Failure to raise an issue at the trial court level is generally considered a waiver of that issue on appeal.  Notwithstanding, state courts recognize certain circumstances when raising an issue for the first time on appeal does not prejudice the adversary because the legal issue is “apparent on the face of the record.”  26th LS Series Ltd. v. Brooks.   Some defenses may be raised even though not raised below, such as where a contract is void against public policy, see 159 MP Corp. v. Redbridge Bedford, LLC.   There are others.  For example, the Second Department in Franklin v. Hafftka held that an issue of whether fiduciary tolling applied in that action could nevertheless be reached by the appellate court “since it involves a question of law which appears on the face of the record and which could not have been avoided”.  Similarly, in Glasheen v. Long Island Diagnostic Imaging, the Appellate Division there held that an issue of “proximate cause” under the circumstances of that case presented an unavoidable issue of law that could be raised even though not preserved.

Recently, the First Department considered an appeal from a Commercial Division order and had to determine whether the doctrine of in pari delicto is one of those defenses that could be raised on appeal even though not raised below.  The answer?  Yes.

In  Matter of Wimbledon Fin. Master Fund, Ltd. v. Wimbledon Fund SPC the court affirmed Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich’s decision denying the respondent’s motion to dismiss a petition to set aside a fraudulent conveyance.  Justice Kornreich ordered respondent to pay $700,000, plus attorney’s fees.  Many issues were presented on appeal.  Of note, however, was the one defense that was not raised below:  in pari delicto.  Recognizing that in pari delicto is a defense grounded in “unclean hands” the appellate panel concluded that indeed, this is one of those defenses that may be raised for the very first time on appeal.  However, in that case, the court considered the defense but ultimately concluded that the defense does not apply to a fraudulent conveyance claim.

Preservation of issues for appeal can be a minefield for the appellate practitioner.  If on appeal, you are faced with the “it wasn’t preserved below” argument, consider whether the issue (i) presents a legal issue “apparent on the face of the record”, (ii) is an “unavoidable issue of law” presented by the record, or (iii) falls within those categories of defenses that the courts have recognized cannot be waived (e.g., public policy, unclean hands, to name a few).

 

 

On June 5, 2018, in RKA Film Financing, LLC v. Kavanaugh et al., the First Department unanimously affirmed the Supreme Court, New York County’s decision absolving the United States Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, of fraud claims brought by RKA Film Financing LLC (“RKA”), a media financing company.

By way of background, in 2014, RKA, a media financing company, lent money to Relativity, a global media company. RKA alleged that it was misled into believing that it was investing in a low-risk lending facility and that the funds would be used for print and advertising expenses related to the release of motion picture films by special purpose entities (“SPE”). Specifically, RKA alleged that certain representatives of Relativity caused certain SPEs to enter into a print and advertising funding agreement with RKA (“Funding Agreement”). RKA alleged that the Funding Agreement contained misrepresentations, including that the funds would be used for print and advertising expenses for specific movies, to induce RKA to invest large sums of money. However, unbeknownst to RKA, Relativity used the funds to pay for general corporate expenses.

Mnuchin joined Relativity’s board as a non-executive director and chairman in October of 2014 after his private investment firm invested $104 million in Relativity. Mnuchin also served as the CEO and Chairman of OneWest, a commercial lender that lent millions to Relativity. RKA alleged that by way of Mnuchin’s position at OneWest, he was privy to the “inner-workings” of Relativity’s finances.

On April 10, 2015, in response to RKA’s request, members of Relativity informed RKA that only “$1.7 million had actually been spent” on print and advertising. On April 13, 2015, Relativity admitted that it misappropriated RKA’s funds.

Mnuchin, who did not participate in the execution or performance of the Funding Agreement, resigned from the Relativity board on May 29, 2015. Thereafter, on May 30, 2015, after Relativity defaulted on a loan from OneWest, Mnuchin began seizing $50 million from Relativity’s account to recoup OneWest’s loan.

RKA commenced suit against several defendants, including Mnuchin, alleging that they misled RKA into lending Relativity millions of dollars for print and advertising of major movie releases. Mnuchin moved to dismiss. The Supreme Court, New York County dismissed RKA’s claims against Mnuchin.

The Court held that RKA failed to establish its claim for fraud because “absent substantive allegations that Mnuchin was responsible for, aware of, or participated in the purported fraud surrounding the Funding Agreement, liability cannot attach.” Specifically, a plaintiff seeking to recover for fraud must “set forth specific and detailed factual allegations that the defendant personally participated in, or had knowledge of any alleged fraud.” To allege a cause of action for fraud, a plaintiff must also establish causation, showing that “defendant’s misrepresentations were the direct and proximate cause of the claimed losses.” Accordingly, Justice Charles E. Ramos concluded that despite allegations that Mnuchin had inside access to the way in which Relativity used the funds, that was insufficient to establish fraud absent evidence of representations made by Mnuchin.

Similarly, Justice Ramos held that RKA’s negligent misrepresentation claim fails because of an absence of a privity-like relationship between Mnuchin and RKA. To plead a claim for negligent misrepresentation, a plaintiff must show: “(1) the existence of a special or privity-like relationship imposing a duty on the defendant to impart correct information to the plaintiff; (2) that the information was incorrect; and (3) reasonable reliance on such information.” In that regard, the Court also held that RKA failed to allege a relationship between RKA and Mnuchin or that Mnuchin owes a fiduciary duty to RKA.

Finally, Justice Ramos dismissed RKA’s fraudulent inducement claim because it was impossible for Mnuchin to have fraudulently induced RKA to enter into the Funding Agreement, as he had not joined Relativity’s board until months after RKA and Relativity entered into their agreement. To prevail on a fraudulent inducement claim, a plaintiff must establish: 1) a misrepresentation of material fact, 2) known to be false, 3) made with the intention of inducing reliance, 4) that is justifiably relied upon, and 5) results in damages. In light of that, Justice Ramos further held that the Complaint was silent as to any allegations that Mnuchin was involved in the execution of the Funding Agreement or made any representations to RKA.

The First Department came to the same conclusions as the lower court.

First, the Court held that the allegations that the board of directors of Relativity was involved in the financial transactions and the daily operations of the company are not enough to conclude that Mnuchin personally participated in, or had knowledge of, the fraud as a result of his position on Relativity’s board.

Second, the Court determined that the fact that Mnuchin became aware of the fact that RKA’s funds were used for working capital and not solely for print and advertising expenses was insufficient to establish that he was aware that misrepresentations were made by the other defendants or that the other defendants were part of the fraud scheme.

The First Department also affirmed the Supreme Court’s holding that RKA’s negligent misrepresentation claim against Mnuchin was insufficient, because RKA failed to allege any direct contact between Mnuchin and RKA, giving rise to the requisite special relationship.

 

In sum, mere knowledge or awareness of a company’s finances, without more information, is insufficient to establish that a company’s board member is liable for a fraud committed by the company.

In the opening scene of the 2008 “stoner action comedy” Pineapple Express, as Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” pumps out of the car’s stereo speakers, the film’s protagonist, Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), in various disguises serves subpoenas on unsuspecting defendants. A real-world outtake from this film recently played out in the New York County Supreme Court, Commercial Division, in Lenox NY LLC v. Goldman.

The defendant, James Goldman, was alleged to have defaulted on personal guarantees for the payment of rent due to the plaintiff landlord under two commercial leases. Plaintiff commenced the action by notice of motion for summary judgment pursuant to CPLR § 3213 and attempted to serve the defendant at the Pleasant Valley, New York address listed on the guarantees.

When the process server arrived at the Pleasant Valley address on September 29, 2017, the defendant did not answer the door. “Bill” did. According to the process server’s affidavit of service, “Bill” refused to provide his last name, but claimed to be a “friend” of the defendant. A short, slender middle-aged man whose hair color is best described as “shaved,” little else is known about Bill Doe.

The defendant filed an affidavit stating that he does “not know who ‘Bill Doe’ refers to, but it is certainly not me, a member of my family, nor any of my friends, nor anyone employed by me.” The defendant was “never contacted by a person named ‘Bill’ about this action.”

Was service proper?

CPLR 308(2) provides for service upon “a person of suitable age and discretion at the actual place of business, dwelling place or usual place of abode of the person to be served,” if followed by a mailing and filing of proof of service. A process server’s affidavit which attests to delivery to “a person of suitable age and discretion” is apparently sufficient to make a prima facie showing of proper service. The burden then shifts to the defendant to submit a “sworn denial of receipt of service” that contains “specific facts to rebut the statements in the process server affidavits.” See Indymac Federal Bank FSB v Quattrochi, 99 AD3d 763 (2d Dept 2012). The matter would then be referred for an evidentiary hearing. Id.

Applying this standard, the court (Sherwood, J.) held that the defendant had failed to rebut the process server’s affidavit of service because the defendant’s affidavit did not contain enough factual detail. In addition, the defendant’s affidavit did not address the process server’s affidavit, but instead focused on whether “Bill Doe” had ever forwarded the service to defendant. The final nail in the coffin was the defendant’s assertion that he was not at home on “August 29, 2017” (a month earlier than the process server’s visit).

Many other defendants have met with similar difficulty in refuting a process server’s affidavit. For example, in Indymac, the agent allegedly served with process swore that she did not recall being served and had no record of being served. However, the disorderly records of the agent’s “Subpoena Case Record” book negated her affidavit and no evidentiary hearing was required. The Second Department also took issue with the defendant’s affidavit in C&H Import & Export, Inc. v. MNA Global, Inc., 79 AD 3d 784, for failing to include an affidavit from the individual allegedly served or a denial that the individual was an agent of the defendant. Therefore, be forewarned—absent facts specifically refuting the process server’s affidavit, such efforts are likely to be futile.

In a recent decision handed down just a couple of days ago, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed Justice Kornreich’s denial of singer and songwriter Kesha Sebert’s (“Kesha”) motion for leave to file second amended counterclaims, meaning Kesha will not be released from her recording contracts with producer Lukasz Gottwald, also known as Dr. Luke (“Gottwald”), and his former label, Kemosabe Records.

In October 2014, Gottwald sued Kesha in the New York County Commercial Division for, among other things, defamation and breach of contract after the singer accused Gottwald of various forms of abuse.  Kesha asserted several counterclaims.  Nearly three years later, Kesha moved for leave to assert second amended counterclaims seeking, among other things, a declaration terminating the agreements on the grounds of impossibility and impracticability of performance, and on the ground that the agreements violate California Labor Code § 2855, a seven-year rule limiting personal service contracts.

In March 2017, Justice Kornreich of the New York County Commercial Division denied Kesha’s motion for leave to amend, finding that Gottwald’s alleged behavior was foreseeable at the time Kesha entered into the recording agreements. As Justice Kornreich noted “[t]he defense of impossibility or impracticability of performance is applied narrowly and excuses contractual performance only when the destruction of the subject matter of the contract or the means of performance makes performance objectively impossible due to an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against in the contract.” Kesha appealed.

The Appellate Division, First Apartment affirmed Justice Kornreich’s decision, holding that Kesha’s counterclaim for a declaration terminating the agreements on the ground of impossibility and impracticability of performance was “speculative” and “contradicted by her own allegations that she had continued performing under the recording agreements.”

The First Department also rejected Kesha’s proposed declaratory judgment counterclaim based on California Labor Code § 2855 because it is barred by the choice of law provisions contained in the recording agreements. Based on the foregoing, the Court agreed with Justice Kornreich, finding Kesha’s proposed amendments were “palpably insufficient and devoid of merit.”

Finally, the First Department upheld Justice Kornreich’s decision compelling Kesha to produce documents held by her public relations firm and former attorney, holding that these communications “do not reflect a discussion of legal strategy relevant to the pending litigation but, rather, a discussion of public relations strategy, and are not protected under the attorney-client privilege.”

 

Minolta DSC

Over eighty years after the end of World War II, crimes committed by the Nazis continue to be redressed, including in our very own Commercial Division. The Nazis are well known to have plundered with reckless abandon along the trail of their occupation. Beyond their theft of precious metals and currency, they also stole numerous famous paintings, with Hitler having a particular distaste for modern art, which he deemed “degenerate art.”

The 2014 film, The Monuments Men (starring Matt Damon), tells the story of the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program of the Allied armies to protect, and after World War II ended, to recover, cultural monuments, including fine art, plundered by the Nazis. The Monuments Men did not recover every piece of art stolen by the Nazis (the precise scope of their plunder being unknown). But even after their efforts ended, Nazi-looted art works have been returned to their rightful owners, or their heirs, including two in April of this year as a result of a landmark summary judgment decision issued by New York County Commercial Division Justice Charles E. Ramos, applying the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act.

This week’s post features an even more recent decision of the New York County Commercial Division, in which the court was faced with a motion to dismiss an action brought to recover a very valuable painting by the famous modern Italian, Jewish painter, Amadeo Clemente Modigliani (1884-1920). To set that decision in its proper context, we first need to examine the painting’s history.

The Painting and its History

At issue in Gowen v. Helly Nahmad Gallery, Inc., is the ownership of Modligliani’s “Seated Man with Cane, 1918” (the “Painting”). Oscar Stettiner (“Stettiner”), a Jewish art dealer who lived and worked in Paris during the 1930s, originally owned the Painting as part of his private collection. As the Nazi’s approached France in 1939, Stettiner was forced to flee Paris, leaving behind the Painting.

After being taken by the Nazi’s upon their occupation of France, the Painting was assigned to a Temporary Administrator and eventually auctioned off in July of 1944. Although this and all other forced sales of property by the Nazis were declared null and void in 1946, and despite Stettiner obtaining an order from the French courts in July of 1946 granting the Painting’s return to him, Stettiner and his family were unable to locate the painting prior to his death in 1948. Stettiner’s wife and two children were thereafter unable to locate the Painting despite continued efforts.

In 1996, the Painting finally resurfaced when it was misidentified as being a different painting and as having an owner other than Stettiner, when it sold at a Christie’s London auction for $3.2 million to the defendant, International Art Center, S. A. (“IAC”). In 2008, IAC attempted unsuccessfully to sell the Painting at Soethby’s New York. In 2011, Stettiner’s sole heir, Phillippe Maestracci, sent two lawyer’s letters to the defendants demanding the return of the Painting (the “Demand Letters”). The defendants never responded. The present action, seeking a declaration as to title of the Painting and asserting claims for conversion and replevin of the Painting, was commenced by George Gowen, as the Ancillary Administrator of Stettiner’s estate.

The Motion Before the Court

In a wide-ranging, eleven-part decision, Justice Eileen Bransten denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss on each of the grounds asserted: CPLR §§ 3211 (a) (1), (a) (2), (a) (3), (a) (4), (a) (5), (a) (7), (a) (8), (a) (10), 327, 1001, 1003, 3025, and 306-b.

The Court’s Personal Jurisdiction and Alter Ego Analysis

Though any one of the asserted grounds for dismissal could warrant a post on this blog, of particular interest is the court’s personal jurisdiction analysis regarding defendant David Nahmad (“Nahmad”), the billionaire patriarch of an internationally recognized art-dealing family. Specifically, the plaintiff relied on the difficult-to-establish alter ego theory; namely that Nahmad is the alter ego of IAC. In their motion to dismiss, IAC and Nahmad argued that neither is a resident or domiciliary of New York and that neither has conducted business in New York.

In analyzing the alter ego theory, the court first addressed its personal jurisdiction over IAC, a Panamanian corporation (that found itself in the Panama Papers leaks). The court held two such grounds existed. First, the court held that IAC had transacted business in New York by and through the acts of its agents, defendants Helly Nahmad (the son of David Nahmad, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to operating an illegal gambling ring) and Helly Nahmad Gallery (his famous eponymous New York City art gallery), who allegedly sold art to which IAC holds title. Second, the court held that IAC had committed tortious conduct in New York because a cause of action sounding in tort arose under New York law when Maestracci sent the Demand letters (see Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation v Lubell, 77 NY2d 311, 316-317 [1991]).

The court then held that it acquired personal jurisdiction over Nahmad “by and through his conducting business vis-à-vis Defendant IAC and, in so doing, so perverting the corporate form such that this court cannot determine a substantial difference between the two Defendants.”  That is, the court held that Nahmad was the alter ego of IAC. In support of this holding, the court listed various factual allegations, a number of which were supported by documentary evidence, including:

  • that Nahmad is the principal of IAC;
  • that Nahmad holds all of IAC’s shares of stock;
  • that IAC was formed by a Panamanian law firm that has “garnered a reputation for creating ‘shell companies’”;
  • that Nahmad used IAC to conceal his name, and thus the owner of the Painting, to perpetuate a wrong (this allegation was supported by a New York Times article quoting Nahmad himself as saying “the International Art Center is me personally. . . . it’s David Nahmad”);
  • that IAC fails to adhere to corporate formalities such as keeping regular books and records, fails to generate income, and does not have an independent board of directors; and
  • that IAC is underfunded such that Plaintiff would not be able to recover reasonable costs if successful on its claim.

Take Away 

Aside from the fascinating history involved, this decision is particularly beneficial because it offers a specific list of factual allegations supporting a finding of the alter ego theory, a potentially powerful tool for plaintiffs that courts infrequently apply.

Interesting Side Note: On May 13, 2018, a separate Modigliani, the 1917 painting, “Nu Couché (Sur Le Côté Gauche), sold for $157.2 million with fees, making it the highest auction price ever for a work sold at Sotheby’s.

The New York Commercial Division was founded in 1993 “to test whether it would be possible, by concentrating on commercial litigation, to improve the efficiency with which such matters were addressed by the court and, at the same time, to enhance the quality of judicial treatment of those cases.” Among other things, its continual adoption of innovative new rules and amendments to existing rules has elevated the Commercial Division to being one of the world’s most efficient venues for the resolution of commercial disputes.

In our last installment of this blog’s Check the Rules series, we looked at the Commercial Division Advisory Council’s proposed amendment to Commercial Division Rule 17 concerning length of papers, along with some recent support from Commercial Division judges, including Justice Saliann Scarpulla of the Manhattan Commercial Division, whose decisions have taken lawyers to task for being long-winded.

It turns out that Justice Scarpulla also is an advocate of the efficiency associated with pretrial evidentiary hearings and immediate trials on material issues of fact under CPLR §§ 2218, 3211 (c), and 3212 (c), which, according to the Advisory Council in a recent new-rule proposal, are “significantly underutilized” and provide “yet another tool to help efficiently dispose of commercial disputes.”

Under the Advisory Council’s proposed new Rule 9-a, which essentially reinforces a court’s existing authority under the aforementioned CPLR provisions to direct evidentiary hearings, “parties are encouraged to demonstrate on a motion to the court when a pre-trial evidentiary hearing or immediate trial may be effective in resolving a factual issue sufficient to effect the disposition of a material fact of the case.” The proposed rule sets forth specific examples of such motions, including dispositive motions to dismiss and for summary judgment; preliminary-injunction motions; spoliation of evidence motions; jurisdictional motions; statute of limitations motions; and class action certification motions.

The idea behind proposed new Rule 9-a is to “expedite and streamline . . . questions of improper notice or other jurisdictional defects or dispositive defenses,” so as to avoid the kind of “litigation [that] continues for years through extensive discovery and other proceedings until trial where the fact issue is finally adjudicated and the case is resolved in a way that it might have been years ago.” In short, the proposed rule “is designed to reduce the waste of time and money which such situations create.”

As noted above, based on a couple recent decisions, it would appear that Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Saliann Scarpulla is on board with proposed Rule 9-a.

In January of this year, before Rule 9-a had even been proposed, Justice Scarpulla granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on a claim for breach of contract in a case called Seiko Iron Works, Inc. v Triton Bldrs. Inc. But because she was unable to “determine the total amount of damages to which [plaintiff w]as entitled based on the papers submitted,” Justice Scarpulla exercised her discretion under CPLR 3212 (c) to direct an evidentiary hearing on the material damages issues raised by the plaintiff’s dispositive motion.

Earlier this month, Justice Scarpulla expressly cited proposed Rule 9-a in a footnote to her post-hearing decision in Overtime Partners, Inc. v 320 W. 31st Assoc., LLC, a commercial landlord-tenant action seeking injunctive relief concerning the acceptance of a proposed sublessee under a master lease. After the tenant commenced the action by order to show cause, Justice Scarpulla “ordered a factual hearing to determine whether [the landlord] unreasonably withheld and delayed consent” to the proposed sublease. Citing CPLR 3212 (c) and footnoting proposed Rule 9-a, Justice Scarpulla expressly referenced her discretion thereunder to “order an immediate trial of an issue of fact raised by a motion when appropriate for the expeditious disposition of the controversy.”

Thus, it seems proposed Rule 9-a already is alive and well in the Manhattan Commercial Division, at least in spirit.  Look for its formal adoption in the near future.

As with all new-rule or rule-change proposals, anyone interested in commenting on proposed new Rule 9-a may do so by sending or emailing their comments to John W. McConnell, Esq. (rulecomments@nycourts.gov), Counsel, Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10004.

In commercial litigation, it is not at all unusual for courts to be called upon to determine whether an unsigned agreement is binding.  The federal courts have a long line of cases dealing with this very issue, and perhaps the seminal one in this area is the Second Circuit’s decision in Winston v Mediafare Enter. Corp., a case considering whether an unsigned settlement agreement was enforceable.  The court there identified several factors to be considered in determining whether an agreement — in that case, a settlement — is binding:  “(1) whether there has been an express reservation of the right not to be bound in the absence of a writing; (2) whether there has been partial performance of the contract; (3) whether all of the terms of the alleged contract have been agreed upon; and (4) whether the agreement at issue is the type of contract that is usually committed to writing.”

New York courts take a similar approach.  They have long recognized that a binding agreement may be found, even though a contract was not signed, so long as it is not proscribed by New York’s statute of frauds, NY Gen. Obligs. L. 5-701.  In  Brown Bros. Elec. Contrs. v Beam Constr. Corp., for example, the Court of Appeals held that “[i]n determining whether the parties entered into a contractual agreement and what were its terms, it is necessary to look . . . to the objective manifestations of the intent of the parties as gathered by their expressed words and deeds.” See also Flores v. The Lower East Side Service Center, Inc.  Not exactly a recipe suitable for summary judgment.

Recently, in 223 Sam, LLC v. 223 15th Street, LLC, the Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed the trial court’s order denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment seeking to dismiss breach of contract claim.  The case arose out of plaintiff’s claim for breach of contract based upon an unexecuted amendment to an operating agreement.  The amendment added plaintiff as a 50% member of defendants, and also acknowledged plaintiff as a co-manager.  The damages sought reflect the management fees allegedly earned.

Defendants argument, made in the context of a motion for summary judgment was simple:  the amendment was never executed by the parties, and therefore is not binding.

In rejecting defendants’ argument, the court first noted that New York has long recognized the rule that parties will not be bound if  they state their intent not to be bound unless and until the agreement is signed by all.  However, if the parties reach agreement on “all the substantial terms” and nothing material is left for the future, then even if the parties intended to reduce the agreement but did not, this may nevertheless create a binding agreement between them.  Express reservation is the key.  The ultimate question of whether the parties intended to be bound is a question of fact.

In denying defendants’ motion, the court referred to emails exchanged between the parties which simply “failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the parties had agreed upon the major terms of the agreement and whether the parties began to perform . . . .”

The hard lesson:  be careful in exchanging drafts, revisions and amendments (1) without expressly reserving the right not to be bound unless and until signed by all, and (2) partially performing before the agreement is signed.  Otherwise, once all material terms are agreed upon, you may indeed have a binding agreement.

 

 

 

So a plaintiff obtains a default judgment against a defendant on a promissory note case.  Defendant fails to appear or defend.   On a motion to enter the default pursuant to CPLR 3215, one would assume that without opposition, judgment would be entered for the amount of the loans.  Interestingly, that’s not quite what happened in Power Up Lending Group, Ltd. v. Cardinal Resources, Inc., where a plaintiff lender sought entry of judgment on two loan agreements in the amount of $66,264.90.  So what did happen?

Justice Stephen A. Bucaria, sua sponte, examined the plaintiff’s submission (which the court must), but then determined that certain provisions in the agreements were illegal as violating New York’s criminal usury laws.   As a result, the Court calculated the amount due to the Plaintiff after severing the provisions deemed by the Court to be illegal, which was far less than that sought by plaintiff.  Plaintiff appealed.

The Second Department in Power Up Lending Group, Ltd. v Cardinal Resources, Inc. disagreed with Justice Bucaria’s approach and reversed, concluding that the court erred when it, sua sponte, severed certain provisions of the loan agreements, which it found on its own to be “illegal pursuant to the criminal usury statute.”   Since the defense of usury is an affirmative defense, it must be asserted by the Defendant affirmatively in its answer or as a ground to move to dismiss the complaint.  Otherwise, the defense is waived.  Here, because the Defendant failed to appear or answer or move, the defense was waived.

Two issues spring to mind.  First, the affirmative defense of criminal usury is far different than most affirmative defenses, which do not involve violations of criminal law (e.g., statute of frauds, statute of limitations and the like).  However, where an affirmative defense involves criminal activity, can a court as a matter of public policy have the power to raise the issue, sua sponte, even if it would otherwise be an affirmative defense?

Interestingly, in Youshah v. Staudinger, the defendant defaulted in an action brought by the plaintiff seeking to recover money owed to him by his former business partner for excluding him from an escort and dating service business, which fosters prostitution. The Court determined that although a party concedes liability by defaulting in an action, it would not, on public policy grounds, award judgment to the plaintiff as a result of an illegal enterprise. The Court held that it would not “enforce provisions of agreements which are patently illegal when public policy is at issue.”

Second, although the usury defense is waived if not raised, that very same defense could be advanced later by a defaulting defendant on a motion to vacate the default to establish a “meritorious defense.”   See, e.g., Blue Wolf Capital Fund II LP v. American Stevedoring, Inc. (citing cases).

In sum, in order to obtain a default judgment against an defaulting defendant, the moving party must submit sufficient proof to establish a viable cause of action.   Affirmative defenses, even if otherwise available to a defaulting defendant, should not stand in the way of entry of judgment.  However, on a later motion to vacate, those affirmative defenses can be used to re-open the case, assuming that an excuse for the default has been established.

In 2015, Guo Wengui, a/k/a Kwok Ho Wan, a Chinese citizen, billionaire investor and political provocateur, fled China for the United States amid reported investigations by the Chinese government involving several of his businesses and business partners. Mr. Guo reportedly left behind approximately $17 billion in Chinese assets, which have been frozen. Despite living an opulent lifestyle on the 18th floor of the Sherry Netherland hotel on Fifth Avenue, he is now facing some financial pressure.

Among Mr. Guo’s international creditors is Pacific Alliance Asia Opportunity Fund (“Pacific Alliance”), a Hong Kong investment fund formed under Cayman Islands law. In 2008, Pacific Alliance loaned $30 million to Mr. Guo’s Hong Kong company in connection with the development of Pangu Plaza, site of a “7 Star Hotel” in Beijing near the Olympic arenas. In connection with the loan, Mr. Guo signed a personal guarantee. All of the documents and transactions were executed in Hong Kong or China.

According to Pacific Alliance, Mr. Guo now owes approximately $88 million in principal and accrued interest on the loan. However, Pacific Alliance’s efforts over the years to collect against Mr. Guo have been unsuccessful. Accordingly, in April 2017, Pacific Alliance brought suit against Mr. Guo in the Commercial Division of New York County, where Mr. Guo now resides and is seeking asylum from the United States government. (Mr. Guo’s membership at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort does not appear to have expedited his application. It’s complicated.)

Mr. Guo moved before Judge Barry Ostrager to dismiss the complaint on grounds of forum non conveniens (inconvenient forum) pursuant to CPLR 327. New York courts (e.g., Islamic Rep. of Iran v. Pahlavi, 62 NY2d 474, 479 [1984]; Shin-Etsu Chem. Co. v. ICICI Bank Ltd., 9 AD3d 171, 178 [1st Dept 2004]) generally consider the following factors: (i) the availability of an alternative forum; (ii) the burden on the New York courts; (iii) whether the transaction out of which the cause of action arose occurred primarily in a foreign jurisdiction; (iv) the applicability of foreign law; (v) the potential hardship to the defendant; and (vi) whether a foreign forum has a substantial interest in adjudicating the action.

Mr. Guo argued that New York was an inconvenient forum because the dispute involved contracts between a Hong Kong investment fund and a Chinese citizen that were governed by Hong Kong law and related to Chinese real estate. Moreover, all of the relevant evidence was located in China and Hong Kong. Pacific Alliance responded that Mr. Guo was a fugitive from China and would never appear there for a legal proceeding; therefore, New York was the only forum available for Pacific Alliance to pursue its claims.

Judge Ostrager granted Mr. Guo’s motion to dismiss. The court reasoned that the State of New York had no interest in resolving a breach of contract dispute between Hong Kong and Chinese parties involving a Hong Kong agreement relating to Chinese real estate. Notwithstanding Mr. Guo’s residence in New York, the foreign site of the disputed transaction was most important to determining the proper forum. As for Pacific Alliance’s argument that Mr. Guo would not appear at a proceeding in Hong Kong or China, the court found “that circumstance would likely benefit plaintiff rather than be a detriment to plaintiff,” presumably because it would be easier for Pacific Alliance to obtain a default judgment.

The Appellate Division, First Department reversed, noting Mr. Guo’s “heavy burden” of establishing that New York is an inconvenient forum. Contrary to Judge Ostrager, the First Department found that Hong Kong was “not a suitable or adequate alternative, because defendant cannot return there due to his pending asylum claim and fugitive status.” This concern for Mr. Guo is somewhat strange because Mr. Guo had explicitly endorsed Pacific Alliance pursuing a judgment in China or Hong Kong against Mr. Guo without Mr. Guo’s appearance. Perhaps Mr. Guo agrees with commenters in China who believe that Chinese judgments are more difficult to enforce in the United States due to fears that such judgments are politically motivated.

Ultimately, the First Department found that there was insufficient evidence that it would be a hardship for Mr. Guo to litigate in New York, especially because he previously had brought suit against others in New York. However, the First Department’s decision did not appear to state a clear reason why certain factors were being weighed more heavily than others. Future litigants confronting inconvenient forum issues should take note of the unpredictability of the multi-factor balancing test.

In a recent Commercial Division decision, Pozner v Fox Broadcasting Company, (2018 NY Slip Op 28102 [Sup Ct, NY County Apr. 2, 2018]), Justice Saliann Scarpulla declined to extend the application of the faithless servant doctrine to a circumstance where no New York court has applied it before.

Cliff Pozner (“Pozner”), a former Executive Vice President at Fox Broadcasting Company (“Fox”), was terminated from his employment based on sexual harassment complaints from several current and former Fox employees.  He then commenced an action against Fox for allegedly breaching his employment agreement and discriminating against him on the basis of his religion.  In response, Fox asserted two counterclaims against Pozner: breach of contract based on Pozner’s alleged failure to abide by the company’s policies regarding sexual harassment, and breach of fiduciary duty, which, according to Fox, included the duty to refrain from conduct inconsistent with Fox’s policies regarding a harassment-free workplace.

Pozner moved to dismiss the counterclaims.  With respect to Fox’s breach of fiduciary duty claim, Pozner argued that he did not violate any duty owed to Fox under the faithless servant doctrine or as a breach of fiduciary duty, since he did not unfairly compete, divert business opportunities, or accept improper kickbacks.

Justice Scarpulla sustained Fox’s first counterclaim for breach of contract, but held that Fox’s breach of fiduciary duty counterclaim was “not tenable.”  As the Court explained, although Pozner, as a Fox executive and employee, owed a duty of loyalty to Fox, that duty “has only been extended to cases where the employee ‘act[s] directly against the employer’s interests – as in embezzlement, improperly competing with the current employer, or usurping business opportunities.’”  Accordingly, the Court held that sexual harassment by an executive, without more, cannot form the basis of a breach of fiduciary duty claim resulting in the employer’s recovery of the employee’s salary under the faithless servant doctrine.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court noted the lack of New York case law on point and easily distinguished the cases relied upon by Fox.  For example, in Astra USA, Inc. v Bildman, (455 Mass 116 [2009]), which the Court acknowledged was not controlling, the Massachusetts court found that the CEO and President of plaintiff’s company had, in addition to engaging in sexual harassment, committed acts directly against the company’s interest, including stealing company funds, financial records and other documents, destroying company property, and erasing data from computers (id. at 123-124, & n 13).

Similarly, in Colliton v Cravath, Swaine & Moore, LLP (2008 WL 4386764, 2008 US Dist LEXIS 74388 [SD NY Sept. 24, 2008]), the Court found the plaintiff’s admitted criminal activity (which resulted in a plea allocution) constituted a violation of his ethical duties under the New York Rules of Professional Responsibility.  Given these ethical violations, the plaintiff in Colliton was not ethically permitted to work as an attorney and thus, “his employment was the product of fraudulent concealment” (id. at *15).

Recognizing Fox’s failure to plead allegations of fraud, financial waste, or embezzlement, Justice Scarpulla declined to extend the faithless servant doctrine to cover instances where the only wrongdoing alleged is sexual harassment.  While it is possible that Fox’s counsel was looking to extend the law in light of recent news events, Justice Scarpulla was not so inclined.