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Clark v. Butoku Karate Sch., LLC, No. 326638 (Mich. App., 2016)

Statutes: MCL 450.4101, MCL 450.4305, MCL 450.4509

Plaintiff Joby Clark and Defendant were the sole members of a Michigan Limited Liability Company operating a karate school.  Clark was the subject of a rumor that he had a sexual relationship with an underage student.  The parties agreed that Clark would leave the business to prevent damage to the school.

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.

Minority Sharholder AttorneysIt was the stuff of which a good minority oppression claim is easily cooked up.  The party in control of the corporation had used the corporate bank accounts as his personal piggy bank while operating a competing business, paid himself inflated office rents and bankrolled an extra-marital affair with money taken from the business.

None of that, however, could carry the day in a lawsuit brought by the minority shareholders of a New Jersey corporation because they waited years to complain.

Minority Shareholder Oppression Alleged by Ousted Officer of Closely Held Corporation

Share-Certificate
The prior owner of a woman-owned business will be required to pay upwards of $500,000 to an oppressed shareholder after a trial court found — and the Appellate Division confirmed — that she had entered into a valid agreement to transfer her shares in return for an agreement that allowed her to continue collecting her husband’s salary while he was in prison.

Opressed Shareholder Sues to Enforce Transfer Agreement

The unreported decision in Dilworth v. DiSalvatore, Docket No. A-4492-14T2 (N.J. App. Div. March 16, 2017) is interesting in a number of respects.  First, it presents a case in which we see the results of failing to commit agreements among the owners of a closely held business to writing.  It’s great for the litigators but no so fortunate for the owners that failed to get it in writing.

Oppressed Minority Shareholder Litigation AttorneyAn oppressed minority shareholder was awarded approximately $750,000 in attorneys fees and expert expenses — some eight times the amount of the buyout — even though the majority had good reason to fire him from his position as the corporation’s CEO.

Fee Award Under Oppressed Shareholder Statute to Selling Shareholder

This case is a 14-year-old litigation involving a dispute between the family members of a family-owned business, and the outsider executive who was brought in to take over the management of the corporation.  The relationship quickly deteriorated amid allegations of misappropriation and sexual harassment in the workplace.

business divorce attorneys medical practiceWhat is sufficient evidence of membership interest in a limited liability company? It is not uncommon that the intentions of the parties in forming a limited liability company are poorly documented and or non-existent.

The plaintiff in this case argued that documents that indicated his initial interest in the LLC were sufficient to establish his membership. These include emails in which he expressed his interest in participating in the LLC, the fact that he was included as a signatory in an early letter of intent with HUMC, the fact that he was initially included in an email group of members and the receipt of meeting notices.

Appellate Court Considers Evidence of LLC Membership in Ownership Dispute Among Critical Care Doctors

Shareholder Deadlock AttorneyIs an intractable deadlock among the shareholders good grounds to force the sale of a large, successful corporation? That was the issue before the Delaware Supreme Court in a case in which the trial court’s decision to sell the business as a going concern – over the objection of one shareholder –was affirmed by the Supreme Court.

In this case, a trial court’s ability to fashion and equitable remedy based on the circumstances of the case ran into direct conflict with the limited remedies that are available to minority shareholders under Delaware law.

Court Orders Sale of Corporation in Shareholder Deadlock

Oppressed Shareholder Valuation in Sale of Plant Business
The general rule is that a court should not apply discounts for marketability or lack of control (the later known as the minority discount) unless there is some unfairness or wrongdoing among the parties. Still, in the world of oppressed minority shareholder litigation, there is always some allegation of wrongdoing, so the question of discounts, or not, is invariably part of the ruling in any court-ordered valuation.

A trial court in Union County recently applied a 25 percent discount in the purchase of a 50% share of a family business after a 35-day trial. The net result was that the defendant in the case took significantly less for the acquisition of his shares in a family owned business than might have been available if there was not a finding of wrongdoing. Parker v. Parker, Docket No. UNN-C-108-13 (Chancery December 22, 2016) The parties involved in a business divorce litigation need to be cognizant that the allegations of bad behavior may have a significant effect on the ultimate determination of value made by a court.

Discounts Reduce Value of Buyout in Family Business Dispute

  • There are circumstances in which a member of a limited liability company in most states may be expelled as a member from the company.  This is known as involuntary dissociation.

  • An action may be brought by the LLC seeking a court order of involuntary dissociation on the basis that the member has engaged in wrongful conduct that has or will harm the company, has repeatedly breached the operating agreement, or because it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for the company to continue with him or her as a member.

  • Dissociated members lose their rights to participate in management, but retain their financial interest and a right to receive distributions. 

  • In litigation over an involuntary dissociation, a court may order a sale of the interests of a member to the LLC or to any other party to the litigation.


    Limited Liability Company AttorneysProbably the most litigated issue in my practice involves the expulsion of a member of a limited liability company in response to some wrongful conduct or breach of the operating agreement. We represent majority owners when they are trying to remove a member and we represent the minority member who is fighting removal. Not all states permit removal or expulsion – known as involuntary dissociation – for misconduct and some recent decisions indicate that in the states that do, it may be harder than once thought.

Involuntary Dissocation of a Limited Liability Company Member

There was a belief, perhaps unreasonably so, that Courts were unwilling to keep people in business together when plainly the owners were no longer capable of maintaining a working relationship. The New Jersey Supreme Court, in the first decision by any state supreme court on the topic, held that the concept of “not reasonably practicable” to stay in business together means more than a personality conflict. It requires a structural inability to act, such as ongoing deadlock or significant wrongful conduct. Continue reading

share-certificateWe counsel many owners of limited liability companies that the filing of a Certificate of Formation does note automatically protect the owners from person liabilities.  There are a number of business practices, often referred to as the “corporate formalities” that should be followed.

A case from Iowa’s Court of Appeals illustrates this principle, in which the court affirmed the finding of a trial court that the owners of a limited liability company were personally liabile for $235,000 owed to a supplier.  Keith Smith Co. v. Bushman, 873 N.W.2d 776(Table), 2015 WL 8364910(Table) (Iowa App., 2015).

The supplier claimed that the defendant was essentially a shell company with inadequate capitalization.  The trial court agreed and the appeals court affirmed.

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