When three gentlemen in their mid-eighties, one of whom is in a nursing home with failing health and onset dementia, are the key players in a disputed shareholder buy-out transaction, what are the odds they’ll all be around to give evidence in a lawsuit brought four years later?

If you answered slim or none, you’d be right in the case of Gourary v Laster, 2016 NY Slip Op 04287 [1st Dept June 12, 2018], where the absence of testimony by the two deceased principals and the deceased lawyer for one of them doomed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of an enfeebled 50% shareholder who, about six months before he died, sold for $5.75 million his 50% stake in a realty holding company to the other 50% shareholder’s son-in-law who, less than a year later, sold the company’s realty to a third party for $32 million.

The case involves a corporation named 121-131 West 25th St. Corp. that was co-owned equally by Paul Gourary and Oliver Laster since the 1940’s when the corporation acquired a 12-story commercial building in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. In 2005, after the ailing Gourary was admitted to a nursing home, Laster’s son-in-law, Scott Macomber, expressed an interest in acquiring either a 50% interest in the realty or buying Gourary’s 50% stock interest. Continue Reading Dead Men Tell No Tales of Shareholder Buy-Outs Gone Sour

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?

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”

The sudden death of Alexander Calderwood, the brilliant but troubled co-founder of the Ace brand of hotels, resulted in some fierce litigation between Calderwood’s estate and Calderwood’s LLC co-member over the nature of his estate’s membership interest in the company after his death. The litigation came to a head earlier this month, when Justice Barbara R. Kapnick issued a scholarly decision for a unanimous panel of the Appellate Division, First Department in Estate of Calderwood v ACE Group Int’l, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 08750 [1st Dept Dec. 14, 2017].

Boiled down, the question on appeal was whether, under Delaware law, Calderwood’s estate was a bona fide member of the LLC with all of a member’s associated rights and privileges, or instead, a mere assignee of Calderwood’s membership interest. As written about in a post last Spring (read here), New York County Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich issued a decision dismissing most of the Estate’s amended complaint, holding that the Estate lacked membership status in the LLC upon Calderwood’s death. Let’s see how the appeals court considered the issue. Continue Reading Delaware Contractarian Principles Prevail in Appeal Over Deceased Ace Hotel Founder’s LLC Interest

The East River and roughly five miles as the pigeon flies separate the equally beautiful courthouses of the Appellate Division, Second Department in Brooklyn and the Appellate Division, First Department in Manhattan. Because of the limited jurisdiction and very selective docket of New York’s highest court known as the Court of Appeals, in the vast majority of cases these two intermediate appellate courts effectively are the courts of last resort for their respective geographic slices of downstate New York.

Over many years, a different sort of divide has separated the two appellate courts when it comes to statutory fair value proceedings and, in particular, their treatment of the controversial discount for lack of marketability (DLOM).

The earliest version of the DLOM divide concerned whether it should apply to good-will value only, that is, not to the value of realty, cash, and other net tangible assets. For over two decades, prevailing Second Department case law limited application of DLOM in that fashion; the First Department did not. The decisions of one court didn’t acknowledge the other’s. Then, in 2010, without discussion or even acknowledging a change, the Second Department in the Murphy case seemingly healed the rift by dropping the good will limitation.

I say seemingly because, in recent years, the DLOM divide between the two appellate courts quietly has resurfaced in the context of fair value contests involving real estate holding companies where, on the Manhattan side of the river, First Department cases have accepted the appropriateness of a marketability discount on account of the realty’s “corporate wrapper.” Meanwhile, on the Brooklyn side of the river, Second Department cases have rejected DLOM on the theory that the value of a realty holding entity is the value of the realty or, alternatively, that a marketability discount already is incorporated in the underlying realty appraisal by way of an assumed market-exposure period. Continue Reading A River’s Divide: Time for the Manhattan and Brooklyn Appellate Courts to Agree on Marketability Discount in Fair Value Proceedings

powerlessAn appellate decision last week sounds alarm bells for minority members of New York LLCs that have no operating agreement and for anyone considering becoming a minority member of an LLC without first having in place an operating agreement.

By the same token, the decision provides opportunities for majority members of existing LLCs without operating agreements to cement and expand their control powers.

Last week’s unanimous decision by the Manhattan-based Appellate Division, First Department in Shapiro v Ettenson, 2017 NY Slip Op 00442 [1st Dept Jan. 24, 2017], affirmed the lower court’s order enforcing an operating agreement signed by two of the LLC’s three co-founding, co-equal members, adopted two years after the LLC’s formation without the signature or consent of the LLC’s third member. Among other features, the operating agreement departed from the statutory default rule by authorizing the reduction of the percentage interest of a member who fails to satisfy a capital call approved by the majority, which is exactly what the two majority members did following their adoption of the agreement, along with eliminating the minority member’s salary. Continue Reading Thinking About Becoming a Minority Member of a New York LLC Without an Operating Agreement? Think Again

CondoThis post concerns an atypical form of business organization — the condominium — in the context of disputes over access to books and records. Access to books and records is a subject that has garnered increased judicial attention in recent years as more New York litigants and their counsel discover the utility of commencing summary proceedings to enforce statutory and common-law inspection rights of shareholders in traditional corporations and of members of LLCs.

What I find most interesting is the seemingly expansive approach the courts have taken in upholding inspection rights regardless of business form based on common law rather than statute, as reflected in two cases decided last month involving condominiums.

Unincorporated Condo vs. Incorporated Co-op

The most recent government census data tallies over 300,000 co-op apartment units in New York City and over 100,000 condominium units. The approximate 3:1 ratio is destined to shrink, however, as the number of new and converted condominium buildings coming onto the market in recent years has far exceeded new and converted co-op buildings, among other reasons, due to the strong preference for condominium ownership by foreign buyers and less onerous restrictions on re-sale. Continue Reading Courts Expand Books and Records Access for Condo Owners

subsidiary

Two decisions do not a trend make, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Appellate Division, First Department, is telling trial judges to take a broader view of shareholder statutory and common-law rights to inspect corporation books and records.

The first decision, two years ago, was the McGraw-Hill case which I reported on here. In that case, the First Department reversed a lower court’s ruling denying a shareholder’s inspection petition under Section 624 of the Business Corporation Law and common law. The petitioner sought records concerning the McGraw-Hill Board of Directors’ oversight of purported wrongdoing by its wholly-owned subsidiary, the Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency. The appellate ruling focused on the proper-purpose standard, holding that the petitioner’s stated purpose to investigate alleged misconduct by McGraw-Hill’s management and obtaining information that may aid in litigation are proper purposes “even if the inspection ultimately establishes that the board had engaged in no wrongdoing.” Essentially, the ruling eliminated the Catch-22 of requiring outside shareholders to tender proof of management wrongdoing to gain access to company records enabling them — or not — to show wrongdoing.

The petition in McGraw-Hill sought records of the parent company in which the petitioners held shares, not the subsidiary. Last week, in Matter of Pokoik v 575 Realties, Inc., 2016 NY Slip Op 06648 [1st Dept Oct. 11, 2016], in a decision of apparent first impression, the First Department again reversed a lower court ruling denying inspection rights and held that the petitioner was entitled under the common law to inspect records of the corporation’s wholly-owned subsidiary. Continue Reading Ruling Upholds Shareholder’s Right to Inspect Subsidiary’s Books and Records

shortsTraditions are good. This blog has two annual traditions. First, at the end of each year I write a post listing the year’s top ten business divorce decisions. Second, each August I offer readers who are (or ought to be) on summer vacation some light reading in the form of three, relatively short case summaries.

So here we are in what’s been a particularly felicitous August weather-wise (at least here in the Northeast U.S.), with another edition of Summer Shorts. This edition’s summaries feature two out-of-state cases — one from Florida involving expulsion of an LLC member and one from Delaware involving the valuation upon redemption of an LLC member’s interest — and a New York appellate court decision involving the removal of a limited partnership’s general partner.

The Anti-Chiu: Florida Court Upholds LLC Member’s Expulsion

Froonjian v Ultimate Combatant, LLC, No. 4D14-662 [Fla. Dist. Ct. App. May 27, 2015].  The Florida intermediate appellate court’s ruling in Froonjian makes for a fascinating contrast with New York case law represented most prominently by the Second Department’s 2010 decision in Chiu v Chiu holding that, absent express authorization in the LLC’s operating agreement, a member’s involuntary expulsion is not permitted. Going 180° in the other direction, the Froonjian court upheld the majority members’ expulsion of a minority member from a Florida LLC that had no operating agreement, reasoning that the Florida default statute vesting all decision-making authority in the members acting by majority vote encompasses the authority to expel a member. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Member Expulsion and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

Unclean HandsJudicial dissolution of a business entity, whether pursuant to statute or common law, is an equitable remedy subject to equitable defenses, including the doctrine of “unclean hands.”

As described a few years ago by Justice Emily Pines in the Kimelstein dissolution case, the unclean hands doctrine “bars the grant of equitable relief to a party who is guilty of immoral, unconscionable conduct when the conduct relied on is directly related to the subject matter in litigation and the party seeking to invoke the doctrine was injured by such conduct.”

The doctrine has been employed in dissolution cases in two ways. First, it can defeat a petitioner’s standing to seek dissolution, as in Kimelstein where Justice Pines held that the petitioner’s admitted concealment from his ex-wives, creditors and federal government of his alleged, undocumented 50% equity interest in two corporations owned by his brother barred him from asserting the requisite stock holdings to seek statutory dissolution. Second, even when the petitioner’s stock ownership is conceded, the doctrine can bar the petitioner’s dissolution claim on the merits.

The doctrine’s latter use rarely has been successful. A recent exception is Sansum v Fioratti, 128 AD3d 420 [1st Dept 2015], in which the Appellate Division, First Department, ordered the dismissal of a common-law dissolution claim brought by a 6% shareholder in an art gallery based on the plaintiff’s “embezzlement” of company funds for which he pled guilty to larceny and related charges. The decision packs an even more powerful punch by virtue of the court’s summary disposition of the claim, disagreeing with the lower court that a hearing was required and invoking the doctrine of in pari delicto (Latin for “in equal fault”) to reject the plaintiff’s counter-argument, that the defendant stockholders themselves conducted illegal business operations. Continue Reading Wash Hands Before Suing