Articles Posted in Dissolution

  • Courts determine whether an individual has an equity interest in a law firm partnership by examining the financial investment and risk taken by the claimed owner, such as payment of capital and guarantees of obligations.

  • The rise of the non-equity partner in law firms management has changed the status associated with the title partner.  Nearly half of all law firm partners are now classified as non-equity or limited equity.

  • The way in which the firm reports the income of a partner to the IRS in its tax filings are evidence of an equity interest in many cases, but describing an individual as an equity owner may not be conclusive.


The last refuge of the general partnership may be the law firm.  However, the term “partner” in a law firm can have a number of different meanings and it often does not identify only the traditional equity owner of the enterprise.  In many circumstances, “partner” is a title that indicates a senior attorney, usually at the top of the firm’s professional structure.  It does not, however, provide a particularly reliable indication of either management responsibilities or a financial interest in the firm.partnership-526413_1280-1024x562

Not all partners are created equally.  In fact, the rise of non-equity partner, those that do not share in the profits or capital of the law firm, is rising rapidly.  Only 56 percent of the partners in law firms in 2018 were equity partners.  (Above the Law, 3 Reasons to Embrace the Rise of Non-Equity Partners).  That trend is a 250 percent increase over the past two decades. In 1999 the figure was 17.1 %.(Altman Weil, Inc. What Should Law Firms Do about Non-Equity Partnership).

Not surprisingly, the existence of an equity interest, or not, is not an uncommon area for dispute.  In this post we consider here involving the effect of tax documents on the claim of an attorney that he held an equity interest in a well-known personal injury firm.  Treatment for income tax purposes is invariably a key component of holding equity.  Is it dispositive?  In this case, no. Continue reading

  • Buy-sell agreements, like a shotgun sale triggered by a deadlock, are the principal means by which the owners of closely held businesses protect against the worst consequences of deadlock.

  • Commonly used shotgun provisions allow one party to set the price and allow the other party to decided whether to buy or sell at the offered price.  Closely related to the shotgun is an auction that allows offerors a chance to sweeten their offers to buy.

  • The compelled sale of an equity interest triggered by a buy-sell agreement will be subject to the fiduciary duty of loyalty and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

  • Courts may apply shotgun or auction techniques when compelling the sale of a business as a going concern.


A well-drafted agreement between the owners of a business will address the issue of what to do in the event they become deadlocked.  This is true of effective shareholder agreements or corporate by-laws, limited liability company operating agreements or partnership agreements.

Agreements that are intended to prevent or resolve a deadlock in most circumstances will contain language that in some circumstances will require the exit of one person from the business.  This exit, in turn, requires payment of the value of the equity interest of the departing owner.

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In this post, the last in a series on deadlock in the closely held business, we look at buy-sell agreements as a means of breaking deadlocks without litigation and, in particular, a form of buy-sell often referred to as a shotgun.  A buy-sell often avoids or greatly simplifies litigation between the deadlock owners of a business, sure.  It also has the effect of avoiding deadlock in the first instance.


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


Shotgun provisions are a form of weapons control, like the mutually assured destruction that has – thankfully so far, at least – kept the world powers from global conflagration.  Owners of a closely held business have an emotional as well as a financial investment in a business and triggering a process in which they may be forced to sell will be seen as a very unwelcome choice.  In many cases, shotgun language in governing documents triggers compromise among the owners of a closely held business.

Buy-Sell Agreements Triggered by Deadlock

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  • Owners of a closely held business, be it a corporation, limited liability company or partnership, may enter into contracts that are triggered when the principals have become deadlocked.

  • Anti-deadlock provisions may provide for the appointment of an independent director,  for alternative dispute resolution, or for the compelled sale of an equity interest.

  • The owner of a business that invokes the terms of an anti-deadlock provision, particularly when the sale of interest is involved, is likely to be subject to duties of loyalty and care.


After a closely held business becomes deadlocked, it is extremely difficult to push the parties toward some mechanism that might either break the deadlock or preserve the current management system, or event let the parties separate themselves on mutually agreeable terms.


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


Human nature stands in the way.  The parties likely have financial and emotional positions that they are unwilling to compromise.  These may range from the ability to control some aspect of the operations of the business to the payment of dividends or bonuses.

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Lawyers and their clients try to address the potential for future deadlock with these contractual provisions that are known by a number of descriptions, such as buy-sell agreements, shotgun

provisions, put-call terms.  In the world of closely held limited liability companies, corporations and partnerships, a buy-sell agreement that is triggered by a deadlock is the pre-nuptial agreement of business divorce.

In this and the following post, we examine these contractual provisions that are used to break deadlocks.  We consider first the scope of anti-deadlock provisions, when they may be invoked and whether they are subject to judicial controls.  In a following post, we will look at buy-sell agreements in more detail and, in particular, shotgun language that is intended to keep a forced sale on terms acceptable to both parties. Continue reading

  • 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, including 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.  Either one or more of the owners exits the business as part of a sale, or the business itself will be sold.  While much of the business divorce litigation in the courts today is in the form of an action for involuntary dissolution of the business, it is the rare case in which the business actually dissolves by settling its debts and selling its assets.  There are far better 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.

  • New York’s BCL requires at least 50 percent of shares to petition for dissolution based on deadlock, unless there has been a failure to elect directors.

  •  The fact that a shareholders agreement required the election of two deadlocked directors was not a basis to waive the statutory requirement.

  • Parties avoid claims of wrongdoing and oppressed shareholder action that could trigger mandatory sale of minority interest.


Oppressed Shareholder lawsuit attorney

Judicial Dissolution Petition Requires 50 Percent Shareholder

A minority shareholder in New York will have a difficult time pursuing a claim for dissolution because of a deadlocked board of directors or a deadlock among the shareholders.  New York law permits a cause of action for judicial dissolution based on deadlock, but only by shareholders with holdings of 50 percent or greater, unless the shareholders are unable to elect directors.

The statute can be harsh in its application, as demonstrated by a trial judge’s decision to dismiss a petition for dissolution under BCL § 1104, the provision of the New York Business Corporations Law that creates a statutory cause of action for judicial dissolution. (We discuss the issue of deadlock in more detail in our series on the topic, here and here.) Continue reading

  • Courts use their authority to appoint a custodian to take control of a closely held corporation as a remedy to deadlocked directors or shareholders.
  • A showing of serious or irreparable harm is required before a court will intervene in a deadlock among shareholders or directors; more than dissension is required.
  • A court may direct a custodian to dissolve and liquidate a corporation, or sell the entire business as a going concern, in the best interest of the shareholders and other constituencies like employees.

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Appointing a custodian or receiver of a closely held corporation is a recognized remedy when the owners are deadlocked.  Once appointed, the custodian or receiver may be given wide authority to break the deadlock, to manage, to sell or dissolve the corporation — including cases in which the remedy seems to go beyond what is provided in the statute.


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


A bitter business divorce between two former college sweethearts provided the background for the Delaware Supreme Court’s analysis of the circumstances in which it could provide a dissolution-like remedy and order the sale of a large successful business.

INTERVIEW

The decision of the Delaware Chancery Court, Shawe v. Elting, involved Transperfect Global, Inc., a corporation formed by Elizabeth Elting and Philip Shawe in 1992 while the pair lived together in a New York University dorm room.  The two became the co-CEOs, sole directors and equal owners of a company that provided a variety of translation services from locations around the globe, generating $80 million in profits in 2014. (Shaw later transferred 1 percent to his mother, but she remained firmly in his camp, which caused the deadlock to continue.) Continue reading

  • Deadlock is more than an inability to make a decision.  It is an inability to act under circumstances that present the real threat of harm to the business.
  • Deadlock is triggered by the shareholders’ inability to elect directors.
  • When there are no alternatives to prevent harm to the business, like a buy-sell agreement, a Court is likely to find that the shareholders or directors are deadlocked.

For the closely held corporation, deadlock may be the result of a dispute among the shareholders, or among the directors in circumstances that the shareholders cannot fix by electing new directors.  Whether a court is asked to find deadlock under an applicable corporations statute or as part of a common-law remedy, deadlock is rarely found in circumstances in which there is no threat of significant or irreparable harm.

In this article, we will consider some of the circumstance in which courts have been asked to declare that a deadlock exists among the directors and/or shareholders of a corporation – often in a closely held corporation they are one and the same – and to fashion a remedy.  Most often the principal remedy in theINTERVIEW case of a “true deadlock” is the dissolution of the corporation, which entails the liquidation of the entity.  Courts rarely impose such an extreme remedy on a viable business entity, so such remedies as the sale of a minority interest, sale of the entity as a going concern or other types of injunctive relief are far more common.


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


Corporations statues vary in the statutory remedy for deadlock or oppression.  The Model Business Corporations Act (MBCA), on which many state corporations codes are modeled, provides for the judicial dissolution of a corporation when the shareholders are unable to elect directors or when the directors are deadlocked in the management of corporate affairs; the shareholders cannot break the deadlock; and there is either the potential for irreparable harm to the corporation, or the “business and affairs of the corporation” cannot be conducted to the advantage of the shareholders.  MCBA § 14.30. The model act also provides a court with broad powers to appoint a custodian to manage and/or wind up the affairs of the corporation.  MCBA §§ 7.48; 14.32. Continue reading

  • Deadlock is the inability of the owners of a business to make critical decisions, a paralysis of the management of closely held corporation, limited liability company or partnership.
  • The inability to maintain normal operations is a characteristic of a deadlocked business.

  • Courts will intervene to prevent harm to a deadlocked coproation, LLC or partnership, typically when one of the owners petitions to dissolve the business.


INTERVIEWDeadlock occurs when the owners of a closely held business, be it a close corporation, partnership or limited liability company, are unable to reach a decision on some matter involving the business. Because deadlock is typically associated with businesses in which most or all of the owners participate directly in management, they are characterized by emotions, self-interest and not always rational.


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


In the simplest case, two 50/50 owners are unable to come to some decision that is critical to the business, for example whether to provide additional capital or give personal guarantees to a lender. Because the ownership is equally shared, the principals have to govern by consensus, or not at all.  This is true whether it is a corporation, limited liability company or partnership. Continue reading

The law that controls any business organizations is a creature of state law, and disputes among owners in a business divorce involve the application of the law where the business was formed. More often than not that means the law of the state in which the dispute is being heard, but not always. And significantly, at least for our present purposes, it does not mean that we will find the answer to a business divorce issue in the state in which the litigation is pending, even among the binding decisions of the state law where the enterprise was formed.

Here’s an example: a New York court is calleBusiness Divorce Attorneysd upon to determine whether a managing member of a limited liability company breached his or her duty in negotiating a sale of a substantial asset to a third party that the manager negligently believed was an objectively fair price. The plaintiff seeks to expel the manager or to force a dissolution and sale of the business as a going concern. Does the Court apply New Jersey law? If there is no New Jersey case on point – and there is no binding decision on all of the points in this scenario – does the Court apply New York law, and to which issues?

Even if this case is litigated in New Jersey, and there is no law on point, where does the trial court look to guidance. The nearly automatic response is Delaware, because the courts of Delaware have by far the most developed body of law applicable to corporate governance disputes. However, Delaware may be the wrong choice if the limited liability company statute needs interpretation. A well-reasoned decision from an Appellate Court in Illinois, for example, should be much more persuasive to a court construing New Jersey’s limited liability company statute because of the similarity between the two states’ laws.

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