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  • Most limited liability company and partnership statutes make no mention of ‘deadlock’ as grounds to order the involuntary dissolution of a business.

  • Deadlock arises when the members or partners are no longer able to pursue the basic agreements on which the business was organized, typically an operating agreement or partnership agreement.

  • The key determination in an action to force the dissolution of a limited liability company or partnership is whether it is ‘reasonably practicable’ for the business to continue.


Courts examine deadlock involving a limited liability company or partnership through the lens of the operating agreement or partnership agreement.  The fundamental question in these cases is whether the LLC or partnership can pursue its essential purpose.  In this article, we primarily examine the elements of deadlock applied to limited liability companies.  Deadlocked partnerships are a rarity, but the analysis should be similar if not identical.


A Series Examining Deadlock Among the Owners of Closely Held Corporations, Limited Liability Companies and Partnerships


A limited liability company or partnership is more prone to deadlock because unanimous agreement is required in most states to act on a number of issues.  The unanimity requirement is a core aspect of some of the central principles underlying unincorporated business associations (primarily partnerships and LLCs) – that the owners have unfettered discretion to pick their partners, that they cannot compelled to fundamentally change the business against their will and that they normally will participate in the day-to-day affairs of the business.Deadlock limited liability company | deadlock corporation | deadlock partnership

The Minority Veto Contributes to Deadlock

We see the “pick your partner” principle reflected in disputes over the admission of new members or partners, the unanimity requirement for amendments to an operating agreement, and in the rights of members to be free from interference in the management of the business by creditors.  It is also demonstrated in many states by the requirement that mergers and other transactions outside the ordinary course of business have the approval of all of the members. Continue reading

  • Deadlock in a limited liability company or partnership occurs when the members can no longer pursue the purpose of the business as agreed in an operating agreement or partnership agreement.

  • A ‘minority veto’ occurs when a minority member or partner uses the unanimity requirement to block the will of majority.

  • Actions outside the ordinary course of business are likely to require unanimous consent, including the admission of a new member or partner, amendment to the operating or partnership agreement, a merger or sale of substantially all of the business’ assets.


Deadlock among the members of a limited liability company, or among the partners in a general partnership, involves the inability of the company to make decisions that are material to the continued operation of the business.  It is not an infrequent occurrence.  The direct participation of the owners in the day-to-day affairs of the LLC or partnership and the requirement that — in most circumstances — the most important decisions require a unanimous vote make it important that an LLC or partnership is able to reach consensus on the most important decisions.


A Series Examining Deadlock Among the Owners of Closely Held Corporations, Limited Liability Companies and Partnerships


Because LLCs and partnerships are unincorporated business associations, they are typically quite different in structure than a traditional corporation.  And while deadlock among the members of a limited liability company or partnership involves many of the same principles that one finds in the closely held corporation, there are significant differences as well.

Deadlock limited liability company | deadlock corporation | deadlock partnership

In this article, we look at some of the differences between deadlock in corporations, which are generally governed by statute, and deadlock in unincorporated business associations (primarily partnerships and limited liability companies), which are governed primarily by principles of contract.  In many cases, the results are not very different, but there are some key distinctions.

In later posts, I will examine some of the circumstances in which the courts have been asked to resolve deadlock disputes through lawsuits seeking involuntary dissolution actions or the expulsion of a member or partner.

Deadlock Occurs When Contracts Fail

Unlike a corporation, which conceptually is a creature of statute, deadlock in a partnership or limited liability company usually does not involve any specific statutory provision that is intended to address the problem of deadlock.  In fact, neither the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLCA) nor the Revised Uniform Partnership Act (RUPA) specifically mention deadlock.  Rather, because the limited liability company and partnership are fundamentally creatures of contract, the focus is not on the statutory criteria but the nature and scope of the express and implied agreements that exist between the owners.

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  • A limited liability company operating agreement may be amended informally by oral agreement or by a course of conduct.

  • The party that claims amendment of an operating agreement by a course of conduct must establish the clear and mutual intent of the parties to agree to the amendment.

  • A clear and unambiguous provision in an operating agreement that governs how the limited liability company will be valued in the future is an enforceable contract.


attorney for medical practice valuationA retiring member of a limited liability company was unable to convince a trial judge that the parties had amended the operating agreement through their course of conduct to adopt a new valuation approach.

Certificate of Agreed Value Required by Operating Agreement is not Updated for 17 Years

The opinion in the Chancery Division dismissed on summary judgment the plaintiff’s claim that sought to order the majority owners of a medical practice organized as an LLC to use a fair market value determination of the value of the interest of a retiring member, rather than to rely on an outdated “Certificate of Agreed Value” prepared in March 2001.

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  • The business judgment rule insulates decisions made in good faith and in the best interests of the enterprise from being subject to judicial second guessing ordinary business decisions

  • Majority shareholders that failed to pay dividends to a non-employee minority shareholders in valid exercise of business judgment rule did not engage in wrongful conduct.

  • Common law dissolution under New York law is available only for a palpable breach of duty so egregious as to disqualify the majority from exercising rights over dissolution.

  • A minority shareholder subject to a counterclaim has a right to be indemnified against legal fees and an advance of funds for expenses.

  • A trial court may preclude individual defendants from using corporate funds to defend an oppressed minority shareholder lawsuit.


     

FeldmeierThe decision of controlling shareholders that a corporation will not pay dividends to a former employee and director is subject to the business judgment rule, in this case defeating the shareholder’s claim of oppressive conduct by the majority.

The Fourth Department of the Appellate Division of New York Supreme Court rejected the claim brought by a minority shareholder of a family-owned equipment business in Syracuse, applying the presumption that an action taken in good faith by a business in the best interests of the business should be free from second-guessing by the minority and the Court.   (Opinion in Feldmeier v. Feldmeier Equipment, Inc. here.) Continue reading

  • Any action that the managers of a Limited Liability Company might take at a meeting can also be taken by executing a written consent.

  • An action by written consent may, in some circumstances, avoid the need to assemble a quorum of the managers.

  • The managers of an LLC many be contractually obligated to effect management changes by an operating agreement, but those obligations are not self-executing.


Limited Liability Company LawyersA venture capital company and the independent manager of a limited liability company were permitted to correct a questionable vote and use a written consent to terminate one of the founders as manager of a group of holding companies.

The fired manager had challenged the vote as lacking a quorum, with only two of the four members present.  The managers simply acted by written consent, permitted under Delaware Law, and the court held that the action had the necessary “disinterested” votes under the LLC’s operating agreement to remove the manager.

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  • Business Divorce’ refers to disputes in which the owners of a closely held business, whether a corporation, limited liability company, partnership or limited partnership, must separate their business interests.

  • In many cases, such as oppressed minority shareholder cases or oppressed LLC member cases, there are allegations that those in control of the company have engaged in wrongful behavior.  In other cases, the deadlock of the owners on an important issue is the source of the dispute.

  • Courts that hear business divorce cases have the ability to intervene and impose short-term relief, such as an injunction or appointment of a custodian, and a permanent remedy, include the sale of the business, the compelled purchase of an owner’s interest or even the dissolution and liquidation of the enterprise.


achievement-agreement-body-language-1179804-1024x600No one gets married expecting to get divorced.  And no one forms a business expecting that it will fall apart.  Just as people get divorced, many businesses come to the point at which a business divorce is the best alternative because the partners cannot, or will not, continue to work together.  When that happens, the parties need to restructure, and often separate, their business interests.

Business Divorce Defined

We use the term business divorce to describe a series of different types of lawsuits that involve the owners of a closely held business. The defining character of the business divorce is that co-owners of a business must separate their business interests.  There are typically two alternatives. In this article, we focus on the closely held corporation.  Some of the principles are similar with other types of businesses, which we address in other articles, but the application of the principles are often quite different.

The law varies from state to state and much of this discussion is general.  To the extent that we discuss specific state laws that apply to business divorce, we focus on New York, New Jersey and Delaware law. Continue reading

  • New York does not recognize a cause of action for minority oppression of a member of a limited liability company.

  • Judicial dissolution is a remedy available to the minority LLC member when the majority is unwilling or unable to promote the purpose of the company or continuing the business has become financially not feasible.


Oppressed Minority LLC Member LawyerThe dismissal of a judicial dissolution claim brought by an LLC member seeking to dissolve the family business demonstrates the difficulty that an oppressed minority LLC member faces under New York law.

New York does not recognize a cause of action for minority oppression under its limited liability company statute, and so a trial judge in New York County made quick dismissal of a claim for involuntary judicial dissolution based on the allegations of a minority member that he was being treated unfairly.  The plaintiff’s attorneys missed the mark and failed to assert other significant claims suggested by the facts alleged in the complaint.

  • A trial court reasons that because a member-managed limited liability company is similar in management to a partnership, the court may reason from partnership law in fashioning a remedy for an expelled member.

  • The majority members of the LLC, who voted under the Operating Agreement,  to compel the withdrawal of the member are jointly and severally liable to pay the ousted member the fair value of his equity interest.

  • When no other provision of the limited liability company statute applies, in many states a court may turn to recognized “rules of law and equity” to fashion a remedy.


Limited Liability Company Disputes AttorneyA Delaware chancery judge drew a liberal comparison between a venture capital fund organized as a limited liability company and a limited partnership in holding that a member that had been forced out was entitled to fair value rather than the value of his capital account.  The result was that his buyout increased by some fivefold, but not for the reasons advanced by the departing member.

Compelled Withdrawal of Member Requires Payment of Fair Value

The case, Domain Associates, LLC v. Shah, is significant for two principal holdings.  First, it represents a relatively rare occurrence when a trial court falls back on the equitable catch-all provision that one finds in a number of limited liability company and partnership statutes.  Second, the trial judge considered the management structure – the LLC at issue was member-managed similar to a partnership – as good reason to follow a decision construing the equitable catch-all provision found in Delaware’s partnership statute. Continue reading

  • In valuing the shares of a minority shareholder, a trial court must consider any valuation technique that is generally acceptable in the financial communities.  Determining fair value is an art, not a science.

  • Directors that hold a majority interest in a closely held business have a duty to deal fairly with the minority and in a merger to make full and fair disclosures and offer a fair price in exchange for shares.

  • A minority shareholder that sits by or acquiesces to wrongful conduct by the majority waives the right to later pursue a claim based on that behavior.

  • Fee awards are available only to shareholders with a statutory right to dissent and in the discretion of the judge.


Casey v. Brennan, 344 N.J. Super. 83 (App. Div. 2001)

Minority Shareholder Valuation Attorney

Statues: NJSA 14A:11-1, NJSA 14A11-3; NJSA 14A:6-14: NJSA 14A:11-6; NJSA 14A:11-10

Action challenging the valuation provided by controlling directors (also majority shareholders) in corporate reorganization as plan to reduce number of shareholders to 75 or less to qualify for subchapter S status. Directors approved plan of merger at $73 a share in reorganization plan requiring small shareholders to sell. Trial Judge set value at $90 a share. (Opinion here.)  The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division.  (Opinion here.)

Facts: Community Bank adopted a plan of merger as part of a plan of reorganization that would reduce the number of shareholders by acquring holdings of persons with less than 15,000 sharesat a price of $73 per share. Statutory dissenters and non-statutory dissenters brought various actions consolidated for trial. Trial court holding that proxy statement was misleading and provided non-statutory dissenters with right to sue, and determined fair value $90 per share. Affirmed in part and remanded for reconsideration of valuation issues that were rejected by trial court. Continue reading

  • The Single Business Theory permits a court to treat related businesses as though they were one enterprise.

  • Courts apply the single business theory in rare cases to prevent injustice.


Pertuis v. Front Roe Rests., Inc., 2018 S.C. LEXIS 85 (2018)

Cases-of-Note-Corporations-300x166Statutes: S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-420; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-15-105; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-200 to -210; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-220; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-230; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 55-14-31

An action by minority shareholder and manager of three restaurants, two organized in North and one in South Carolina, seeking valuation and purchase of interests as oppressed shareholder, and alleging that each of three closely held “s corporations” are a single business entity located in South Carolina. On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court recognizes the amalgamation theory under which multiple enterprises may be treated as single entity, but reverses because plaintiff was not assigned the burden of proof and because a South Carolina court has no authority to consider the internal affairs of a foreign corporation.  (Opinion here.) Continue reading

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