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

You know there’s something unusual going on in a case involving a dispute between co-members of an LLC — a form of business entity that didn’t exist in New York until 1994 — when the key legal precedents cited in the parties’ briefs date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

By any measure, Horowitz v Montauk U.S.A., LLC, No. 16-3912 [2d Cir. Apr. 20, 2018], is an unusual case, stemming from a fiercely contentious battle between 50/50 co-owners for control of a highly successful restaurant and night spot called The Sloppy Tuna located on the beach in Montauk, New York, a popular summer resort on the eastern tip of Long Island. The dispute, which is still going strong after four years, has spawned at least a half dozen lawsuits in state and federal courts in New York and Georgia, and landed operational control of The Sloppy Tuna in the hands of a court-appointed receiver.

Horowitz is a lawsuit brought in federal court by one of The Sloppy Tuna’s 50% members (Member #1) seeking injunctive relief and damages against the restaurant entity, a New York LLC (Restaurant), for trademark infringement based on the alleged unauthorized use of various trademarks and domain names related to The Sloppy Tuna that Member #1 registered in the name of his solely-owned company (Montauk).

The threshold issue teed up for the court in Horowitz — this post won’t address the several other issues addressed in the court’s opinion — and the reason I call the case unusual, is whether the Restaurant’s other 50% member (Member #2), who was not named as a party to the trademark action and who did not move to intervene in the action personally, under governing New York law has the right to defend the suit derivatively on behalf of the Restaurant. Continue Reading Court Grants 50% LLC Member Derivative Right to Defend Action Brought by Other 50% Member’s Solely Owned Company

Recently, in two separate cases, two New York judges construing two LLC agreements of two LLCs formed under the laws of two different states — Delaware and Nevada — came to the same conclusion when faced with the same argument by the LLCs’ controllers who contended that minority members waived the right to institute litigation asserting derivative claims based on provisions in the agreements requiring managerial or member consent to bring an action on behalf of the company.

In both cases, the judges rejected the waiver argument after finding that the language of the provisions upon which the controllers relied did not expressly prohibit derivative claims. The more interesting question not reached, at least in the case of the Delaware LLC for reasons I’ll explain below, is whether the statute authorizing derivative claims is mandatory or permissive.

Talking Capital

The first case, Talking Capital LLC v Omanoff, 2018 NY Slip Op 30332(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 23, 2018], involves a New York-based, three-member Delaware LLC in the factoring business, providing financing to telecommunications firms that route international calls. The suit was filed by one of the members against the other two and their principals, at heart alleging derivative claims for usurpation of business opportunity, breach of the LLC agreement, and breach of fiduciary duty by forming a competing entity in league with the LLC’s third-party lender. Continue Reading Can LLC Agreement Waive Right to Sue Derivatively? Not in These Two Cases

In business divorce litigation, petitioners / plaintiffs often want to start the case with a bang. A common tactic is to file a petition / complaint simultaneously with an injunction motion. Often there is a real need for an injunction – the respondent / defendant may be engaging in activities that could cause real, irreparable harm.

But often another objective is that if the injunction motion succeeds, it will be an early win in the case, set the stage favorably for the litigation to come, put significant leverage on the respondent / defendant by restricting its freedom to operate the business, and possibly result in a speedier resolution of the case. If the injunction motion or complaint itself has vulnerabilities, however, a case meant to start with a bang may end with an unceremonious whimper. That is just one lesson from a recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Pappas v 38-40 LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 30329(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 22, 2018]). Continue Reading Operating Agreement Dooms Derivative Claims by Deceased LLC Member’s Estate

Almost always there are elements of acrimony and intense emotion in litigation between co-owners of closely held business entities. The degree of toxicity can vary widely from case to case, although it tends to show up more conspicuously in litigation involving family-owned ventures.

Claims by non-controlling shareholders accusing controlling shareholders and directors of financial or other managerial abuses frequently are styled as derivative claims seeking recovery on the corporation’s behalf for harm to the corporation. In such suits, under the right circumstances the accused may challenge the accuser’s standing to pursue derivative claims based on conflict of interest.

Conflict of interest usually entails some tangible pecuniary interest held or asserted as a direct claim by the accuser that is adverse to the corporation or otherwise at odds with the claims asserted on behalf of the corporation. But a number of court decisions in New York also have cited as a factor in the analysis the accuser’s “animus” or “retaliatory” motive directed against the accused. The legal theory, akin to that applied in class actions, is that the accuser’s personal hostility and the resulting acrimony undermine the accuser’s ability to fairly and adequately represent the interests of the shareholders and the corporation.

Last year I posted about the decision in Pokoik v Norsel Realties in which a trial judge dismissed for lack of standing derivative claims brought by individuals holding an aggregate 11% interest in a realty-holding limited partnership. Among the reasons cited by the judge was that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate on this record that they are free from personal animus” as evidenced by the lead plaintiff’s “litigious nature” including several prior lawsuits against the defendants (including family members) alleging similar mismanagement claims, leading the court to conclude that the lawsuit was being wielded by the plaintiffs as “‘a weapon in the total arsenal’ so as to gain leverage in the other disputes.”

If, based on that decision, anyone thought freedom from personal animus is now part of the required showing by a derivative plaintiff, think again. Last week, the Manhattan-based Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated the derivative claims against some (but not all) of the named defendants. Continue Reading Appeals Court Reinstates Derivative Claims Dismissed for Conflict of Interest Where Parties’ Relationship Not “Especially Acrimonious”

Under the right set of facts, New York courts occasionally find remedies for LLC owners not explicitly authorized in the Limited Liability Company Law (“LLC Law”). Judges have a natural inclination to try to find solutions for legal problems where existing law falls short, which is part of how the common law came to be.

One striking example is the LLC derivative cause of action. In Tzolis v Wolff, 10 NY3d 100 [2008], the Court of Appeals ruled that members of an LLC “may bring derivative suits on the LLC’s behalf, even though there are no provisions governing such suits in the Limited Liability Company Law,” and even though the Legislature considered, but rejected, including a derivative right of action in the LLC Law.

Another remedy not found in the LLC statutes is the so-called “equitable buyout” in LLC dissolution proceedings.

In a nutshell, an equitable buyout grants an LLC member the possibility upon dissolution of the company (under circumstances yet to be well defined by the courts) of the ability to purchase the other member’s interest as an alternative to liquidation and sale of the company’s assets at auction. An equitable buyout results in one member involuntarily selling his or her equity to the other, and the other member becoming the business’s sole owner. The entity’s existence continues post-buyout – despite ostensibly being “dissolved.” Continue Reading The LLC Equitable Buyout: Past, Present, Future

This winter forever will be remembered in the Northeast as the winter of the “bomb cyclone,” which gets credit for the 6º temperature and bone-chilling winds howling outside as I write this. So in its honor, I’m accelerating my annual Winter Case Notes synopses of recent business divorce cases, which normally don’t appear until later in the season.

This year’s selections include a variety of interesting issues, including LLC dissolution based on deadlock; the survival of an LLC membership interest after bankruptcy; application of the entire-fairness test in a challenge to a cash-out merger; an interim request for reinstatement by an expelled LLC member; and a successful appeal from a fee award in a shareholder derivative action.

Deadlock Between LLC’s Co-Managers Requires Hearing in Dissolution Proceeding

Advanced 23, LLC v Chamber House Partners, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 32662(U) [Sup Ct NY County Dec. 15, 2017].  Deadlock is not an independent basis for judicial dissolution of New York LLC’s under the governing standard adopted in the 1545 Ocean Avenue case but, as Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla explains in her decision, when two co-equal managers are unable to cooperate, the court “must consider the managers’ disagreement in light of the operating agreement and the continued ability of [the LLC] to function in that context.” In Advanced 23, the co-managers exchanged accusations of bad acts and omissions, e.g., one of them transferring LLC funds to an unauthorized bank account, raising material issues of fact as to the effectiveness of the LLC’s management and therefore requiring an evidentiary hearing, which is just what Justice Scarpulla ordered. Of further note, in a companion decision denying the respondent’s motion to dismiss the petition (read here), Justice Scarpulla rejected without discussion the respondent’s argument that judicial dissolution under LLC Law § 702 was unavailable based on a provision in the operating agreement stating that the LLC “will be dissolved only upon the unanimous determination of the Members to dissolve.” In that regard, the decision aligns with Justice Stephen Bucaria’s holding in Matter of Youngwall, that even an express waiver of the right to seek judicial dissolution of an LLC is void as against public policy. Continue Reading Winter Case Notes: LLC Deadlock and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

When the tsunami of LLC enabling statutes swept the U.S. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including New York in 1994, many included a default rule authorizing as-of-right member withdrawal and payment for the “fair value” of the membership interest. The default rule was one of many designed to avoid C corporation-style “double taxation” of LLC earnings. After 1997, when the IRS adopted check-the-box regulations cementing pass-through partnership tax treatment for LLCs, New York and other states flipped the default rule, i.e., members are no longer permitted to withdraw unless authorized by the operating agreement.

When New York amended its withdrawal provision, LLC Law § 606, it included a new subsection “b” grandfathering LLCs formed before the amendment’s 1999 effective date, meaning that withdrawal under the “old” § 606 and fair-value buyout under LLC Law § 509’s default rule remain available for members of pre-1999 LLCs — so long as not otherwise provided in the operating agreement. The Chiu case, which I wrote about here, is an example of one such case resulting in a fair-value buyout of a withdrawn member.

After the amendments, some pre-1999 New York LLCs adopted new operating agreements or amended their existing ones to prohibit withdrawal. Some, as in Chiu, did not.

This is a story about one LLC that did not, but with a very different outcome than Chiu. The story’s punch line, which makes it a fascinating one, is that even though the minority member, seeking to force a fair-value buyout, was found to have properly invoked his uncontested right to withdraw under the old § 606, in the end the lower and appellate courts held that his withdrawal did not trigger a statutory buyout under § 509 because the LLC’s operating agreement included mandatory rights of first refusal — with which the minority member never complied — that displaced the buyout statute’s default rule.

The case, Matter of Jacobs v Cartalemi, was decided last week by the Appellate Division, Second Department, along with two decisions in companion appeals in related cases in which the court held that upon withdrawal the minority member also lost his standing to pursue derivative claims against the controlling member. I’ll explain all below, but before doing so I must disclose that, along with co-counsel, my firm and I represent the controlling member of the LLC in each of the cases. Continue Reading Operating Agreement Defeats Statutory Buyout Rights Upon LLC Member’s Withdrawal

I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. The phrase “bare naked assignee” was coined by the preeminent scholar and LLC maven Professor Daniel Kleinberger whose massive oeuvre (not to mention his guest posts on this blog here and here) includes a wonderful article published in 2009 called The Plight of the Bare Naked Assignee (available here on SSRN ). As described in the abstract, the article addresses the “new and separate opportunity for oppression” that “exists because LLC law purports to (1) recognize a species of persons holding legal rights vis-á-vis the LLC (assignees) while (2) denying those persons any remedies whatsoever in connection with those rights.”

Under the LLC statutes in New York and most other states, except as otherwise provided in the operating agreement, LLC membership interests are freely assignable in whole or in part. As the Professor’s article explains, the bedrock “pick your partner” principle of partnership law found expression in the default rules of LLC statutes which, contrary to traditional corporation laws, require majority (or unanimous) consent of the other LLC members for an assignee to become a full-fledged member with both economic and voting/management rights. Typical of these statutes, New York’s LLC Law § 603 provides that, absent such consent, the assignee has no right to participate in LLC management “or to exercise any rights or powers of a member” and only has the right “to receive, to the extent assigned, the distributions and allocations of profits and losses to which the assignor would be entitled.”

The vast majority of written operating agreements that I’ve encountered include detailed articles addressing the rights of members to assign (or not) their membership interests and, when permitted, what if any rights non-member assignees possess other than the right to receive distributions and profit/loss allocations. Of course, absent an operating agreement, the rights of an assignee are governed by the statutory default rules.

The Professor’s article broadly discusses theory and case law surrounding the difficulties faced by non-member assignees a/k/a transferees — oftentimes the heir of a deceased member — when it comes to protecting their economic interests against managerial abuse by the LLC’s controllers. My focus here addresses only one, narrow aspect of such protection, namely, the ability of a non-member assignee to inspect LLC records in the absence of dispositive rules in an operating agreement or, as in what I believe is a small minority of states including Texas, a statute giving assignees inspection rights. Continue Reading Can the Bare Naked Assignee Demand Access to LLC Records?

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