exitDoes a shareholder have a fiduciary duty not to exercise a contractual right under the shareholders’ agreement to resign and demand a buy-out of his shares by the financially distressed corporation, particularly when the corporation’s default would trigger the other shareholders’ personal guarantees?

That’s the intriguing question posed in an unpublished decision last month by Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano in Mondschein v Badillo, Decision and Order, Index No. 600307/14 [Sup Ct Nassau County Jan. 12, 2017], where a physician resigned from his struggling medical professional corporation amidst ultimately unsuccessful efforts to merge with another practice, and who then brought suit against the P.C., his fellow shareholders, and a related realty company that owned the practice’s medical office, to enforce his buy-out and retirement rights under the various agreements governing the two entities.

The agreements essentially gave senior physician-shareholders the right to retire with an obligatory buy-out by the entities of their equity interests in the practice and the realty, as well as payment of specified retirement benefits. In addition, each shareholder gave a joint-and-several personal guarantee of each other shareholder’s rights to payment. Continue Reading Race to the Exit as Professional Practice Falters

shorts

It’s late August, when the lure of the seashore and vacation plans push aside all but the most serious work-related endeavors, and when I share with my readers a few short summaries of recent decisions of interest in business divorce cases.

First, we’ll look at a decision in a dispute among former law firm partners in which the court upheld a partnership agreement amendment by the defendant majority partners, reducing the plaintiff’s percentage interest after he announced his intention to withdraw but before the actual withdrawal became effective. Next up is a relatively rare decision in an LLC dissolution case granting a motion to disqualify defense counsel under the advocate-witness rule of professional conduct. In the third case highlighted below, the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed a books-and-records action for lack of standing where the shares issued to the plaintiff never existed.

Court Enforces Eve-of-Withdrawal Reduction of Partnership Interest

Zohar v LaRock, Short Form Order, Index No. 14826/10 [Sup Ct Nassau County July 25, 2016]Article 8-B of New York’s Partnership Law authorizes regulated professional practices to organize as registered limited liability partnerships. The LLP form is highly popular with law firms because it offers the same limited liability protection afforded corporation shareholders and LLC members, except for their own professional negligence or malpractice. The LLP otherwise is subject to the same statutes and common-law rules governing general partnerships, which give partners great leeway in ordering their own affairs in their partnership agreement. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Partnership Interest Reduction and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

LLCIf there’s a common theme to the trio of LLC cases highlighted in this post, it’s that having a well-crafted written operating agreement is no guarantee there won’t be a litigation dust-up, while not having a written operating agreement greatly enhances the odds of a legal dispute among members at some point down the road.

Let’s start with the well-crafted operating agreement in Estate of Calderwood v Ace Group International LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 30591(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 29, 2016], in which Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich ruled that upon the death of the subject Delaware LLC’s majority member, under the express terms of Sections 9.7 and 7.1 of the LLC Agreement (read here), his estate was deemed a “Withdrawing Member” with no management rights and retaining solely the right to receive distributions. Continue Reading LLC Case Notes: Member Expulsion, Withdrawal, and LLC Purpose

Catalina

An “anomalous situation” is how Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano described what happened in a deadlock dissolution case involving the owners of the Catalina Beach Club in Atlantic Beach, New York (pictured).

As summed up by the judge in his decision last month in Carasso v Pauline J. Perahia Revocable Trust, Decision and Order, Index No. 606702/14 [Sup Ct Nassau County Dec. 28, 2015], the anomaly boiled down to this:

Petitioners and Respondents have changed their initial positions regarding dissolution in that the Petitioners, who initially sought dissolution, now move to discontinue the dissolution proceeding; and, the Respondents, who  initially opposed dissolution by filing objections in law, now oppose discontinuance of the dissolution proceeding and, in fact, seek dissolution.

Continue Reading A Doozy of a Discontinuance in Deadlock Dissolution Case

ExitI wish I could tell you this post will answer the question posed by its title, but it won’t. Let’s start with a few basic, non-controversial propositions concerning the default duties of LLC members and managers under the laws of New York and, I would hazard a guess, most if not all other states:

  • Managers of a manager-managed LLC owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the LLC and its members.
  • Non-managing members of a manager-managed LLC do not owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the LLC and its members.
  • Members of a member-managed LLC owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to the LLC and its members.

Now let’s tamper with the last of the above default rules. Assume the Acme company is a two-member, 50/50, New York LLC whose articles of organization do not designate it as manager-managed hence its management is “vested” in its members subject to provision otherwise in its operating agreement as authorized by LLC Law § 401 (a). Further assume Acme’s operating agreement expressly vests sole management authority in one of the two members. Does Acme’s other, non-managing member owe fiduciary duties? About two years ago, in Kalikow v Shalik which I wrote about here, Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano answered that question in the negative, reasoning that § 401 (a)’s vesting of management powers in the members is made subject to the operating agreement, and that LLC Law § 409 (a) imposes duties on LLC “managers” with no mention of non-managing members. So far so good. Now let’s try another, stickier variation. Assume Acme has no operating agreement, that from inception its two 50/50 members jointly managed it, but there came a time when one member announces to the other that he “withdraws” from all management responsibility — but still maintaining his membership interest and entitlement to his pro rata share of Acme’s profits — following which he forms and operates a competing business. Has the “withdrawn” member taken on the status of a non-managing member and successfully shed his fiduciary duties, thereby permitting him to compete freely against his own company? Continue Reading Can LLC Members Walk Away From Fiduciary Duties?

Hit or MissPartnership dissolution cases have an especial poignancy, more so than cases involving other forms of business entities.

I think it’s because general partnerships are a dying breed of business association, supplanted in our litigious society by limited liability entities such as S corporations and LLCs.

The occasional partnership dissolution cases that land in court these days tend to involve family or multi-family real estate partnerships formed decades ago, in which one or more of the original partners have passed away or are approaching retirement and looking either to exit or to transfer their partnership interest and/or management role to their children. Fittingly, along with elderly parties the statutes governing the disputes are found in the superannuated New York Partnership Law, essentially unchanged since its adoption in 1919.

Such was the case in Breidbart v Olshan, Decision and Order, Index No. 003610/12 [Sup Ct Nassau County May 27, 2015], involving a realty partnership formed in 1977 to acquire and develop under a long-term lease a commercial office building in Lake Success on Long Island. The partnership, known as Boundary Realty Associates, consisted of three partners: Olshan (50%), Rosenberg (25%), and Breidbart (25%). The written partnership  agreement provided that the partnership would employ as managing agent for the first three years a firm owned and operated by Olshan at a fixed commission of 4% of gross rental income. The agreement also provided for termination of the partnership in 2020 or sooner upon the consent of a majority in interest of the partners. Continue Reading Decision Yields Hits and Misses for Plaintiff in Partnership Dissolution Case

Your client, a 50% shareholder of a New York close corporation, tells you that the business is in complete disarray due to irreconcilable disputes with the other 50% shareholder and that he believes the other shareholder has misappropriated the corporation’s assets and diverted business opportunities.

The client accepts your recommendation to bring a judicial dissolution proceeding. You review Article 11 of the Business Corporation Law before drafting the dissolution petition. You come across two dissolution statutes denominated § 1104 and § 1104-a. Section 1104, called “Petition in case of deadlock among directors or shareholders,” confers standing on a 50% shareholder and, as the name straightforwardly suggests, authorizes a court to dissolve based on deadlock precluding board action or election of directors, or other “internal dissension” warranting dissolution.

Section 1104-a, with the more cryptic name, “Petition for judicial dissolution under special circumstances,” confers standing on a shareholder with 20% or more of the corporation’s voting shares, and authorizes dissolution when the controlling shareholders or directors engage in “illegal, fraudulent or oppressive actions” against the petitioning shareholder, or have “looted, wasted, or diverted” the corporation’s property.

You quickly realize that your 50% shareholder-client has standing to seek dissolution under both statutes. Which one should you choose? If you believe you have facts sufficient to obtain dissolution under one of them, is there any reason to consider the other? Can you choose both? Does it really matter?

It most certainly does matter, for a couple of reasons mainly having to do with the different remedies offered by the two statutes. Continue Reading Choose the Right Dissolution Statute for the Right Remedy

Minority Shareholder alleging oppressive acts by Majority Shareholder sues for judicial dissolution of ABC Co. under § 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law. Majority Shareholder elects to purchase Minority Shareholder’s shares under BCL § 1118, thereby converting the case to a valuation proceeding. After numerous adjournments, Minority Shareholder discharges his counsel and fails to appear at court conferences. The court marks the proceeding “off calendar” without prejudice to restore it by motion. Minority Shareholder never moves to restore. The buy-out never takes place.

Several years later, during which Minority Shareholder has had no involvement in ABC Co.’s business, up pops a new lawsuit by Minority Shareholder, not for dissolution but, rather, asserting individual and derivative claims against Majority Shareholder for taking excessive compensation and seeking damages for breach of shareholders’ agreement and to recover Minority Shareholders’ ongoing percentage of profits. Majority Shareholder opposes the new lawsuit, contending that Minority Shareholder ceased being a shareholder of ABC Co. upon the Majority Shareholder’s election to purchase years earlier in the dissolution case, and that Minority Shareholder’s sole remedy is to pursue the buy-out in that prior proceeding.

Is Minority Shareholder still a shareholder of ABC Co. with the right to assert shareholder claims in the new action, or is he limited to a buy-out remedy in the prior dissolution proceeding? Should the court grant Majority Shareholder’s dismissal motion based on the pendency of the prior dissolution proceeding? Continue Reading Buy-Out Interruptus: Court Okays New Suit Five Years After Unconsummated Election to Purchase in Prior Dissolution Case

Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano (pictured) last month handed down an important ruling in Schlossberg v Schwartz, 43 Misc 3d 1224(A), 2014 NY Slip Op 50760(U) [Sup Ct, Nassau County May 14, 2014], addressing rights of indemnity and advancement when a company brings claims against its own officer or director for alleged misconduct undertaken in a corporate capacity. The scholarly decision, which traces the convoluted history of the governing Business Corporation Law (BCL), rejects the company’s position that its bylaws and the BCL preclude advancement and indemnification for intra-company claims, i.e., claims brought directly by the company against an officer/director, as opposed to extra-company claims, i.e., claims brought by outside, third parties.

Schlossberg also is noteworthy:

  • for upholding the right to seek advancement and indemnity for expenses incurred in the defense of the company’s counterclaims, on an apportioned basis, in a suit initiated by a minority shareholder, director and former officer asserting direct and derivative claims against the controlling shareholder, inter alia, for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and common law dissolution; and
  • for its numerous citations to decisions of the Delaware Chancery Court, which rightfully boasts an advanced jurisprudence in the area of indemnification and advancement.  Continue Reading Court Upholds Former Officer’s Right to Seek Indemnity and Advancement in Intra-Company Dispute

If you Google the names Edward Kalikow and Eugene Shalik, you’ll notice a distinct pattern in the search results dating before and after 2006. Before that date, you’ll come across numerous trade publications trumpeting significant real estate development projects across the country involving Messrs. Kalikow and Shalik as longtime, successful, Long Island-based business partners. But after 2006, pretty much all you’ll find are numerous court decisions in multiple, nasty lawsuits between the two gentlemen and their affiliated entities fighting over all sorts of matters big and small. So what happened in 2006?

As best as I can glean from the public record, that’s the year Kalikow’s mother died, leaving behind a will naming Shalik as executor and apparently giving a good portion if not the bulk of her estate, including valuable real estate partnership interests left to her by her late husband, to a charitable foundation of which Shalik is trustee. Kalikow’s subsequent challenge to the will’s disposition of the partnership interests, alongside a host of other business disputes precipitated by the poisonous atmosphere, evolved into a litigation juggernaut still going strong after eight years of zigzagging through surrogate’s court, civil court, tax court, arbitration and appellate tribunals.

One of the more recent legal spats, involving a single-asset realty company owned by the two of them 50/50, led to an interesting decision earlier this year by Nassau County Commercial Division Justice Vito M. DeStefano in which the court addressed the question whether the non-managing member of a New York limited liability company owes any fiduciary duty to the LLC or its other members. The court’s decision in Kalikow v. Shalik, 2014 NY Slip Op 24099 [Sup Ct, Nassau County Feb. 26, 2014], also considered whether a common-law claim for contribution exists when one of two LLC members, both of whom personally guaranteed the LLC’s mortgage debt, voluntarily pays down a portion of the debt to avoid a default.  Continue Reading Court Dismisses Fiduciary Breach, Contribution Claims Against Non-Managing LLC Member