As if we need another case illustrating why fixed price buy-sell agreements should be avoided like the plague.

Before we get to the case: A fixed price buy-sell agreement is one in which co-owners of a business select a specific dollar amount, expressed either as enterprise or per-share value, for calculation of the future buyout price to be paid an exiting owner or his or her estate upon the happening of specified trigger events such as death, disability, retirement, or termination of employment. Such agreements can take the form of a stand-alone buy-sell agreement or may be included in a more comprehensive shareholders, operating, or partnership agreement.

Fixed price buy-sell agreements in theory offer two main advantages over pricing mechanisms that utilize formulas or appraisals at the time of the trigger event. One is certainty; everyone knows in advance the amount to be paid upon a trigger event. The other is avoidance of transactional costs; there’s no need to hire accounting or valuation professionals at the time of the trigger event and no need to hire lawyers to litigate differences that can arise with indeterminate pricing mechanisms such as those requiring business appraisals.

But when theory meets reality, reality usually triumphs. Company values can and often do change dramatically over time, for better or worse. And even though the typical fixed price buy-sell calls for periodic updates of the so-called certificate of value, it’s rarely done for any number of reasons ranging from benign neglect to inability to reach agreement on a new value among co-owners of different ages whose interests and exit horizons diverge over time. So when a buyout occurs long after a last agreed value has become out of sync with the company’s significantly higher value as of the trigger date, there’s a powerful financial and emotional incentive for the exiting owner or his or her estate representative to challenge the buyout in court, thereby defeating one of the main reasons to have a fixed price agreement in the first place.

I’ve previously featured on this blog several illustrative fixed price buy-sell lawsuits precipitated by stale or absent certificates of value, including Sullivan v Troser Management, Nimkoff v Central Park Plaza Associates, and DeMatteo v DeMatteo Salvage Co. The latest addition to this ill-fated family of cases is entitled Namerow v PediatriCare Associates, LLC, decided last November by a New Jersey Superior Court judge, in which the court enforced a fixed price buy-sell agreement among members of a medical practice where the original certificate of value hadn’t been updated for 16 years at the time of the plaintiff doctor’s retirement from the practice. Continue Reading Another Reason Not to Use Fixed Price Buy-Sell Agreements

Having read thousands of court opinions during my 30+ years as a litigator, I’ve learned to assume that there are things going on beyond what can be gleaned from the court’s written decision, and that these hidden factors may explain positions and outcomes that otherwise seem untenable.

I’m nonetheless having difficulty giving the benefit of the doubt to most of what happened in Verkhoglyad v Benimovich, 2017 NY Slip Op 51133(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Sept. 12, 2017], a case recently decided by the Brooklyn Supreme Court in which it denied enforcement of a mandatory forum selection clause, disregarded the operating agreement’s New Jersey choice-of-law provision by applying New York law to various claims, refused to enforce the agreement’s pre-suit mediation clause, and let proceed a claim for judicial dissolution of a New Jersey limited liability company despite governing appellate law stripping New York courts of jurisdiction over the dissolution of foreign business entities.

Verkhoglyad involves a short-lived, ill-fated enterprise between two individuals who were boyhood friends. In 2014, the plaintiff Verkhoglyad became a 50% co-managing member of defendant Benimovich’s existing HVAC business organized as a New Jersey LLC. They entered into a written operating agreement designating the LLC’s principal office in New Jersey and dictating application of New Jersey law to the operating agreement and its interpretation. It also includes the following provision captioned “Settlement of Disputes and Jurisdiction”: Continue Reading Read This Case. Slap Your Head. Not Too Hard.

Pay attention to your K-1s or they may come back to bite you, is the lesson of Bruder v Hillman, Docket No. A-5055-15T1 [N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. June 27, 2017], decided last week by a New Jersey appellate panel which rebuffed a limited partner’s attack on the validity of the partnership’s conversion to a limited liability company.

The court’s opinion describes the plaintiffs as “sophisticated real estate investors”  who in 1984 formed a New Jersey limited partnership to own and operate a large apartment complex in Virginia which some years later filed for bankruptcy.

The bankruptcy case settled in 1992 with a restructure agreement and an amended partnership agreement under which the defendants invested almost $12 million and took control of the partnership as general partner, with the plaintiffs retaining limited partner interests. Continue Reading In Dispute Over Partnership’s Conversion to LLC, Court Finds No Duty to “Spoon-Feed” Sophisticated Investor

crazyWhenever I contemplate New York’s unusual case law on the discount for lack of marketability (DLOM) in statutory fair value buy-out proceedings, I cast my eyes westward, to the far banks of the Hudson River, and take comfort in the fact it could be worse — I could be in New Jersey.

A “business appraiser’s nightmare” is how Chris Mercer described New Jersey’s “bad behavior discount” in his commentary on the Wisniewski v Walsh case decided a little over a year ago by a New Jersey appellate court, in which it affirmed the trial court’s application of a 25% DLOM seemingly plucked out of thin air, and notwithstanding what the trial court itself admitted were “strong indicators of liquidity,” for the stated purpose of penalizing the selling shareholder for his oppressive behavior toward the other shareholders — behavior that in no way harmed the corporation’s business or affected its marketability!

Now comes another New Jersey trial court decision in another fair value buy-out case, and guess what? The court applied the same 25% DLOM without any discussion of the factors supporting its application or quantification other than the court’s finding that the selling shareholder was guilty of oppressive conduct against the purchasing shareholder.

In Parker v Parker, 2016 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2720 [Dec. 22, 2016], two brothers, Richard and Steven Parker, took over from their parents and for the next 25 years operated as 50/50 owners a wholesale flower business and a separately incorporated wholesale plant business which eventually became a garden center. Richard ran the flower business and Steven the garden business as separate fiefdoms with minimal overlap. Continue Reading Has New Jersey Gone Off Its DLOM Rocker?

ExpulsionThere are arguments pro and con when it comes to the power to expel a/k/a dissociate an LLC member. On the one hand, expulsion can be viewed as a necessary measure to preserve the LLC as a going concern when faced with persistent misconduct or failure to perform by one of its members. On the other hand, depending how broadly or narrowly the expulsion criteria are drawn, the power to expel can be a tool of oppression and abuse by those wielding it for their self-advantage.

Expulsion can occur in one of two ways. First, the operating agreement can authorize member expulsion under specified circumstances by self-executing action of the other members or managers. This is not a feature I regularly come across in operating agreements of LLCs, especially those whose membership consists of founding owners actively involved in the business.

Second, in states that have adopted the Revised Uniform LLC Act — to date numbering 16 plus the District of Columbia; New York is not one of them — courts are authorized to expel an LLC member on application by the company or a member on three specified grounds, two of which entail fault-based standards based on intentionally wrongful conduct or material breach, and the third of which dispenses with the notion of wrongful conduct by authorizing judicial expulsion of a member who

has engaged or is engaging in conduct relating to the company’s activities and affairs which makes it not reasonably practicable to carry on the activities and affairs with the person as a member.

Not surprisingly, the open-endedness of the above provision when utilized in LLC disputes has generated litigation, with New Jersey courts taking the lead. Last week, in IE Test, LLC v Carroll, 2016 WL 4086260 [NJ Sup Ct Aug. 2, 2016], that state’s Supreme Court handed down a major decision in which it reversed the lower courts’ summary judgment order expelling an LLC member and adopted a series of factors to assist trial courts in determining whether it is not reasonably practicable to operate an LLC in light of a subject member’s conduct. Continue Reading New Jersey Supreme Court Raises the Bar for Judicial Expulsion of LLC Members

deadlock1“Finally, while this court is the only court with jurisdiction to dissolve the Company, the parties are advised that further attempts to collaterally evade the lawful orders of the New Jersey court may result in sanctions.”

Strong words, indeed, at the conclusion of a Decision and Order earlier this month by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich in a multi-jurisdictional fight for control of a data marketing company organized as a New York LLC owned by two deeply divided, 50-50 members.

Justice Kornreich’s ruling in Matter of Belardi-Ostroy, Ltd. v American List Counsel, Inc., 2016 NY Slip Op 30727(U) [Sup Ct NY County Apr. 14, 2016], denied injunctive relief and dismissed a dissolution petition which asked her effectively to override an order issued last December by a New Jersey judge appointing a fifth Board member to fill a vacancy on the LLC’s otherwise deadlocked five-member Board of Directors. Continue Reading Court Dismisses Dissolution Petition Amidst Multi-Jurisdictional Battle for Control of LLC

DiscountOn the heels of last week’s post titled The DLOM Debate Heats Up, a timely new ruling by a New Jersey intermediate appellate court adds yet another interesting twist to the application of the discount for lack of marketability in fair value proceedings involving dissenting shareholder appraisals and oppressed minority shareholder buyouts.

New Jersey courts have a more restrictive approach to DLOM in fair value contests than New York courts, generally reserving it for “extraordinary circumstances” involving inequitable or coercive conduct by the seller. This latest New Jersey ruling doesn’t make new law but, to this observer at least, its application and quantification of DLOM seem equally if not more reliant on legal doctrine and, in particular, free-floating equity considerations than on empirically-based appraisal theory and methodology.

The New Jersey Appellate Division’s unpublished decision in Wisniewski v Walsh, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 3001 [App. Div. Dec. 24, 2015], caps an astonishing 20-year litigation saga involving a family-owned trucking business taken over from the founding father by three siblings, one of whom sued the other two under New Jersey’s oppressed shareholder statute. In 2000 the trial judge ruled that the petitioner himself was the oppressor and ordered him to sell his one-third interest to the company or his siblings for fair value to be determined by the court. Continue Reading Court Applies 25% Marketability Discount Despite “Strong Indicators of Liquidity”

equityWhen it comes to LLC jurisprudence, equity’s on a roll.

A few major examples come to mind: the recent Carlisle case in which the Delaware Court of Chancery enforced “equitable dissolution” of an LLC upon the petition of the assignee of a membership interest who lacked standing under the dissolution statute; the Mizrahi case in which a New York appellate panel ordered an “equitable buy-out” of a 50% LLC member upon petition by the other 50% member in the absence of a statutory buy-out remedy; the Gottlieb decision in which another New York appellate panel gave birth to common-law “equitable accounting” claims.

Add to the growing list of equity-driven rulings for these contract-centric creatures of statute an unpublished decision last week by a New Jersey intermediate appellate court in All Saints University of Medicine Aruba v Chilana, No. A-2425-13T1 [N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Oct. 27, 2015], directing the lower court on remand to consider ordering a forced sale of a dissociated LLC member’s interest as a “common law equitable remedy” for “common law breaches of duty” notwithstanding the appellate court’s recognition that neither the applicable dissociation statute nor the LLC’s operating agreement authorized a compulsory sale. Continue Reading Dissociated LLC Member Faces “Equitable” Forced Buy-Out

ExpulsionPresently fourteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (2006). RULLCA legislation is pending in three other states. Regrettably, New York is not one of them.

One of RULLCA’s innovative features, carried over from the original Uniform LLC Act (1996), is its provision in Section 602(6) authorizing judicial expulsion (“dissociation”) of a member who:

(A) has engaged, or is engaging, in wrongful conduct that has adversely and materially affected, or will adversely and materially affect, the company’s activities;

(B) has willfully or persistently committed, or is willfully and persistently committing, a material breach of the operating agreement or the person’s duties or obligations under Section 409; or

(C) has engaged in, or is engaging, in conduct relating to the company’s activities which makes it not reasonably practicable to carry on the activities with the person as a member.

New Jersey adopted RULLCA effective March 2013 for all new LLCs and made applicable to all existing New Jersey LLCs as of March 2014. However, even before adopting RULLCA, New Jersey’s previous LLC Act included a provision substantially mirroring RULLCA’s Section 602(6). Continue Reading Involuntary Member Dissociation Under RULLCA

My recent post about New Jersey’s adoption of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLCA) highlighted the statute’s new provisions for judicial dissolution of LLCs under which the controlling members’ oppressive conduct is grounds for relief, and authorizing the court to order a buy-out in lieu of dissolution.

One aspect of the new law that remains substantially unchanged, and which also can become a weapon when LLC members have a falling out, is its provision for judicial “dissociation” of a member, i.e., the involuntary expulsion of one member of an LLC upon application to the court by another or by the company. The LLC statutes in New York, Delaware and (I suspect) most other states have no similar provision which was also included in the original Uniform LLC Act promulgated in 1996.

Under the old and new New Jersey LLC Act, a court may dissociate a member who engages in “wrongful conduct” that “adversely and materially” affects the LLC’s business or “willfully or persistently committed a material breach of the operating agreement.” Both versions also authorize dissociation by a court when the member engages in conduct “which makes it not reasonably practicable to carry on the business with the member as a member of the limited liability company.” Continue Reading “But I Did Nothing Wrong!” No Defense to Involuntary Dissociation of LLC Member