Justice Charles E. Ramos

At the New York City Bar Association the evening of February 25th, five recently retired justices of the Commercial Division—Hon. Eileen Bransten, Hon. Shirley W. Kornreich, Hon. Charles E. Ramos, Hon. Melvin L. Schweitzer, and moderator Hon. Carolyn E. Demarest—convened for a panel entitled “The Commercial Division: Past, Present and Future.” Here is a summary of some of the topics discussed by the panel:

History of the Commercial Division. Before the Commercial Division, commercial cases were heard in New York County’s Special Term, Part 1, a forum marked by chaos and disengaged justices. In Special Term, Part 1, there was no continuity and no monitoring of discovery. Opinions were generally drafted by the law department. Several of the panelists remarked that when they were in private practice, they had no faith that their clients would be treated fairly in Special Term, Part 1.

When it was first created, no judges were interested in sitting in the Commercial Division, as it had no rules and had not yet proved successful. Nowadays, by contrast, many view the Commercial Division as a stepping-off point to the Appellate Division. At a recent luncheon with judges from the Southern District, the federal judges complained that the Commercial Division was “taking all the good cases.”

Development of the Commercial Division Rules. The Rules began from discussions among judges about how to resolve certain common problems. The judges had similar, but not identical, part rules. Justice Ramos credited Robert L. Haig (who was in attendance, author of the exhaustive treatise on commercial litigation in New York courts) with creating uniform rules and then forming an advisory council. Justice Bransten emphasized that each new Rule is carefully considered and debated before it is enacted, going through multiple rounds of input from the advisory council, the chief counsel of court administration, board of judges, and public comment.

Effectiveness of the Rules. The panel generally agreed that the Rules have been effective because they allow individualism and flexibility to each part. For example, Justice Kornreich noted that the flexibility afforded by the Rules allowed her to make her procedures conform to the expectations of practitioners accustomed to the federal courts. The justices also discussed variations in their part rules concerning affidavits for direct examination and resolution of discovery disputes.

Common Mistakes Made by Practitioners. Throughout the evening, as well as in response to a specific question from the audience, the panelists shared the following tidbits of advice for attorneys in the Commercial Division:

  • Motions to dismiss should be utilized as much as possible, to clean the pleadings (and the scope of discovery) of non-meritorious claims, as well as to give the judge a “feel” for the case.
  • Unsolicited letters to the court should be avoided—if in doubt about whether a letter should be sent to chambers, ask the clerk in advance.
  • Preliminary conferences are an important opportunity to address the merits and educate the judge about the case, as well as to give the judge a sense of the potential usefulness of ADR.
  • Take care to read the Commercial Division Rules and Part Rules carefully. Justice Bransten believed that there should be stricter enforcement of the Rules.
  • Be aware of differences between federal and state procedural law, and do not confuse the two.
  • Take the court seriously—do not send in per-diem attorneys unfamiliar with the case.

Is the Commercial Division Elitist? The panel addressed this question last, and generally agreed that the Commercial Division was not elitist, although Justice Ramos conceded that it might appear so from the outside. Justice Schweitzer felt strongly that as the business center of the United States, if not the world, New York should devote extra resources to its commercial litigation courts to the extent necessary. Other benefits from the Commercial Division that justified its extra costs included:

  • The Commercial Division has made other Parts more efficient by not having to oversee trials of these matters;
  • High value cases attract higher-quality litigants who operate more efficiently and require less of the court’s time and resources;
  • The Commercial Division serves as a laboratory for creative solutions to issues affecting other courts; and
  • The Commercial Division does not really require so much extra resources—simply one extra clerk per Part.

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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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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.