Recently in Litigation Category

Right to Privacy Is Not Absolute

July 14, 2015

As we discussed on this blog some time ago, an artist's freedom of expression may trump an individual's right to privacy. This issue has again reached the courts and this principle has been reaffirmed.

Defendant Arne Svenson surreptitiously photographed the residents of a neighboring building through its glass facade. After a year of this conduct, Svenson exhibited these photos in a gallery, including photos of private scenes, bragging that the subjects did not know they were being photographed. Plaintiffs objected, especially because some of the children that were photographed were identifiable. Svenson agreed to remove one of the photos, but not all of them. As time went on and these photos became public knowledge, plaintiffs sued Svenson, alleging invasion of privacy, among other claims. Svenson defended himself by claiming that the photographs were protected by the First Amendment. The lower court agreed, finding that the photographs were not just a business but a form of art. The family appealed.

The First Department traced the statutory background to the right to privacy law. The court noted that the broad language of the statute prohibited the use of one's '"name, portrait, picture or voice'" in advertising or trade. The Court explained that the term "advertising or trade" was drafted specifically to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment, which protects news or issues impacting the public. Those exceptions, wrote the court, are also extended to items protected under the First Amendment, including artistic expression. The only practical limitations are found where a photo that was not newsworthy was sold under the guise of something newsworthy or of importance to the public, or where the relationship between the expression and the subject of the image bore no reasonable connection.

In this case, there was no real dispute that the pictures were items of art, and despite the obvious profit motivation and questionable methods in obtaining the pictures, no violation of plaintiff's privacy could be found.

Real Estate Broker Entitled to Recover the Value of Its Services

March 2, 2015

Goli Realty Corp., commenced an action for the recovery of brokerage commissions. Goli sued Halperin claiming to have brought a buyer that was ready, willing and able to purchase certain real property that Halperin and his entity, SPJ LLC, were looking to sell. Goli prepared marketing packages for Hess Oil, Walgreens, and others, detailing the property's attributes. Hess and Walgreens responded with interest, and Goli showed the property to Hess. Hess had Goli send Halperin a proposal which provided for the minimum rent required by Halperin. Goli sent its commission agreement to Haleprin with Hess's proposal. Thereafter, Halperin contacted Hess directly. Shortly thereafter, Halperin informed Goli that he was not interested in a gas station as a tenant and claimed that Goli had promised to provide an agreement with Walgreens. A few days later, Goli presented Halperin with a proposal from Walgreens, also with the minimum rent. Goli claimed that Halperin agreed to proceed with negotiations with both prospective tenants and to consider how to buy an adjacent property. Despite what Goli had been told, it learned that Halperin had signed a lease with Hess. Goli sued for its brokerage commissions.

Reviewing how the Court discussed the facts and party testimony makes clear that it found Haleprin's testimony to not be credible. At one point, the Court states that outright. Among other things, the Court seemed troubled by Halperin's inability to explain why SPJ did not agree to a lease with Walgreens, as brokered by Goli, if Halperin would not accept a gas station tenant, especially as it ultimately signed with Hess.

At the end, the Court was able to find that an enforceable brokerage agreement existed despite the absence of a formal writing. There was no question that Goji was asked to find a tenant and did so, securing two acceptable tenants. Thus, Goji was entitled to the value of its services, which were the same as the commission that he demanded in his proposed brokerage agreement (even though the Court noted that those commission may have been a bit higher than market rates). The Court did not allow that amount to be awarded against the individual Halperin defendants, however, because Goji had done the work for SPJ, LLC.

This point is critical in any lawsuit as it highlights the importance of obtaining some security when dealing with entities. While Goli obtained an award of $293,962, that award was against SPJ, LLC only. If for some reason SPJ cannot pay that amount and has no assets, Goli collects little or nothing. Had Goli had some agreement with the individual defendants, collecting would be far less of a concern. At a minimum, the judgment could have been obtained against an individual and not just a potentially worthless entity.

This case does two things: It highlights the general rule that a broker is entitled to commissions if it is asked to find a tenant and does so, even if that agreement is not in writing. It also illustrates the pitfalls of entering into an agreement with an entity without any security or guaranty from the individuals behind that entity. The broker might be entitled to a fee but without the ability to collect from a defunct entity.

Transfer of Looted Company Held Valid

February 10, 2015

Steve Hong is the sole shareholder of Koryeo International Corp. Hong sued his mother, Kyung Ja Hong for looting Koryeo before she transferred the corporation to him.

Hong worked for the corporation after law school. His parents promised to transfer the corporation to him in exchange for his agreement to work for a minimal salary. After the death of Hong's father, Mrs. Hong assumed sole ownership and control of corporation. In 2012, Mrs. Hong transferred ownership and control of the corporation to Hong. Upon that transfer, Hong learned that the corporation's bank account held some $50,000, despite revenue in the millions of dollars. Hong and the Corporation sued his mother, claiming that she looted the corporation prior to its transfer, leaving him with a virtually worthless entity. Mrs. Hong sought dismissal of the claims.

Initially, the court found that because Mrs. Hong was the sole shareholder when she allegedly looted the corporation, the corporation could not be a plaintiff against her. The Court would not find anything wrongful in the corporation's actions, or claims of a wrong, when those actions were sanctioned by its sole shareholder. The Court then held that the vague promise to Hong, made 20 years before the transfer, was too indefinite to create a true contract. Moreover, found the court, Hong received exactly what he was promised--the corporation--and even if looted, that was all he was promised.

Keep in mind: There are few exceptions to the rule that any business agreement--even with one's mother--should be set out in a detailed writing. Oral or indefinite agreements are fertile grounds for long-term legal battles.

The Kati Dispute

February 4, 2015

A dispute between The KatiRoll Company, Inc. and Kati Junction, Inc., both of which sell Indian food, produced a court decision useful in examining trademark/servicemark and trade dress issues.

In 2002, KatiRoll opened its first store-front in New York City. That location would expand to two additional restaurants in Manhattan. It sold distinctive food items, offered discounts on multiple purchases, and used an orange and white color scheme on its employee uniforms, signage and marketing. The location setup was consistent in all of the stores, so that each store had front windows, limited seating and an open kitchen. Finally, each store had wood trim in its interior. Because KatiRoll invested much time and expense in developing its natural menu items, each employee signed a non-disclosure agreement in addition to agreeing in their employee manuals that these food items were of secret formulations.

Kati Junction opened a restaurant some three blocks from a KatiRoll location. Kati Junction's color scheme, menu, specials, store layout, and trim were nearly identical to those used by KatiRoll. Kati Junction hired seven current and former KatiRoll employees for this new store. Since Kati Junction opened, KatiRoll customers asked management if the Kati Junction store was part of the KatiRoll chain.

KatiRoll sued Kati Junction and the seven employees, alleging infringement of a registered service mark, trade dress infringement, unfair competition, and other claims addressed to the unfair business practices and theft of trade secrets. Kati Junction sought dismissal of almost all of the claims.

Addressing the trade dress claim in this context, the court highlighted the basic definition of trade dress, as "'the total image of a business' and which 'may include the shape and general appearance of the exterior of the restaurant, the identifying sign, the interior kitchen floor plan, the decor, the menu, the equipment used to serve food, the servers; uniform and other features reflecting the total image of the restaurant.'" This protection was intended to protect the goodwill and the company's ability to distinguish itself from its competitors. To establish this claim, the plaintiff must establish the elements and details of how the trade dress is expressed, and must satisfy certain minimum requirements to show that the trade dress is legitimate and enforceable, and representative of that business.

Because KatiRoll had set out sufficient details to establish these claims, the court refused to dismiss any of its claims. The Court's decision also indicates that it saw the allegations against Kati Junction credible on multiple grounds, and on claims beyond those described in this article, which spells trouble for Kati Junction's defense.

S&P Is Forced to Provide Broad Access of its Books to Shareholders

November 3, 2014

One of the repercussions of the mortgage meltdown was the subsequent scrutiny of the bond rating agencies, including S&P. Claims were made that the rating agencies ignored bond risks and overstated the quality of certain bonds so that the agencies would earn more fees from the increased volume of bonds they reviewed and rated. Because those companies issuing bonds would not patronize the agencies that did not endorse the bonds issued, the agencies did not properly police the quality and reliability of the bonds. In the ensuing collapse, numerous federal and state agencies pointed fingers at the rating agencies and launched investigations into the agencies' business practices. This setting provides the basis for this action.

Under State statute, in certain circumstances, a shareholder of a corporation is allowed to review the corporation's books and records. Forcing compliance requires a lawsuit, but it is more streamlined than a typical lawsuit and the issues before the court are narrow. The documents to be provided under statute are limited, but a judge has the authority under common law, meaning laws developed over time by the courts, to provide more information than what the statutes allow.

In the S&P case, the shareholders, an individual and a retirement fund, sought access to S&P's books and records. The shareholders claimed that they were entitled to review a host of S&P's internal business records to determine how S&P conducted its business and whether management acted improperly (one wonders if the damage to S&P's stock price had something to do with these demands). S&P disagreed that the shareholders were permitted access to the extensive list of documents demanded, and agreed to provide only the limited information allowed under the statutes.

The Appellate Division, First Department, sided with the shareholders. The court held that so long as the shareholders' purpose behind their demands were legitimate and reasonable, S&P could not refuse their requests. Thus, S&P was forced to provide access to the broader list of documents and information allowed under common law and could not hide behind the narrow provisions of the statutes.

Retirement Plan of Gen. Empls. of City of N. Miami Beach v. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Violating Confidentiality Agreements

October 23, 2014

Confidentiality provisions are common in many different settings, including settlements, business transactions and intellectual property agreements. The cost of violating a confidentiality provision often leads to litigation and damages, and significant aggravation. While a few months old, a recent article I read highlighted some real-life examples. Have a look here and here.

Before signing a confidentiality provision, non-compete, or any agreement, know what is being bound---many times the one agreeing is unaware of some of the sweeping terms of the agreement made. The wake-up can be painful.

Protective Order Renders Commercial Contract Impossible to Perform

September 15, 2014

Plaintiff Kolodin is a singer who lived with her agent, defendant Valenti. Despite the deterioration of their relationship the parties maintained a professional arrangement and Kolodin continued to sign with Valenti and his company, Jayarvee.

At some point, their relationship turned worse and Kolodin obtained an order of protection against Valenti, which prevented him from contacting her. This protective order was extended on consent a number of times. Kolodin then sued seeking recision of the last contract she signed with Jayarvee arguing that fulfilling the terms of that contract was impossible due to the order of protection signed by Kolodin and Valenti. The parties resolved the issues underlying the order of protection by signing a stipulation by which they agreed to have no further contact with each other. The draft of that stipulation had language allowing contact with employees of Jayarvee, but that language was dropped from the final version. Once this stipulation was in place, the court agreed that the parties' contract could not be fulfilled and should be terminated due to its impossibility of performance.

In affirming that decision, the First Department first discussed the narrow grounds for recision of a contract based upon of impossibility of its performance. Those grounds are where the "'the subject matter of the contract or the means of performance makes performance objectively impossible. Moreover, the impossibility must be produced by an unanticipated event that could not have been foreseen or guarded against n the contract.'" Because the parties' stipulation "destroyed the means of performance by precluding all contact" between the parties, the First Department found that the parties' stipulation "rendered objectively impossible by law" the terms of the parties' contract. As such, the Appellate Division agreed that the contract could be rescinded and cancelled. The court went further and noted that this contract, by its nature, would not allow any relationship, finding that because Valenti had a "central role" in the performance of the Jayarvee contract, his input was material and necessary for the execution of the parties' responsibilities under the contract.

It is important to recognize this outcome because the contract was between Kolodin and Jayarvee, not between Kolodin and Valenti. The court disregarded this normally critical distinction because it recognized the underlying involvement of Valenti and essentially extended the Kolodin-Jayarvee contract to Valenti. And this outcome was not just a by-product of the core decision. The court specifically rejected Valenti's argument that because only he was party to the stipulation, but not Jayarvee, there was no reason why Kolodin could not perform for Jayarvee. The Court determined that "[p]ractically speaking [ ] Jayarvee's employees answer to Valenti, and the company's decisions are ultimately made by Valenti. It would be impossible for Jayarvee, without Valenti's input, to engage in communication with Kolodin. It is of no moment that Jayarvee could hypothetically perform the contract[ ] absent Valenti's involvement; to do so would require a sort of firewall, the very establishment of which would necessitate (direct or indirect) communication between Valenti and plaintiff. Valenti's own admissions as to his role managing Jayarvee compel the conclusion that the contracts could not be performed without his involvement and, thus, without violating the stipulation."

Finally, the appeals court noted that even if the breakdown of the relationship could have been a foreseeable act at the time the parties entered into the contract, so that impossibility could not be established, it was the parties signing the stipulation that was the trigger for creating impossibility of performance of the parties' contract. Thus, what was foreseeable at the time the contract was signed was not relevant.

Kolodin v. Valenti (1st Dept. 2004)

Board Member's Vote for Disputed Conduct Not Deemed Bias for Demand in Derivative Action

August 25, 2014

Often, litigation involving a corporation will be framed as a derivative action meaning, that the shareholder that is suing is doing so on behalf of the corporation but not individually. A prerequisite for a derivative action is the suing shareholder's demand on the board to act on behalf of the corporation. However, one way to avoid this demand, is to demonstrate to a judge that because the entity's board members are biased against the demand, any demand would be futile. Upon such a showing, the demand will be waived.

In a case involving Life Medical Technologies, Inc., Suffolk County commercial division judge, Elizabeth Emerson, held that a board member's vote for the conduct in question did not equate to bias so that a demand may not have been futile. That meant that just because the board member agreed to take the action that is now the subject of the lawsuit did not mean that a demand on that board member to sue would be useless. The court held that the board member, when faced with a demand, could change his or her mind.

I suppose.

The brief facts here involve the company's failure to take steps to recover certain stock grants to a consultant and company officer (both of whom sat on the company's board). There was no dispute that the other board members voted in favor of the grants and failed to take action to recover them.

When the shareholder commenced a derivative action against the company and board members, he alleged that any demand to the board to act on behalf of the company would have been futile and he was thus relieved from making the demand. The Court disagreed, finding that while the two that received the shares would be deemed interested and biased, the other board members, notwithstanding their votes in favor, would not be automatically biased against a demand to recover the grants. Therefore, the allegation that a demand would have been futile was denied, and the case was dismissed.

This decision highlights the fine line often present in derivative litigation, and whether or not to make a demand must be carefully considered. Do not act alone in making that decision, as the dismissal of an otherwise meritorious lawsuit may result.

New York State High Court Refuses to Force Parties to Negotiate Forever

July 14, 2014

Tyco and IDT entered into a joint venture agreement. Numerous litigations commenced, which were settled by a 2000 settlement agreement. That settlement agreement provided for IDT to use Tyco's yet unbuilt infrastructure, upon the parties' mutual agreement. As time went on, negotiations failed to produce mutually agreeable terms and conditions for IDT's use, and litigation followed.

The Court of Appeals agreed with IDT that the settlement agreement was enforceable, but refused to enforce Tyco's obligation to negotiate in good faith to mean that the parties were compelled to negotiate without end. The court stated that an "obligation [to negotiate] can come to an end without a breach by either party. There is such a thing as a good faith impasse; not every good faith negotiation bears fruit." The court extended that position to a case where market conditions made the proposed deal untenable or even uninteresting and one party walked away. As a result, the court dismissed IDT's case, finding that IDT stated no cause of action upon which relief could be granted.

The dissent would not have dismissed IDT's complaint because IDT's allegations did raise questions of Tyco's negotiation tactics. While the dissent addressed dismissal, it clearly disagreed with the majority's finding as to Tyco's conduct and questioned whether Tyco acted in good faith.

Often, preliminary agreements, which are often enforceable--to the surprise of a party--contain language similar to that which was under consideration here. Writing that protects the parties but also binds them, is critical to an enforceable agreement.

Failure to Verify Details of Disputed Credit Report Undermines Experian's Claims

January 8, 2014

Plaintiff Keisha James notified Experian that two items on her credit report were incorrect and were reported on her report as a result of identity theft. When Experian notified the companies that listed the debts of her dispute, those companies were only able to verify some of the information as being matching James's. Nonetheless, Experian refused to remove the disputed debts from her credit report. James sued Experian claiming that it failed to conduct a reasonable investigation into the disputed debts, as required by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Experian responded by arguing that its investigation and verification complied with the Federal statute and asked that James's lawsuit be dismissed.

The court focused its decision on defining what would be deemed a"reasonable investigation" by Experian to satisfy its obligations under the law. Noting the absence of a clear definition, the court considered the totality of the circumstance. Observing that the companies reporting the debts to Experian were only able to verify some of the information, so that items like James's birth date, address and name were incorrect on those company reporting records, described by the court as "glaring discrepancies," coupled with Experian's failure to do anything more, compelled the court to deny dismissal of the complaint and allow James to proceed with her case.

Jones v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc.; Southern District of New York, Judge McMahon

Offering Plan for Condominium Building Deemed Contract with Unit Buyers

January 3, 2014

Plaintiff alleged that the sponsor of a condominium development breached the offering plan by converting the units to rentals from sales, and that the developer was therefore able to maintain control of the buildings board of directors.

Plaintiff, Bauer, alleged that she purchased multiple condominium units in a building newly constructed by defendant Beekman International Center, LLC. She alleged that Beekman's offering plan described its stated intent to sell the 65 units. Bauer claimed that such statement implied that the sales would be completed in a "reasonable time." Bauer further alleged that Beekeman's paperwork did not disclose that Beekman retained the option to rent any unit instead of selling it. Bauer claimed that Beekman's rentals breached the agreement in that it precluded the unit owners from taking over control over the building as owners. As a result, Bauer and other unit owners were unable to sell their units, the rentals caused the common charges to increase, and impeded the unit owners' ability from obtaining favorable refinancing rates from lenders. Bauer sought damages and the court's direction that the units be sold, in addition to forcing Beekman's principals from the board of directors. Beekman responded by stating that approximately half of the units had been sold and once the market was able to sustain the asking price, arrangements would be made to resume the unit sales. Beekman denied that the unit owners were having difficulty refinancing their respective units, but seemingly did not dispute all of Bauer's claims.

The court recited some of the legal history involving the relationship between sponsors and buyers. Citing case law and regulatory action, the court deemed a sponsor's offering plan to be an agreement which contained the implied promise to sell the units within a reasonable period of time. A sponsor's failure to do so supported a breach of contract claim. The court noted that the current regulatory scheme required a sponsor to specify the intended market for the units built. Those regulations further required a disclosure that once the sponsor sold the minimum 15% of the units necessary for the offering plan to become effective, its ability to rent rather then sell the units could result in the unit buyers never taking control of the condominium.

Beekman's claim that its offering plan stated that it held the right to rent and not sell the units was refused by the court, as it held that such rental was allowed only until a unit sale closed, implying that Beekman would in fact attempt to sell the units, and certainly fell short of the explicit statements required to maintain the units as rentals, indefinitely. Once Beekman stopped marketing the units for sale so that the offering plan lapsed, Beekman was in violation of the offering plan. However, the court held that because Bauer's claims of increased common costs and inability to obtain financing were usupported, and because Beekman held less than half of the units so that the unit owners could have formed a board to control the building, Bauer could not show the Beekman's conduct was damaging as alleged and the breach of contract claim was dismissed. The court held further that the claim of misuse of the common areas could not be maintained by the unit holders. Only the board could raise that claim.

Bauer v. Beekman Int'l Center, LLC; New York County, Judge Silver

Substituted Service of Process on Co-Defendant Ruled Insufficient

December 18, 2013

The plaintiff was a home health aide for Gilberto Rivas in Rivas's apartment, where she claims to have been injured by a defective window. The plaintiff sued the apartment's owner and Rivas. The plaintiff served the owner of the apartment by substituted service upon Rivas. Neither defendant responded and plaintiff obtained a default judgment. In seeking to vacate the default, the owner claimed that he was never served and that Rivas did not forward the litigation papers to him.

Putting aside the issue of whether the owner listed that apartment as his home address, the Court found it unreasonable and unreliable for the plaintiff to have served the owner by leaving the lawsuit papers with Rivas, who had interests that were adverse to the interest of the apartment's owner. In this setting, Rivas could not be relied upon to properly forward the papers to the owner. Therefore, the property owner was allowed to file his late answer and to defend the case.

Martinez v. McSweeny, Queens County - J. McDonald

Insurance Policy Applies Even With Wrong Party Named

November 11, 2013

A deli rented space from 137 Broadway Associates, located at 3379 Broadway. Prior to renting that space, the deli rented from Cromwell Associates, located at 3381 Broadway. The deli had purchased an insurance policy, which included the landlord as an additional insured. Mistakenly, although the deli was now renting from 137 Broadway, Cromwell was listed as the additional insured and not 137 Broadway. After being sued for a patron's fall, who named both the deli and 137 Broadway, the carrier refused to defend 137 Broadway, claiming that it was not listed as an insured party.

137 Broadway commenced a lawsuit against the carrier, seeking to compel the carrier to defend it in the lawsuit, claiming that it was the intended party to be insured. The carrier argued that the policy documents were clear and did not list 137 Broadway as an insured party. The court refused to accept that approach. After first reciting the principle that the written list of insured parties was not always exclusive as to which party was to be insured, the court determined that where the intent of the parties as to coverage is clear, mistakenly listing the wrong entity would not alone preclude coverage for the intended party. The court noted that the mistake was obvious because there was no way that Cromwell Associates could obtain any benefit by being listed as an additional insured.

137 Broadway Associates, LLC v. 602 West 137th Deli Corp.

Email Agreement Creates Enforceable Settlement

November 1, 2013

Plaintiff, John T. Forcelli, sued for injuries incurred in an auto accident. While motions to dismiss were pending, the parties mediated the claim. Although one of the defendant's insurance carriers discussed settlement, no agreement was reached. Shortly thereafter, settlement discussions were revived by email exchange. The carrier's representative offered $200,000, which was later raised to $230,000. That amount was agreed to orally by Mr. Forcelli's counsel. The carrier confirmed that amount in a subsequent email, which was signed "[t]hanks Brenda Green" (the carrier's representative). Settlement and release papers were exchanged and signed by Mr. Forcelli. A few days later, before the defendants had signed off, the court issued a decision granting dismissal of the lawsuit. Thus, the carriers refused to sign the settlement papers or pay any amount to Mr. Forcelli.

The parties went back to the judge. The issue was whether or not the email from Brenda Greene was to be deemed an enforceable, proper, settlement agreement under the law. The judge found that it was.

The carriers appealed but the Second Department affirmed. That court recited the requirements for finding an enforceable agreement--a written agreement signed by the party or his counsel, which includes all of the material terms of the agreement. The email contained the settlement amount and Mr. Forcelli's agreement to settle, the relevant terms. The fact that not all of the defendants or their counsel had signed off was not a bar, as Ms. Greene had apparent authority to bind all of the defendants. Recognizing that an email is not formally signed, the Second Department allowed this emails as they were clear to show the parties' intent to settle. That Ms. Greene wrote out her name at the end of the email was further proof of affirmative consent (differentiating from an auto-signature at the end of an email).

Forcelli v. Gelco Corp.

Corporation Permitted to Sell its Sole Real Estate Holding as Being in the Regular Course of Business

October 10, 2013

The stated purpose of the corporation, owned by two shareholders in a 55%-45% split, was to lease residential and commercial space. The corporation owned one building and the majority holder wanted to sell it as part of a ยง1031 Exchange. The expected return was expected to be 300% over a three year period. The minority shareholder refused, and claimed that a super-majority vote was required to allow the sale.

The court noted that under the Business Corporation Law a super-majority was not required if the corporation was making the sale in the ordinary course of its business as "actually conducted by the corporation in furtherance of the objectives of its existence." Because both parties agreed that the corporation's business was to lease property, the court had to determine how the proposed sale fit into the corporation's ordinary business.

The court held that the corporation was proposing a sale, not an exchange. The minority shareholder argued that the sale of the sole asset was not in the regular business of the corporation. The court disagreed. Because the purpose of the sale was not to liquidate the corporation but to reinvest the sale proceeds in a different property, and to then engage in the corporation's ordinary business with that new property, no super-majority consent was required.

Shareholder dispute's often arise over a large corporate transaction. While the corporate statutes are the baseline authority, where there is no shareholders' agreement among the shareholders, that agreement is really where this type of issue should be addressed. Shareholders can avoid substantial cost and aggravation by a executing a comprehensive shareholders' agreement.

Theatre District Realty Corp. v. Appleby (New York County)