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

Very few and very far between are cases in which the holder of a minority membership interest in a New York LLC — with or without a written operating agreement — prevails in an action brought under section 702 of the New York LLC Law for judicial dissolution. Mainly that’s because the statute’s “not reasonably practicable” standard as interpreted by the courts is limited to a showing of the LLC’s failed purpose or financial failure, and thus excludes as grounds for dissolution oppression, fraud, or other overreaching conduct by the majority directed at the minority.

Last week, in one of the rare exceptions to the general rule, Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Timothy S. Driscoll handed down a post-trial decision granting the judicial dissolution petition of two individuals holding a collective 42% membership interest in an LLC that operates a gymnastic facility. In Matter of D’Errico (Epic Gymnastics, LLC), Decision & Order, Index No. 610084/2016 [Sup Ct Nassau County Aug. 21, 2018], Justice Driscoll held that dissolution under section 702 was warranted where, after dissension arose, the majority members formed a new, similarly named entity to collect the subject LLC’s revenues and to dole them out to the subject LLC if, as, and when the majority members saw fit, thereby reducing the subject LLC to a “marionette to be manipulated at will by [the new LLC].”

The decision deserves attention, not only in respect of its navigation of the prevailing dissolution standard articulated by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in the 1545 Ocean Avenue case, but also as a cautionary lesson for business divorce counsel about the potential backfire of overly aggressive self-help measures undertaken by controllers in response to perceived acts of disloyalty or abandonment by minority members. Continue Reading Gymnastics Business Falls Off the Beam in LLC Dissolution Case

Douglas K. Moll, Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, is well known to business divorce aficionados for his many scholarly articles examining minority oppression and fiduciary duty in close corporations and LLCs, and as co-author with Robert Ragazzo of one of the leading treatises on closely held business organizations. He’s also familiar to regular readers of this blog, having been featured previously in an online interview and in Episode #8 of the Business Divorce Roundtable podcast.

Professor Moll recently published yet another, terrific article entitled Judicial Dissolution of the Limited Liability Company: A Statutory Analysis (19 Tennessee Journal of Business Law 81 [2017]) in which he brings some much-needed perspective to the statutory landscape of the diverse grounds for judicial dissolution of LLCs found among the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the several uniform and model acts promulgated since the 1990s. From the article’s abstract:

This article, prepared for the Business Law Prof Blog 2017 Symposium, examines the statutory grounds available to members who seek judicial dissolution of an LLC in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. I also examined the judicial dissolution grounds in five model statutes: the 1992 Prototype LLC Act, the 2011 Revised Prototype LLC Act, the 1996 Uniform LLC Act, the 2006 Revised Uniform LLC Act, and the 2013 Revised Uniform LLC Act. Two charts are provided – one that provides the judicial dissolution grounds for each statute, and one that tabulates the different approaches.

Part I summarizes the methodology used and highlights the frequency of various statutory provisions. Part II analyzes two particular provisions—dissolution if it is not reasonably practicable to carry on the LLC’s business in conformity with its governing documents, and dissolution as a result of oppressive conduct by those in control. With respect to the “not reasonably practicable” language, the article argues that the impracticability of carrying on the business in conformity with either the certificate or the operating agreement should result in dissolution, but there is confusion over which statutory articulation is consistent with this result. With respect to the oppressive conduct ground, this article provides some possible explanations for why oppression-related dissolution statutes are less common in the LLC setting than in the corporation context.

Happily, Professor Moll accepted my return invitation to the podcast to discuss his findings. In the interview, a link to which appears below, Professor Moll highlights some surprising variations among the statutory expression of the prevailing not-reasonably-practicable dissolution standard. He also discusses some of the reasons for the relative scarcity — compared to close corporation statutes — of minority oppression as ground for judicial dissolution of LLCs, and the competing forces of freedom of contract and judicial paternalism that continue to shape the evolving statutory and common-law jurisprudence governing internal relations among LLC members.

Give it a listen. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

 

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