When a minority shareholder petitions for judicial dissolution under § 1104-a of the Business Corporation Law based on the majority’s alleged oppressive conduct, looting, waste, or diversion of corporate assets, BCL § 1118 kicks in, granting the corporation and the other shareholders the right to halt the dissolution proceeding and to convert it to a stock appraisal proceeding, by electing to purchase the petitioner’s shares for “fair value” determined as of the day before the date on which the petition was filed.

New York’s highest court, in Matter of Pace Photographers, Ltd., described § 1118’s election to purchase as “a defensive mechanism [to § 1104-a] for the other shareholders and the corporation, giving them an absolute right to avoid the dissolution proceedings and any possibility of the company’s liquidation” while, at the same time, “the minority is protected by a court-approved determination of fair value and other terms and conditions of the purchase.”

How is the election exercised? Who can exercise it? Can it be exercised conditionally? When can it be exercised? Once exercised, can it be revoked? Read on for the answers. Continue Reading A Deep Dive Into the Election to Purchase in Dissolution Proceedings

When the tsunami of LLC enabling statutes swept the U.S. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including New York in 1994, many included a default rule authorizing as-of-right member withdrawal and payment for the “fair value” of the membership interest. The default rule was one of many designed to avoid C corporation-style “double taxation” of LLC earnings. After 1997, when the IRS adopted check-the-box regulations cementing pass-through partnership tax treatment for LLCs, New York and other states flipped the default rule, i.e., members are no longer permitted to withdraw unless authorized by the operating agreement.

When New York amended its withdrawal provision, LLC Law § 606, it included a new subsection “b” grandfathering LLCs formed before the amendment’s 1999 effective date, meaning that withdrawal under the “old” § 606 and fair-value buyout under LLC Law § 509’s default rule remain available for members of pre-1999 LLCs — so long as not otherwise provided in the operating agreement. The Chiu case, which I wrote about here, is an example of one such case resulting in a fair-value buyout of a withdrawn member.

After the amendments, some pre-1999 New York LLCs adopted new operating agreements or amended their existing ones to prohibit withdrawal. Some, as in Chiu, did not.

This is a story about one LLC that did not, but with a very different outcome than Chiu. The story’s punch line, which makes it a fascinating one, is that even though the minority member, seeking to force a fair-value buyout, was found to have properly invoked his uncontested right to withdraw under the old § 606, in the end the lower and appellate courts held that his withdrawal did not trigger a statutory buyout under § 509 because the LLC’s operating agreement included mandatory rights of first refusal — with which the minority member never complied — that displaced the buyout statute’s default rule.

The case, Matter of Jacobs v Cartalemi, was decided last week by the Appellate Division, Second Department, along with two decisions in companion appeals in related cases in which the court held that upon withdrawal the minority member also lost his standing to pursue derivative claims against the controlling member. I’ll explain all below, but before doing so I must disclose that, along with co-counsel, my firm and I represent the controlling member of the LLC in each of the cases. Continue Reading Operating Agreement Defeats Statutory Buyout Rights Upon LLC Member’s Withdrawal

jurisdiction1I can count on one hand the number of federal court cases I’ve featured on this blog since I started it almost 10 years ago — and that’s no coincidence.

Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, requiring either the presence of a claim arising under federal law — so-called federal question jurisdiction — or the opposing litigants are citizens of different states — so-called diversity jurisdiction.

Federal question jurisdiction rarely exists in business divorce cases involving the internal affairs of closely held business entities which are the peculiar province of state law. Federal courts are especially loathe to decide judicial dissolution cases, to the point where they routinely exercise their discretionary power to abstain from exercising jurisdiction even in dissolution cases where diversity exists (read here).

Inevitably there are some small number of diversity suits filed in federal court asserting state-law claims other than dissolution between business co-owners. Even in these cases, however, there is a potential trap for the unwary plaintiff if the subject business entity is a limited liability company, as nicely illustrated by a Manhattan federal judge’s decision last month in Sullivan v Ruvoldt, Opinion and Order, 16 Civ. 583 [SDNY Mar. 24, 2017]. Continue Reading Beware Diversity Trap in Federal Court Business Divorce Cases Involving LLCs

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

Pay UpIn 2005, Luciano Bonanni sued his business partners in a profitable limited liability company that provides MRI scanners to hospitals and management services to an affiliated radiology practice. The thrust of Bonanni’s multiple-count complaint was that the majority members had squeezed him out of the business, discontinued his profit share, and canceled his 20% membership interest.

In one of the earliest rulings in the case, which I featured in the very first post I published on this blog in 2007, the presiding judge, Suffolk County Commercial Division Justice Elizabeth Hazlitt Emerson, dismissed Bonanni’s claim for judicial dissolution of the LLC. Justice Emerson’s decision, which pre-figured by several years the Second Department’s landmark opinion in 1545 Ocean Avenue, held that Bonanni’s reliance on the grounds for dissolution available to oppressed minority shareholders under Business Corporation Law § 1104-a did not state a valid claim for relief under LLC Law § 702 governing judicial dissolution of LLCs.

As it turned out, the dismissal of the dissolution claim probably was a blessing in disguise for Bonanni. The company continued to generate healthy profits for many years while the litigation dragged on, culminating with a lengthy bench trial on Bonanni’s assorted direct and derivative claims. Earlier this month, Justice Emerson’s post-trial decision in Bonanni v Horizons Investors Corp., 2016 NY Slip Op 50281(U) [Sup Ct Suffolk County Mar. 9, 2016], found in Bonanni’s favor on most of his claims, including a determination that the defendants unlawfully converted his 20% membership interest by pretending he had withdrawn from the LLC.

The price tag? When all is said and done, including damages on Bonanni’s direct claims, his share of derivative damages, an upcoming accounting, and hefty interest charges at the 9% statutory rate, the recovery likely will exceed $1 million. Continue Reading A Decade Later, LLC’s Majority Members Pay The Price For Converting Minority Member’s Interest

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?