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

Shareholders A and B are the sole shareholders of a real estate holding corporation. Their shareholders’ agreement includes provisions that:

  • guarantee each of them a seat on the two-member board of directors and appoint each as co-president;
  • prohibit their removal from the board with or without cause;
  • in the event of death, disability, or resignation, authorize the vacant board seat to be filled by the departing shareholder’s child;
  • require majority (i.e., effectively unanimous) board consent for all board actions;
  • require 55% (i.e., effectively unanimous) shareholder consent for all actions needing shareholder approval.

Under these provisions, neither A nor B can take any action at the board or shareholder level without the other’s consent. Sounds like a perfect set-up for a deadlock dissolution petition in the event A and B reach impasse on some critical issue jeopardizing the corporation’s viability, doesn’t it?

What if I now add that Shareholders A and B own 49% and 51%, respectively, of the corporation’s common shares? Can Shareholder A still bring a deadlock dissolution petition?

Not according to a recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Balkind v Nickel, 2018 NY Slip Op 31703(U) [Sup Ct NY County July 16, 2018], in which she dismissed a deadlock dissolution petition filed under Section 1104 of the Business Corporation Law brought by a 49% shareholder, despite his co-equal board and shareholder control. Continue Reading 49% Shareholder Can’t Seek Deadlock Dissolution Despite Shareholders’ Agreement Granting Co-Equal Control

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

In business divorce litigation, petitioners / plaintiffs often want to start the case with a bang. A common tactic is to file a petition / complaint simultaneously with an injunction motion. Often there is a real need for an injunction – the respondent / defendant may be engaging in activities that could cause real, irreparable harm.

But often another objective is that if the injunction motion succeeds, it will be an early win in the case, set the stage favorably for the litigation to come, put significant leverage on the respondent / defendant by restricting its freedom to operate the business, and possibly result in a speedier resolution of the case. If the injunction motion or complaint itself has vulnerabilities, however, a case meant to start with a bang may end with an unceremonious whimper. That is just one lesson from a recent decision by Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla in Pappas v 38-40 LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 30329(U) [Sup Ct NY County Feb. 22, 2018]). Continue Reading Operating Agreement Dooms Derivative Claims by Deceased LLC Member’s Estate

This winter forever will be remembered in the Northeast as the winter of the “bomb cyclone,” which gets credit for the 6º temperature and bone-chilling winds howling outside as I write this. So in its honor, I’m accelerating my annual Winter Case Notes synopses of recent business divorce cases, which normally don’t appear until later in the season.

This year’s selections include a variety of interesting issues, including LLC dissolution based on deadlock; the survival of an LLC membership interest after bankruptcy; application of the entire-fairness test in a challenge to a cash-out merger; an interim request for reinstatement by an expelled LLC member; and a successful appeal from a fee award in a shareholder derivative action.

Deadlock Between LLC’s Co-Managers Requires Hearing in Dissolution Proceeding

Advanced 23, LLC v Chamber House Partners, LLC, 2017 NY Slip Op 32662(U) [Sup Ct NY County Dec. 15, 2017].  Deadlock is not an independent basis for judicial dissolution of New York LLC’s under the governing standard adopted in the 1545 Ocean Avenue case but, as Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla explains in her decision, when two co-equal managers are unable to cooperate, the court “must consider the managers’ disagreement in light of the operating agreement and the continued ability of [the LLC] to function in that context.” In Advanced 23, the co-managers exchanged accusations of bad acts and omissions, e.g., one of them transferring LLC funds to an unauthorized bank account, raising material issues of fact as to the effectiveness of the LLC’s management and therefore requiring an evidentiary hearing, which is just what Justice Scarpulla ordered. Of further note, in a companion decision denying the respondent’s motion to dismiss the petition (read here), Justice Scarpulla rejected without discussion the respondent’s argument that judicial dissolution under LLC Law § 702 was unavailable based on a provision in the operating agreement stating that the LLC “will be dissolved only upon the unanimous determination of the Members to dissolve.” In that regard, the decision aligns with Justice Stephen Bucaria’s holding in Matter of Youngwall, that even an express waiver of the right to seek judicial dissolution of an LLC is void as against public policy. Continue Reading Winter Case Notes: LLC Deadlock and Other Recent Decisions of Interest