Grounds for Dissolution

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

WARNING: Contractarians may find the following post disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.

Now that I’ve got your attention, consider this:

  • Under the standard for judicial dissolution of a New York LLC prescribed in the landmark 1545 Ocean Avenue case, the primary, contract-based inquiry is whether the LLC’s managers are unable or unwilling to permit or promote the stated purpose of the entity, as found in the LLC’s operating agreement or articles of formation, to be realized or achieved.
  • The typical, broad purpose clause found in untold thousands of standardized and customized LLC agreements provides that the LLC’s purpose is “any lawful business,” mirroring Section 201 of the LLC Law (“A limited liability company may be formed under this chapter for any lawful business purpose or purposes”).
  • When a fully integrated operating agreement states that the LLC’s purpose is “any lawful business,” may a minority member of an LLC nonetheless seek judicial dissolution based on extrinsic (parol) evidence that those in control of the LLC are operating it for a lawful business purpose that departs from the LLC’s alleged original lawful business purpose?

Until last week’s decision by the Brooklyn-based Appellate Division, Second Department — the same court that gave us 1545 Ocean Avenue — in Mace v Tunick, 2017 NY Slip Op 06170 [2d Dept Aug. 16, 2017], I would have answered that question “no” with support from a number of case precedents in New York and other jurisdictions including that hotbed of contractarian jurisprudence known as Delaware. After Mace, it appears that the “any lawful business” purpose clause may be as good as no purpose clause. Continue Reading Does Your LLC Agreement Have a Purposeless Purpose Clause?

Over the years I’ve litigated and observed countless cases of alleged oppression of minority shareholders by the majority. Oppression can take endlessly different forms, some more crude than others in their execution, some more draconian than others in their effect.

If there was an award for the crudest and most draconian case of shareholder oppression, Matter of Twin Bay Village, Inc., 2017 NY Slip Op 06024 [3d Dept Aug. 3, 2017], decided earlier this month by an upstate appellate panel, would be a serious contender.

The case involves a bitter dispute between two branches of the Chomiak family over a lakefront resort called Twin Bay Village located on beautiful Lake George in upstate New York. In 1957, the husband-and-wife founders, Stephan and Eleonora Chomiak, opened the summer resort on land they owned. They and their two sons, Leo and Vladimir, together ran the business until 1970 when they transferred ownership of the land and business to newly-formed Twin Bay Village, Inc. owned 26% by each parent and 24% by each son. Continue Reading And the Award For Most Oppressive Conduct By a Majority Shareholder Goes to . . .

In 1981, three partners formed a general partnership to own and operate a rental property. Their partnership agreement fixed a 30-year term, to 2011. In 2003, the partners formed a new LLC maintaining the same ownership percentages as the partnership, to which the partnership transferred the property for purposes of refinancing the existing mortgage loan.

In 2016, after failing to secure a buy-out agreement, the holder of a 45% interest sued to dissolve the LLC under New York LLC Law § 701 (a) based on the 2011 expiration date in the partnership agreement.

But wait, you say, didn’t the LLC supersede the partnership and, if so, how can the LLC’s duration be governed by the termination date in the partnership agreement? Unless there’s an LLC agreement that provides otherwise, isn’t the LLC’s existence perpetual by default? And how can the owners hold themselves out to the world as an LLC while acting as partners among themselves? After all, it was the mortgage lender that likely required the transition from partnership to LLC as a condition of the loan, among other reasons, precisely to avoid the risk associated with a general partner’s unfettered right to dissolve the partnership at any time for any reason.

An interesting set-up, indeed, for a decision last week by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Golder v 29 West 27th Street Associates, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 31527(U) [Sup Ct NY County July 17, 2017], in which she denied a motion to dismiss the dissolution petition upon finding “a material issue of fact exists as to whether a written operating agreement exists as to the LLC’s term of duration.” Continue Reading It’s a Partnership! No, It’s an LLC! No, It’s Both!

Food-Fight1A little over three years ago I reported on the first round of a fascinating “food fight” among four siblings, each of whom is a 25% shareholder of a Brooklyn-based, second-generation food distributor known as Jersey Lynne Farms, Inc. (the “Corporation”), and each of whom also is a 25% member of Catarina Realty, LLC (the “LLC”) which leases its sole realty asset to the Corporation.

The occasion back then was the court’s decision in Borriello v Loconte denying a dismissal motion in a derivative suit brought by Dorine Borriello on the LLC’s behalf in which she alleged that her three siblings breached fiduciary duty by leasing its realty to the Corporation at a drastically below-market rent and by imposing on the LLC certain expenses that ought to be borne by the Corporation as tenant.

In 2011 — the same year her siblings entered into the challenged lease — they ousted Dorine as a director, officer, and employee of the Corporation. In 2012 Dorine and her siblings negotiated a Separation Agreement and General Release setting forth terms for payment of compensation and benefits along with non-compete and non-disclosure provisions. The agreement left intact Dorine’s 25% stock interest in the Corporation.

Dorine’s derivative suit filed in 2013 claimed that the 2011 below-market lease rendered the LLC unprofitable while increasing the Corporation’s income used to pay salaries and other benefits to her siblings. The first round went to Dorine when the court ruled that her General Release did not encompass her derivative claim and enjoined her siblings from advancing their legal expenses from LLC funds.

In the end, however, and subject to any appeals Dorine may bring, it appears that the siblings have won the food fight’s final rounds. Continue Reading “Food Fight” Sequel Ends Badly for Ousted Sibling

Brothers1Like most civil cases, the vast majority of business divorce disputes get resolved before trial, which is disappointing for us voyeurs since only at trial with live witnesses undergoing cross examination does one get the full flavor of the case’s factual intricacies, credibility issues, and the emotional undercurrents.

Even rarer are written post-trial decisions by judges with detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law, which is why I was so pleased recently to come across a trio of expansive post-trial decisions by Queens County Justice Timothy J. Dufficy in three business divorce cases involving family-owned businesses.

One of them, Shih v Kim, was featured in last week’s post on this blog, in which a romantically-involved couple started a business while engaged and continued as business partners even after the engagement broke off — until the defendant went rogue by diverting cash to himself and diverting business to a competing company.

The two other cases form interesting bookends, metaphorically speaking. Both involve businesses run by brothers. Both involve challenges to the documented ownership of the business. In one case, Justice Dufficy rejected a bid to establish an undocumented, de facto partnership interest and dismissed the case. In the other, Justice Dufficy upheld the documented, 50/50 ownership of an LLC, granted dissolution, and appointed a receiver. Let’s take a closer look. Continue Reading A Pair of Unbrotherly Business Altercations Go to Trial

OppressionAn earlier post on this blog, examining a post-trial decision in Matter of Digeser v Flach, 2015 NY Slip Op 51609(U) [Sup Ct Albany County Nov. 5, 2015], described the minority shareholder’s dissolution claim under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law as a “classic case of minority shareholder oppression.” The Albany-based Appellate Division, Third Department, recently agreed with that assessment in affirming the lower court’s order finding sufficient grounds for dissolution.

The appellate panel’s unanimous decision in Matter of Gould Erectors & Rigging, Inc., 146 AD3d 1128, 2017 NY Slip Op 00228 [3d Dept Jan. 12, 2017], affirmed in every respect Albany County Commercial Division Justice Richard M. Platkin’s post-trial decision to dissolve two affiliated construction businesses. Here’s a quick recap of the case as it unfolded at the trial level.

Background

The story begins with two father-son pairs. The petitioner, Henry A. Digeser, is a 25% shareholder of two New York corporations, Gould Erectors & Rigging, Inc. (“Gould”) and Flach Crane & Rigging Co., Inc. (“Flach Crane”). The respondent, John C. Flach, owns the remaining 75%. Digeser’s father was a close friend and business colleague of Flach’s father, who founded the companies, and served on the businesses’ boards. Eventually, the younger Digeser got involved in the businesses and became an owner. Continue Reading An Oppression How-To: Revoke Employment, Profit Sharing and Control