I’ve seen LLC operating agreements ranging from one page to over 100. Usually there’s a direct relationship between the length of the agreement and the complexity of the LLC’s capital and management structure.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about LLC agreements, it’s that no matter how comprehensive and tome-like their design, there’s no guarantee that a future, unanticipated dispute won’t expose the inevitable cracks in the design prompting the need for court intervention. Indeed, depending on the drafter’s skill, one can argue the more complex the LLC agreement, the greater the risk of a court contest over its interpretation.

Take the recent case of Tungsten Partners LLC v Ace Group International LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 32025(U) [Sup Ct NY County Sept. 20, 2017], in which Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich was called upon to decide whether the plaintiff holder of a 4% non-voting profits interest, identified as a “Management Member” in a 65-page operating agreement (plus another 170 pages of schedules and exhibits), was a member of the subject Delaware LLC for purposes of demanding access to books and records under § 18-305 of the Delaware LLC Act. Continue Reading A Member By Any Other Name . . . May Have Access to LLC Books and Records

The practical lesson for entrepreneurs of the case I’m about to describe is, never sign complex business agreements without your lawyer, and never ever sign such agreements in the last week of August when your vacationing lawyer is unreachable.

Deals to forge new business enterprises have a pace and momentum all their own. Business considerations, financial considerations, ownership considerations, legal considerations, tax considerations, personality considerations, and more — all have to coalesce and achieve critical mass in support of a meeting of the minds on the deal’s material terms to be memorialized in a binding, enforceable, written agreement.

The dynamics of the negotiations and externalities sometimes create a seize-the-moment mentality that induces one or both sides to push to sign an agreement that’s not fully baked, either to prevent a change of mind or with the expectation that remaining open issues can be cleaned up later. In even more extreme situations, the parties commit time and capital to the new venture while the negotiations are ongoing, that is, acting and treating each other as business partners before the deal is consummated.

Eagle Force Holdings, LLC v Campbell, Mem. Opinion, C.A. No. 10803-VCMR [Del Ch Sept. 1, 2017], decided earlier this month by Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves of the Delaware Court of Chancery, is one of those extreme cases. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the case, in which the court found unenforceable the transaction documents for a new venture, including signed operating and contribution agreements, is the heavy involvement of sophisticated legal counsel on both sides throughout the process — except for the critical moment when the two principals met alone and signed what was labeled a “draft” agreement just before the start of the Labor Day holiday weekend when their respective lawyers were unreachable. Continue Reading Don’t Let the Deal Get Ahead of the Documents

Regular readers of this blog know it’s been anything but summer doldrums in the world of business divorce, what with case law developments such as the Appellate Division’s potentially far-reaching ruling on the purposeless purpose clause and LLC dissolution in Mace v Tunick reported in last week’s post, and the astonishing story of minority shareholder oppression in the Twin Bay Village case also reported earlier this month.

This year’s edition of Summer Shorts picks up the summer pace with short summaries of three must-read decisions by New York and Delaware courts on three very different business divorce topics: use of a Special Litigation Committee to evaluate derivative claims brought by LLC members (New York); grounds for dissolution and the court’s remedial powers in shareholder oppression cases (New York); and LLC deadlock dissolution (Delaware).

Appellate Ruling Rejects Appointment of Special Litigation Committee in LLC Derivative Suit Where Not Authorized By Operating Agreement

LNYC Loft, LLC v Hudson Opportunity Fund I, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 06147 [1st Dept Aug. 15, 2017].  In Tzolis v Wolff, New York’s highest court recognized a common-law right of LLC members to sue derivatively on behalf of the LLC. Subsequent lower court decisions have clarified other aspects of the right by analogy to corporation law, such as requiring the plaintiff LLC member to allege pre-suit demand or demand futility. In shareholder derivative suits involving corporations, the board’s inherent authority to appoint a Special Litigation Committee composed of independent and disinterested directors to assess derivative claims is well established and, when properly implemented, can result in the court’s dismissal of derivative claims based on the SLC’s conclusion that the claims do not merit prosecution by the corporation. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Three Must-Read Decisions

Board members’ decisions to award compensation packages for themselves can present some thorny issues. In a close corporation, shareholders typically serve as officers and directors, and have a reasonable expectation of compensation in lieu of dividends or distributions. But dissenting shareholders or directors, armed with the benefit of hindsight, can, and often do, criticize a board’s compensation decisions as excessive, claiming self-dealing, looting, and waste. What statutory protections do board members have when making compensation decisions? To what extent can board members truly rely on those protections?

In Cement Masons Local 780 Pension Fund v Schleifer, 56 Misc 3d 1204 [A], 2017 NY Slip Op 50875 [U] [Sup Ct NY County June 29, 2017], Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla considered these issues in a thoughtful opinion, in which she relied on some relatively infrequently litigated provisions of the Business Corporation Law (“BCL”). The decision is also noteworthy for its reliance on decisional law from Delaware on not one, but two important issues of law, one of which was an apparent question of first impression in New York. Although Cement Masons Local involved a public company, it addressed the same statutes that govern close corporations, and provides helpful guidance to board members, and counsel, when weighing compensation decisions. Continue Reading Navigating Rocky Shoals and Safe Harbors When Board Members Fix Their Own Compensation

The third time definitely wasn’t a charm for the plaintiff in Austin v Gould, 2017 NY Slip Op 31494(U) [Sup Ct NY County July 13, 2017], in which the court dismissed ill-pleaded claims for “unfettered and unlimited access to all books and records” of a series of Delaware limited liability companies and their wholly-owned real estate subsidiaries.

The decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice O. Peter Sherwood is the latest in a series of trial and appellate court rulings, spread over seven years and three separate lawsuits, rejecting claims by the LLCs’ non-managing one-third owner against the managing two-thirds owner allegedly for failing to distribute millions in management and acquisition fees.

The plaintiff’s two prior lawsuits — the first filed in 2010 and, after its dismissal, the second filed in 2013 — hit dead ends for various reasons including untimeliness and pleading deficiencies. The third lawsuit, filed in 2016, asserted claims for access to the LLCs’ books and records along with damages claims for breach of fiduciary duty and conversion. Continue Reading Books and Records Case Illustrates Crucial Importance of Pre-Suit Demand

A business’s failure to pay state taxes can be a problem if the entity later wants to bring a lawsuit, or its non-controlling owners want to sue on the entity’s behalf.

Under Section 203-a of the New York Tax Law, a New York business entity’s failure to pay franchise taxes for two years can result in automatic dissolution of the entity by proclamation of the New York State Secretary of State. Once a corporation is dissolved by proclamation for failure to pay franchise tax, it “does not enjoy the right to bring suit in the court of this state, except in [very] limited respects specifically permitted by statute.” Moran Enterprises, Inc. v Hurst, 66 AD3d 972 [2d Dept 2009].

What happens when an out-of-state entity, or shareholders on the entity’s behalf, attempt to sue in a New York court, despite the business not having paid taxes for several years in its home state? New York County Commercial Division Justice Anil C. Singh recently considering that question, specifically with respect to a Delaware entity, in Juma Technology Corp. v Servidio, Decision and Order, Index No. 151483/2016 [Sup Ct, NY County May 24, 2017]. Continue Reading Minority Shareholders’ Derivative Suit Foiled by Voiding of Corporation’s Charter for Nonpayment of Taxes

NY

DelawareThe common perception among practitioners familiar with the business entity laws of New York and Delaware is that Delaware law generally is friendlier to, and more protective of, majority ownership and management interests.

Two recent cases — one from each state — highlight at least one important area where the common perception does not apply: majority rights under the statutory default rules to adopt or amend an LLC operating agreement without the consent of all the members.

The difference between the two states can have critical consequences for both majority and minority members of the many LLCs that, for better or worse, are formed without a written operating agreement.

The New York case is one I previously wrote about on this blog. Last January, in Shapiro v Ettenson, the Appellate Division, First Department, in a case involving a three-member LLC that was formed without a written operating agreement, affirmed a lower court’s decision construing Section 402 (c) (3) of the New York LLC Law (“except as provided in the operating agreement . . . the vote of a majority in interest of the members entitled to vote thereon shall be required to . . . adopt, amend, restate or revoke the articles of organization or operating agreement”) to permit the two-member majority to adopt a written operating agreement almost two years after the LLC was formed and began operating, without the third member’s consent and notwithstanding certain provisions in the agreement that modified the statutory default rules adversely to the third member. Continue Reading Delaware Ruling Highlights Difference With New York Over Amending LLC Agreements

Litigating

There’s little doubt in my mind that “business divorce” has achieved name recognition as a distinct subgenre of commercial litigation whose regular practitioners, by dint of experience dealing in and out of court with the many and varied legal and practical issues arising from dysfunctional family and non-family owned closely-held businesses, offer clients a level of expertise not shared by civil litigation generalists.

I like to think that my blog, in its tenth year and still chugging along, has contributed to the enhanced recognition along with the efforts of a small but growing cadre of fellow bloggers, contributors of articles in legal publications, and speakers at bar association programs and business valuation seminars.

Now, with the publication of a smartly constructed and well-written treatise called Litigating the Business Divorce (Bloomberg BNA 2016), the law practice of business divorce truly has come of age.

LBD, as I’ll call it, is the fruit of a two-year project led by contributing editors Kurt Heyman and Melissa Donimirski in collaboration with an all-star cast of contributing authors. Kurt is a partner and Melissa a senior associate at the firm of Heyman Enerio Gattuso & Hirzel LLP in Wilmington, Delaware. Kurt, a seasoned business divorce litigator whom I’ve known for about ten years and whom I interviewed last year for my podcast, is a founding Co-Chair of the Business Divorce Subcommittee of the ABA Business Law Section, Business and Corporate Litigation Committee. Continue Reading Announcing Must-Have Treatise on Business Divorce Litigation

limited partnershipNotwithstanding the ascendency of the limited liability company, the Delaware limited partnership continues to serve as an important, tax-advantaged vehicle for certain capital-intensive ventures — especially in the energy sector — featuring centralized management and limited liability for large numbers of passive investors.

Late last month, the Delaware Supreme Court handed down two noteworthy decisions springing from suits by limited partners challenging the fairness of conflicted transactions by general partners that were approved by conflicts committees. In one, the high court affirmed Chancery Court’s order rejecting a claim based on the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing where the transaction’s approval by the conflicts committee complied with the agreement’s safe harbor provision and thus contractually precluded judicial review. Employees Retirement System v TC Pipelines GP, Inc., No. 291, 2016 [Del. Sup. Ct. Dec. 19, 2016].

In the other, Supreme Court reversed Chancery Court’s post-trial decision holding the general partner liable in damages owed directly to limited partners for a conflicted, over-priced  “dropdown” transaction by the general partner. The high court disagreed with Chancery Court’s application of the Tooley standard, instead finding that the claims were exclusively derivative and that the post-trial, pre-judgment acquisition by merger of the partnership extinguished the plaintiff limited partner’s standing to seek relief. El Paso Pipeline GP Company, LLC v Brinckerhoff, No. 103, 2016 [Del. Sup. Ct. Dec. 20, 2016].

Together, the two decisions re-affirm the primacy of contract in the realm of alternative entities including limited liability companies, limited partnerships, and master limited partnerships. Continue Reading Limited Partners Take a Licking in Two Delaware Supreme Court Decisions

Bad Faith 1In New York, the bad faith defense in dissolution proceedings traces its lineage to Matter of Kemp & Beatley, 64 NY2d 63 [1984], a landmark ruling by the state’s highest court that set the standard for minority shareholder oppression under § 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law, where the court wrote in dicta that “the minority shareholder whose own acts, made in bad faith and undertaken with a view toward forcing an involuntary dissolution, give rise to the complained-of oppression should be given no quarter in the statutory protection.”

Several years ago, I gave headline treatment to Justice Vito DeStefano’s decision in Feinberg v Silverberg recognizing the bad faith defense as applicable also in deadlock dissolution cases between 50/50 shareholders under BCL § 1104 notwithstanding a line of appellate rulings indicating that the underlying reasons for dissension and deadlock are not relevant. In reconciling those seemingly contradictory cases, Justice DeStefano wrote that the “manufactured creation of the dissension . . . is the sine qua non of bad faith” which “would belie a finding that the shareholders’ dissension poses an irreconcilable barrier to the continued functioning and prosperity of the corporation.”

Has the bad faith defense similarly osmosed to LLC dissolution? While I’m not aware of any New York cases directly addressing the issue, a recent decision by Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle of the Tennessee Business Court in Wilford v Coltea, Case No. 15-856-BC [Tenn. Ch. Ct. 20th Dist. May 16, 2016], echoes Justice DeStefano’s rationale in upholding a bad faith defense in a dissolution case involving a Delaware LLC whose two 50/50 members seemingly were at an alleged managerial impasse with no way out. Continue Reading Bad Faith Defense Gets Boost in LLC Dissolution Case