On October 4, 2021, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks promulgated Rule 35 of the Rules of Practice for the Commercial Division to require corporate entities litigating or seeking to intervene in cases to submit statements disclosing any corporate parent or publicly held companies that are sufficiently invested in the party or proposed intervenor.
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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.
New York Supreme Court Addresses New Uniform Rule Regarding Summary Judgment Motions Adapted from Commercial Division Rules
In a recent decision in Amos Fin. LLC v. Crapanzano, et al., the New York Supreme Court, Rockland County, addressed one of the new Uniform Rules that went into effect on February 1, 2021—Uniform Rule 202.8-g(a). Uniform Rule 202.8-g(a) provides that any party moving for summary judgment must “annex to the notice of motion a separate, short and concise statement, in numbered paragraphs, of the material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.” Although it is derived from Commercial Division Rule 19-a, Uniform Rule 202.8-g differs from the Commercial Division Rule, which provides only that for a motion for summary judgment, “the court may direct” that the moving party annex such a statement to its motion.
Forum Selection Clauses: Commercial Division Issues Reminder That Choice of Venue Must Be Designated with Specificity
Forum selection clauses are a common feature of commercial arrangements, allowing contracting parties to opt out of default procedural rules and determine ex ante which state will have jurisdiction over any future dispute arising from the agreement and even the particular venue where that dispute must be resolved. But as parties are often reminded, opting out of these default principles—whether jurisdiction or venue, or both—requires clarity and specificity.
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.
Commercial Division Decision Suggests Insurers May Struggle to Enforce Anti-Assignment Clauses in Prior-Incurred Loss Cases
In Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s v. AT&T Corp., Justice Cohen of the New York County Commercial Division Court granted a motion for partial summary judgment and determined that Nokia, through its predecessor Lucent, had the right by assignment to seek coverage under certain insurance policies issued to AT&T that contained anti-assignment clauses. Although the general rule in New York is that such anti-assignment clauses are enforceable, this decision highlights how it can be more challenging to bar assignment in the special context of an insurance policy.
Commercial Division Grants Order for Prejudgment Attachment Where Defendants’ Post-Litigation Transfer of Assets Could Frustrate a Future Judgment
In In re Renren, Inc. Derivative Litigation, Justice Andrew Borrok of the New York County Commercial Division granted Plaintiffs’ order to show cause for prejudgment attachment against certain assets of defendants Oak Pacific Investment (“OPI”), Renren SF Holdings Inc. (“Renren SF”), and Renren Lianhe Holdings (“Renren Lianhe”) (collectively, “Defendants”). The opinion addresses whether allegations of defendants’ improper sale of assets for less than fair market value to frustrate a future judgment warrant a preliminary injunction or prejudgment attachment pursuant to CPLR § 6201.
If a party hires an investment advisor that goes on to allegedly systematically abuse its role by engaging in self-dealing in violation of its contractual obligations and fiduciary duties, when does the applicable statute of limitations period begin? Does the wrongdoing give rise to a single claim with a single statute of limitations period starting at the first incident of self-dealing, or does each individual incident of self-dealing give rise to multiple new claims, each with a new statute of limitations period? In other words, is there just one wrong, with continuing effects, or a series of wrongs? And what is the effect of a contractual provision that imposes ongoing obligations on the statute of limitations inquiry? These questions are not only conceptually challenging. When that investment advisor accused of malfeasance has been managing a multi-billion dollar portfolio for many years, the consequences for when the advisee can bring a timely claim in New York State are significant.
Does the COVID-19 Pandemic and Subsequent Emergency Actions by the Governor Make a Commercial Lease Voidable?
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (“COVID”), a common question that arises is whether commercial leases are enforceable when COVID and subsequent governmental responses frustrate the purpose of the lease or render its performance impossible. There is not a one-size-fits-all answer, as the answer will turn on the underlying facts, but the lack of a contractual force majeure provision in the lease will not bar the use of common law defenses. This is evidenced in a recent Bronx County Commercial Division decision by Justice Eddie J. McShan in 1877 Webster Ave. Inc. v. Tremont Ctr., LLC.
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.
First Department Clarifies Circumstances Under Which Acknowledgment of a Debt Will Toll Limitations Period for Action to Recover on a Promissory Note
In Hawk Mountain LLC v. RAM Capital Group LLC, the First Department held that, under New York General Obligations Law (“G.O.L.”) § 17-101, an acknowledgment of a debt tolled the limitations period for an action to recover a debt owed on a promissory note, even though the acknowledgment did not specifically mention the note at issue or the precise amount due on the note. This decision clarifies that “there is no requirement that an acknowledgement of a debt pursuant to [G.O.L.] § 17–101 leave no room for doubt as to the nature and quantum of the debt to be acknowledged.”
In a recent decision in SL Globetrotter L.P., Global Blue Group Holding AG v. Suvretta Capital Management, LLC, Toms Capital Investment Management LP, Justice Peter Sherwood declined to dismiss plaintiffs’ breach of contract claims, which arose out of a dispute over investment, through a special purpose acquisition vehicle (“SPAC”), in a new public company. The opinion sheds light on the interpretation of conditions precedent in a contract, particularly when they deal with the consistency of relevant financial information.
Commercial Division Holds Corporate Directors May Be Individually Liable When Informally Dissolved Company Forgoes Notice to Creditors
In Morse v. LoveLive TV US, Inc., a recent decision by Justice Robert R. Reed of the New York County Commercial Division, the Court denied a defendant’s motion to dismiss, holding that where it is impossible or futile to obtain a judgment against a defunct corporation that has defaulted on debts by “informal dissolution,” creditors can maintain an action directly against the directors of that company.
On February 11, 2021, the New York State Unified Court System issued Virtual Bench Trial Protocols and Procedures (“Protocols and Procedures”) in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. While “Virtual Bench Trials are, in all respects, identical to In-Person Courtroom Bench Trials[,]….certain modifications are necessary regarding the presentation of testimonial, documentary, and physical evidence in order to safeguard accuracy and ensure reliability.”
Hon. Margaret Anne Pui Yee Chan and Hon. Melissa A. Crane have been assigned to the Commercial Division of Supreme Court, New York County.
Judge Chan’s assignment to the Commercial Division follows an eight-year stint as an Acting Supreme Court Justice in the Civil Term for New York County, beginning in 2013. Prior to her designation to the Supreme Court, Judge Chan had served as a Civil Court Judge in New York County, where she began her judicial career in 2007.
Second Department Limits Plaintiff to Appraisal Remedy Under New York LLC Law After a Freeze-out Merger
In Farro v. Schochet, the Second Department recently held that §1002 of the NY LLC Law restricted a dissenting member’s remedy to an appraisal for the fair value of his interest in the business after a freeze-out merger. Thus, the Court reduced the legal remedies for a minority LLC member that lacked protections in the operating agreement against the merger.
Good news for lawyers preparing for trial in New York’s Commercial Division—you can finally delete that old copy of WordPerfect. An upcoming amendment to the rule governing pre-trial memoranda, exhibits, and requests to charge makes a few changes that trial-ready attorneys should note.
Over the past several months, many disputes have arisen over whether the COVID-19 pandemic or government responses to it provide, depending on the jurisdiction, an impossibility or impracticability defense for nonperformance under a contract. Now, we are beginning to see a flood of decisions addressing that defense.
Commercial Division Holds Personal Jurisdiction Is Not Proper Where Defendant’s Only Contact with New York Was Performance of Some Contracted Services at Plaintiff’s Request
In Black Diamond Aviation Group LLC v. Spirit Avionics, Ltd., the Commercial Division held that it would be inappropriate for a New York court to exercise personal jurisdiction over an aircraft maintenance and refurbishing company that had no presence or ties to New York other than turning over an aircraft to be serviced to the care of a New York airport at the plaintiff’s request.
Court of Appeals Holds Bankruptcy Law Does Not Preempt Lender’s Tortious Interference Claims Against Third-Party Non-Debtors
In Sutton 58 Associates LLC v. Pilevsky, the New York Court of Appeals recently held in a 4-3 split decision that, under certain circumstances, bankruptcy law does not preempt a lender’s state law claims against third-party non-debtors for tortious interference with a contract between the lender and the debtor. This decision preserves a state forum for lenders asserting claims that: 1) involved “wrongful conduct by non-debtor defendants that occurred prior to the bankruptcy proceeding,” and 2) are “grounded in independent contractual obligations."
Recently, Justice Andrew Borrok of the Commercial Division denied a summary judgment motion in a dispute involving what is colloquially referred to as a “shotgun” or a “buy-sell” clause in agreements governing joint ventures and partnerships. See Seokoh, Inc. v. Lard-PT, LLC, Index No. 650983/2020, 69 Misc. 3d 1207(A) (Sup. Ct., NY Cty. Oct. 20, 2020).
Commercial Division Confirms Arbitration Award Entered Against Party Who Objected to the Jurisdiction of the Arbitrators but Failed to Seek a Stay of the Arbitration
In Fava v. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Inc., Justice Barry R. Ostrager of the New York County Commercial Division denied Petitioner Frank Fava’s (“Fava”) motion to vacate an arbitration award issued by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”), and granted Respondent Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Inc’s (“Morgan Stanley”) request to confirm the award. The opinion addresses whether a party who objects to an arbitration panel’s jurisdiction but participates in arbitration may vacate an arbitral award on the ground that the arbitrators exceeded the scope of their authority.
Judge Leslie Stein and Judge Eugene Fahey were confirmed together and will retire together. The two judges have been part of a group of judges who have cast the deciding votes in many of the Court’s cases.
New York Business Corporation Law § 1104-a empowers a holder of 20% or more of a closely held corporation’s stock to petition for that corporation’s dissolution on the grounds that, inter alia, the controlling shareholders have committed “illegal, fraudulent or oppressive actions toward the complaining shareholders.”
On Monday, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore issued a statement on the latest developments affecting jury trials in New York City.
In a recent order, Justice Andrea Masley assigned a special discovery master to supervise discovery in Hindlin v. Prescriptions Songs LLC, et al., a “complex commercial action” with a “multitude of discovery issues[.]” The decision underscores the constraints placed on the Commercial Division in light of the ongoing pandemic and cuts to the budget of the state’s judiciary.
On Monday, just days after Justice Peter Sherwood and Justice Marcy Friedman announced their upcoming retirements from the bench, the Chief Administrative Judge announced the news that Justice Robert Reed—currently a New York Supreme Court Justice—will start receiving Commercial Division cases in the next few weeks.
On September 23, 2020, Chief Administrative Judge Marks amended Commercial Division Rule 11-g and the Division’s Standard Form Confidentiality Order (“SFO”) to allow parties to designate certain documents as highly confidential for attorney’s eyes only (“AEO”). Such a designation already exists in federal court, and it will be useful in the Commercial Division in matters involving particularly confidential issues such as the disclosure of confidential business information between competitors and disclosure of trade secrets.
Rule 6 Amendment Increases the Font Size of Footnotes and Requires Hyperlinking to the NYSECF Docket
On September 29, 2020, Chief Administrative Judge Marks amended Commercial Division Rule 6 to increase the font size of footnotes in briefs and affidavits from 10-point to 12-point. Additionally, it requires the use of a proportionally spaced serif typeface (e.g., Times New Roman, Baskerville, New Century Schoolbook) in all papers filed with the Court. With Commercial Division Rule 17 establishing a word limit rather than a page limit, increasing the font size of footnotes will have no impact on the length of briefs. Instead, a larger font size coupled with a proportionally spaced serif typeface will enhance readability and improve comprehension of long passages of text.
A common question in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak has been whether the pandemic or governmental responses to the pandemic provide, depending on the jurisdiction, an impossibility or impracticability defense for nonperformance under a contract.
The answer to that question will, of course, turn on the facts underlying the nonperformance, as well as the law of the jurisdiction. Two recent decisions from New York are instructive on the contours of the defense of impossibility — the relevant defense under New York law.
As the country entered into an extended period of lockdowns this spring, there was widespread concern that the anticipated severe economic impact of the pandemic would lead to a wave of defaults and foreclosures in the commercial real estate market.
Commercial Division Declines to Dismiss Claim Seeking to Invalidate Delaware LLC Member’s Exercise of a Put Option Amidst Allegations of Anticipated Insolvency
In GMX Technologies, LLC v. Pegasus Capital Advisors, L.P., Justice Andrea Masley of the New York County Commercial Division denied Defendants Pegasus Capital Advisors, L.P. (“Pegasus”) and The Leiber Group Inc.’s (“Leiber”) (collectively, “Defendants”) motion to dismiss a claim for declaratory judgment seeking to bar Leiber from exercising a put option in connection with its membership interest in Plaintiff GMX Technologies, LLC (“GMX”). The opinion addressed whether a Delaware LLC member may exercise a put option when doing so would force the LLC into insolvency.
Recently, the Commercial Division rendered a split decision on a petition to stay an arbitration in Gol v. TNJ Holdings, Inc., Index No. 652304/2020, Doc. No. 75 (Sup. Ct., NY Cnty. Aug. 13, 2020). Based on an analysis of the relevant shareholder agreements and the positions taken by the parties in another litigation, Justice Joel M. Cohen denied the petition to stay arbitration as to the claims brought by the TNJ respondents, but granted the petition to stay arbitration as to the claims brought by the Kahlon respondents—the owners of TNJ.
The New York County Commercial Division saw a substantial increase in the number of new cases filed (i.e.,a total of 102 new cases) during the first four-week span after the New York courts re-opened for non-essential matters on May 25, 2020—as compared to both February 2020 (77 new cases), the last full month of filings prior to the crisis, and a comparable period between May 27 and June 23, 2019 (87 new cases).
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.
In a New York Debtor and Creditor Law Dispute, Commercial Division Clarifies Allegations Required to Pierce Corporate Veil
In a recent decision in South College Street, LLC v. Ares Capital Corporation, Justice Schechter of the New York State Supreme Court, Commercial Division, dismissed petitioner’s New York Debtor and Creditor Law claims, which were premised on alter ego liability. The opinion addressed the types of allegations a plaintiff must make in order to successfully plead a veil-piercing claim.
On July 13, 2020, Governor Cuomo appointed four Supreme Court Justices to fill vacancies on the Appellate Division, First Department. The Governor elevated Justices Saliann Scarpulla, Manuel Jacobo Mendez Olivero, Martin Shulman and Tanya R. Kennedy, who represent the diversity of New York’s judicial system.
The reverberations from the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme continue to be felt in Manhattan’s Commercial Division. On May 20, 2020, Judge Joel M. Cohen issued a decision in Matter of FGLS Equity LLC, No. 157170/2019, 2020 WL 2557877, 2020 NY Slip Op 31476(U) (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Ctny., May 20, 2020), approving the liquidation plan of FGLS Equity LLC, which was founded by accountant Steven Mendelow as a feeder fund to Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities (BLMIS). Mendelow, who passed away in 2016, was allegedly instrumental in funneling investors to the scheme. The decision is notable, not least because it may be the first New York case in which a court has been asked to pass judgment on an LLC plan of liquidation proposed by a liquidator appointed by the LLC’s members pursuant to its operating agreement.
Although New York City’s state court judges are now back in their chambers, in-person hearings have not yet commenced.
Administrative Judge Deborah A. Kaplan reported that her division has had success using “video-linked ‘virtual’ hearings for a wide range of matters.” In-person hearings will still be available when truly necessary. For example, this option may be available to self-represented litigants without access to the requisite technology.
In a Valuation Dispute, Commercial Division Refuses to Credit “Unrealistic and Optimistic” Projections Made by a Corporation in Obtaining a Loan
A recent Commercial Division decision provides an example of a court rejecting “unrealistic and optimistic” business projections in determining the valuation of a petitioner’s shares in a corporation. In Magarik v. Kraus USA, Inc., Index No. 606128/2015, Doc. No. 252 (Sup. Ct., Nassau Cnty. Apr. 28, 2020), Justice DeStefano refused to credit the valuation made by the petitioner’s expert, which depended heavily on a set of projections that the corporation at issue made in the process of obtaining a loan.
Modeling Agency’s Early Victory in Dispute Over Alleged Fashion Model Poaching Proves Pyrrhic Due to Failure to Commence Arbitration On Time
In the 2001 film Zoolander, male model Derek Zoolander mused, while giving the “eugoogly” at the funeral for three deceased model friends, that a “model’s life is a precious, precious commodity.”
Commercial Division Denies Cross-Petitions to Confirm and Vacate Appraisal Award Despite Strong Presumption in Favor of Summarily Confirming Such Awards
In Yakuel v. Gluck, Justice Joel M. Cohen of the New York County Commercial Division denied Petitioners’ application to confirm an appraisal award and denied Respondent Andrew Gluck’s (“Gluck”) cross-petition to vacate the same award in connection with the appraisal of Gluck’s ownership interest in Agency Within LLC (“Agency Within”), a digital marketing company. The opinion addressed the legal standard for confirming or vacating an appraisal award pursuant to CPLR § 7601, as well as a party’s right to present evidence to an appraiser over the objection of a counterparty.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had considerable effect on appellate practice in New York State’s intermediary appellate court, the Appellate Division. The last months have seen historical firsts, such as all four appellate departments hosting virtual oral arguments on Zoom and Skype. Many parties have not had the opportunity to take part in oral argument, as their cases have been decided on submission or adjourned. The four departments have issued a flurry of notices to the bar revising their rules of practice and many of these changes could very well be permanent.
On May 20, 2020, Justice Lawrence Marks, the Chief Administrative Judge of the New York Unified Court System, issued a memorandum announcing that, effective May 25, 2020, “e-filing through the NYSCEF system – including the filing of new non-essential matters – will be restored in those counties of the state that have not yet met the benchmarks required to participate in the Governor’s regional reopening plan.” Those counties include the five counties that comprise New York City, as well as Nassau, Suffolk, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, and Westchester.
First Department Holds That “Sole and Absolute Discretion” Clause Does Not Preclude Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claim
In Shatz v. Chertok, the First Department affirmed in part and reversed in part a decision by Justice Jennifer G. Schechter of the Commercial Division. The key issue on appeal was whether a New York limited liability company’s operating agreement that provided the managing member “sole and absolute discretion” over investment decisions barred a derivative claim for breach of fiduciary duty. The First Department held that this contractual language did not bar a breach of fiduciary duty claim against the company’s manager.
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.
On May 13, 2020 the New York State Unified Court System announced a plan for the gradual return of judges, clerks, and court staff to courthouses in select upstate counties—with litigants being able to electronically file new cases in those counties.
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.
On May 7, 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.28, which, among other things, “continue[d] the suspension and modifications of laws, and any directive, not superseded by a subsequent directive, made by Executive Order 202 and each successor Executive Order up to and including Executive Order 202.14, for thirty days until June 6, 2020, except as modified” in the May 7, 2020 Executive Order.
Commercial Division Dismisses Derivative Shareholder Suit for Failure to Provide New Allegations of Pre-Suit Demand in an Amended Complaint
In derivative shareholder actions, New York law requires a plaintiff-shareholder seeking to vindicate the rights of a corporation to plead, with particularity, either that before filing suit a request was made on the corporation’s board of directors to initiate the action or that any such demand, if made, would have been futile. This pre-suit demand requirement may seem straightforward in theory, but a March 19, 2020 Commercial Division decision by Justice Andrea Masley serves as a cautionary reminder of tricky nuances in its application.
May 4, 2020 - Update: On May 4, 2020 Chief Administrative Judge Marks promulgated an order that codifies the new policies delineated in his memorandum of April 30, 2020 and discussed in the below “Update” of May 1, 2020.
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