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.
As we previously announced, on November 20, 2017, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP published its New York Commercial Division Practice Guide, a treatise that provides practical advice and tips to attorneys litigating in the Commercial Division. The treatise was published by Bloomberg Law’s Litigation Practice Portfolio Series and is available on Bloomberg. Since its publishing, the treatise has received high praise. A book review authored by Mark A. Berman in the New York Law Journal calls the book a “must” have guide for litigators who practice in the Commercial Division. A copy of the book review can be accessed here.
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 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”).
In 2017, the New York Commercial Division continued to implement new rules and refine existing rules in order to streamline litigation in the court. The year also saw some key decisions by the Commercial Division as well as appellate courts reviewing Commercial Division cases that developed an area of commercial law or applied existing law to a new or interesting set of facts. We covered all of these developments in this blog. We present here brief summaries of the most salient Commercial Division rule changes and cases from 2017 with links to our blog posts that provide more in-depth coverage.
The Westchester County Commercial Division has launched a new state-of-the-art courtroom at the White Plains Courthouse. The Integrated Courtroom Technology (ICT) part is outfitted with high-tech features designed to ease the handling of complex commercial cases and enhance the presentation of evidence.
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.
The decision to bring a lawsuit on behalf of a corporation is entrusted to the corporation’s board of directors. A shareholder may not maintain a derivative lawsuit on behalf of a corporation without first making a demand on the board to bring the suit or pleading that it would be futile to make such a demand. On October 18, 2017, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich of the New York Commercial Division dismissed a derivative lawsuit because the shareholder failed to allege that the defendant corporation’s board of directors acted in bad faith or with gross negligence when it rejected the shareholder’s demand. Reese v. Andreotti, No. 654132/2016, 2017 BL 391404, at *10 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Oct. 18, 2017).
The advent of large electronic productions has propelled a proposal to adopt new language in the standard confidentiality order used in the Commercial Division. This proposal is designed to protect parties against inadvertent disclosure of privileged information. On November 15, 2017, the Administrative Board of the Courts issued a request for public comment on a proposal to amend Commercial Division Rule 11-g to include sample “privilege claw-back” language. The proposal was spearheaded by a Subcommittee of the Commercial Division Advisory Council. Comments on this proposal must be received by January 16, 2018.
Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP announced on November 20, 2017, the publication of its New York Commercial Division Practice Guide. This new publication is part of Bloomberg Law's Litigation Practice Portfolio Series, and an excerpt is available to download at: http://on.bna.com/H1KM30gCY7v. The guide is organized into various chapters drafted by Patterson Belknap lawyers, containing useful information about litigating in the Commercial Division of the New York State Supreme Court.
The First and Second Departments Split on What is Considered "Documentary Evidence" on a Motion to Dismiss Under CPLR 3211(a)(1)
CPLR 3211(a)(1) allows a defendant to “move for judgment dismissing one or more causes of action asserted against him on the ground that . . . a defense is founded upon documentary evidence.”
As reported in this blog on July 24, 2017, the Administrative Board of the New York Unified Court System has been considering a proposal to pilot a “Large Complex Case List” in the New York County Commercial Division. On October 23, 2017, the Chief Administrative Judge of the Courts formally adopted the Large Complex Case List as a pilot program for the Commercial Division of the Supreme Court of New York County.
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.
On October 11, 2017, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks amended Rules 10 and 11 of Section 202.70(g) (“Rules of Practice for the Commercial Division”) with respect to Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”).
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.
On August 25, 2017, Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich of the New York Commercial Division entered an order reprimanding a high-profile lawyer, Mark Geragos, for misconduct during a deposition, including refusing to answer questions in violation of the court’s explicit instructions. Gottwald v. Sebert, No. 653118/2014, 2017 BL 303419 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Aug. 25, 2017).
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 Analyzes Choice-of-Law on an Element-by-Element Basis in Upholding Claim for Aiding and Abetting Breach of Fiduciary Duty
In Wantickets RDM, LLC v. Eventbrite, Inc., No. 654277/2016, 2017 BL 261099 (Sup. Ct. Jul. 21, 2017), New York Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich denied defendant Eventbrite’s motion to dismiss plaintiff Wantickets’ claims for aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty, among other claims. In doing so, she applied Delaware law to assess plaintiff’s allegations of an underlying breach of fiduciary duty and New York law to the remaining elements.
Commercial Division Declines to Use New York Debtor and Creditor Law to Enjoin a Defendant’s Asset Sale Without Evidence of Inadequate Consideration
In Del Forte USA, Inc. v. Blue Beverage Group, Inc. et al., No. 518454/2016, 2017 BL 253248 (Sup. Ct. Jul. 17, 2017), New York Commercial Division Justice Sylvia G. Ash denied plaintiff Del Forte’s preliminary injunction motion that sought, pursuant to N.Y. Debtor and Creditor Law (“DCL”) § 279, to enjoin defendant Blue Beverage from selling 60% of Blue Beverage’s shares to co-defendant Kuzari Group for $5 million unless $500,000 is placed in escrow and a receiver is appointed. As an alternative form of relief, Del Forte sought, pursuant to CPLR § 6201, to attach at least $500,000 from the asset sale to satisfy a judgment that might be rendered in Del Forte’s favor.
Unless the U.S. Supreme Court Rules Otherwise, Waivers of Collective Actions Are Not Enforceable in New York
On July 18, 2017, the First Department partially reversed the Commercial Division’s decision in Gold v. New York Life Insurance Company, No. 653923/12, 2017 BL 247192 (App. Div. 1st Dep’t July 18, 2017), a case that presented the issue of whether employees can be compelled to waive collective actions against their employers pursuant to an arbitration clause. In 2015, Justice O. Peter Sherwood of the New York Commercial Division had granted a motion to compel a former insurance agent to arbitrate his wage dispute with New York Life Insurance Co. (“N.Y. Life”). In a decision by Justice Karla Moskowitz (who was a member of the Commercial Division before being appointed to the Appellate Division), the First Department answered an open issue in New York, holding that employers cannot be required to arbitrate such disputes as it “would run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act.”
A specialized list for blockbuster commercial cases in New York’s Commercial Division is under consideration. If designated as a Large Complex Case on the “Large Complex Case List,” the case will be subject to enhanced case management procedures designed to efficiently handle the matter. The proposal is subject to public comment. The Administrative Board of the Courts has requested that comments be submitted by Tuesday, July 25, 2017. If the proposal is adopted, the Large Complex Case List will be piloted in New York County.
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.
Since its formation in 1995, the Commercial Division has seen an increase in the number and complexity of cases being filed. In response to this change, New York’s then Chief Judge created a Task Force on Commercial Litigation. In 2012, the Task Force issued a series of reform proposals aimed at better managing judicial resources, encouraging greater use of non-judicial personnel and alternative dispute resolution, and increasing engagement with the corporate and academic communities and the Bar. Thereafter, the Chief Judge formed a Commercial Division Advisory Council which has made various recommendations with respect to practice in the Commercial Division. From these recommendations, many new rules and amendments have been enacted.
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