On May 14, 2019, the New York State Unified Court System announced that it will begin rollout and implementation of a “presumptive” alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) program. Under the new program, parties in civil cases will be referred to either mediation or some other form of ADR as an initial step for most lawsuits filed in New York State courts. The “presumptive” ADR program will apply to a broad range of civil cases, including commercial disputes.
In considering a motion to dismiss related to a real estate development joint-venture gone bad, a recent decision by Justice Andrea Masley in 3P-733, LLC v Davis (No. 650800/2018 [N.Y. Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty., April 2, 2019]) highlights several issues that frequently arise at the motion to dismiss stage in the Commercial Division.
On April 11, 2019, the First Department unanimously affirmed a decision issued by Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich, formerly of the Commercial Division, which denied the plaintiffs’ motion for final approval of a class action settlement in City Trading Fund v. Nye (2019 NY Slip Op 02789). This was the second time the Appellate Division had considered Justice Kornreich’s denial of approval of a settlement in this case, having reversed her prior denial of preliminary approval of the settlement in November 2016 and remanding the case for a fairness hearing in order to review the settlement terms.
Commercial Division Decision Illustrates Potential Issues that May Arise in CPLR Article 52 Turnover Order Proceedings
A party seeking to enforce a judgment against an asset of a judgment debtor that is held by a third party may petition for a turnover order through a special proceeding provided for by CPLR Article 52. Justice Saliann Scarpulla’s recent decision in The Wimbledon Fund, SPC (Class TT) v. Weston Capital Partners Master Fund II, LTD (Wimbledon) illustrates several of the potential issues that may arise during such a proceeding.
Commercial Division Decision Spotlights the Limits of the “Automatic Renewal Doctrine” for Contracts
In Mountain & Isles, LLC v. Gillz, LLC, Justice Masley of the Commercial Division provided a useful reminder of the continuing vitality of New York’s “automatic renewal doctrine” for contracts and its limitations.
At her annual State of the Judiciary speech held on February 26, 2019 at Bronx County Supreme Court, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced that the Commercial Division will be expanding to Bronx County, effective April 1, 2019. The Chief Judge explained that this expansion was in recognition of the Bronx’s ongoing economic resurgence and the growing number of commercial cases being filed there. There has not yet been any announcement as to the jurisdiction of this new part or which judges will be assigned to it.
Beginning in April 2019, the First Department has changed its practice to assign panels of four justices for oral argument, as opposed to five justices as has been the traditional practice of the court. This change is the result of three ongoing vacancies on the First Department that have remained unfilled by Governor Cuomo. The Presiding Justice of the First Department, Hon. Rolando Acosta, explained that the move to four justice panels is necessary because there are not enough judges to hear all the pending appeals. Aware that four justice panels could create a two-to-two split, Presiding Justice Acosta explained that a fifth judge can be brought in to issue a decision if needed. Parties can preserve their right to reargue or submit the case to a fifth justice by making a statement on the oral argument record. This change will likely remain in place until new judges are appointed to the court.
In Magomedov et al. v. Lebedev et al., an opinion dated February 19, 2019, Justice Saliann Scarpulla of the Commercial Division dismissed most claims related to a Russian oil joint venture as time-barred under the statute of limitations. The case also raises the issue of waiver of personal jurisdiction by bringing related lawsuits within New York.
On Monday February 26, 2019, four retired Justices of the Commercial Division, New York County – Justices Ellen Bransten, Shirley Kornreich, Charles Ramos, and Melvin Schweitzer – took the stage at the New York City Bar to discuss the past, present and future of the Commercial Division, as well as their own experiences on the court. The discussion was moderated by retired Justice Carolyn Demarest of the Commercial Division, Kings County.
Following Justice Charles Ramos’s retirement from the Commercial Division at the end of last year, commercial practitioners have awaited an announcement reallocating responsibility for the Division’s international arbitration matters. Since 2013, all international arbitration cases filed in the Commercial Division—including those arising under CPLR Article 75 and the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.—had been assigned to Justice Ramos as part of an effort to establish a dedicated part specializing in the international arbitration field.
Non-Party to Arbitration Agreement Successfully Petitions the Commercial Division to Avoid Being Compelled to Join Arbitration
Arbitration is a matter of contract and, as such, non-parties generally cannot be compelled to arbitrate under agreements that they have not signed or agreed to. In IQVIA RDS Inc. v. Eisai Co. Ltd., the Commercial Division recently highlighted two exceptions to this general rule. Although the Court ultimately found neither exception to be applicable, the case raises important issues that merit attention.
On December 5, 2018, New York’s Chief Administrative Judge, Lawrence K. Marks, issued an administrative order amending Commercial Division Rule 3(a), which addresses alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”). This new amendment encourages opposing counsel to work together to select a mediator for commercial cases, including by consulting rosters of neutral mediators provided by Commercial Division courts.
Corporate Officer Escapes Corporate-Capacity Fraud Claims in Alleged Ponzi Scheme Case in Commercial Division
Coast-to-Coast-Energy-Inc-v-Ga.pdfIn corporate fraud suits, it is common for plaintiffs to file claims against executives in their capacity as corporate officers. However, to succeed on a corporate-capacity claim, a plaintiff must be able to show that the corporate veil should be pierced so as to hold an officer personally liable for the corporation’s legal obligations. This issue is illustrated by the Commercial Division’s recent decision in Coast to Coast Energy, Inc. v. Gasarch.
The arrival of the new year is a bittersweet time for the Commercial Division as it bids farewell to two of its most senior judges: Justice Charles E. Ramos and Justice Eileen Bransten. Notably, both will be staying on to serve the Court as Judicial Hearing Officers.
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
A recent case out of the New York Commercial Division demonstrates that the remedy of an accounting can be confused with the right of a shareholder or LLC member to inspect books and records. In Atlantis Management Group II LLC v. Nabe, Index No. 651598/2017, 2018 BL 366555, at *4–5 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty. Oct. 1, 2018), Justice Saliann Scarpulla granted partial summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for an accounting. Nonetheless, in accordance with the plaintiff’s request for relief, the Court only ordered that the defendants turn over existing books and records.
Commercial Division Issues Verdict for Plaintiffs Following Bench Trial in Family Feud Over the Palm Restaurant
On November 13, 2018, Justice Masley issued a decision following a bench trial in Ganzi v. Ganzi, which concerns a family feud over the Palm Restaurant empire. Ganzi provides a vivid illustration of the importance of observing corporate formalities, the need to be vigilant for self-dealing when shareholders hold ownership interests in multiple intertwined businesses, and, of course, the pitfalls of mixing family and business.
Commercial Division practitioners have had their eye on upcoming vacancies on the Division’s bench for some time. As we have reported in the past, two new justices, Hon. Andrea Masley and Hon. Jennifer G. Schecter, joined the Division in the last year. The Bar has been eagerly awaiting word as to who would fill two additional vacancies that will open up at the end of this year.
Commercial Division Holds that Failure to Request Rationale for Arbitration Award Makes It Virtually Unreviewable on Manifest Disregard Ground
Parties to arbitration proceedings at times decide to forego a written decision by the arbitration panel explaining the basis for their arbitration award. While doing so may reduce the costs of arbitration and can provide other strategic advantages, it also makes it more likely that the Commercial Division will find the award unreviewable. This point is exemplified by the recent decision by Justice Charles E. Ramos of the Commercial Division in NSB Advisors, LLC v. C.L. King & Associates, Inc.
To commence a special proceeding to compel arbitration in New York, pursuant to CPLR § 7503(a), a party must be “aggrieved by the failure of another to arbitrate.” In KPMG LLP v. Kirschner, Justice Barry R. Ostrager recently ruled that to be “aggrieved,” and thereby have standing, a party must be subject to litigation before filing a special proceeding to compel arbitration. According to the Court, a subsequently filed litigation or the risk of potential litigation is not sufficient to confer standing.
As was recently reported in the New York Law Journal, New York is investing in courtroom technology for the Commercial Division in order to keep up with the demands of commercial trials. These efforts are designed to make trials more cost-effective and efficient for litigants, as well as easier for the judges and jurors to follow.
On October 16, 2018, the Appellate Division, First Department lifted several injunctions granted by the Commercial Division that had restrained a proposed merger deal between Xerox and Fujifilm (“Fuji”), and dismissed the Xerox shareholders’ actions against Fuji.
Commercial Division Holds That Fiduciary Duties Limit LLC Majority Members’ Ability to Adopt Amendments Aimed at Freezing Out Minority Members
Many LLC operating agreements expressly require the consent of all members to adopt or amend the operating agreement. However, some LLC operating agreements do not contain such provision, and instead simply require the consent of members holding a majority of the member interests. But such agreements do not simply allow majority members to make any amendments that they may see fit, as shown by the Commercial Division’s recent decision in Yu v. Guard Hill Estates, LLC. There, Justice Scarpulla explained that even amendments expressly authorized by an operating agreement can still give rise to breach of fiduciary duty claims if they are adopted for an illegitimate purpose.
So ruled Justice Andrea Masley of the Commercial Division in a recent summary judgment motion in the case Frenk v. Solomon, Index No. 650298/2013, holding that a standardized form release signed by the plaintiff’s mother in 1973 to settle a case primarily involving one piece of artwork barred the plaintiff’s present suit to recover other pieces of art that were believed lost at the time of the 1973 settlement.
Commercial Division Holds That Venue Is Proper Even Though Plaintiff Is Wrong About Defendants' Residence
In 2017, the New York legislature amended CPLR 503(a) to provide for venue in “[(1)] the county in which one of the parties resided when it was commenced; [(2)] the county in which a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred; or, [(3)] if none of the parties then resided in the state, in any county designated by the plaintiff.” Before the amendment, CPLR 503(a) did not provide for venue based on where the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred.
First Department Rules that Arbitrators Did Not Manifestly Disregard the Law and Confirms Arbitration Award
On September 27, 2018, in a widely followed arbitration case, a unanimous panel of the Appellate Division, First Department concluded that the New York County, Commercial Division (Ramos, J.) erred when it partially vacated an arbitration award on the ground that the arbitrators’ disregarded the law. As a result, the Appellate Division confirmed the arbitration award. 
On September 17, 2018, new statewide appellate practice rules took effect in an effort to harmonize the procedures governing appeals to New York’s four Appellate Divisions. Prior to the adoption of these new rules, the procedural aspects of appeals were governed by individual rules unique to each Appellate Division, which resulted in some significant differences in practice between these appeals courts.
First Department Shifts Burden to Attorney Resisting A Deposition But Requires that Information Be Otherwise Unavailable
In an opinion in Liberty Petroleum Realty, LLC v. Gulf Oil, L.P., dated August 2, 2018, the Appellate Division, First Department reversed the Supreme Court’s protective order prohibiting the deposition of an attorney in a commercial case.[i]
New Commercial Division Rule Encourages Pre-Trial Evidentiary Hearings or Immediate Trial on Dispositive Issues
On July 25, 2018, Chief Administrative Judge of the Courts, Lawrence K. Marks, issued an administrative order promulgating Rule 9-a of the Commercial Division Rules. See 22 N.Y.C.R.R. 202.70. The Rule, entitled “Immediate Trial or Pre-Trial Evidentiary Hearing,” encourages parties to move for a pre-trial evidentiary hearing or immediate trial on factual issues that could resolve a material part of the case.
Commercial Division Finds Foreign Corporations Lack Sufficient Contacts with New York for Personal Jurisdiction
On July 5, 2018, Justice Saliann Scarpulla of the Commercial Division granted a motion to dismiss by All Nippon Airways, Co. Ltd., ANA Aircraft Technics, Co., Ltd., ANA Base Maintenance Technics, Co., Ltd., ANA Holdings, Inc., and All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd. (collectively “ANA”) in Kyowa Seni, Co. v. ANA Aircraft Technics Co.[i], ruling that the Court lacked both general and specific jurisdiction over ANA.
On July 19, 2018, Chief Administrative Judge of the Courts, Lawrence K. Marks, issued an administrative order promulgating a new subdivision of Rule 11-e of the Commercial Division Rules. Rule 11-e governs Responses and Objections to Document Requests, and the newly added subdivision specifically addresses the use of technology-assisted review in the discovery process.
Since high net worth individuals often operate and own assets through LLCs and other business entities, including foreign corporate entities, a plaintiff must satisfy the requirements of a veil-piercing claim in order to attach assets owned by such entities. Failing to do so could frustrate a plaintiff’s ability to satisfy a judgment, as illustrated by Commercial Division Justice Barry Ostrager’s recent decision in Pacific Alliance Asia Opportunity Fund L.P. v. Kwok Ho Wan.
On July 2, 2018, Justice Barry R. Ostrager of the Commercial Division denied a motion to dismiss by UMG Recordings, Inc. (“Universal”), an alter ego theory of liability against it in Aspire Music Group, LLC v. Cash Money Records, Inc., concluding that Aspire sufficiently alleged that Universal was the equitable owner of Cash Money to survive the pre-answer motion to dismiss.
Commercial Division Finds Jurisdiction over Foreign Defendant on an Alter Ego Theory in Estate’s Action to Recover Painting Plundered in Nazi-Occupied France
In a decision issued last month in Gowen v. Helly Nahmad Gallery, Inc., No. 650646/2014, 2018 NY Slip Op 28142, 2018 BL 164601, Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten found personal jurisdiction over foreign defendants in an action brought by the estate of a Jewish art dealer to recover a valuable painting plundered by the Nazis in occupied Paris. Justice Bransten further held that New York’s substantive law applies to the dispute over the painting’s ownership, proclaiming that “New York markets are not now, and shall not become, a safe harbor for the fruits of property pillaged during the course of the Nazi genocide.” Beyond its compelling subject matter, the opinion provides useful guidance for plaintiffs considering pleading jurisdiction over non-domiciliary defendants on an alter ego theory.
Patterson Belknap Hosts Conversation about Litigation Practice in New York Courts with Court of Appeals Judge Michael Garcia and New York Practice author Professor Patrick M. Connors
On Wednesday, June 20, 2018, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP welcomed Associate Judge Michael Garcia of the New York Court of Appeals, and Professor Patrick M. Connors, author of the New York Practice treatise, for a continuing legal education program on litigation practice in New York courts. Patterson Belknap partners Stephen P. Younger and Muhammad U. Faridi, authors of the New York Commercial Division Practice Guide, also participated with Mr. Younger moderating a discussion of New York practice issues and Mr. Faridi serving as a panelist.
In Rebecca Broadway LP v. Thibodeau, Justice Andrea Masley of the Commercial Division denied plaintiff Rebecca Broadway Limited Partnership’s (“RBLP”) motion to set aside a damages verdict after it prevailed at trial against Defendant Marc Thibodeau (“Thibodeau”) on claims for breach of contract and tortious interference with business relationships. The case raised issues of whether a jury’s damages verdict is supported by a rational interpretation of the trial evidence and the circumstances under which a retrial solely on the issue of damages is appropriate.
Commercial Division Allows Stockholder Challenge to Merger to Proceed Due to Allegations that the Special Committee Had a Conflict of Interest
On May 9, 2018, Judge Barry R. Ostrager of the Commercial Division denied a motion to dismiss a shareholder complaint in the Matter of Handy & Harman Ltd. Stockholder Litig., No. 654747/2017, 2018 BL 172083 (Sup. Ct. May 9, 2018), concluding that a plaintiff shareholder had sufficiently alleged that the Board’s Special Committee was conflicted when it recommended a merger transaction.[i]
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.
On April 27, 2018, Justice Barry Ostrager of the Commercial Division enjoined a no-cash transaction that would have granted Fujifilm (“Fuji”) a 50.1% controlling interest in Xerox. Just days after the Court’s decision an agreement was reached whereby the CEO of Xerox, Jeff Jacobson, and six other current Xerox board members would step down from their positions, ceding control of the company to representatives of investors Carl Icahn and Darwin Deason. Shortly thereafter, Xerox reversed course, indicating publically that Jacobson would stay on as CEO. However, ultimately Xerox entered into a settlement agreement with Icahn and Deason resulting in the resignation of Jacobson and the scuttling of the Fuji Deal.
The Commercial Division Reaffirms that Permissive Forum Selection Clauses Do Not Preclude Litigating in a Different Court
Attorneys drafting forum selection clauses were reminded of the distinction between permissive and mandatory forum language in Justice Andrea Masley’s recent decision, Duncan-Watt et al. v. Rockefeller et al., No. 655538/2016, 2018 BL 138448 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty. Apr. 13, 2018). In Duncan-Watt, the Commercial Division ruled on Defendants’ motion to dismiss by holding that the dispute resolution clause in the parties’ licensing agreement failed to select Australian courts as the exclusive forum in which to litigate any disputes. As a result, the Court concluded that the contractual language at issue only reflected the parties’ consent to jurisdiction in Australia—not that the dispute had to be litigated there.
Court of Appeals Rules: What the “Value of His Interest in the Partnership” Means under New York Partnership Law
The New York Court of Appeals, in Congel v. Malfitano, recently ruled that the “Poughkeepsie Galleria Company” (the “Partnership”) was not an at-will partnership and that therefore Defendant Marc Malfitano’s (the “Defendant”) unilateral dissolution of the partnership breached the partnership agreement. In addition, under Section 69 of the New York Partnership Law, the Court sustained the Appellate Division’s valuation of the Defendant’s partnership interest, including application of a minority discount. The Court modified the order on appeal, holding that the Second Department erred in awarding legal fees in contravention of the American Rule on attorneys’ fee awards.
Commercial Division Holds That Agreement That Specifies Dilution as Remedy for Failure to Make Capital Call Prohibits Plaintiff from Seeking Monetary Damages
Operating agreements often specify dilution as the remedy for a failure to make a capital contribution. But what if your business partner fails to make a contribution and you’d rather have the capital than an increased ownership share? If the agreement only provides for dilution as a remedy, can you still sue for monetary damages? In Oneiric Holdings LLC v. Leonelli, Justice Marcy Friedman held that under Delaware law, the answer to this question is an unambiguous “no.”
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.
In Royal Wine Corp. v. Cognac Ferrand SAS, Justice Andrea Masley of the Commercial Division denied Plaintiff Royal Wine Corporation’s (“Royal”) motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin arbitration that defendant Cognac Ferrand SAS (“Cognac”) initiated against Royal’s alleged alter ego, Mystique Brands, LLC (“Mystique”).[i] The case raised the issue of whether a non-party to an arbitration agreement has standing to assert defenses on behalf of an alleged alter ego while nevertheless denying the alter ego relationship.
On February 8, 2018, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich of the Commercial Division rejected a disclosure-only class action settlement in City Trading Fund v. Nye, 2018 BL 44689 (Sup. Ct. Feb. 08, 2018). The settlement provided for additional disclosures to shareholders in a proxy statement plus $500,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses for plaintiffs’ counsel. As discussed below, the Commercial Division’s rejection of this disclosure-only settlement is one of the first applications of the First Department’s new standard for reviewing such settlements of merger challenge litigations.
Advisory Council Proposes a Series of Commercial Division Rule Changes Aimed at Enhancing the Efficiency of Commercial Litigation
In a wave of rulemaking activity over the past week, the Office of Court Administration opened public comment on three significant changes to the Commercial Division Rules proposed by the Commercial Division Advisory Council. The proposed rule changes would affect three major phases of commercial litigation: document discovery, evidentiary hearings, and motion practice. Each proposed rule change aims at enhancing the efficiency with which parties litigate in the Commercial Division.
On January 31, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed, in a 3-1 decision, the Kings County Supreme Court Commercial Division’s decision, denying 159 MP Corp. and 240 Bedford Ave Realty Holding Corp.’s (collectively the “Tenants”) motion for a Yellowstone injunction. The case raised an issue of first impression for New York appellate courts: whether a written lease provision that expressly waives a commercial tenant’s right to declarative relief is enforceable at law and as a matter of public policy. The Second Department ruled in the affirmative for both.
Please be sure to check out Muhammad U. Faridi and Benjamin F. Jackson’s post on the Commercial Division as an alternative to private arbitration over at Harneys’ Offshore Litigation Blog: http://harneysoffshorelitigation.com/10-minutes-with-pbwt/. We’ll be covering this topic as part of our upcoming March 26, 2018 CLE program on Cost-Effective Commercial Litigation in New York’s Commercial Division, which will be presented as a webinar on Bloomberg Next.
In WL Ross & Co. v. Storper, a recent Commercial Division decision involving the private equity firm founded by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Justice Andrea Masley suggested that New York courts can disregard choice-of-law provisions if the law of the state specified by the choice-of-law provision is “substantively similar” to that of New York on the topic at issue. Attorneys who routinely draft agreements that contain choice-of-law provisions would do well to take note of this decision, as it may imply that more careful attention should be paid to such provisions when New York law is best avoided for strategic reasons.
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