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.
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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. It is edited and managed by Stephen P. Younger and Muhammad U. Faridi.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten recently concluded that plaintiff bondholders lacked standing to bring fraud claims against the bond obligor and trustee after having sold their interests in the bonds. One William St. Capital Mgmt. L.P. v. U.S. Educ. Loan Tr. IV, LLC, No. 652274/2012, 2017 BL 1700030 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. May 16, 2017), involved a group of investment firms that purchased $10 million in notes backed by government-guaranteed student loans from the U.S. Education Loan Trust IV (“ELT”). The notes were part of a larger $30 million package.
Commercial Division Rejects Third-Party Claim as Derivative in Trusts’ Suit Concerning Upper West Side Beaux-Arts Building
Asserting a claim on behalf of a trust in the Commercial Division can be risky, as the party asserting the claim must establish that the claimed injury is independent of any injury to the trust, and that they are therefore not simply bringing a derivative claim. Recently, in 1993 Trust of Joan Cohen v. Baum, No. 150058/2015, 2017 NY Slip Op 30894(U), 2017 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1667 (May 2). Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich dismissed as derivative a third-party claim brought by a former trustee of two trusts against an individual who allegedly provided deficient tax advice to the trusts. The court ruled that the former trustee was owed no duty by the third-party defendant individually and could no longer prosecute claims that belonged to the trusts. Justice Kornreich also rejected the former trustee’s contribution claim against the tax adviser and another entity, explaining that those entities’ alleged wrongdoing was unrelated to the former trustee’s alleged wrongdoing, and thus did not make them subject to liability to the plaintiff for damages for the same injury.
In two recent decisions, Justices Charles E. Ramos and Saliann Scarpulla of the New York Commercial Division ruled that term sheets were not binding agreements. Keitel v. E*Trade Fin. Corp., No. 652220/2015, 2017 BL 131532 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 17, 2017); JTS Trading Ltd. v. Trinity White City Ventures Ltd., No. 651936/2015, 2017 BL 131820 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 17, 2017). These cases serve as reminders to contracting parties to use unequivocal terms to reflect the creation of binding obligations when memorializing their agreements.
Claims Dismissed Against Successor Transfer Agent Where There Was No Showing Of A Duty Owed To The Investors
In Magna Equities II, LLC et al., v. Writ Media Group Inc., et al., No. 653808/2016, 2017 BL 115243 (N.Y. Sup. Ct March 30, 2017), Justice Peter Sherwood dismissed for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim all claims brought by a group of investors against defendant Pacific Stock Transfer (“PST”). The case serves as a reminder that plaintiffs must plead sufficient allegations in order to persuade the Commercial Division to exercise its jurisdiction over a non-domiciliary, non-signatory of the agreement at issue.
Commercial Division Compels Arbitration of a Contract Claim Based on an Arbitration Clause in a Related Agreement
In Fidilio v. Hoosick Falls Productions, Inc., No. 654066/2016, 2017 BL 107640 (Sup. Ct. Mar. 22, 2017), Justice Eileen Bransten of the New York County Commercial Division granted a motion to compel arbitration of a dispute relating to a short-lived reality TV show, Scrappers. Justice Bransten ruled that the arbitration clause in one agreement between Frank Fidilio, the show's creator, and Hoosick Falls Production, Inc. ("Hoosick"), the production company, required arbitration of Fidilio's claims against Hoosick brought under another agreement which was executed at the same time, by the same parties, governing the same subject matter. Fidilio's remaining claims for breach of contract as a third-party beneficiary, unjust enrichment, and an accounting against Viacom International Inc. and the show's distributor, New 38th Floor Productions, Inc. ("New 38th"), were dismissed for failure to state a claim. Fidilio provides important lessons for parties considering mandatory arbitration clauses in connection with transactions involving multiple agreements, as well as for litigants considering whether claims may be subject to mandatory arbitration under provisions of related agreements.
Fraud and Fraudulent Conveyance Claims for $686 Million Allowed To Proceed Against Hedge Fund in Long-Running Dispute over Failed Securitization
On March 13, 2017, Justice Marcy Friedman of the New York Commercial Division denied a motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss claims of fraud, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fraudulent conveyance brought against a hedge fund, Highland Capital Management, and related entities. The case, UBS Securities LLC v. Highland Capital Management, No. 6500097/09, 2017 BL 98450 (Sup. Ct. Mar. 13, 2017), is a long running dispute arising from a failed securitization of collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) and credit default swaps (CDS) that dates to the early days of the Great Recession. The denial of summary judgment means that the next step in this eight-year long saga will be a jury trial where $686 million in damages will be at stake.
Commercial Division Rejects Collateral Promise Argument as a Basis for a Fraudulent Inducement Claim
In a recent decision, Justice Anil Singh of the Commercial Division dismissed a counterclaim asserted by Visa against Wal-Mart for fraudulent inducement. According to Justice Singh, Visa’s allegations failed to satisfy the collateral promise rule as its fraud claim did not concern misrepresentations of present material fact that were collateral to the contract. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Visa U.S.A. Inc., No. 652530/2016, 2017 BL 65006 (Sup. Ct. Feb. 27, 2017).
First Department Adds Two New Factors to New York’s Standard of Review for Non-Monetary Settlements of Shareholder Class Actions
On February 2, 2017, the Appellate Division, First Department issued a unanimous decision in Gordon v. Verizon Communications, Inc., No. 653084/13, 2017 BL 31251 (1st Dep’t Feb. 2, 2017) that may have significant consequences for non-monetary settlements of shareholder class actions in New York. Justice Melvin L. Schweitzer, then of the Commercial Division, rejected the putative settlement due to concerns about whether shareholders could benefit from the additional disclosures that were to be made. In an opinion by Justice Marcy L. Kahn, the First Department reversed and approved the proposed settlement. Justice Kahn applied the five-factor test that the First Department adopted in Matter of Colt Indus. Shareholders Litig. (Woodrow v. Colt Indus, Inc.), 155 AD2d 154, 160 (1st Dep’t 1990), and added two new factors to that test. However, the Court’s failure to clearly define which parties these two new factors are meant to protect—i.e., the shareholders or the corporation—may lead to confusion as future courts and parties seek to apply this revised standard.
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.
First Department Confirms Hedge Funds Did Not Act in Bad Faith and Affirms Multi-Million Dollar Judgment Against CDS Counterpart
In Good Hill Master Fund L.P. v. Deutsche Bank AG, No. 600858/10-2188B, 2017 BL 19363 (App. Div. 1st Dep’t Jan. 24, 2017), the First Department unanimously affirmed a judgment entered in the Commercial Division of over $90 million, a large portion of which included prejudgment interest at 21%. The judgment followed a nonjury trial before Justice O. Peter Sherwood of the New York County Commercial Division. The case was brought by two hedge funds against Deutsche Bank in connection with Credit Default Swap (“CDS”) agreements. The First Department rejected the bank’s arguments that the hedge funds acted in bad faith by renegotiating the terms of the underlying securitized notes to the detriment of their CDS counterparty, Deutsche Bank.
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.
In the past, a foreign bank’s use of correspondent bank accounts in the United States to facilitate wire transfers has not necessarily given New York courts a sufficient basis for jurisdiction over the bank. But a recent 4-3 Court of Appeals decision may change that. In Rushaid, et al. v. Pictet & Cie, et al., No. 180, 2016 BL 387923 (N.Y. Nov. 22, 2016), Judge Rivera writing for the four person majority (and overturning decisions of both the First Department and the Commercial Division) ruled that a foreign bank’s “repeated, deliberate” use of correspondent bank accounts in the United States is enough to establish New York jurisdiction.
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.
A short new video, entitled A Forum for Business Disputes: The Commercial Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, has recently been released. The film was produced by the Court System’s Commercial Division Advisory Council.
When employees resign, the scope of the trade secret doctrine often defines the relationship between former employers and their employees. Trade secret misappropriation claims frequently overlap with other claims arising out of the employment relationship, such as for breach of contract, unfair competition and breach of confidentiality obligations, and also with other doctrines that protect intangible information, such as trademark and copyright law. In S.A.S.C.O. Trading, Inc. v. Pamnani, Case No. 655441/2016, 2016 BL 375946 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Nov. 1, 2016), Justice O. Peter Sherwood of the Commercial Division analyzed whether a clothing company’s customer lists, manufacturer and supplier lists, and clothing designs were subject to trade secret protection and in the case of the clothing designs, also copyright or trademark protection.
In GSMC II 2006-GC6 Bridgewater Hills Corporate Center, LLC v. Lexington Realty Trust, Case No. 653117/2015, 2016 BL 378261 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Nov. 2, 2016), Justice Jeffrey K. Oing of the Commercial Division denied a motion to dismiss an action to recover a loan guaranty on a defaulted loan of $14,805,000.
Commercial Division Refuses to Disturb Judgment Based On “Newly Discovered” Evidence That Was Available in Russian Public Records Prior to Trial
What is the ability of a litigant in the Commercial Division to use evidence located in the public records outside of the United States to re-open a New York court judgment?
Justice Jeffrey K. Oing in the Commercial Division handed down a decision recently that discusses frustration of the occurrence of a condition precedent by parties to commercial contracts. Nesconset ZJ 1 v. Nesconset Acquisition, LLC, No. 652719/2015, 2016 BL 339908 (Sup. Ct. Oct. 4. 2016). The dispute in Nesconset involved agreements between buyers and sellers of nursing homes and related health care facilities. The main issue in the case was whether the buyers could seek specific performance of the sales contract when the sellers’ conduct allegedly frustrated the satisfaction of condition precedents to the contract. Justice Oing held that a seller who frustrates the buyer’s ability to satisfy a condition precedent will be unable to rely on the failure to satisfy that condition as justification to avoid the contract and will be subject to a claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
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.
On October 11, 2016, in Matter of Skoler, 2016 BL 348290 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cnty.), Justice Lawrence K. Marks of the Commercial Division issued a decision regarding the strictures of judicial dissolution pursuant to Section 1104(a) of the New York Business Corporation Law (“BCL”). Petitioners sought judicial dissolution of County Group Inc. (“County Group”), a small, closely held New York domestic corporation. Petitioners hold 50% of the issued stock in County Group, and the “Responding Shareholders,” who opposed judicial dissolution, hold the remaining 50%. The Responding Shareholders cross-moved to dismiss the petition.
On September 23, 2016, in Pershing LLC v. Rochdale Securities, LLC, No. 651604, 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3448 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cnty.), Justice Saliann Scarpulla of the Commercial Division issued a decision that reinforces the very significant burden a petitioner faces in order to successfully vacate an arbitration award under CPLR Article 75 and section 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.
Although defenses based on antitrust law are usually disfavored in breach of contract actions, they are permitted when an agreement on its face would require actions violating antitrust law. On September 20, 2016, in Time Warner Cable Enters. LLC v. Universal Communications Network, Inc., 652407/2015, 2016 BL 316191 before Justice Oing the Commercial Division found that cable distribution agreements requiring a company to pay to have its channel carried in additional markets are not invalid on their face.
Fraud Pleading Standard: Specificity Not Required to Plead Scienter of Corporate Defendants in Alleged Corporate Fraud Conspiracy
What facts must a fraud plaintiff plead, pursuant to the heightened pleading standard under CPLR § 3016(b), to cognizably allege scienter among corporate entity defendants in the context of an alleged multi-corporation fraud conspiracy?
In Casey Capital, LLC v. Levy, the Commercial Division provides a cautionary tale for derivative shareholder plaintiffs alleging demand futility
Activist investors are an increasing presence on the stock ledgers and in the boardrooms of public companies. Since 2010, one in seven companies on the S&P 500 has faced an activist shareholder challenge. But activists can encounter pitfalls when they seek to challenge incumbents through derivative litigation, as illustrated by the recent Commercial Division decision in Casey Capital, LLC v. Levy, C.A. No. 652805/15, 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 3107 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Aug. 19, 2016) (Scarpulla, J.).