As readers of this blog have come to appreciate, we here at New York Commercial DCheck the Rulesivision Practice tend to report on — among other things Commercial Division — the procedural particularities of litigating commercial matters before the various judges that have been assigned to the Commercial Division over the years.  Such particularities may arise from, say, a new or amended Commercial Division Rule, or from a new or amended Individual Practice or Part Rule.

For example, we repeatedly have reported on the particularities of the individual-practice rules of Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Eileen Bransten, who, along with her colleague Justice Charles E. Ramos (also no stranger to this blog), will be retiring this month and will be succeeded next year by incoming Justices Joel M. Cohen and Andrew S. Borrok.  In case you missed it, the New York Law Journal announced the appointments of Justices Cohen and Borrok to the Commercial Division just before Thanksgiving.

Speaking of procedural particularities and new Commercial Division judges, perhaps most particular of all are the Practices for Part 54 overseen by New York County’s most recent addition to the Commercial Division, Justice Jennifer G. Schecter, who was appointed in April 2018 and took over the docket of recently-retired Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich.

Justice Schecter’s Part Rules are numerous and specific — 58 if you’re counting (not including subparts) — and cover everything from file to trial.  Her rules seemingly anticipate anything that can arise during the course of a complex commercial litigation in a way that only someone who spent more than a decade as Principal Law Secretary to former Chief Judge Judith Kaye of the New York Court of Appeals and the aforementioned Justice Bransten can appreciate.

To be sure, there is much to consider in Justice Schecter’s rules, but here are 10 or so important reminders for practitioners litigating in her Part:

Rule 21 Don’t ask your assistant or paralegal to call the court to confirm scheduling, etc.  “The court will only take calls from the parties’ attorneys of record.”

Rule 27 — Don’t dump documents on your adversary after hours.  “[W]hen a discovery deadline is set forth in a court order, that deadline is 5:00 pm, New York time.”

Rule 31 — Don’t withhold documents on the basis of privilege without serving a privilege log along with your production.  “Failure to serve a privilege log with the party’s production will, absent good cause, be deemed a waiver of the party’s objection on the ground of privilege.”

Rule 33 — Don’t send a colleague to a status conference without full knowledge of the case.  “Attorneys appearing for conferences must be fully familiar with the case [and] should be prepared to discuss the merits of their case at all conferences.”

Rule 34 — Bring everything with you to compliance conferences if you want the court to rule on a discovery dispute.  “Any party that wants to resolve a dispute about the sufficiency of a discovery response during a conference shall bring whatever will be needed to obtain a ruling, including copies of the disputed demands and responses.”

Rule 39 — Adhere to new Commercial Division Rule 17 concerning word limits and swear to it.  “Every brief, memorandum, affirmation, and affidavit shall include . . . a certification by the counsel who has filed the document describing the number of words in the document.”

Rules 40-41 — Don’t file an attorney “brief-irmation” or a party “brief-adavit” in support of a motion.  “Argument must be confined to the brief,” which “must accompany every motion.”

Rules 45 and 52 — Include complete copies of all contracts filed as exhibits to your motion papers.  “Excerpts of contracts may not be filed.”

Rule 54 — Agree with your adversary on a joint Rule 19-a statement of material facts or don’t bother.  “If the parties cannot agree on a joint statement, a Rule 19-a statement of facts is not permitted.”

Rule 55 — Obtain and file your oral-argument transcripts if you want a decision on your motion.  “Motions will not be marked fully submitted and the court will not issue a decision until the transcript is e-filed and the Part Clerk receives a hard copy of the transcript with the e-filing confirmation receipt.”

Be sure to check in early next year for future posts on the individual practices of incoming Manhattan Commercial Division Justices Cohen and Borrok.  In the meantime, a happy holiday season to all our readers!

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The Donald J. Trump Foundation, a private foundation incorporated in 1987, was formed “exclusively for charitable, religious, scientific, literary or educational purposes”,  and as stated in the Certificate of Incorporation, shall not be for propaganda or participating or intervening in “any political campaign.”  The Foundation’s president and founder, is Donald J. Trump.

Donald J. Trump Foundation logo.pngThe Attorney General of the State of New York filed suit against the Foundation, Mr. Trump and the Board members, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty, waste, wrongful party transactions and dissolution of the Foundation.  The basis?  The petition claims that the Foundation and Board members engaged in illegal and abusive transactions over the years, violated corporate and statutory rules for fiduciaries, and misuse of charitable assets including self-dealing.  Significantly, the petition alleges that Mr. Trump used donated money to purchase personal items, advance his presidential election campaign and settle certain legal obligations.  The petition attaches many emails, photos, contribution lists and other supporting documentation.

Respondents moved to dismiss the petition in its entirety, alleging a variety of defenses, ranging from lack of jurisdiction under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, statute of limitations,  and failure to state a claim.  Justice Saliann Scarpulla, in a well-reasoned decision, denied the motion to dismiss all of the claims, except for the sixth cause of action seeking injunctive relief.  As to that claim, the court held that the injunctive relief sought was moot in light of the Respondent’s attempt to voluntarily dissolve the Foundation.

A key ruling was on statute of limitations, specifically, Respondents argued that the transactions at issue occurred more than six years ago.  They also argued that inquiry into any of the transactions occurring more than three years before the petition was filed is barred since the relief sought for those was primarily monetary.  Noting that movant on a motion to dismiss bears the initial burden of establishing untimeliness,  that burden then shifts to plaintiff to establish timeliness or an applicable tolling.  Here, Justice Scarpulla found that since the claims arose out of a fiduciary relationship, the limitations period is tolled until the fiduciary “opening repudiated his or her obligation or the relationship has been otherwise terminated.”   The court also applied the “continuing wrong doctrine“, noting that it applies in many types of cases, namely, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and statutory violations.  The petition itself alleges continuing, pervasive failure to manage and operate in accordance with applicable rules and law.  That, coupled with the mixed relief sought — injunctive and monetary — led the court to apply the six-year statute of limitations, finding that the conduct at issue was not barred “as a matter of law” at this threshold stage of the case.

When wrongs occur over a substantial period of time — like those alleged here — a detailed pleading, demonstrating the continuity, relatedness and pervasiveness is essential to survive dismissal.  The petition here lays out in detailed fashion a continuous timeline.  Such careful pleading makes it very difficult for a defendant to overcome the “continuing wrong” doctrine.  It remains to be seen, however, after discovery and a likely motion for summary judgment, whether the alleged acts of misconduct are indeed “continuous”  and sufficient to overcome the statute of limitations defense.  The court here made it clear in denying the dismissal motion based on statute of limitations that the Respondents could not demonstrate untimeliness “at this pre-answer stage of the proceedings.”  Stay tuned for future developments!

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Tired of printing hundreds of thousands of documents and carrying numerous boxes of documents to court? The New York Commercial Division has heard your cry.  The New York Law Journal  reported that the Commercial Division courts are committed to utilizing technology to help make litigation efficient and more user friendly. The Commercial Division hopes to utilize innovative and advanced technology to efficiently adjudicate, among others, complex commercial matters. The benefits are bountiful as they will be valuable to lawyers, judges, and jurors.

In October, innovative technology made its debut in Justice Saliann Scarpulla’s courtroom in the New York County Commercial Division. In addition to Justice Scarpulla’s Part Rules, which require all cases be electronically filed and all documents text-searchable, Justice Scarpulla’s courtroom now contains an “86-inch screen to display documents, a podium with a document viewer and a USB port and small screens for attorneys and the judge.”   The new 86-inch screen permits attorneys to highlight and mark up documents. It also allows attorneys to scan documents while at the podium during trial, which helps to avoid unnecessary emergencies and courtroom delays.  Additionally, in an effort to protect client confidentiality, the courtroom contains a separate USB port for attorneys to use if their documents are highly sensitive so that they cannot be accessed through the court’s Wi-Fi. This new technology also permits attorneys to attend conferences via Skype, thus conserving time and expense.

In addition to the 86-inch display screen, the jury box in the courtroom was expanded and is now wheelchair accessible and offers technological assistance to jurors who are hearing or vision impaired. Similarly, jurors will no longer be inundated with reams of documents, as this new technology permits attorneys to provide jurors with a flash drive to access and review the documents in a more efficient matter.  In that regard, Justice Scarpulla stated that “we can promise a juror that they’re not going to be here for six months looking through documents.”  All of these technological improvements will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the willingness of people to serve as jurors and significantly impact efficiency in the courtroom.

“We think it’s important to have the right technology to give the business community in New York the sense that we could compete with the best courts in the world,” Justice Scarpulla opined.  Justice Scarpulla’s courtroom is the first, of what will hopefully be many New York courtrooms, to utilize this innovative technology that will make New York courts a much more desirable venue to handle complex commercial disputes.

The Commercial Division has initiated other changes that reflect its efforts to increase efficiency through technology.  For example, the Commercial Division promulgated Rule 11-e(f), which went into effect on October 1, 2018, encouraging parties to “use the most efficient means to review documents, including electronically stored information.” This new Rule, which addresses the use of technology-assisted review in the discovery process was discussed at length in Kathryn Cole’s blog, titled Important Update for Those Who Practice in the Commercial Division of the NYS Supreme Courts.

As technology pervades the legal profession, it is crucial that practitioners stay current with the changing technological landscape moving forward. Make sure you stay up-to-date with judge’s part rules and changes in the Commercial Division that we are certain to see in the future.

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What consequences might an attorney face if she allows her client to deliberately disregard a court order? A recent decision by Justice Sherwood held that civil contempt is not an appropriate sanction for such complicity so long as the attorney herself did not engage in conduct that violated a court order.

In A&F Hamilton Heights Cluster, Inc. v Urban Green Mgt., Inc. (653038/2014), an action seeking damages for alleged mismanagement and to determine ownership and control of a partnership, Justice Kornreich, prior to her retirement, appointed a receiver and managing agent for the partnership’s five rental properties in West Harlem. Justice Kornreich ordered that the partners and their agents cease collection of partnership receivables and turn over all partnership money to the receiver. Justice Sherwood took over the case in July 2017.

Prior to appointment of the receiver, an interrelated group of entities and their affiliates had managed the properties—referred to here as “Partner A” and “Partner B.” Partner A brought a motion seeking imposition of fines and imprisonment for civil and criminal contempt arising from Partner B’s, Partner B’s attorneys’ (Tendy Law, “Tendy”), and the property management agent retained by Partner B (“Managing Agent”)’s, failure to comply with the court’s orders concerning cessation of partnership receivables and turnover of money to the receiver. The court stated the relevant standard for civil contempt as follows:

To establish civil contempt based on an alleged violation of a court order, the movant must establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that a lawful order of the court expressing an unequivocal mandate was in effect, and that the order was disobeyed to a reasonable certainty (see In re Department of Envt’l. Protection of City of N. Y. v Dep’t of Envt’l. Conservation of State of NY, 70 NY2d 233 [1987]; In re McCormick v. Axelrod, 59 NY2d 574, amended 60 N.Y.2d 652 [1983]; Vujovic v Vujovic, 16 AD3d 490 [2d Dep’t 2005]). The party to be held in contempt must be shown to have had knowledge of the order, and the disobedience must have prejudiced the rights of another party (see McCain v Dinkins, 84 NY2d 216 [1994]; In re McCor11ack, 59 NY2d 574; Garcia v Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., 231 A.D.2d 401 [1st Dep’t 1996]).

In a decision dated November 2, 2018, the court granted the motion. The court found that Partner B and the Managing Agent had “engaged in a pattern of conduct contrary to the direction of the court,” including continuing to collect rents, withholding funds in the partnership account, paying itself fees using partnership funds, and eventually transferring the partnership account’s balance to Partner B. Because these actions comprised a longstanding, repeated pattern of conduct, the court rejected Partner B’s and the Managing Agent’s defense that the transactions were “complex” and that payments had been made “in error.”

As for Tendy, the court found it “complicit” in Partner B and Managing Agent’s disregard of the court’s orders concerning cessation of partnership receivables and turnover of money. In particular, Tendy had “feigned a need for guidance” from the court and sought permission from the court to allow Managing Agent to return funds to Partner B. Tendy also misrepresented to the court the amount remaining in the partnership’s account. In light of the receiver’s multiple complaints concerning Partner B’s and Managing Agent’s disregard of the court’s orders, the court found that Tendy had, at best, “engaged in studied indifference to the contempts of their client and its agent.” However, notwithstanding such complicity, the court declined to hold Tendy in contempt, because Tendy had not violated any court order.

The court’s order raises questions concerning an attorney’s obligations when its client refuses to comply with a court order. Though Tendy avoided liability by failing to take an active role in withholding funds from the receiver, its indifference to its client’s misconduct did not escape the court’s approbation. Counsel finding themselves in such circumstances would thus be wise to tread carefully.

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As litigators in the Commercial Division, everyone knows that discovery can be particularly burdensome and time consuming.  This is especially true when you have clients that are very protective of their information.  The Commercial Division already has anticipated this by offering attorneys a model confidentiality agreement, which in some cases can be further negotiated by the parties for their additional protection.

In Callsome Solutions Inc. v. Google Inc., the parties, as Google would come to regret, included an Attorneys’ Eyes Only (“AEO”) provision in their confidentiality agreement.  Manhattan Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley scolded and sanctioned Google for its AEO designation of hundreds of documents and thousands of lines of deposition testimony.  The Court stated that the “AEO designation was reserved for truly secret documents” and that it should be used “as sparingly as possible.”  This is because “improper designations, not only delay, but also impact. . . the communications between [client] and its attorney.”   Therefore, in designating documents AEO, litigators must take careful consideration to limit the documents with that designation and make sure those documents are only designated in good faith.

In Callsome, the parties entered into stipulated confidentiality agreement that called for two tiers of confidentiality: (1) confidential; and (2) highly confidential – attorneys’ eyes only.   The latter designation was designed to protect confidential information that is “extremely sensitive.”  After Google designated hundreds of documents and thousands of lines of deposition testimony, the plaintiff requested that Google de-designate groups of documents and testimony, Google then engaged in a “slow trickle” of de-designation.

In issuing sanctions against Google, it was not just Google’s over-designations that irritated the court, it was also the “slow trickle” of corrections.  Specifically, the Court found that this “trickle” did not “rectify the initial improper designations.”  Further, Google even attempted to use the corrections as a negotiation tactic within the litigation, attempting to extract concessions from the plaintiff.  The Court found that “[n]o public policy is served by crediting Google’s purported offer to compromise. . .” because “AEO designations are not negotiable.”

A party cannot over designate documents then hold the improperly designated documents hostage until the adversary surrenders.  Such conduct will not be countenanced by this court.

The Court held that “Google’s conduct flouts widely accepted rules of civility embedded in New York litigation and in particular the Commercial Division,” and that it “effectively prevented the expeditious resolution of this litigation.”  The Court further held that Google engaged in frivolous conduct warranting sanctions under 22 NYCRR Section 130-1.1.

The first takeaway here is that confidential designations of any kind, particularly AEO designations should be made in good faith.  Second is that after designating documents AEO, when faced with a request to de-designate, you should ensure that you do not delay the litigation by refusing to do so or attempt to use your designations as a negotiating tactic.  Make sure you have a good faith basis for your designation, and stick to your guns.

 

However, if you believe that a document does not warrant such designation, but your client is still skittish, you can, as the Court suggested, amend (or draft) the confidentiality agreement to guarantee your client further protections such as providing for financial penalties in the event of a breach.  Over designation only delays litigation and shifts the burden to your opponent, which is never appropriate.

You’ve just represented a client in an arbitration proceeding…and lost. The client wants to “appeal” the decision. Now what? The only remedy your client has is to request that the court vacate or modify the arbitration award. However, this is no small task.

A recent decision by New York County Commercial Division Justice Charles E. Ramos (NSB Advisors, LLC v C.L. King & Assoc., Inc., 2018 NY Slip Op 32533 [Sup. Ct., NY County 2018]) serves as a reminder that a party seeking to vacate an arbitration award faces a heavy burden. Arbitration awards are almost always upheld by New York State courts because the standard of review is so high. An arbitration award must be upheld when the arbitrator offers “even a barely colorable justification for the outcome reached.”

The burden of proof lies with the party that is challenging the arbitration award to show the court why the award should be vacated. Pursuant to CPLR §7511, an application to vacate or modify an arbitration award may be made by a party within 90 days after the decision is rendered.

The only two instances when an arbitration award may be vacated include (1) instances involving fraud, corruption or misconduct of the arbitrators or (2) where an arbitration award exhibits “manifest disregard of the law”. To vacate an arbitration award on the latter ground, a court must find that the arbitration panel knew of a governing law yet refused to apply it or ignored it, and that the governing law was well defined, explicit and clearly applicable.

Examples of what could constitute a “manifest disregard of the law” include “an explicit rejection of controlling precedent” and “a decision that is logically impossible”. However, it is important to remember that the arbitration panel is entitled to make its own factual and legal findings, just like a judge or a jury. Alleging mere factual error by the arbitrator or misapplication of complex legal principals will not suffice.

A party seeking to vacate an arbitration award is best served by making every effort to obtain the reasoning behind the arbitration award. However, this must be requested prior the rendering of the award by the arbitrator. Moreover, arbitrators are not automatically required to explain their decision and Article 75 of the CPLR does not impose this requirement. Unfortunately, a failure to provide an explanation for the award is not grounds for vacating it.

However, in some instances, the parties can request that the arbitration panel issue an “explained decision.” Pursuant to FINRA Rule 13904(f), an arbitration panel may contain a rationale for the underlying award if the parties jointly request what is known as “an explained decision”. However, if only one party seeks this relief, the arbitrator is not required to honor the request. In this case, the arbitration was governed by FINRA, but the parties failed to request an explained decision. Justice Ramos reasoned that without an explanation behind the award, it would be next to impossible to determine whether the award was, in fact, a “manifest disregard of the law”.

Finally, a party seeking to vacate an arbitration award must provide the entire arbitration record to the court. Justice Ramos criticized Respondent in this case for not providing the court with a complete record of the arbitration materials despite acknowledging that the complete record included over 16,000 pages of transcripts and 800 exhibits. He reasoned that the court could not possibly have the opportunity to conclude that the arbitration panel “manifestly disregarded the law” with just “a mere snapshot of what occurred.”

Takeaway: Vacating an arbitration award is an uphill battle and attorneys seeking this relief from the court should avail their client to every procedural advantage, including seeking an explained decision from the arbitration panel and submitting the entire record for the court’s review.

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For those civil practitioners who don’t regularly practice in the Commercial Division – beware.  The Unified Court System’s Advisory Committee on Civil Practice (the “Committee”) has proposed that nine (9) Commercial Division Rules be broadly adopted by other, non-commercial civil courts.  These nine rules all have one common goal: to promote efficiency in New York courts.

Earlier this year, the Committee conducted a detailed evaluation of the Commercial Division Rules (22 NYCRR 202.70[g]) to determine which of those rules, if any, should be broadly adopted by non-commercial courts.  In a July 2018 report (the “Report”), the Committee recommended broader application of the following Commercial Division Rules:

Rule 3(a) – Appointment of a court-annexed mediator (as amended)

  • Rule 3(a) provides that a judge may direct, or counsel may seek, the appointment of an uncompensated mediator. This rule also allows counsel for all parties to stipulate having the case determined by a summary jury trial.  The Committee recommended statewide adoption of this rule, with a minor amendment stating that the court may advise (rather than direct) the appointment of a court-annexed mediator.  This rule will promote judicial efficiency and potentially result in the earlier resolution of cases through ADR.

Rule 3(b) – Settlement conference before a judge not assigned to the case

  • In addition to Rule 3(a), the Committee recommended adoption of paragraph (b), which provides that counsel can request a settlement conference before another judge who is not the judge assigned to the case.  The Committee noted, however, that it may be difficult to implement Rule 3(b) in some downstate counties where judicial resources may not be as readily available.

Rule 11-a – Limitations on interrogatories

  • The Committee also recommended statewide adoption of Rule 11-a, which, among other things, sets certain limitations on the use of interrogatories (i.e., interrogatories cannot exceed more than 25 in number, including subparts, and are limited to succinct categories). In the Committee’s view, this proposed amendment “would result in increased efficiency and streamlined litigation” and “serve as a useful guideline for limiting unnecessary, burdensome or abusive discovery practices.”

Rule 11-b – Privilege Logs (in part)

  • To reduce the time and costs associated with preparing document-by-document privilege logs, the Committee recommended the partial adoption of Rule 11-b, which permits the use of categorical privilege logs.  According to the Committee, the categorical approach “is more efficient and cost-effective for the parties, helps streamline litigation and facilitates expeditious court review.”  However, the Committee is not in favor of Rule 11-b’s provision regarding cost allocation, which permits a party required to produce a document-by-document privilege log to apply to the court for costs associated with that log.  Rather, the Committee recommends that, in cases where the parties disagree about which approach to follow, the court should determine whether the categorical approach or the document-by-document approach will be used.

Rule 11-d – Limitations on depositions

  • Similar to the statewide adoption of Rule 11-a (limitations on interrogatories), the Committee recommends that Rule 11-d’s limitations on depositions be broadly adopted. Under this rule, the number of depositions is presumptively limited to ten (10) per party, and each deposition will be limited to seven (7) hours per deponent.  These limits can be changed by stipulation or by court order upon a showing of good cause.

Rule 11-e – Responses and objections to document requests (as amended)

  • It is no mystery that boilerplate objections have become widely disfavored among judges, and are even sanctionable in some courts. Thus, the Committee proposed the broad adoption of Rule 11-e, which requires parties responding to discovery requests to either state that the production will be made as requested, or state with reasonable particularity the grounds for any objection.  The proposed rule will also require a responding party to state, at the time if disclosure, whether the production of documents is complete, that there are no responsive, non-privileged documents in its possession, or explain why the production is not complete.

Rule 19-a – Statement of material facts for summary judgment motions

  • The Committee recommended statewide adoption of Rule 19-a, “as it is likely to greatly assist in narrowing and clearly setting forth the material issues.” The Committee further recommended that a statement of material facts be required in all cases involving summary judgment, and not just in cases “where the court directs.”

Rule 20 – Temporary restraining orders

  • This Commercial Division Rule requires notice to an adverse party of any application for a temporary restraining order, unless the moving party can demonstrate that “significant prejudice” would result from such notice. The Committee recommended statewide adoption of this rule because it “advances a just result by giving all parties notice of the issues and an opportunity to comment.”

Rule 34 – Staggered court appearances

  • Most judges generally have specific motion and conference days and, most parties are directed to appear at a specific time on such day (for example, Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m.). The result is often a courtroom packed with attorneys waiting to be heard, sometimes for hours. Rule 34, however, is intended to encourage “court staggered appearances” by providing litigants specific time slots to appear, depending on the nature of the appearance.  The goal of this proposed rule is obvious: to reduce congestion in the courtrooms and eliminate the inordinate amount of time attorneys spend waiting to be heard, thus reducing client costs and increasing courtroom efficiency.

The Committee is now seeking public comment on the recommendations set forth above.  However, the Committee determined that wholesale adoption of the Commercial Division Rules statewide is not warranted.  Indeed, many of the commercial division rules already exist in one form or another (i.e., Rule 1 [appearance by counsel with knowledge and authority, which is already incorporated into most conference orders; Rule 11-f [deposition of entities, which is already adequately addressed in CPLR Articles 23 and 31, respectively]) and, some of the specific rules may actually add to the costs of litigation or place additional burdens on litigants (i.e., Rule 21 [providing courtesy copies in e-filed cases, which, according to the Committee, is “contrary to the goals of paperless electronic litigation”]).

So what does this mean for civil practitioners?  Whether you practice mainly in the Commercial Division or in other civil courts, the Office of Court Administration is seeking to streamline litigation in non-commercial cases and make civil practice in all courts more efficient and practical.  If these rules are ultimately adopted statewide, ADR will become more commonplace, abusive discovery practices, such as boilerplate objections and excessive interrogatories, will not be tolerated, discovery will become more streamlined and efficient, and hopefully, litigants won’t be waiting in court for hours until their case is finally called.

The Administrative Board is now seeking public comment on the recommendations set forth in the Advisory Committee’s Report.  Those wishing to comment on the Report should e-mail their submissions to rulecomments@nycourts.gov or write to: John W. McConnell, Esq., Counsel, Office of Court Administration, 25 Beaver Street, 11th Floor, New York, New York 10004.  Comments must be received no later than January 15, 2019.

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Perhaps it’s because I’ll be speaking on the topic later this week, or perhaps it’s because of a recent post on another one of our blogs, but shareholder rights of inspection have been on the mind of late.Shareholder inspection rights

While researching 2018 New York cases addressing inspection rights, particularly in the Commercial Division, I came across a Second Department decision from over the summer, which modified a post-trial judgment from Queens County Commercial Division Justice Marguerite A. Grays by ruling in favor of the individual defendant on his counterclaim for an accounting and directing the corporate plaintiff to permit an inspection of its books and records.

In World Ambulette Transp., Inc. v Lee, a corporate ambulance service sought to recover damages from a former driver/dispatcher who was terminated after allegedly charging the company’s debit card for various personal expenses. The defendant counterclaimed for breach of contract and an accounting, claiming not only that he was wrongfully discharged as an employee, but that he was denied certain rights as a minority owner under a shareholder’s agreement, including the right to continued employment, salary, dividends, and other company profits.

At trial, the parties offered conflicting testimony concerning the business arrangement between them, with the defendant claiming that he was a full-blown 49% owner in the company, and the plaintiff claiming that he was merely an employee entitled to 49% of the company’s profits.  Confident in its founder’s testimony in this regard, the plaintiff moved under CPLR 4401 for judgment during trial effectively to dismiss the defendant’s counterclaims, including his claim for an accounting — which, by its very nature, was contingent on the existence of a fiduciary relationship between the parties.  After all, if the defendant never was a shareholder and the requisite fiduciary relationship wasn’t there in the first place, how could he maintain a claim for an accounting against the plaintiff?

The trial court concurred, crediting the founder’s testimony and other “extrinsic evidence” relating to “the parties’ intent,” and found that the parties had “entered into nothing more than a profit sharing agreement,” which warranted dismissal of the defendant’s counterclaims.

The Second Department disagreed, in part anyway, finding that there was nothing ambiguous about an agreement, which on its face was denominated a “shareholder’s agreement,” and which contained a “Warranties” section designating a specific 51/49 percentage ownership of “Class A shares” among the parties.  There simply was no need to consider any extrinsic evidence concerning the parties’ intent when that intent was expressed unambiguously within the four corners of the agreement itself.

After citing section 624 of the Business Corporation Law (“Books and records; right of inspection”) and stating that “a shareholder has both statutory and common-law rights to inspect the books and records of a corporation if inspection is sought in good faith and for a valid purpose,” the Second Department ruled that the defendant was entitled to an accounting and that he should be permitted to examine the plaintiff’s books but otherwise affirmed the trial court’s findings with respect to the defendant’s unauthorized debit-card charges card and the propriety of his termination.

Pyrrhic victory, you say?  Maybe not.  Sure, the defendant in World Ambulette may not have a right to continued employment, or to a director’s meeting on notice prior to termination, or to any salary, dividends, or future profits from the company in which he is a 49% shareholder, but he still has his rights of inspection.  And given the recent expansion of those rights in New York case law (see, e.g., Retirement Plan for Gen. Empls. of City of N. Miami Beach v McGraw Hill Cos., Inc., 120 AD3d 1052 [1st Dept 2014]) — including the right to “investigate alleged misconduct by management and obtaining information that may aid legitimate litigation . . . even if the inspection ultimately establishes that the board engaged in no wrongdoing” — the defendant may eventually have his day in court after all.

** Nota Bene ** — As noted above, the topic of shareholder inspection rights (among others) will be the subject of a panel discussion at the Westchester County Bar Association this coming Thursday, November 1, 2018, at 6 p.m. at the WCBA Headquarters, 4 Westchester Park Drive, Suite 155, in White Plains.  The 1.5 credit CLE program will address the utility of the books-and-records proceeding in disputes among business owners in partnerships, corporations, and LLCs, and the ways in which such disputes might be avoided by having proper formation documents prepared and in place from the beginning.  The three-person panel will be addressing these topics from the perspective of a litigator, a forensic accountant, and a corporate attorney.  Registration and networking at 5:30 p.m.  Hope to see you there!

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Although we generally report on recent Commercial Division decisions, and sometimes commercial cases coming out of the Appellate Divisions, this time we go all the way to the top:  the Court of Appeals.  Not often do we see commercial cases with a procedural twist coming out of our High Court (of NY).  However, last week, the Court rendered a decision in Deutsche Bank Nat’l Bank Trust Co. v. Flagstar Capital Mkts, addressing a thorny statute of limitations issue in a breach of representations and warranties claim arising out of a residential mortgage-backed securities contract.  Even more interesting is that the decision was only a 4-2 vote, drawing two separate dissents from Judges Rivera and Wilson.  Judge Garcia took no part.

The case arose out of a series of mortgage loans originated by defendant Quicken Loans, Inc. that were initially sold to Morgan Stanley Mortgage Capital, Inc. and eventually sold to a trust for the purpose of issuing residential mortgage-backed securities. The document at issue, the Second Amended and Restated Mortgage Loan Purchase and Warranties Agreement (“MLPWA”), contained two provisions at issue. The first, the “Sole Remedy” provision, stated that the purchaser’s only remedy was seller’s obligation to sure or repurchase the nonconforming loan. The second, the so-called “accrual clause” provided that “[a]ny cause of action against the Seller . . . shall accrue . . . upon (i) discovery of such breach . . . (ii) failure by the Seller to cure such breach . . . and (iii) demand upon the Seller by the Purchaser for compliance.”

Against this backdrop, seven years after the loans were originated, plaintiff claimed breach. Defendants immediately moved to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds, relying on the Court of Appeals’ decision in ACE Sec. Corp. v. DB Structural Prods., Inc., which held that a cause of action for breach of representations and warranties accrues when the contract was executed.

The case was dismissed at the trial court level, on the statute of limitations defense. Affirmed by the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department (143 AD2d 15), the Court of Appeals granted leave to consider whether the statute of limitations could be extended beyond the Court’s decision in ACE.

In a split decision, the Court held that the “accrual clause” did not create a substantive condition precedent. In addition, the Court held that the accrual period could not be used to extend the statute of limitations. Rather, the Court distinguished NY General Obligations Law 17-103, which allows parties to extend a statute of limitation after the cause of action accrues. In rejecting plaintiff’s claims of “freedom of contract” the Court held that “[w]hen the public policy favoring freedom to contract and the public policy prohibiting extensions of the limitations period before accrual of the cause of action come into conflict, however, the latter must prevail.”

The dissents were strong. Judge Rivera, criticizing the majority for “misconstru[ing] decisional law” by departing from “our longstanding recognition of the freedom to contract,” found no statute or public policy to be a bar to the enforcement of the accrual. Judge Wilson, agreeing with Judge Rivera’s dissent, in even stronger language concludes the Court “created bad law” and “fundamentally misinterpreted the structure of RMBS agreements.”

The takeaway? Not sure, but at least for now, the drafters of agreements that contain clauses seeking to extend the period within which to assert a claim for breach of a representation and warranty — particularly in the RMBS arena — must take care in ensuring the “accrual” of the claim is not postponed, but rather the period within which to sue is extended.

A general release: the end of a litigation or relinquishment of a right? Every attorney and litigant often breathes a sigh of relief when a litigation comes to a conclusion. But is that always the case? Not when the release covers more than may have been intended.

In a recent decision by Commercial Division Justice Andrea Masley, the Court held that a general form release, which settled a dispute involving one piece of artwork within an allegedly stolen collection of several other pieces of artwork, barred Plaintiff from bringing a subsequent action to recover any other pieces within the collection.

In Frenk v. Solomon, Paul Westheim (“Westheim”), a famous Jewish art critic who specialized in German expressionist art, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and entrusted his art collection with an art dealer in Berlin, Ms. Weidler (“Weidler”). Westheim later married Ms. Westheim-Frenk. After World War II, Weidler claimed that the art collection was destroyed in the war, but Plaintiff (Westheim-Frenk’s daughter) alleged that Weidler stole Westheim’s art collection and sold it in separate pieces.

In 1973, late Westheim’s wife (“Westheim-Frenk”) commenced an action against Weidler, because Weidler sold a paining from Westheim’s art collection (the “First Action”). That matter settled before discovery and was “discontinued ‘with prejudice.’” Westheim-Frenk, represented by New York counsel, executed a blanket release (the “Release”), discharging Weidler, her “heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns” from all claims that Westheim-Frenk “ever had, now have, or which [Ms. Wetheim-Frenk] or [her] heirs, executors, or administrators, hereafter can, shall or may have.” In consideration for the Release, Plaintiff’s mother received $7,500.00, which is equivalent to about $40,000.00 today.

In or about January of 2013, Plaintiff initiated the instant action against the executors of Weidler’s estate and her heirs, seeking to recover the valuable artwork from Westheim’s art collection, as well as damages and a judgment declaring that she was entitled to the artwork.

Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment alleging that the Release and stipulation discontinuing the First Action barred Plaintiff’s claim under the doctrine of res judicata; and nothing in the broad Release was “intended to be narrowly applied to any one painting, but rather, to the entire collection.” The terms of the broad Release bar Plaintiff from bringing an action against Weidler, or her “heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns.” Because the defendants demonstrated the prima facie defense of release, the burden shifted to Plaintiff to evidence material issues of fact to defeat summary judgement. See Aoki v. Aoki.

In seeking to limit the broad Release, Plaintiff argues that the subject of the First Action was the artwork, entitled Portrait of Dr. Robert Freund, and, thus, that the Release applied only to that piece. Alternatively, Plaintiff argues that Westheim-Frenk was fraudulently induced by Weidler to execute the Release and, thus, the defendants should be estopped from using the Release. However, the defendants objected to Plaintiff’s use of parol evidence. Justice Masley held that because the Release contained a standardized form, the court “must be flexible in the application of the parol evidence rule.”

Plaintiff also attempted to identify a transaction between Ms. Weidler and Westheim-Frenk in support of her claim that the Release only pertained to the single painting. Plaintiff argued that in 1976, when Weidler attempted to sell another piece from Westheim’s collection, Weidler entered into an agreement to split the sale amount of the artwork—a deal which would clearly not make sense if the Release pertained to all the artwork in Westheim’s collection. On the other hand, the defendants identify a letter from Westheim-Frenk stating that she understood that nothing could be done regarding all future artwork that may turn up. Next, Plaintiff argued that it is inconceivable that the low settlement amount from the First Action ($7,500.00) would have covered all the other valuable artwork. Justice Masley, however, rejected these conclusory arguments, holding that Plaintiff’s “evidence of conduct and intent is inconclusive” in light of the clear and unambiguous language of the Release.

In that regard, the First Department has held that “to hold a release forever hostage to legal afterthoughts basically vitiates the nature of the release.” See Aoki v. Aoki. Although Plaintiff argued that the Release should be set aside because Weidler used fraud to obtain same, Justice Masley held that in order to set aside the Release on the ground of fraud, Plaintiff had to establish that the fraud was separate from the subject of the Release, in addition to all the basic elements of fraud. Plaintiff, however, failed to identify any of Weidler’s misrepresentations at the time the Release was executed. In fact, there was no support for a claim that Westheim-Frenk was defrauded when she signed the release. Interestingly, Justice Masley held that plaintiff’s mother “failed to condition the Release on the truth of the information . . . i.e. that there were no other artworks from Westheim’s collection.” The Court finally also determined that Weidler did not waive the Release and Plaintiff did not present any evidence demonstrating that Weidler “intentionally relinquish[ed] a known right.”

Accordingly, because the Release was clear and unambiguous, the Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the action.

Takeaway: Be especially precautious when drafting a release for a client, making sure not to waive any of their rights. Here, Justice Masley recognized that Plaintiff’s mother was represented by counsel when entering into the general release. This could potentially open you to a malpractice lawsuit.

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