I made two observations coming out of Grand Central Station during my morning commute last week. First, the city really stinks after a string of oppressively hot and humid summer days. Second, there appears to be a temporary taxi stand, perhaps occasioned by the ongoing construction of the new One Vanderbilt building, just outside the south entrance of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street under the Park Avenue Viaduct.

This latter observation was rather rudely forced upon me when the precarious position of one such cab nearly caused me to traverse its front-end Bo and Luke Duke style. The site of the mangled NYC taxi medallion fastened to the cab’s dented hood was a striking metaphor for the current state of the taxi industry given the increasing popularity of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.

The plight of the cabbie was on display in a recent decision from the Honorable O. Peter Sherwood of the Manhattan Commercial Division in a case called Capital One Equip. v Deus, in which the cabbie-defendants, after defaulting on a promissory note representing more than $400,000 borrowed to purchase a taxi medallion, attempted to rest on the traditional contractual defense of impracticability or impossibility of performance in a summary proceeding under CPLR 3213.

The essence of Defendants’ claim was that “due to the economic change in the medallion and taxi industry of New York by ride sharing applications like Uber and Lyft, there is an impossible hurdle for the defendants to overcome, making the repayment of the loan impossible.”

Readers may recall from their law-school hornbook days that the impossibility defense contemplates truly unexpected circumstances. As the plaintiff-lender in the Deus case put it, “the impossibility defense . . . only excuses a party’s contractual performance where there has been destruction or obstruction by God, a superior force, or by law.”

The cabbies, however, likened their situation to the kind of critical condition contemplated by the traditional defense, describing the industry as being “on life support with little to no chance for a reversal of its current dire situation.”

“At the heart of the problems facing the NYC Taxi industry,” cried the cabbies, “is the emergence of companies such as Uber and Lyft which are exempt from the regulatory framework burdening the medallion owners.” As a result, “ridership in New York City yellow taxi cabs has dropped almost 30%” and “NYC taxi medallions, which were selling for in excess of $1,000,000 as recently as 2013, have plummeted in market value” – all of which has led to a “collapse of unprecedented proportions.”

A creative argument to be sure, but the court wasn’t buying it. Citing New York case law going back to the late 1960’s, the court ultimately held for the plaintiff-lender, finding that “performance of a contract is not excused where impossibility or difficulty of performance is occasioned only by financial difficulty or economic hardship. Economic hardship alone cannot excuse performance; the impossibility must be produced by an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against in the contract.”

Coming on the heels of several driver suicides in recent months, the Deus decision is just more bad news for the NYC taxi industry. While market forces created by the advent of ride-sharing services may not be “superior” enough to satisfy the impossibility defense, one thing’s for sure: it’s a difficult time to be a taxi driver in New York City.

**UPDATE**  Perhaps the cabbies are seeing a little light after all. Around the time this post was published last week, news broke that the New York City Council had tugged the reigns of the Uber/Lyft ride-sharing industry by passing minimum-wage requirements for drivers, as well as a one-year freeze on the licensing of participating vehicles in the city. The first-of-their-kind bills, particularly the cap on e-hail cars, was driven in large part by increased problems related to city-street congestion. Today, Mayor de Blasio signed the bills into law.

 

The Appellate Division, in a short but direct ruling, reminds the bench and bar that courts cannot simply “search the record” and grant summary judgment on claims or defenses that are not the subject of the motion.  It did so this time in the context of an LLC judicial dissolution action pending in the Commercial Division of Nassau Supreme in Philogene v. Duckett.  This follows another recent decision by the same court two weeks earlier in  Singletary v. Alhalai Rest., Inc., a personal injury action.

The procedural setting in Philogene is somewhat unusual.  Plaintiff and defendant are 50/50 members of Verity Associates, LLC (“Verity”), which publishes cookbooks and recipes, such as America’s Most Wanted Recipes and Tried and True Recipe Secrets, through the internet.  Plaintiff commenced the action in his “individual” capacity, as well as “suing in the right” of Verity.  In his complaint, he asserted various claims, including breaches of fiduciary duty and contract, where he sought injunctive relief, damages and an accounting.  In turn, defendant counterclaimed for judicial dissolution and moved for summary judgment on that claim.  The motion court denied defendant’s motion for dissolution since it found that the stated purpose of the entity was being met and that it was financially feasible to continue Verity.  The court then “searched the record” concluding that “no further adjustment in their interests is necessary” and dismissed the complaint.

So what is the reach of a court’s authority to “search the record” and grant reverse summary judgment?

We’re all familiar with CPLR 3212(b) which empowers a court to “search the record” and award judgment to the non-movant.  In fact, if a court searches the record and concludes the non-movant should win, then the court has both the “power” and “responsibility” to render judgment accordingly, see Merritt Vineyards, Inc. v. Windy Heights Vineyard, Inc.  This authority, however, is not boundless.  The leading case from the Court of Appeals on the scope of this power is Dunham v. Hilco Constr. Co., where Chief Judge Kaye observed that, “[a]part from considerations of simple fairness, allowing a summary judgment motion by any party to bring up for review every claim and defense asserted by every other party would be tantamount to shifting the well-accepted burden of proof on summary judgment motions.”  Some courts have expressed  frustration with this limitation (e.g.,  “Although the Court would like nothing better than to put this case out of its misery, given Dunham . . . the Court will decline defendant’s invitation to search the record.”)  But by now, the law is clear that CPLR 3212(b) permits “searching the record” in the context of summary judgment is only appropriate on issues or claims raised by the motion, and nothing more.

Notwithstanding the narrow authority courts have to “search the record” in the context of a dispositive motion, this should not be confused with a court’s authority to decide non-dispositive motions (such as discovery related) on grounds other than those advanced by the parties in the motion papers, see, e.g., Tirado v. Miller (granting discovery related motion on grounds not argued by the parties).  For a good discussion of this distinction, the First Department’s ruling in Rosenblatt v. St. George Health and Racquetball Assocs., LLC is instructive.

 

In May 2013, professional golfer Vijay Singh (“Singh”) brought suit against PGA Tour, an organizer of the leading men’s professional golf tours and events in North America, in Vijay Singh v. PGA Tour, Inc. PGA Tour enacted an Anti-Doping Program, which prohibits golfers from using certain substances. The list of prohibited substances was adopted from the list maintained by the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”). A few years after the Anti-Doping Program was enacted, Singh began using a performance-enhancing substance, deer antler spray, for his knee and back problems.

Although Singh tested negative for any banned substance, PGA Tour, which sent the spray for testing, determined that the spray contained prohibited substances. As a result, PGA Tour concluded that Singh violated the Anti-Doping Program and, as a result, suspended him from activities related to PGA Tour’s organization. PGA Tour subsequently dropped its disciplinary action and revoked Singh’s suspension after WADA announced that deer antler spray is not a prohibited substance.

Singh sued PGA Tour in the New York County Commercial Division for, among other things, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and conversion. Nearly three years later, Singh moved for partial summary judgment on his breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing cause of action. PGA Tour moved for summary judgment on the causes of action for conversion and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

In May 2017, Justice Eileen Bransten granted in part and denied in part PGA Tour’s motion for summary judgment. She dismissed Singh’s claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and denied in part Singh’s motion for partial summary judgment on that claim. The Court determined there were issues of fact regarding whether PGA Tour breached the implied covenant of good faith by failing to consult with the WADA, upon which PGA Tour clearly relied in issuing its list of prohibited substances, prior to suspending Singh. The Court also concluded there were issues of fact pertaining to what, if any, damage Singh suffered as a result of his suspension and PGA Tour’s making public statements regarding his use of the substance. Justice Bransten also dismissed Plaintiff’s cause of action for conversion on the basis that PGA Tour demonstrated compliance with the Anti-Doping Program, thus establishing that PGA Tour was entitled to escrow Plaintiff’s funds from the date of Singh’s alleged violation to the end of his suspension.

Recently, the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed Justice Bransten’s decision. PGA Tour’s motion for summary judgment dismissing Singh’s cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was denied. The Court held that the determination as to whether PGA Tour exercised discretion “arbitrarily, irrationally or in bad faith by failing to confer with or defer to” the WADA prior to suspending Singh and making public statements regarding his use of the deer antler spray is an issue of fact for the jury to determine. The First Department relied on Dalton v. Educational Testing Serv., which held that “[w]here a contract contemplates the exercise of discretion, this pledge includes a promise not to act arbitrarily or irrationally.” Indeed, the Court went on to determine that within the obligation to exercise good faith are “promises which a reasonable person in the position of the promisee would be justified in understanding were included.” In that regard, the Court held that issues of fact exist on whether the public statements made by PGA Tour representatives implicating Singh’s substance use were a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and whether and what damage Singh suffered as a result thereof. The Court also affirmed the earlier decision dismissing the claim to the extent it relied on Singh’s allegation that he was treated differently than other similarly situated professional golfers.

 

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.

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.

Ian Pai was an early participant in the Blue Man Group (“BMG”).  Between 1989 and 1991, he met and began collaborating with the founders of BMG, namely, Chris Wink, Phillip Stanton and Matt Goldman.  Pai claims to have made significant contributions to BMG’s creative and musical aspects over the decades-long relationship he had with the group, having ultimately assumed the duties of Music Director and Conductor.   In 2014, Pai’s royalty checks were abruptly cut in half without explanation.  Ultimately, Pai filed a  complaint against BMG and its founders, claiming breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, accounting, quantum meruit and unjust enrichment.  Following discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment on all counts.  Justice Barry Ostrager denied the motion in part, but granted summary judgment dismissing the two counts premised upon the existence of a fiduciary duty:  breach of fiduciary duty and accounting.  The remaining claims survived the motion, and trial is now scheduled for April 9, 2018.

Pai concedes that his fiduciary duty and accounting claims are not based upon a “formal” fiduciary relationship, but rather on his decades-old personal relationship with the three founders, and the founders’ alleged representations that they would “take care” of him.   In sum, his fiduciary duty claims were based solely upon the close relationship they developed over the years.  The defendants denied a fiduciary relationship ever existed, but did admit they had a long close-knit relationship with Pai.

So, can a mere close personal relationship create a fiduciary duty?   Maybe!  Indeed, as the Court recognized, citing Kohan v. Nehmadi, a fiduciary relationship can be found to exist between close friends under certain circumstances.   Here, the Court considered that “Pai’s age, lack of financial experience, and trust in the Individual Defendants to look out for him” may very well have given rise to a fiduciary relationship.  However, fatal to Pai’s claims was applicable six-year statute of limitations which barred any claims he may have had in the 1990s.  The Court reasoned that since 2009, Pai has been represented by counsel, negotiating agreements between Pai and BMG, all at arms-length.  The result is that the contract-based claims survive for trial, but the fiduciary relationship-based do not.

The concept of a close personal relationship giving rise to fiduciary duty is not new.    Whether a fiduciary relationship exists is, of course, a very fact-intensive inquiry.  The Court in the Pai case recognized this and, in the end, did not have to decide whether the early relationship in fact gave rise to a fiduciary one since it was time barred.  A good overview of this very issue — how New York courts determine the existence of a fiduciary duty — is found in an EDNY case, St. John’s Univ. v. Bolton (Garaufis, J., 2010) (“a fiduciary relationship embraces not only those the law has long adopted . . . but also more informal relationships where it can be readily seen that one party reasonably trusted another”).  The starting point (and maybe the ending one too) is whether there is an agreement between the parties governing their rights and obligations.  In the absence of such, a close personal relationship intertwined with a business one can very well create at least issues of fact whether a fiduciary relationship exists between them.

Frequent readers of this blog may recall my post from the end of last year in which I highlighted a decision of the Appellate Division, First Department affirming a decision of New York County Commercial Division Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich, that examined the application of Judiciary Law § 470.  For those needing a refresher, Judiciary Law § 470 provides that an attorney residing in “an adjoining state” may practice New York – without moving for pro hac admission – only if  both (I) admitted in New York and, (ii) more crucially to the Arrowhead Capital decision, maintains a physical law office in New York. In Arrowhead Capital, the Appellate Division affirmed Justice Kornreich’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint due entirely to its non-resident lawyer’s failure, in violation of Judiciary Law § 470, to maintain an office in New York. 

Proving that this is not nearly as esoteric an issue as you might think is Platinum Rapid Funding Group, Ltd. v H D W of Raliegh, Inc., a recent decision out of the Nassau County Supreme Court (Hon. Jerome C. Murphy). While not a Commercial Division decision, Platinum Rapid Funding is valuable to readers of this blog for its additional analysis of Judiciary Law § 470. Before the Court in Platinum Rapid Funding was the plaintiff’s motion brought pursuant to Judiciary Law § 470, seeking disqualification of defendants’ counsel (the firm of Higbee & Associates [“Higbee”] and lawyer Rayminh L. Ngo [“Ngo”]) for failing to maintain an office for the transaction of law in New York, and dismissing the defendants’ counterclaims and affirmative defenses on the same basis. The court’s holding that defendants’ counsel did not maintain a physical office in the State of New York at the time they appeared in the action, relied on the following evidentiary findings:

  1. The defendants’ Verified Answer identified the principal office for Higbee as being in Santa Ana, California;
  2. Ngo identified himself not as an associate or partner of Higbee, but as the principal of his own law practice based in Salt Lake City, Utah;
  3. While Ngo asserted in opposition that he is duly admitted to practice in New York and was serving of counsel to Higbee, which he claimed was a “multijurisdictional law firm based in California” that purportedly leases office space on Wall Street and in Syracuse, neither Ngo nor Higbee asserted that there were attorneys or law firm staff in either location;
  4. The lease agreements subsequently submitted by Ngo as proof of the two New York office locations failed to establish that they were maintained by Higbee at the time Ngo and Higbee appeared in the action; and
  5. The court “[could not] overlook the fact that the defendants . . . failed to offer any competing evidence against the sworn affidavits of . . . process servers who attest[ed] that they physically went to [the Wall Street and Syracuse] addresses . . . and confirmed that neither Ngo nor Higbee had physical offices at th[ose] locations.”

The court further instructed that disqualification under these circumstances is not permissively left to the court’s discretion, but rather a finding that counsel’s violation of Judiciary Law § 470 mandates immediate disqualification from continued representation in the action.  Platinum Rapid Funding offers another stern reminder to non-resident lawyers attempting to practice in New York State courts: be sure to maintain a physical office in New York at the time you first appear in a given action or else be prepared to be disqualified.