Does an assignment by a co-songwriter of that co-songwriter’s rights in exchange for a performance and use royalty entitle the co-songwriter to a share of the sale proceeds when the rights are later sold by the other co-songwriter to a third party? No, according to Justice Barry Ostrager’s recent decision in Levy v. Zimmerman. In his decision, Justice Ostrager dismissed a suit filed by the estate of songwriter Jacques Levy in the New York County Commercial Division seeking a share of the more than $300 million in proceeds from the sale by Bob Dylan of his song catalog to Universal Music Group. In dismissing the case, Justice Ostrager ruled that a 1975 contract unambiguously limited Levy’s rights to a 35% royalty on the performance and use of the ten songs he co-wrote with Dylan in the early 1970s.
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Patterson Belknap’s Commercial Division Blog covers developments related to practice and case law in the Commercial Division of the New York State Supreme Court. The Commercial Division was formed in 1993 to enhance the quality of judicial adjudication and to improve efficiency in the case management of commercial disputes that are litigated in New York State courts. Since then, the Division has become a leading venue for judicial resolution of high-stakes and every-day commercial disputes. This Blog reviews key developments in the Commercial Division, including important decisions handed down by the Commercial Division, appellate court decisions reviewing Commercial Division decisions, and changes and proposed changes to Commercial Division rules and practices. Our aim is to provide you with thoughtful and succinct analysis of these issues. The Blog is written by experienced commercial litigators who have substantial practices in the Commercial Division.
Can the purchasers of promissory notes containing non-New York forum-selection clauses enforce the notes in the Commercial Division? Not without an extraordinary showing as to why the clauses should be set aside, according to Commercial Division Justice Elizabeth Emerson’s recent decision in Stein v. United Wind, Inc. In Stein, Justice Emerson granted a motion to dismiss an action to enforce promissory notes where the notes designated Delaware as the exclusive forum for any disputes arising in connection with the notes.
Commercial Division Holds that Reliance and Inducement are Not Required Elements of Unjust Enrichment
When the funds invested by one victim of a Ponzi scheme are used to pay the scheme’s debts to an earlier investor, can the later investor recover those funds from the earlier investor through an unjust enrichment claim? Yes, if there is a sufficient connection between the parties, according to Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley’s recent decision in JHAC LLC v. Advance Entertainment LLC. In JHAC, Justice Masley allowed unjust enrichment claims by one Ponzi scheme victim against other victims to proceed by holding that reliance and inducement are not elements of unjust enrichment in New York. All that is required to sustain the claim is a “connection” between the victims, and Justice Masley held that JHAC adequately pled such a connection.
On Monday, May 11, 2020, three Commercial Division justices from across the state participated in a virtual panel to discuss the state of litigating in the Commercial Division during COVID-19. Justices Saliann Scarpulla (New York County), Timothy Driscoll (Nassau County), and Deborah Karalunas (Onondaga County) discussed the ways in which litigation can move forward while the courts operate in a virtual format. The panel was presented by the New York State Bar Association’s Commercial and Federal Litigation Section.
The issues related to the bringing of claims involving a cancelled LLC were addressed in the Commercial Division’s recent decision in Hopkins v. Ackerman. In November 2019, Justice Saliann Scarpulla dismissed most of Hopkins’s and his co-plaintiffs’ claims as derivative, and therefore unable to be brought on behalf of a cancelled LLC. We covered that decision here. Following that decision, Hopkins sought leave to bring additional direct claims, but Justice Scarpulla’s recent decision rejected all but one of the proposed claims—a breach of fiduciary duty claim based on allegations that Hopkins was frozen out of decision-making and membership rights. The other claims were rejected as derivative because they concerned the alleged failure to distribute the LLCs’ assets, a harm felt equally by all members. Justice Scarpulla also reaffirmed her earlier ruling that a challenge to an LLC’s cancellation status (which could re-open the door to derivative claims) must be brought in Delaware, where the entities were established and cancelled.
Commercial Division Holds that Imposition of Direct Liability on Directors Who Oversaw Fraudulent Conveyance Requires Piercing the Corporate Veil
Do the directors who oversaw the fraudulent conveyance of a corporation’s assets face direct liability for it? Not unless the entities were shams and the directors exerted total dominion and control, according to Commercial Division Justice Andrew Borrok’s recent decision in Acacia Investments, B.S.C.(c) v. West End Equity I, Ltd. In Acacia, Justice Borrok allowed fraudulent conveyance claims to proceed against the entities involved in an alleged transfer of judgment-debtors’ assets to a new family of companies, but did not allow direct claims against the directors of the entities. He held that Delaware law does not create a claim for director liability, and that there was no factual basis for piercing the entities’ corporate veils to hold the directors liable for the alleged fraud.
A corporation that acquires the assets of another is generally not liable for the pre-existing liabilities of the acquired corporation. However, as the Commercial Division’s recent decision in 47 East 34th Street (NY), L.P. v. BridgeStreet Worldwide, Inc. demonstrates, there is an exception to this rule when the successor is deemed to be a mere continuation of the acquired corporation. In 47 East 34th Street, Justice Andrew Borrok relied on the mere continuation doctrine to deny a motion to dismiss claims asserted against a successor guarantor to a lease that had acquired the assets of the original guarantor through a consensual foreclosure.
The Commercial Division recently ruled, in a case captioned as Hopkins v. Ackerman, that derivative claims on behalf of an LLC need to be brought before the LLC ceases to exist. In Hopkins, Justice Saliann Scarpulla granted a motion to dismiss several derivative claims involving now-cancelled Delaware LLCs because, under Delaware law, a cancelled LLC does not have the ability to bring legal claims. The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ efforts to cast most of the claims as direct claims on behalf of a specific member in the LLCs.
Commercial Division Advisory Council Highlights the Benefits of the Commercial Division to the State of New York
The Commercial Division Advisory Council recently released a memorandum describing the benefits that the Commercial Division offers to the State of New York. The memorandum highlights the many advantages of having a dedicated business court for the state and business and legal communities. It is worth a read for any lawyer whose practice focuses on business disputes.
First Department Holds that Declaratory Judgment Against Creditor’s Principal Does not Preclude Claims By the Creditor Itself
Can a debtor obtain declaratory judgment shielding himself from liability to a creditor’s officers or associates personally and then use that judgment to preclude subsequent claims by the creditor itself? Not in the First Department, following the recent decision in Avilon Automotive Group v. Leontiev.[i] In Avilon, a unanimous panel reversed the res judicata-based dismissal of fraudulent transfer and other related claims arising from several Russian loan transactions because the claims by the creditors themselves were not the subject of a prior declaratory judgment concerning the debtor’s liability to the creditors’ representative.Avilon_Auto._Grp._v._Leontiev.pdf
When a defendant avoids the cost of developing its own technology by stealing proprietary information, can that defendant be required to re-pay the cost it saved as compensatory damages? Not under New York trade secret or unfair competition law. In E.J. Brooks Co. v. Cambridge Security Seals, a divided New York Court of Appeals announced – over a lively dissent – that compensatory damages for misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair competition are limited to the plaintiff’s own losses, and may not include the development costs avoided by defendants. The Court further held that an accompanying claim for unjust enrichment does not provide a basis to expand the recovery beyond the plaintiff’s own losses.
What legal standard applies to assess a corporate board’s refusal to pursue litigation in response to a shareholder’s demand to take “all necessary actions” to correct alleged director misconduct? In Solak v. Fundaro,[i] Commercial Division Justice Charles Ramos applied the business judgment rule to such a situation, holding that a request to take “all necessary actions” constitutes as a shareholder demand under Rule 23.1 of the Delaware Chancery Court Rules and that a derivative plaintiff must plead particularized facts showing gross negligence or bad faith to proceed with a derivative claim following a board’s refusal to take the demanded action.
New York recognizes conversion claims based on intangible property, such as electronically stored information or trade secrets. But does a conversion claim exist when the theft of the intangible property does not deprive the rightful owner of unfettered access to the property (i.e., when the owner retains an original or accurate duplicate of the information)? This was the question presented to the Commercial Division recently in MLB Advanced Media, L.P. v. Big League Analysis, LLC. In that case, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich held that a conversion claim is not available unless the plaintiff’s use of or access to the property is disturbed.
A shareholder bringing a contested derivative claim in the Cayman Islands must seek leave from the court before proceeding. This litigation prerequisite -- imposed by Rule 12A of the Rules of the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands (“Rule 12A”) -- requires a prima facie factual showing, with the aim of protecting corporations from “vexatious or unfounded litigation.” But when a Cayman Islands-related derivative claim is brought in New York’s Commercial Division, does the same rule apply? The New York Court of Appeals recently answered “No,” holding in Davis v. Scottish Re Group Ltd. that Rule 12A is a procedural rule that does not apply to matters litigated in New York courts.