim’s 25% interests in both Corner and Mall at fair values determined by the court, but Avraham took a pass and subsequently failed to obtain an appellate stay of the dissolution order, leading to a public auction sale of Corner’s realty two weeks ago by the court-appointed receiver for $18 million.

Nissim’s second shot at dissolving Mall, like the first unsuccessful one, illustrates anew the hurdles faced by a minority member of a solvent, realty-holding LLC, particularly when there’s no operating agreement giving the minority member additional management rights, in satisfying the prevailing standard for judicial dissolution of LLCs as articulated in the 1545 Ocean Avenue case, namely, the LLC’s management “is unable or unwilling to reasonably permit or promote the stated purpose of the entity to be realized or achieved” or that “continuing the entity is financially unfeasible.” Continue Reading Court Denies Second Bite at Dissolution Cherry in Kassab Brothers Business Divorce

Article 11 of the Business Corporation Law features multiple provisions giving judges broad authority and discretion to impose interim remedies designed to preserve corporate assets and otherwise to protect the petitioning minority shareholder’s interests pending judicial dissolution and buy-out proceedings involving closely held New York corporations. They include appointment of a temporary receiver, injunction, setting aside certain conveyances, and bonding the eventual buy-out award.

As in any type of civil litigation, an application for one or more of Article 11’s interim remedies can be motivated by tactical as well as strategic goals, namely, to paint the adverse party as the “bad guy” and to gain leverage for settlement purposes.

Matter of Hammad v Al-Lid Food Corp., Decision and Order, Index No. 518406/17 [Sup Ct Kings County May 29, 2018], decided last month by Brooklyn Commercial Division Justice Sylvia G. Ash, looks like one of those cases in which tactical ambitions overshadowed strategic merit, resulting in the court’s denial of the minority shareholder-petitioner’s motion to impose multi-faceted interim, coercive remedies against the controlling shareholders, well after the corporation elected to purchase the petitioner’s shares for fair value. Continue Reading You Sued for Dissolution, They Elected to Buy You Out, What Else Do You Want?

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