In the last two years, fueled by a series of high profile cases involving media executives, entertainers, and other public figures, #MeToo has gained worldwide recognition as a symbol of the burgeoning movement against sexual harassment and assault, especially in the workplace.

In our country, we have federal, state, and local statutes designed to protect employees against gender discrimination including sexual harassment and hostile workplace environment. Such laws generally do not extend protection to owners of closely held business entities against conduct of the sort by their co-owners.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the heightened consciousness of the #MeToo movement, and the willingness of female complainants to come forward, should find its way into the arena of minority shareholder oppression, leading to a ruling earlier this month in Matter of Straka v Arcara Zucarelli Lenda & Assoc. CPAs P.C., 2019 NY Slip Op 29017 [Sup Ct Erie County Jan. 9, 2019], in which, following an evidentiary hearing, the court upheld oppression allegations by a female minority shareholder of an accounting firm based in large part on her male co-owners’ toleration of offensive, demeaning, and condescending comments made primarily by a senior accountant-employee at the firm. Continue Reading Minority Shareholder Oppression in the #MeToo Era

In the judicial dissolution case that John (“Jake”) Feldmeier brought after resigning as the highly paid president of the family-owned business, the central issue over which he and his opposing siblings fought was whether the siblings’ subsequent refusal to issue shareholder distributions, as Jake claimed, was the discontinuation of a longstanding practice of awarding de facto a/k/a disguised dividends to shareholders in the form of bonuses or, as the siblings contended, was the continuation of a company policy over which Jake himself presided for many years whereby the owners and managers made good-faith business judgments to award merit-based bonuses to officers and employees.

In support of his claim, and in opposition to his siblings’ summary judgment motion, Jake invoked the granddaddy of all New York minority shareholder oppression cases, Matter of Kemp & Beatley, Inc., in which the state’s highest court upheld an order of judicial dissolution in favor of terminated employee-shareholders who similarly complained about the non-issuance of dividends where the evidence showed, prior to their departures, that the company historically awarded de facto dividends based on stock ownership in the form of “extra compensation bonuses.”

In opposition to Jake’s claim, and in support of their summary judgment motion, the siblings argued, on the law, that the reasonable-expectations standard for oppression formulated in Kemp, a case brought under Section 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law, did not apply to Jake’s non-statutory claim for common-law dissolution — Jake, as a 12% shareholder, lacked standing under Section 1104-a’s 20% minimum — and, on the facts, that Kemp was distinguishable because, unlike in that case, prior to Jake’s departure and with his active participation and approval as company president, bonuses were paid disproportionately to stock ownership and not at all to non-employee shareholders.

So who prevailed? Continue Reading Past is Prologue: Refusal to Adopt Dividend Policy After Petitioner Resigns Not Ground for Dissolution

Douglas K. Moll, Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, is well known to business divorce aficionados for his many scholarly articles examining minority oppression and fiduciary duty in close corporations and LLCs, and as co-author with Robert Ragazzo of one of the leading treatises on closely held business organizations. He’s also familiar to regular readers of this blog, having been featured previously in an online interview and in Episode #8 of the Business Divorce Roundtable podcast.

Professor Moll recently published yet another, terrific article entitled Judicial Dissolution of the Limited Liability Company: A Statutory Analysis (19 Tennessee Journal of Business Law 81 [2017]) in which he brings some much-needed perspective to the statutory landscape of the diverse grounds for judicial dissolution of LLCs found among the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and the several uniform and model acts promulgated since the 1990s. From the article’s abstract:

This article, prepared for the Business Law Prof Blog 2017 Symposium, examines the statutory grounds available to members who seek judicial dissolution of an LLC in all fifty states plus the District of Columbia. I also examined the judicial dissolution grounds in five model statutes: the 1992 Prototype LLC Act, the 2011 Revised Prototype LLC Act, the 1996 Uniform LLC Act, the 2006 Revised Uniform LLC Act, and the 2013 Revised Uniform LLC Act. Two charts are provided – one that provides the judicial dissolution grounds for each statute, and one that tabulates the different approaches.

Part I summarizes the methodology used and highlights the frequency of various statutory provisions. Part II analyzes two particular provisions—dissolution if it is not reasonably practicable to carry on the LLC’s business in conformity with its governing documents, and dissolution as a result of oppressive conduct by those in control. With respect to the “not reasonably practicable” language, the article argues that the impracticability of carrying on the business in conformity with either the certificate or the operating agreement should result in dissolution, but there is confusion over which statutory articulation is consistent with this result. With respect to the oppressive conduct ground, this article provides some possible explanations for why oppression-related dissolution statutes are less common in the LLC setting than in the corporation context.

Happily, Professor Moll accepted my return invitation to the podcast to discuss his findings. In the interview, a link to which appears below, Professor Moll highlights some surprising variations among the statutory expression of the prevailing not-reasonably-practicable dissolution standard. He also discusses some of the reasons for the relative scarcity — compared to close corporation statutes — of minority oppression as ground for judicial dissolution of LLCs, and the competing forces of freedom of contract and judicial paternalism that continue to shape the evolving statutory and common-law jurisprudence governing internal relations among LLC members.

Give it a listen. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

 

Last month, seasoned business appraiser Andy Ross of Getty Marcus CPA, P.C., and I made a presentation at the Nassau County Bar Association about appraisal proceedings in business divorce cases. With the subject of business valuations front of mind, this article – the first in a three-part series – is a treetops summary of the rules governing how business owners may wind up in an appraisal proceeding. Later articles will address the legal and accounting principles that apply in the valuation proceedings.

But before we get started, some context. What exactly is a valuation proceeding? A valuation proceeding is a special kind of lawsuit in which the owners of a business litigate the “value” (the relevant standard under New York’s Partnership Law) or “fair value” (the standard under the New York Business Corporation Law and Limited Liability Company Law) of a partnership, stock, or membership interest in a business for the purpose of a potential buyout or liquidation of that owner’s interest. Appraisal proceedings may be forced, or they may be voluntary. They may involve a variety of different accounting approaches or methodologies to value an ownership interest. They are always heavily dependent upon expert testimony of accountants. For that reason, the “determination of a fact-finder as to the value of a business, if it is within the range of testimony presented, will not be disturbed on appeal where the valuation rests primarily on the credibility of the expert witnesses and their valuation techniques” (Matter of Wright v Irish, 156 AD3d 803 [2d Dept 2017]).

What are the ways in which a business owner can wind up in a valuation proceeding? The statutory paths, or routes, to a litigated appraisal depend on the kind of entity involved. This article discusses three basic entity forms: partnerships, corporations, and LLCs, and provides a non-exhaustive list of the most common ways to get to a valuation proceeding. Continue Reading Basics of Valuation Proceedings – Litigating an Appraisal from Start to Finish – Part 1

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?

SushiThe Japanese word “omakase” translates as “I’ll Ieave it up to you” and is used by patrons of sushi restaurants to leave the selection to the chef rather than ordering à la carte.

The minority member of an LLC that operates a high-end Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn featuring omakase service, and who sued for judicial dissolution, recently learned a different meaning of omakase, as in, don’t leave it up to the court to protect you from being frozen out by the majority member when you don’t have a written operating agreement, much less a written operating agreement containing minority-interest safeguards.

The hard lesson learned by the petitioner in Matter of Norvell v Guchi’s Idea LLC, 2016 NY Slip Op 32307(U) [Sup Ct Kings County Nov. 18, 2016], has been taught before, starting most prominently with the First Department’s 2013 decision in Doyle v Icon, LLC and reinforced by that court two years later in Barone v Sowers, holding that minority member claims of oppressive majority conduct including systematic exclusion from the LLC’s operations and profits, in the absence of a showing that the LLC is financially unfeasible or not carrying on its business in conformity with its operating agreement, do not constitute grounds for judicial dissolution under LLC Law § 702. Continue Reading Another Frozen-Out Minority LLC Member’s Petition for Dissolution Bites the . . . Sushi?


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Stratospheric real estate values in New York City have bestowed great wealth on those lucky or wise enough to have invested before or in the early stages of the city’s demographic, cultural, and commercial renaissance over the last 25 or so years.

The dramatic rise in property values also has spawned more than its fair share of business divorce litigation by exacerbating the divergence of interests among co-owners, between those who desire to sell and take their profit and those who prefer to hold and/or develop the property. This phenomenon is especially observable in family-owned real estate holding companies where the potential for intra- and inter-generational conflict is more pronounced.

Take the case of the Kassab brothers, who co-own through two holding companies a nondescript, outdoor parking lot also home to a flea market near downtown Jamaica, Queens. The property consists of three contiguous parcels with a footprint of about 42,000 square feet. Under existing zoning the properties are buildable as of right to about 380,000 square feet. Recent valuation estimates for the undeveloped properties, which were acquired by the Kassabs between 1992 and 2001 at a small fraction of current value, start over $14 million.

In 2013, the younger brother owning 25% sued to dissolve the holding companies — one organized as a corporation, the other as a limited liability company — claiming oppression and freeze-out by his elder brother owning the other 75%. The younger brother claims the freeze-out tactics are designed to force him to sell his interest to his elder brother for a pittance. The elder brother counters that he has no desire to deprive his younger brother of his ownership rights and that his younger brother is attempting to force him to sell the properties due to the younger brother’s supposedly dire financial straits.

Last week, the case produced not one, not two, but three separate appellate decisions addressing a potpourri of rulings on issues of vital interest to business divorce counsel. Summaries follow after the jump. Continue Reading One Parking Lot, Two Brothers, Three Decisions


ChhoseThe Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (2006) or “RULLCA” continues to gain momentum as it spreads across the United States. Currently, fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have adopted RULLCA including California, Florida, and two of New York’s neighbors — New Jersey and Vermont. If and when adopted by Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where RULLCA legislation already has been introduced, New York will be surrounded by RULLCA jurisdictions with the exception of Massachusetts. RULLCA legislation also is pending in Illinois and South Carolina.

Of greatest interest to business divorce lawyers are (1) RULLCA’s relatively expansive grounds for judicial (involuntary) dissolution of LLCs including oppressive conduct by managers and authorizing remedies other than dissolution, i.e, buy-out, and (2) RULLCA’s provision, completely foreign to LLC laws in New York and elsewhere, authorizing judicial dissociation (expulsion) of a member under certain circumstances.

The two provisions have a lot in common. Indeed, there’s substantial overlap between the statutory grounds for dissolution and dissociation under RULLCA. A recent appellate ruling out of the District of Columbia provokes examination of the strategic choice to be made when initiating a business divorce litigation whether to pursue dissolution, dissociation, or both. Continue Reading Choose Carefully: Dissolution vs. Dissociation Under RULLCA

Guillotine

Capital punishment for the corporation.” That’s how the Maryland Court of Appeals — that state’s highest court — in Bontempo v Lares, 444 Md. 344 [2015], recently referred to the remedy of judicial dissolution made available by statute in most states, including New York, to oppressed minority shareholders of closely held corporations.

I would not go so far as to suggest that our corporate jurisprudence is experiencing something akin to the growing anti-death penalty movement in our criminal jurisprudence, but the thoughtful majority opinion for the Maryland high court in Bontempo marks a heightened regard for the diverse interests at stake when considering an appropriate remedy for oppressive conduct by those in control of the corporation, and highlights the breadth of less drastic, alternative remedies available to trial courts.

Bontempo also merits attention at a more granular level for its discussion of the interplay and distinction between remedies available to an oppressed minority shareholder qua shareholder versus qua fired employee. Continue Reading Less Drastic Measures: Maryland Case Highlights Non-Dissolution Remedies for Oppressed Minority Shareholders

TulsaThe Tulsa Shock of the WNBA, originally known as the Detroit Shock before moving to Tulsa in 2010, are on the move again, this time to the more populous Dallas-Fort Worth area, that is, unless a lawsuit brought by an “oppressed” minority owner succeeds in stopping it.

The team is owned by an Oklahoma limited liability company known as Tulsa Pro Hoops, LLC (TPH), whose majority member is Bill Cameron, a successful banker and insurance executive. Cameron publicly announced the move on July 20th. Cameron’s press release explained the team’s reasons for relocating after six unimpressive and financially unrewarding basketball seasons in Tulsa:

“This is a very difficult decision, and I know it is particularly difficult for the Tulsa investors,” he said. “From a business perspective, it was necessary to evaluate options to place the team and the organization in the best position to achieve financial success. After a thorough review, I believe the Dallas-Fort Worth area holds the greatest potential to achieve our long-term business objectives.”

In a letter addressed to Tulsa’s mayor released the same date, Cameron also acknowledged the disappointment for a number of his Tulsa co-investors: Continue Reading No Slam Dunk for This Oppressed Minority Shareholder Petition