Grounds for Dissolution

“We are poster-boys for why family members should not go into business together.”

So says respondent Paul Vaccari in his affidavit opposing the petition of his brothers Richard and Peter seeking to dissolve their jointly owned corporation that owns a five-story, mixed-use building in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, housing the operations of Piccinini Brothers, a third-generation wholesale butcher and purveyor of meat, poultry and game established by the brothers’ grandfather and great-uncle in the 1920’s.

The family-owned business at the center of Vaccari v Vaccari, 2018 NY Slip Op 30546(U) [Sup Ct NY County Mar. 28, 2018], decided last month by veteran Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten, is a classic example of fraying family bonds in the successive ownership generations caused by divergent career interests and sibling sense of injustice over disparate treatment by their parents.

While Vaccari will not go down in the annals of business divorce litigation as a landmark case, it does add incrementally and usefully to the body of case law addressing the grounds available or not to establish minority shareholder oppression. Justice Bransten’s opinion also serves as an important reminder to counsel in dissolution proceedings of their summary nature and of the potentially high cost of noncompliance with the Commercial Division’s practice rules. Continue Reading Shareholder Oppression Requires More Than Denial of Access to Company Information

We call it deadlock dissolution when a 50% shareholder of a close corporation, who claims to be at an impasse with the other 50% shareholder, asks the court to dissolve and liquidate the corporation. New York’s deadlock dissolution statute, unlike its statutory cousin for minority shareholder oppression petitions, does not give the non-petitioning 50% shareholder the right to avoid dissolution by acquiring the petitioner’s shares for “fair value” as determined by the court, nor do the courts have statutory or common-law authority to compel a buyout. Absent a settlement, the litigation outcomes are binary: either dissolution is granted, in which case the court usually will appoint a receiver to sell the corporation’s assets, or it’s denied, in which case the co-owners continue indefinitely their fractious co-existence.

There’s one particular subspecies of deadlock dissolution that may not be motivated primarily by the usual disputes over finance, personnel, owner compensation, budget, distributions, or other such operational issues. Rather, sometimes a deadlock dissolution petition is brought when the two owners disagree whether to dissolve or continue to operate a functioning business. The petitioner may need the liquidity for unrelated financial reasons, or in contemplation of retirement, or because he or she believes the optimal time to sell the business or its assets is at hand. Perhaps the two owners also discussed a buyout but couldn’t agree on terms. Over time, as resentments fester and pressures grow, one or both owners typically undertake unilateral actions affecting the business, or block management actions advanced by the other, that push the standoff to crisis mode and into the hands of lawyers and judges.

A recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla shows how a deadlock dissolution petition of this existential sort can play out. Continue Reading One 50% Shareholder Wants to Sell or Liquidate the Business. The Other Wants to Keep It Going. Is That Deadlock?

The test for judicial dissolution of LLCs under LLC Law § 702, as laid down in 1545 Ocean Avenue, initially asks whether the managers are unable or unwilling to reasonably permit or promote realization of the LLC’s “stated purpose” as found in its operating agreement.

I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of operating agreements, in their purpose clauses, use the phrase “any lawful business” which, not coincidentally, mirrors the enabling language found in LLC Law § 201, authorizing LLCs to be formed for “any lawful business purpose.” Boiler-plate or not, using “any lawful business” in the purpose clause can be a prudent drafting technique to avoid future conflict or need to amend the operating agreement should the LLC’s business model change in response to future events. Of course, there are some circumstances, often involving single asset real estate holding companies, when stating a specific purpose is the more prudent technique.

Which is why last summer’s decision by the Appellate Division, Second Department in Mace v Tunick was such an eye opener. In Mace, the court held that the “any lawful business” purpose clause in the operating agreement at issue did not state any purpose, and on the basis that the lower court had engaged in impermissible fact-finding on a pre-answer dismissal motion, reversed the lower court’s summary dismissal of the minority member’s dissolution suit and remanded the case for further proceedings.

If “any lawful business” states no purpose, I queried in my prior post on the case, does “the primary focus of the judicial dissolution standard under 1545 Ocean Avenue — whether the LLC’s managers are willing or able to achieve its stated purpose under the operating agreement — merely becomes a waystation on the road to more protracted litigation proceedings requiring discovery and evidentiary hearings”?

I still don’t have the definitive answer to that question, but I can tell you what happened in Mace on remand to the lower court, and after the lower court conducted a trial. Continue Reading The Purposeless Purpose Clause Makes a Comeback — Or Does It?

As LLCs have become the dominant form of closely-held business in New York, cases involving dissolution of partnerships have become more and more rare. Section 63 of the Partnership Law is the statute governing judicial dissolution of New York general partnerships. The last time this blog wrote about a general partnership dissolution under Partnership Law § 63 was Summer 2015, a testimonial to how uncommon they have become.

After a lengthy interlude, along comes Magid v Magid, 2017 NY Slip Op 32603(U) [Sup Ct NY County Dec. 14, 2017].

Magid involved a fact pattern familiar to this blog’s regular readers – an entity owned by siblings, an income-producing property, a rising real estate market, some family members who want to sell, others who do not. Litigation ensues. Usually, the various dissolution statutes under the Business Corporation Law (BCL) or the Limited Liability Company Law (LLC Law) provide the standards to resolve the dispute.

In Magid, Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten considered the applicable standards for judicial dissolution – particularly based on deadlock – under Partnership Law § 63. Magid raises the question – is the standard for judicial dissolution based on deadlock under Partnership Law § 63 any different than under BCL § 1104, the deadlock statute for corporation dissolutions? Continue Reading Rare Partnership Dissolution Decision Applies Deadlock Standard to Dissolution Under Partnership Law

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 you want to sue to dissolve a business in New York on behalf of the estate of a deceased shareholder, to which court should you go: Supreme or Surrogate’s Court?

For many practitioners, the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court, a specialized court in New York focusing on complex business-related disputes, is the venue of choice. Most types of disputes have a minimum monetary threshold for eligibility in the Commercial Division. Manhattan’s threshold is the highest – $500,000.  The rules of eligibility for cases to be heard in the Commercial Division, which you can read here, have three exceptions to the monetary threshold – one of which lists “[d]issolution of corporations, partnerships, limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships and joint ventures — without consideration of the monetary threshold.” In part because there is no monetary threshold for dissolution proceedings, practitioners in the several New York counties that have a Commercial Division usually litigate business dissolution disputes in the Commercial Division.

But once in a blue moon a dissolution case will wind up in the Surrogate’s Court. Continue Reading Surrogate’s Court Declines to Order Demise of Fashion Business

Minority shareholder oppression and deadlock are the twin pillars of most business divorce litigation. Both are codified in the vast majority of statutes authorizing proceedings for judicial dissolution of closely held corporations and, to a lesser extent, limited liability companies. Both encompass infinite permutations of  behaviors — of both the well and ill-intended variety — among business co-owners that make any working definition of the two doctrines only marginally more useful than Justice Potter Stewart’s famous “I know it when I see it” definition of obscenity.

From my casual observations over the years, I’d say the courts probably have devoted far more attention to formulating and refining the standard for minority shareholder oppression, which is of more recent vintage than deadlock as ground for judicial dissolution and typically is not defined in the statutes. Oppressive conduct is evaluated in most states under one of three judicially-created formulations: majority conduct that defeats the reasonable expectations of the minority shareholder; breach of the fiduciary duty of good faith and fair dealing majority shareholders owe minority shareholders; and burdensome, harsh, and wrongful conduct constituting a visible departure from the standards of fair dealing majority shareholders owe minority shareholders in close corporations.

I’ve not encountered comparable attempts to formulate a deadlock standard, although one might think the term deadlock needs no judicial interpretation à la oppression. After all, the dictionaries tell us that deadlock is a state of impasse or inability to progress when two opposing factions with equal control can’t come to agreement on something. But the dictionary definition doesn’t get us very far in the context of judicial dissolution proceedings. For example, 50/50 owners in an otherwise well-functioning company could be deadlocked over what shape table to buy for their conference room; no one would suggest that deadlock of this sort would warrant a judicial death verdict for the company. And what about a feigned deadlock created by one faction in pursuit of a break-up, buy-out, or other strategic objective?

In my case-law travels I’ve come across decisions that catalog prior cases granting dissolution as illustrative categories of disagreement warranting dissolution, e.g., impasse over distributions or the hiring or firing of key personnel, but I’ve seen no attempt to fashion an overall framework for evaluating claims of deadlock, that is, until last month’s opinion in Koshy v Sachdev (read here) in which the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in its first-ever effort to construe that state’s deadlock-dissolution statute, devised a four-factor test to determine whether a “true deadlock” exists. Continue Reading Court Defines “True Deadlock”

New York’s LLC judicial dissolution statute, Section 702 of the Limited Liability Company Law, provides far more limited grounds to dissolve a business than the Business Corporation Law – a harsh reality for allegedly mistreated minority members highlighted by a recent decision by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice David B. Cohen.

In Matter of Felzen v PEI Mussel Kitchen, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 31831(U) [Sup Ct, NY County Sept. 1, 2017], Felzen sued to dissolve the company that operates a pair of Manhattan seafood restaurants named Flex Mussels, based upon allegations of breach of fiduciary duty, looting and oppression – frequent grounds for dissolution under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law.  In Matter of Zafar, an earlier decision written about on this blog, comparable allegations – i.e., “persistent self-dealing and dishonest conduct” – sufficed to dissolve an LLC.  Let’s see how things turned out here. Continue Reading LLC’s Purpose Being Achieved? Business Doing Fine? Good Luck Getting Judicial Dissolution

If you haven’t yet listened to prior episodes of the Business Divorce Roundtable (a) it’s time you did and (b) absolutely you won’t want to miss the latest episode (click on the link at the bottom of this post) featuring first-hand, real-life, business divorce stories told by business appraiser Tony Cotrupe of Melioria Advisors (photo left) and attorney Jeffrey Eilender of Schlam Stone & Dolan (photo right).

Tony’s and Jeff’s stories have a common element: both involve the contentious break-up of a poisonous business relationship between two brothers. The similarity ends there. In my interview of Tony, he puts us inside a fast-paced and ultimately successful effort by the feuding second-generation owners of a propane distributorship, guided by their respective lawyers working in collaboration, to avoid litigation by engineering a buy-out of one brother by the other based on Tony’s business appraisal as the jointly retained, independent evaluator. It’s a happy ending to what otherwIse could have turned into a drawn-out courtroom slugfest.

Courtroom slugfest aptly sums up Jeff’s story as counsel for the brother owning the minority interest in Kassab v. Kasab, a case I’ve featured on this blog several times including last month’s post-trial decision giving the other brother the opportunity to buy out the minority interest upon pain of dissolution if he doesn’t (read here, here, and here). Jeff’s insider analysis of the case provides unique insights into a multi-faceted, roller-coaster-ride of a case involving novel issues under the statutes and case law governing business corporations and limited liability companies.

If you’re a lawyer, business appraiser or business owner with a business divorce story you’d like to share for a future podcast, drop me a line at pmahler@farrellfritz.com.

 

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