It’s no surprise that the quorum requirements found in close corporation by-laws and LLC operating agreements rarely step into the limelight in business divorce disputes. After all, the typical quorum provision for meetings of shareholders, directors, and LLC members and managers requires attendance by a bare majority of voting shares or membership interests or, at the board or managerial level, a bare majority of the board of directors or managers. In other words, it’s usually not the holding of the meeting that generates the dispute, it’s the action taken at the meeting by the control faction that generates the dispute.

In the case of closely held entities with two owners having equal interests and control, a quorum provision requiring majority attendance effectively requires attendance by both owners. If owner #1 doesn’t attend the meeting, not because of some benign reason but due to a disagreement with owner #2 over the action proposed by the latter to be voted upon at the meeting, that produces a deadlock the same as if both owners attended the meeting and cast conflicting votes. Deadlock is deadlock, meeting or no.

Now imagine a closely held entity that has three or more voting shareholders or members, or three or more members of the board of directors or managers, with a quorum provision requiring the presence at a meeting of all the shareholders or members, or of all the directors or managers. With such an entity, a dissenter with minority voting power who couldn’t otherwise defeat a proposed action requiring majority approval, nonetheless can block the action simply by not showing up at the meeting. So much for majority rule.

Actually, we don’t have to imagine the scenario because that’s what happened in Casilli v Natan, 2018 NY Slip Op 32621(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 12, 2018], recently decided by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley. In her decision, Justice Masley was invited to substitute the statutory default rule under LLC Law § 404, requiring the presence at meetings of a majority in interest of the members, for an “unworkable” quorum provision in the LLC’s operating agreement requiring the presence of all. Not surprisingly, at least to this writer, Justice Masley declined the invitation. Continue Reading Think Twice Before Putting 100% Quorum Requirement in By-Laws or LLC Agreement

Consider the following hypothetical: The operating agreement of an LLC vests management authority in its two members. In practice, and by informal mutual consent, only one of the members actively manages the LLC’s business and financial affairs. (Not an altogether unusual arrangement, by the way.) When things go awry between the two members, and the active member accuses the inactive member of engaging in misconduct violating fiduciary duties owed to the LLC and to the active member, can the inactive member disclaim those fiduciary duties on the ground he owes no such duty as a de facto non-managing member?

A disclaimer of the sort was raised and rejected in a ruling earlier this month by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Barry Ostrager in Marcus v Antell, 2018 NY Slip Op 32527(U) [Sup Ct NY County Oct. 5, 2018], where the court relied on a strict application of New York’s LLC Law § 401 (b) (ii) providing that any member of a member-managed LLC “shall have and be subject to all of the duties and liabilities of a manager provided in this chapter.”

It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Continue Reading Does an Inactive Member of a Member-Managed LLC Owe Fiduciary Duties?

Over the last several years, the books-and-records proceeding and its corresponding shareholder rights of inspection seem to have entered a bit of renaissance period in the courts. We here at New York Business Divorce have reported on at least nine decisions primarily addressing the topic since September 2014, going on record to proclaim the phenomenon as a “boost” for the summary proceeding, by which minority owners in closely-held businesses can get a window into the management and operation of the companies from which they’ve been shut out. We’ve even gone so far as to suggest that books-and-records proceedings may be “on a roll” of late, both in terms of an expansion what constitutes a “proper purpose” for bringing the proceeding, as well as in terms of the scope of information attainable.

That trend, at least with respect to the frequency with which issues related to inspection rights are being litigated, appears to be continuing into 2018. What follows are summaries of three of this year’s more notable decisions addressing inspection rights – all from Manhattan Supreme Court, as it happens.

But first, a quick refresher on the subject matter at hand… Continue Reading Inspection Rights, Oral Operating Agreements, and Other Pop-Diva Delights

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

Mediation, as commonly understood in the context of alternative dispute resolution, employs a neutral third party to facilitate negotiation and voluntary agreement between the parties. Unlike arbitration, the mediator does not conduct an evidentiary hearing, is able to “caucus” separately with each side, and does not impose a solution or issue a legally binding award.

Or so I thought, until I came across last week’s appellate ruling in Korangy v Malone, 2018 NY Slip Op 03767 [1st Dept May 24, 2018], in which the court affirmed an order dismissing claims by one 50% LLC member against the other 50% member based on the outcome of a prior, “binding mediation” conducted pursuant to a provision in the LLC’s operating agreement addressing member deadlock.

When I did a little online research, I found commentary about binding mediation — in which mediators usually impose a legally enforceable resolution only after they fail to produce a voluntary settlement — both negative (“a trap for the unwary”) and positive (“more cost effective than arbitration”). I also got the sense that the inclusion of mandatory, binding mediation clauses in commercial contracts, insofar as it has achieved any significant level of acceptance, mostly is confined to standardized transactions such as construction and reinsurance contracts.

Whatever their utility in those contexts, does it make sense to include an ex ante provision for binding mediation as a deadlock-breaking device in a shareholders or operating agreement, such as the one in Korangy v Malone? I doubt it, but let’s first take a look at the case. Continue Reading Anyone Think Binding Mediation to Break Deadlock Is a Good Idea?

Transactional lawyers who assist clients in the formation and restructuring of business entities, and the litigators who clean up the transactional lawyers’ occasional messes, each have lessons to learn from last week’s appellate ruling in 223 Sam, LLC v 223 15th Street, LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 03118 [2d Dept May 2, 2018].

The lesson for transactional lawyers is, when you go to the time, trouble and client expense of negotiating and preparing a shareholders or operating agreement, every time you transmit via email or other means a copy of the unsigned agreement, no matter how preliminary or advanced the draft, include a proviso that there is no binding agreement until the parties exchange fully signed copies. Or better yet, put the proviso in the body of the agreement. Or both.

For litigators, the lesson is twofold. First, litigation, like a prize fight, usually goes a number of rounds before there’s a victor (or, more likely, a settlement). An early round win, such as defeating the adverse party’s bid for a preliminary injunction, is no guaranty the other side won’t prevail, with or without an assist from a panel of appellate judges. Second, if you’re litigating a governance or ownership dispute between putative co-owners of a realty holding entity, it’s usually not a good idea to file a lis pendens against the real property unless you (or your client) are prepared to pay the other side’s legal fees to secure its cancellation. Continue Reading If LLC Agreement Must Be in Writing, Must it Be Signed?

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

Unlike the LLC statutes in many other states, New York’s LLC Law does not authorize the LLC or any of its members to seek judicial expulsion of another member, no matter how egregious the member’s behavior. As the Appellate Division ruled in Chiu v Chiu, the only way to expel (a/k/a dissociate) a member of a New York LLC is if the operating agreement so provides.

A carefully tailored expulsion provision in an operating agreement, paired with a reasonably fair buyout, can provide a salutary mechanism for protecting the LLC against a member who engages in wrongful or illegal conduct, jeopardizes the LLC’s licensing or legal status, or consistently fails to perform his or her delegated responsibilities. On the other hand, an expulsion provision that uses subjective or overly broad criteria to define expulsion trigger events can encourage opportunistic behavior by the control faction against the minority, especially if expulsion is accompanied by a forced buyout of the expelled member on unfair financial terms. LLC guru Tom Rutledge wrote a very informative article on the topic, about which I interviewed him for my podcast, in which he gives a roadmap of the various considerations involved in designing and implementing an effective expulsion provision in an LLC agreement.

It’s one thing when all of the LLC’s members consent to an operating agreement authorizing member expulsion. However well or poorly drawn, however fair or unfair its terms, that’s called freedom of contract. You made your bed, now lie in it. But what about an operating agreement adopted by a control faction, without the consent of the minority, authorizing member expulsion at the control faction’s behest? Or how about an operating agreement with expulsion and lopsided buyout provisions adopted without minority consent, after the breakout of hostilities with the minority?

Which points back to Shapiro v Ettenson, a case I’ve written about several times before (here, here, and here). For those unfamiliar with the case, in Shapiro the lower and appellate courts construed LLC Law § 402 (c) (3) (“Voting Rights of Members”) as permitting holders of a majority interest in the LLC to adopt an initial, binding operating agreement long after the LLC was formed and commenced business, without the consent of the minority member. The operating agreement adopted in that case, among other things, converted the LLC from member-managed to manager-managed, authorized additional capital calls, the dilution of the membership interest of a non-contributing member, and member expulsion for cause. Continue Reading LLC Member Expulsion: What Hath Shapiro Wrought?

In the annals of business divorce litigation and assorted other disputes between co-owners of closely held business entities, the cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing likely wins the prize for the claim least understood by practitioners and most frequently dismissed by judges.

As I’ve written before, and as Professor Dan Kleinberger noted in his guest post on this blog, at least part of the confusion comes from its name. Start with the term “implied covenant.” To the average reader, it connotes a duty imposed by law without regard to the parties’ intentions and without mutual consent, like a fiduciary duty (the implied covenant often is referred to as the “implied duty”). Next comes “good faith,” connoting something done sincerely and honestly, without malice, disloyalty, or a desire to deceive or defraud. Finally comes “fair dealing.” Fair is fair is the opposite of unfair, right? Put them all together, and you’ve got what sounds like an all-purpose “lite” version of some quasi-fiduciary duty, enabling a court of equity to apply free-floating standards of honesty and fairness to adjust relations between business partners.

By and large, court decisions out of the Delaware Chancery Court have done a far better job than their New York counterparts in explaining the implied covenant’s strictly contractual roots and its parsimonious reach. A particularly good example is Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III’s recent Memorandum Opinion in Miller v HCP & Co., C.A. No. 2017-0291-SG [Del Ch Feb. 1, 2018], in which he dismissed a suit brought by a minority member of an LLC alleging that the controller breached the implied covenant by selling the company for $43 million to a third party via private sale rather than conducting an open-market sale or auction to ensure maximum value for all members under the operating agreement’s waterfall. Continue Reading Will Someone Please Re-Name the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing?