Category: Corporations, Partnerships, and LLCs
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.
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.
First Department Holds Source Code to Be a Trade Secret and Defines Bounds of Judicial Proceedings Privilege
On November 12, 2019, in BEC Capital, LLC et al. v. Bistrovic et al., 177 A.D.3d 438 (1st Dep’t 2019), the Appellate Division, the First Department issued a decision reversing an order of the Commercial Division and holding that the Defendants’ source code is a trade secret, and therefore should have been ordered to be produced under an “attorneys and expert eyes only” form of review. The First Department also held that an email produced prior to the litigation was not subject to privilege from defamation and thus could support Defendants’ counter-claim for defamation.
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.
There has been a new development in the Xerox and Fujifilm (“Fuji”) litigation: Justice Ostrager of the New York Commercial Division declined to (i) certify the putative class, (ii) approve the proposed class settlement, and (iii) award the class attorney’s fees pursuant to a memorandum of understanding that was reached by defendant Xerox and putative class plaintiffs. The material terms of this agreement—changes to the Xerox Board of Directors—already took effect prior to the Justice Ostrager ruling.
Commercial Division Dismisses Shareholder Derivative Suit Because General News Reports and Articles Were Insufficient to Plead Demand Futility with Particularity
Before filing a shareholder derivative suit, the plaintiff must typically serve a pre-litigation demand upon the company’s Board of Directors, except in narrow circumstances where the demand may be futile. In Gammel v. Immelt, Justice Andrea Masley of the New York Commercial Division dismissed the shareholder derivative suit because the plaintiff did not meet the pre-litigation demand requirement and failed to plead with particularity the circumstances establishing the futility exception.
Last month, the First Department in Madison Sullivan Partners LLC v. PMG Sullivan St., LLC, 2019 N.Y. Slip Op. 04460 (June 6, 2019), affirmed the decision of former Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich that the Plaintiff in a LLC dispute failed to sufficiently allege a breach of fiduciary duty claim. The case concerned the parties’ relationship in a joint venture to develop Manhattan real estate as a mixed use project that was formed using several LLCs. In a detailed amended complaint, the Plaintiff alleged that Defendants collected monthly sums for work on a construction project for the venture, when Defendants were not actually working on the construction project but instead pursuing their own ventures.
In Matter of Capital Enterprises Co. v. Dworman, the Appellate Division, the First Department held that an arbitrator has broad discretion to order the dissolution of a New York general partnership, so long as the issue of dissolution was within the scope of the arbitration clause and the question of whether to dissolve the partnership was properly before the arbitrator. In so doing, the First Department affirmed an order issued by Commercial Division Justice Jennifer G. Schecter which confirmed an arbitration award that had ordered a dissolution of a partnership.
On Wednesday June 5, 2019, all eight of the New York County Commercial Division justices participated on a panel for the New York State Bar Association’s Commercial and Federal Litigation Section on “Motion Practice Before the Commercial Division.” Motion practice is one of the most frequently used aspects of practice in the Commercial Division. The format was an informal question and answer session on motion practice, moderated by the Section’s Past Chair, Robert Holtzman.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A unanimous panel of the Appellate Division, First Department recently affirmed a ruling by the Commercial Division dismissing causes of action against the ACE Group International LLC (“AGI”) brought by the estate of the deceased majority owner of AGI, Alexander Calderwood (the “Estate”). The decision in Estate of Alexander Calderwood v. ACE Group International LLC, No. 650150/15 (App. Div. 1st Dep’t Dec. 14, 2017), primarily rested on the principle of Delaware business law that parties are free to set the terms of a limited liability company’s operations through contract. As a result, the panel rejected the Estate’s arguments that provisions in Delaware’s Limited Liability Company Act (“LLC Act”) overrode contrary terms of AGI’s operating agreement (“LLC Agreement”), and affirmed the dismissal of the Estate’s claims.
In Advanced 23, LLC v. Chambers House Partners, LLC, No. 650025/2016, 2017 BL 462831 (NY. Sup. Ct. Dec. 15, 2017), Justice Saliann Scarpulla of the Commercial Division ruled that Advanced 23, LLC (“Advanced”) and David Shusterman’s (“Shusterman” and collectively, “Petitioners”) petition for judicial dissolution of Chambers House Partners, LLC (“CHP”) needed to be held in abeyance pending an evidentiary hearing on whether Shusterman had breached his duties under the Operating Agreement. Advanced 23 confirms that although a corporate deadlock is not an independent ground to dissolve an LLC, the court must still examine whether the managers’ disagreement breaches the managers’ obligations under the LLC operating agreement.
Second Department Affirms Commercial Division Decisions Leaving Withdrawing LLC Members Without Compensation for Their Membership Interests or Derivative Standing
In Matter of Jacobs v. Cartalemi, No. 2016-05041, 2017 BL 435890 (2d Dep’t Dec. 6, 2017) (“Jacobs I”), a unanimous Appellate Division, Second Department panel affirmed an order by Westchester County Commercial Division Justice Linda S. Jamieson denying compensation to a withdrawing LLC member. The court held that a provision of an LLC operating agreement governing the sale of membership interests superseded the default rule of New York Limited Liability Company (“LLC Law”) § 509, entitling a member to “the fair value of his or her membership interest” upon withdrawal from the LLC. Jacobs I was decided along with two related appeals in which the panel also dismissed various derivative claims brought by the former minority member of Westchester Industrial Complex, LLC against the company and its majority member, applying the continuous ownership rule to find that the minority member lost standing to bring derivative claims upon his withdrawal from the company. See Jacobs v. Cartalemi, No. 2016-07813, 2017 BL 436813 (2d Dep’t Dec. 6, 2017) (“Jacobs II”); Jacobs v. Westchester Indus. Complex, LLC, No. 2016-07817, 2017 BL 436677 (2d Dep’t Dec. 6, 2017) (“Jacobs III”).
What does the contractual term “voting power” mean? Does it refer only to the power to elect corporate directors, or does it refer to the power to vote on any fundamental matter of corporate governance? Is voting power an attribute of stock, or is it something that shareholders possess? Commercial Division Justice Marcy Friedman’s recent decision in Special Situations Fund III QP, LP. v. Overland Storage, Inc.,suggests that the contractual term “voting power” could conceivably bear any of these meanings, depending on context and the parties’ intent—which suggests that leaving this term undefined in a contract could be risky business. Any attorney who regularly drafts stock purchase agreements, voting agreements, or other contracts that use the term “voting power” would do well to take note of this recent Commercial Division decision.
When Can an Outside Attorney Serve as a Special Litigation Committee in an LLC Derivative Suit? When the Parties’ Contract Says So, Says First Department
In a decision handed down on August 15, 2017, by the New York Appellate Division First Department, the court endorsed the practice of the appointment of a Special Litigation Committee (SLC) by a limited liability company (LLC) “at least where explicitly contemplated” by the LLC’s operating agreement. However, where the operating agreement does not explicitly provide for such an appointment or otherwise evince intent to delegate core governance functions to a nonmember, the LLC cannot appoint an SLC that has authority over a major decision of the LLC.
The Second Department Suggests That “Any Lawful Business” Clauses May Be Effectively Meaningless in LLC Dissolution Cases
In actions brought by minority members to dissolve an LLC, a key inquiry is whether the LLC’s managers are unable or unwilling to permit or promote the LLC’s “stated purpose.” In many cases, an LLC’s operating agreement provides that the LLC’s “stated purpose” is “any lawful business.” As a result, one might think that the central question in many judicial dissolution cases would end up being whether the LLC is engaged in lawful business. Not necessarily. Recently, in Mace v. Tunick, the Second Department suggested that an “any lawful business” purposes clause is insufficient to conclusively refute an allegation that an LLC was formed for a particular purpose. Mace could therefore be read to eliminate some of the protections against litigation that would be provided for by an “any lawful business” clause.
Commercial Division Rules that U.S. Treasury Secretary’s Access to a Company’s Detailed Financial Information in His Role as a Board Member Is Insufficient to Establish Liability for Fraud
Members of a company’s board who are also investors in the company often have access to detailed information about the company’s finances and its lending facilities. But what happens when an investor-board member could, through access to the company’s financial information, potentially determine that funds from a lending facility are not being used for the purpose that the company and its agents had previously represented that they would be used for? Is the investor-board member potentially liable for fraud merely on the basis of his access to or awareness of financial information about the company? Justice Charles E. Ramos’s recent decision in RKA Film Fin., LLC v. Kavanaugh, No. 652592/2015, 2017 BL 222658, 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2459, 2017 NY Slip Op 50846(U) (Sup. Ct. June 27, 2017), suggests that the answer may be no. According to the Commercial Division, without personal involvement in the alleged fraud itself or a special duty to disclose to the plaintiff, an investor-board member is likely not liable for fraud to a plaintiff creditor.
In PMC Aviation 2012-1 LLC et al. v. Jet Midwest Group, LLC et al., No. 654047/2015, BL221447 (Sup. Ct. Jun. 21, 2017), Commercial Division Justice Shirley Kornreich denied a motion to dismiss a fraudulent inducement claim by an LLC member against its business partner. The court found that it could not find any “controlling, on-point authority” on the issue of reasonable reliance at issue in the case. The case relates to the scope of due-diligence obligations of LLC members when they rely upon the representations of business partners concerning the affairs of a jointly owned company.
Justice Timothy J. Dufficy in the Queens County Commercial Division recently entered an order dissolving a limited liability company owned by two brothers whose disagreements regarding the management of the LLC culminated in a physical altercation. Matter of Dissolution of 47th Road LLC, No. 705060/16, 2017 BL 49187 (Sup. Ct. Feb. 16, 2017). The court applied an exception to the general rule that disputes between members are insufficient to warrant judicial dissolution, and found that the antagonism between the brothers made it impracticable for the business to carry on.
First Department Affirms the Validity of an LLC Operating Agreement Adopted by Majority Members without Minority Consent: Takeaways for New York LLCs
In Shapiro v. Ettenson, No. 2849, 2017 BL 19404 (App. Div. 1st Dep’t Jan. 24, 2017), the Appellate Division, First Department recently affirmed a decision by Supreme Court Justice Kelly O’Neill Levy upholding an LLC operating agreement that was adopted by two of the LLC’s three co-equal members without the consent of the third member. The Appellate Division rejected Shapiro’s argument that the operating agreement was unenforceable because it was not adopted unanimously. The panel affirmed the lower court’s decision that LLC Law § 402(c) “provides that the operating agreement may be adopted by ‘the vote of a majority in interest of the members entitled to vote thereon.’” Because the First Department agreed that the operating agreement was enforceable, the court further affirmed the lower court’s ruling upholding the majority members’ reliance on a provision of the agreement to issue a capital call and reduce the voting interest of any member who fails to make the requested capital contribution.
On January 6, 2017, Justice Charles E. Ramos of the Commercial Division issued an order enjoining two corporations from taking action in violation of a shareholders agreement of a third company. The case, Ciment v. SpanTran, Inc., involves a contentious shareholder dispute in which it was alleged that the shareholders agreement of one company covered governance issues concerning two other companies. Justice Ramos ruled that the third company’s shareholders agreement contemplated the acquisition of additional entities, and was thus likely to apply to the other two corporations—which had subsequently come under the ownership of the same shareholders.
On January 10, 2016, the New York Court of Appeals decided to hear a case that has significant consequence in the field of partnership dissolution. The case, Congel v. Malfitano, concerns the allegedly wrongful dissolution of a shopping mall partnership under Partnership Law § 69. In 2016, Justice Thomas A. Dickerson, writing for a unanimous Second Department panel, held that a former partner’s unilateral notice of dissolution was wrongful because under Partnership Law § 69(2)(1)(b) the partnership was not “at-will” given that the written agreement contained a “definite term.” The Second Department also ruled that it is appropriate to apply minority and goodwill discounts in determining the value of a defendant’s interest in a partnership. Finally, the Second Department concluded that an award of attorney’s fees was proper because the expenditures are only incurred because of the former partner’s wrongful conduct.
On October 24, 2016, Justice Charles E. Ramos of the New York Commercial Division denied a motion by minority members of a limited liability company (“LLC”) to enjoin a freeze-out merger that would cash out the minority members’ interests. Huang v. N. Star Mgmt. LLC, 652357/2016, 2016 NY Slip Op 32194(U), at *4 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Oct. 24, 2016). The court rejected the minority members’ argument that the majority members had violated the LLC’s operating agreement by transferring their membership interests to another LLC to effect the merger.