Articles Posted in Fiduciary Duties

business litigation attorneysHere is the hard reality.  The chances that your case, or any case, will get to a real trial on the merits is way less than one in 10.  The truth is that only between two and five cases out of 100 will be resolved with a trial.

What does that mean for a party drawn into civil litigation?  The statistics point to a group of “best practices” that effective litigation counsel should employ.  It is a blend of efficient trial preparation, motion practice, management of discovery and, perhaps most of all, advanced negotiation skills.  We review some of those here as a starting point for developing a case strategy.

Civil Trials in Business Litigation is a Rare Event

LLC Member Enjoined from Competing

An LLC member breached his fiduciary duty by competing with his own company, a trial court in New York City holds in issuing an injunction against one of the principals of a successful company that makes automated parking systems.

The case involves the company that makes Parkmatic parking systems, mechanical stickers and carousels for parking cars in limited spaces. The complaint in Zacharias v. Wassef alleges that the defendant Max Wassef responded to complaints of misconduct by his partner Zacharias by forming a new company to siphon off business using the Parkmatic name.

Limited Liability Company Member Claims Unfair Competition by Manager

Limited liability company derivative action
New York has recognized the right of limited liability company members and managers to bring derivative claims – that is, claims belonging to the LLC – against other members or managers. But, the derivative plaintiff needs to beware of the demand requirement or face having their case dismissed.

Derivative Suit Seeks Recovery for LLC of Management Fees

In a derivative case, the plaintiff is actually asserting a claim that belongs to the company. If there is a recovery, it goes to the company and the derivative plaintiff only gets individually what may, or may not, be passed through to the equity members. The law even provides for an award of attorney’s fees in some derivative cases to encourage shareholders or members to police the business.

Conflict and Negotiation Case Study: The Importance of Sincerity
One of the hardest things about being an effective negotiator is the ability to leave your ego at the door.  We need to listen, not impress.

Seasoned Negotiators, Effective Apologies

As negotiation trainer Jim Camp warns, an effective negotiator learns how to let the other side be “ok,” even when you’re not.  The fact is that no matter how well we listen, no matter how well we employ our negotiator’s tool kit to learn the real interests of the other side, we’re going to make mistakes.

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Derek Jeter promised his new business partners that his ownership and support of the Frigo brand of men’s underwear would not conflict with the superstar Yankee’s obligations to sportswear giant Nike.  In return, RevolutionWear, Inc. gave him 15 percent of the company and a seat on the board.

Apparently, Nike did not take too kindly to Jeter becoming well-known as one of the principal owners of a competitor, and when the athlete failed to embrace the brand — $50 undershirts and $100 briefs — the relationship spun out of control.  Jeter filed suit first, seeking a declaration supporting his conduct.  RevolutionWear counterclaimed, alleging fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

The decision of the Delaware Chancery Court in Jeter v. Revolutionwear, Inc., C.A. No.11706-VCG (Del. Chancery July 19, 2016) points out some of the pitfalls in trading equity for services.  Once Jeter was on board, according to the plaintiff’s counterclaim, he was loathe to be publicly associated with the enterprise, or in other words, to live up to his obligations.

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Talk about playing your cards wrong.

A partner with a 3.08% interest worth $4.85 million in a partnership that owns a major shopping mall likely will walk away with only a few hundred thousand dollars after a court decision finding that he wrongfully dissolved the partnership and deducting from the value of his interest the other partners’ damages including legal fees, a 15% discount for goodwill, a 35% marketability discount, and a whopping 66% minority discount.

Last week’s decision by the Brooklyn-based Appellate Division, Second Department, in Congel v Malfitano, 2016 NY Slip Op 03845 [2d Dept May 18, 2016], rejected the partner’s appeal from the trial court’s determination of wrongful dissolution and also upheld its valuation determination with one major exception: the appellate court held that the trial court erred by failing to apply a minority discount and that it should have applied a 66% minority discount based on the “credible” expert testimony “supported by the record.”

The three majority members of a five-member limited liability company decide that they want to take a major action, such as selling the assets of the business or buying another business. They present the decision to the minority and proceed over their objections (We’ll assume for the moment that the action is permitted by the Operating Agreement.) The minority are bitterly opposed. Is this a problem? Often, it is.

Majority Rule and Minority RightsFiduciary Duty of Majority Owners

The line between what is a right as an equity owner and what is a breach of fiduciary duty to the minority members is often blurry. We presume that as the owner of equity in a business, be it a limited liability, partnership, or a corporation, that we have the right to vote our economic self interest.

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New Jersey Limited Liability Company Attorneys

Imagine that the limited liability company you and your partners started five years ago is involved in a nasty corporate governance lawsuit.  Perhaps one of the partners needs to be expelled, or maybe one of the owners is involved in a competing business.  Imagine that you are spending tens of thousands of dollars every month on legal fees, that the business is in a state of constant disruption and that you haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.

And now, accept the fact that this could have been avoided.

The chances are that if a closely held business is involved in this type of litigation it is because the owners did not plan well when they started the business.  How do I know?  Having litigated many of these matters over the years, I see the same mistakes made early in the life of the business surfacing again and again as the source of litigation.

New Jersey Limited Liability Company Operating Agreement

This is my non-exclusive list of what I think  are the most expensive mistakes that I see people make in their business.  There are others, to be sure, but these are the ones that I see as the source of litigation among the members.

No Operating Agreement:  Actually, I am not going to count not having an operating agreement as one of the five “mistakes.”  It is not really a mistake, it is a colossal blunder, kind of like drunk driving – you may get away with it for a while, but you know how it’s going to end.

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Statutory Fiduciary Duties May Be Limited or Eliminated – Sometimes

 

A Series on New Jersey’s Adoption of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act

 

The revised limited liability company law that takes effect in March 2013 creates a new statutory structure of fiduciary duties for LLC members and managers.  The statutory standards are floor, not a ceiling, and courts are still able to find a duty based on the circumstances at issue.  Limited liability companies may alter or amend those duties by statute – or ratify a breach after it has occurred – but not without limits.

The new law is a significant improvement over the existing law, which is largely silent on the precise duties owed by members and managers to an LLC.  The current law seems to presume that the members will define these duties for themselves; an assumption that in practice is often not true.  It also opens the door to business practices that may be oppressive and assumes that all have an equal say in the terms under which an agreement is organized.  The new law adopts a “manifestly unreasonable” standard that limits the ability of LLC members to create businesses under contracts that include oppressive provisions.

The drafters of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLC) noted that the model statute

rejects the ultra-contractarian notion that fiduciary within a business organization is merely a set of default rules and seeks instead to balance the virtues of “freedom of contract” against the dangers that inescapably exist when some have power over the interest of others.

 

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Law Specifies Fiduciary Duties for Members and Managers of New Jersey LLCsfd-proxy

 


A Series on New Jersey’s Adoption of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act

The fiduciary duties imposed on a member or manager of a New Jersey LLC are at present elusively and poorly defined in the statute.  While the current act contains several provisions limiting the personal liability of members, nowhere does it clearly define the duties that are inherent in the relationship of the members.  Attempts to impose the fiduciary obligations that have traditionally been thought to be a fundamental aspect of the relationship of partners in a partnership, or the officers and directors in a corporation, have met with uneven results.

As we noted in our recent blog post (Fiduciary Duties Murky Under Delaware Law), reviewing a decision from the Delaware Supreme Court, the issue is still undecided in the most influential jurisdiction in the country on issues of business governance, and there is little guidance in the form of controlling authority in New Jersey.

Uncertain ResponsibilitIes of LLC Members

That uncertainty should change significantly when the revisions to New Jersey’s limited liability company law take effect in March 2013 for newly formed companies, and in March 2014 for existing LLCs.  In adopting the RULLC, the legislature put in place a new set of standards for the conduct of members and managers of LLCs organized under New Jersey law.  While some of the changes reflect much of the judge-made law applying equitable principles to the conduct of small business owners, there are some significant differences in the way those duties will now work, and anyone involved with a New Jersey limited liability company needs to have a firm grasp of the structure.

This definition of fiduciary duties is significant because courts are often hesitant to create new rules of law by analogizing to the law of corporations or partnerships.  A particularly contentious issue in New Jersey, for example, was whether a minority member of an LLC who was treated unfairly could bring an action for oppression and obtain the remedies available under corporate law.  These efforts have uniformly had anything but uniform results — in New Jersey and other states with similar limited liability company statutes.

The RULLC is more comprehensive that the present New Jersey Liability Company Act.  Under the current act, there is no explicit definition of the duties.  The current law simply provides that to the extent that “at law or in equity” a member or manager has any duties, including fiduciary duties, those duties can be varied by the operating agreement and that the member or manager can rely on the operating agreement (N.J.S.A. 42:2B-66).  The current act also provides that where the statute is silent, the “rules of law and equity” govern (N.J.S.A. 42:2B-67)  Many commentators see this as the express understanding that fiduciary duties are created by the equitable principles that are widely accepted as governing the relationships between members of business enterprises.  Others think not.

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