Category Archives: Business Law

NJ Boards of Directors May Not Alter Shareholder Quorum Requirements Via Amendment to Corporate Bylaws

By Rachel Mills, Esq.
rmills@pashmanstein.com

It is not unusual for shareholders in closely held companies to overlook the shareholder quorum requirements.  But such quorum requirements can be either an Achilles’ heel or powerful tool in the event of a shareholder dispute on the direction and operations of the company.  In a recent appellate decision, a New Jersey court ruled that a corporation’s board of directors could not deal with an obstructionist shareholder by modifying the company’s shareholder-quorum requirement through a bylaw amendment.[1]  Instead, any deviation from the New Jersey Business Corporation Act’s default rule on shareholder quorum—that a majority of a corporation’s shares must be represented in person or by proxy at a shareholder meeting in order to constitute quorum—must be provided for in the corporation’s certificate of incorporation.  Companies and shareholders looking to either prevent corporate changes or overcome obstructionist shareholders should carefully consider their options.

Background

The Board of Directors of Laurel Gardens Co-Op, Inc. (“the Co-Op”), a New Jersey corporation, attempted to alter the definition of quorum for purposes of shareholder meetings by amending the Co-Op’s bylaws.  Those bylaws required the majority of the Co-Op’s shares, sold or unsold, to appear in person or by proxy to constitute quorum.

Prior to the Board’s attempt to alter the shareholder-quorum requirement, the Board, in 2012, twice called a shareholder meeting wherein the Board intended to vote on a proposed amendment to the bylaws regarding the Co-Op’s subleasing rules and requirements.   Specifically, the sublease amendment would alter the bylaws to require, as a pre-condition for subleasing an apartment, that the owner wait at least one year after acquiring an apartment before the owner can apply to sublease the apartment.  This amendment would essentially reduce the ratio of rental units to owner-occupied units, which would make it easier for prospective purchasers to obtain financing to purchase Co-Op shares.  The plaintiffs, who included the Co-Op’s sponsor at the time the Co-Op converted to a cooperative from of ownership, raised objections to the sublease amendment, asserting that the amendment would violate the sponsor-protection provision.  That provision provided that the bylaws could not be amended in any manner that would affect the sponsor’s rights/interests.  While the proposed sublease amendment exempted the sponsor from its restrictions, the plaintiffs claimed that the sublease amendment nonetheless ran afoul of the sponsor-protection provision because the amendment had the potential to harm the sponsor’s future attempts to sell its shares to prospective purchasers who may wish to sublease the units rather than occupying the units themselves.

At the two shareholder meetings called by the Board to put the sublease amendment to a vote, an insufficient number of shareholders attended the meetings to establish a quorum.  The Board then called a third shareholders’ meeting, immediately following the Board’s monthly meeting.  At the Board meeting prior to the shareholder meeting, all of the Board members who were present unanimously approved the sublease amendment and also an amendment to the bylaws’ shareholder-quorum requirement.  The shareholder-quorum amendment reduced the necessary quorum from a majority of the Co-Op’s shares to 20% of the shares.

The plaintiffs—the Co-Op’s sponsor and one of the Co-Op’s directors—filed suit, individually and derivatively, against Co-Op and the directors who approved the challenged amendments.  The plaintiffs claimed shareholder oppression, breach of contract, and tortious interference based, in large part, on the bylaws’ sponsor-protection provision.  The plaintiffs argued that the sublease and shareholder-quorum amendments ran afoul of that sponsor-protection provision because they had the capacity to limit the value of the sponsor’s shares to prospective purchasers.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant Co-Op and directors and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

The Appellate Division Decision

The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that, under the unambiguous text of the New Jersey Business Corporation Act, N.J.S.A. 14A:1-1 to 17-18 (“the Act”), the Board could not unilaterally reduce the shareholder-quorum requirement by bylaw amendment.  N.J.S.A. 14A:15-9 states in relevant part: “Unless otherwise provided in the certificate of incorporation or this act, the holders of shares entitled to cast a majority of the votes at a meeting shall constitute quorum at such meeting.”  The court interpreted this “to mean that, in order to hold a vote amongst the Co-Op’s shareholders, a majority of all shares of the Co-Op must be represented at the meeting.”

The court explained that the only manner to modify the shareholder-quorum requirement under the Act is by amendment to the certificate of incorporation, which can only be approved by a vote of the shareholders under N.J.S.A. 14A:9-2(4).  The Co-Op’s certificate of incorporation did not address quorum for shareholder meetings, and, as a result, the Act’s default majority requirement for shareholder quorum controls.  Under the plain language of N.J.S.A. 14A:15-9, an amendment to the corporation’s bylaws was insufficient to modify the Act’s default quorum requirement.

The appellate court was not persuaded by the defendants’ argument that some shareholders, particularly the sponsor who held a substantial percentage of shares, were preventing the Board from conducting meaningful business by boycotting shareholder meetings.  The court noted that the Board had alternatives to address the perceived obstructive behavior, including by persuading shareholders to attend the annual meeting to amend the certificate of incorporation or by initiating General Equity Litigation under N.J.S.A. 14A:5-2 to obtain a court-ordered shareholder meeting wherein “the majority quorum requirement would have been waived by operation of law.”

The Bottom Line

Quorum requirements are critical to a company’s operations because they determine how many shares must approve material changes to the business and how it functions.  Smaller quorum requirements can empower minority interests to exert significant control.

On the one hand, this case is a powerful example of the ability of a shareholder owning a substantial portion of an entity’s shares to slow and obstruct the business of the corporation to its advantage by merely absenting itself, and other shareholders under its influence, from attendance at shareholder meetings.  Going forward, those forming corporations in New Jersey could consider altering the Business Corporation Act’s default rules in the certificate of incorporation at the time of the corporation’s inception to give the Board of Directors the necessary flexibility to take corporate action in the face of shareholder obstruction, apathy, or inaction.

On the other hand, managers and shareholders may wish to implement and maintain the default majority quorum requirements to prevent a minority group from taking action that affects the entire business without a majority present.  Businesses can deal with obstructionist shareholders in other ways, including, as described in the Appellate Division decision, by instituting General Equity Litigation.

Board members or shareholders considering modifications the default quorum requirements can contact me for further discussion and evaluation of strategies for dealing with individual situations.

 

 

[1] Sterling Laurel Realty, LLC, et al. v. Laurel Gardens Co-Op, Inc., No. A-0696-14T4 (N.J. App. Div. April 5, 2016) (approved for publication).

Annual Review of Legal Documents

By Bruce Ackerman, Esq.

Published by the Meadowlands USA Newsletter

Everyone is attuned to addressing year-end tax and financial planning. However, most businesses do not give proper attention to reviewing their legal documents and the types of legal issues that should be looked at on an annual basis.

A yearly legal review should be a regular part of your company business planning. Even more importantly, by making the review of legal documents an annual concern you can often prevent legal issues from causing greater problems later on.

The following are some common areas that should be part of your annual legal business review.

Ownership & business entity documents

Take note of having your entity documents in order. If your business is a corporation, this should be a shareholder agreement, sometimes called your buy-sell agreement, and for a limited liability company you should have an updated, fully signed operating agreement. At least once a year, the company should be sure that these documents memorialize any changes in ownership and agreements between owners for future transfers.

For the rest of the article, click here.

When Smartphones Go to War, Patent Holders Seeking Injunctions against Infringement Win?

By Michael J. Zoller, Esq.
mzoller@pashmanstein.com

Prior to 2006, when a patent holder demonstrated that someone was infringing on its patent, it enjoyed a presumptive entitlement to an injunctive award permanently enjoining the infringement.  That all changed though when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388 (2006).  In eBay, the Supreme Court held that instead of a general rule presumption in favor of injunction, the same equitable standard that applied for granting injunctions in non-patent cases should also apply to disputes arising under the Patent Act.  Consequently, following the decision in eBay, in order to obtain a permanent injunction against patent infringement, a patent holder had to pass a four-factor test by showing:

(1) that it has suffered an irreparable injury;

(2) that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury;

(3) that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and

(4) that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.

Id. at 391.

This change was bad for patent holders because instead of the presumed injunction they used to receive upon a showing of infringement, in addition to proving infringement, the patent holders now had to prove that an injunction was warranted too.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s eBay decision, the “Smartphone Wars” were launched.  The Smartphone Wars are a series of litigation between Apple and Samsung regarding Samsung’s infringement on some of Apple’s patents for cellphone and tablet technology.  The first decision (“Apple I,” 678 F.3d 1314) in the Wars was handed down in 2012 and the fourth and latest was just handed down in September 2015 (“Apple IV,” 801 F.3d 1352).

In Apple I, the Federal Circuit affirmed the District Court’s holding that to show an irreparable harm, a patent holder must make a showing of a “casual nexus” between the infringement and the alleged harm to the patent holder.  The Apple I decision further stated that “[s]ales lost to an infringing product cannot irreparably harm a patentee if consumers buy that product for reasons other than the patented feature.” Apple I, 678 F.3d  at 1324.  The decision in Apple I was another blew to patent holders.  To be able to obtain an injunction they now had to show that the technology being infringed on was the cause of their sales in the first place.  This can be very difficult to show when the actual item being sold, like a smartphone, contains many different features and pieces of technology.

Recently though, the Federal Circuit’s decision in Apple IV has swung the power back to the patent holders.  In Apple IV, the Federal Circuit took a closer look at the requirements of a casual nexus.  In its review, the Federal Circuit determined that the proper approach for finding a casual nexus was not a determination that the infringing features were the reason for consumers purchasing the smartphone, but rather a determination that the infringing features were important to consumers when making their purchasing decision.  When there are many reasons why a consumer chooses to purchase a particular smartphone, having to show that the features being infringed on are important to consumers versus having to that they are the specific reason the consumer chose the smartphone is a much lower standard to meet.  Consequently, in Apple IV, the Federal Circuit ended up granting Apple its injunction.

The decision in Apple IV is a positive turn for patent holders after their rights had been limited in the earlier litigations.  That said, while patent holders may have won this battle, the war is not yet over.  Samsung has petitioned the Federal Circuit to rehear the case en banc.  Should the Federal Circuit grant the petition and reverse then patent holders may be telling a different story.  As they say, history is written by the victors…

FAA Issues Proposed Regulations on the Commercial Use of Drones

By James Boyan, Esq.
jboyan@pashmanstein.com

On February 15, 2015, the Department of Transportation – Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) proposed a set of regulations that would allow drones to be used for commercial purposes.  The proposal would allow businesses to use small unmanned aircraft systems (i.e., drones) that weigh less than 55 pounds during daylight hours (i.e., official sunrise to official sunset, local time).

Under the proposed rules, the person actually flying the drone would be known as an “operator.”  To be certified as an operator, an individual would have to be at least 17 years old and pass an “initial aeronautical knowledge test” at an FAA-approved testing center.  The fee for obtaining an operator’s certificate will be approximately $200.  To maintain the certification, an operator will have to pass the FAA’s knowledge test every 24 months.  However, a drone operator would not be required to obtain any further certifications such as a pilot’s license.

The proposed regulations will require operators to maintain a “visual line of sight” of the drone at all times.  The rules would allow, but not require, and operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft.  However, the operator would still need to be able to see the drone at all time with unaided vision (except for corrective lenses).  A first-person view camera will not satisfy the line of sight requirement in the proposed regulations but a camera could be used as long as the sight requirement is otherwise satisfied.

The proposed regulations contain the following restrictions on the commercial use of drones:

  • The operator must discontinue flight when continuing to fly would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property;
  • A drone may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight;
  • Drone flights should be limited to 500 feet in altitude and no faster than 100 mph;
  • Operators must keep their drones out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace and obey any FAA temporary flight restrictions; and
  • Operators are not permitted to drop any objects from their drones.

The FAA’s proposed regulations will also require operators to:

  • Conduct a pre-flight inspection of the drone prior to each operation;
  • Report any accidents that result in injury or property damage to the FAA; and
  • Ensure that all drones have appropriate aircraft markings.

The FAA is also considering a separate set of rules for “micro-drones” (i.e., drones that weigh less than four pounds). Under those rules, operators would not have to pass any kind of test. Instead, they would only have to submit a written statement to the FAA certifying that they are familiar with basic aviation safety measures.

Businesses that currently use drones or plan to do so in the future should closely monitor the FAA’s proposed regulations.

Unconscionable Commercial Practice

By Suzanne M. Bradley, Esq.
sbradley@pashmanstein.com

In an opinion analyzing what constitutes an “unconscionable commercial practice” under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey recently dismissed a putative class action brought under the Act and New Jersey common law regarding defendant Novartis AG’s pricing of its Excedrin Migraine product.  In Yingst v. Novartis AG, 2-13-cv-07919, District Judge Claire Cecchi determined that Novartis’ pricing of the product, while strategic, was not illegal under the NJFCA, and therefore dismissed Plaintiff’s claims.

Plaintiff Kerri Yingst alleged that Novartis sells Excedrin Migraine and a pharmacologically equivalent product, Excedrin Extra Strength, at different wholesale prices which in turn caused Yingst and other consumers to pay a premium for Excedrin Migraine, despite the fact that the two products consisted of “identical ingredients in identical quantities.”  Compl. ¶21.  Yingst alleged that at the time she purchased Excedrin Migraine, she believed that because Excedrin Migraine was sold at a higher price, it was a more effective product for migraine relief.  Novartis moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), and the court granted the motion.

As Judge Cecchi explains, New Jersey’s strong Consumer Fraud Act provides that a plaintiff is entitled to treble damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees, and reasonable costs if she proves that the defendant engaged in an unlawful practice that caused an ascertainable loss.  In this case, Plaintiff did not argue that Novartis committed any affirmative act of deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation, and did not argue that Novartis knowingly concealed, suppressed or omitted any material fact with intent to induce reliance.  Instead, Plaintiff contended that Novartis engaged in an “unconscionable commercial practice” within the meaning of the NJFCA by using the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”)’s requirement that Excedrin Migraine and Excedrin Extra Strength have separate packaging as a means to extract a premium from consumers while providing no extra benefits.  The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act does not define the phrase “unconscionable commercial practice.”  However, Judge Cecchi noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court has defined the term as an act lacking good faith, honesty in fact and observance of fair dealing.  Turf Lawnmower Repair, Inc. v. Bergen Record Corp., 655 A.2d 417, 429 (N.J. 1995) (citing Meshinsky v. Nichols Yacht Sales, Inc., 541 A.2d 1063, 1066 (N.J. 1988)).  As with the broader Act, New Jersey case law provides that the phrase “unconscionable commercial practice” should be interpreted liberally to effectuate the Act’s public purpose.

In the case at hand, Judge Cecchi noted that there was no dispute that both Excedrin Migraine and Excedrin Extra Strength were properly labeled and contained no misinformation regarding the medications.  Therefore, because Plaintiff had conceded that there was no dishonesty by Novartis, Judge Cecchi determined that its pricing of Excedrin Migraine was not an act that lacked good faith or honesty in fact.  Further, Judge Cecchi found that Plaintiff could  not establish that Novartis’ pricing of Excedrin Migraine lacked fair dealing; Plaintiff did not cite any cases, and the Court was aware of none, in which an “unconscionable commercial practice” was found under the Act based solely upon disparate pricing of substantively identical products manufactured by the same defendant.  Although the dearth of case law was not itself fatal to Plaintiff’s claim, the fact that Plaintiff paid, at most, $1.05 more for a 300-count package of Excedrin Migraine than for a 300-count package of Excedrin Extra Strength was a “minor detriment” that did not “rise to the level of unfair dealing.”  While Novartis’ creation of a pricing structure in which migraine sufferers paid a higher price for pills pharmacologically identical to Excedrin Extra Strength in order to obtain the directions and warnings mandated by the FDA was “strategic,” Judge Cecchi held that such behavior was not proscribed by the NJCFA and dismissed Plaintiff’s NJFCA claim.[1]  As Judge Cecchi’s opinion demonstrates, slight price differentials in otherwise identical products, absent any evidence of misrepresentation or misinformation, are “within the bounds of reasonableness and concomitantly outside the ambit of the NJCFA.”

[1] Judge Cecchi also dismissed Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim.  In New Jersey, a constructive or quasi-contract is a vehicle by which a plaintiff may enforce a public duty to prevent unjust enrichment or unconscionable benefit.  To state a claim for unjust enrichment, the plaintiff must allege (1) at plaintiff’s expense (2) the defendant received benefit (3) under circumstances that would make it unjust for the defendant to retain the benefit without paying for it.  Judge Cecchi again noted that Plaintiff did not allege any misrepresentation or misinformation by Novartis, and also did not allege that Excedrin Migraine failed to relieve her ailment or that Excedrin Extra Strength performed better than Excedrin Migraine; Plaintiff “deliberately purchased the higher-priced product and received exactly what she paid for.”  See Def.’s Reply p. 6.  Therefore, the Court found nothing “unjust” about Plaintiff’s transaction, and granted Novartis’ motion to dismiss with respect to Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim.

 

 

Application of the Oppressed Shareholder Provisions of the Business Corporations Act to Minority Oppression in other Business Organizations

By David White, Esq.
dwhite@pashmanstein.com

A developing trend toward applying minority shareholder oppression remedies under the Business Corporations Act (“BCA”), to owners of other business entities was curtailed by the Appellate Division.  Tutunikov v. Markov, A-1827-10T3 (August 1, 2013).

N.J.S.A. 14A:12-7, contained in the BCA,  provides a range of remedies to oppressed minority shareholders. “Oppression” is said to occur where the conduct of the majority owners frustrate the minority shareholder’s reasonable expectations in the venture. Where oppression is demonstrated, courts are authorized to order a forced buyout of the oppressed shareholder’s interests and fix the price at “fair value.”  “Fair value” is a judicial construct designed to avoid diminishing the value of an oppressed shareholder’s stock by valuation discounts, such as those for minority or non-marketable interests, which would inure to the benefit of the buyer.

The current Limited Liability Act (the “LLC Act”) does not contain a compulsory buyout remedy.  Instead N.J.S.A. 42: 2B-39 provides that an LLC member may resign and receive fair value for his shares “less all applicable valuation discounts.” Because of similarities in the predicaments of oppressed owners in the corporate and LLC settings, and in the absence of a specific, statutory remedy, Courts had begun to “import” oppression remedies from the BCA to minority members.

In Tutunikov, the Appellate Division flatly held that the BCA is not applicable to LLCs. Thus its oppression remedies were not portable. Nevertheless, the opinion did uphold a buyout at fair value, a concept generally seen in the setting of shareholder oppression.

New Jersey has adopted the Revised Uniform LLC Act (“RULLCA”), which includes an oppression remedy similar to that under the BCA. N.J.S.A. 42:2C-48.  The RULLCA will become effective for all New Jersey LLCs on March 1, 2014. In the short interval before RULLCA becomes effective, the application of the BCA to LLCs is unlikely to receive additional judicial attention.  However, the Tutunikov decision does not necessarily foreclose crafting oppressed owner remedies in the partnership setting by analogy to the BCA. Like the LLC Act, the Partnership Act, N.J.S.A. 42:1A-1, et seq. is silent on remedies for oppression. In precluding BCA remedies for LLC members, the Tutunikov Court relied in part on the fact that an oppression remedy under the RULLCA was imminent.   No such revision in the partnership statutes is pending, and accordingly, the Tutunikov decision does not completely preclude arguments along those lines.

New Act Will Apply to All Limited Liability Companies – Part Three

By Bruce Ackerman, Esq.
backerman@pashmanstein.com

New Jersey’s new law affecting every limited liability company (“LLC”) is the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (“RULLCA”), which took effect September 19, 2012.  RULLCA controls all LLC’s formed on or after March 18, 2013, and all LLC’s regardless of when formed as of March 19, 2014.  This final part of three parts explaining elements of RULLCA will address the following areas which have changed in the new Act — distributions, resignation and withdrawal, and the rights of members to information.

As to distributions, the old LLC law provides that, unless the operating agreement provides otherwise, distributions are to be made based on “the agreed value … of the contributions made by each member.”  Again highlighting the importance of the operating agreement, RULLCA provides that distributions prior to dissolution or winding up are to be “in equal shares among members and dissociated members.”  That is contrary to the ordinary agreement by members, which would provide for distributions by their percentage of ownership.  The parties must have their operating agreement set forth the terms of their agreement as to distributions.

As to resignation of a member and the right to any payment or “distribution” upon such withdrawal, the old LLC law provides for six months’ notice to withdraw and the payment of any distribution provided under the operating agreement or, if not provided, then payment of fair value for the interest held, less all applicable discounts.  In contrast, under RULLCA, a member may withdraw at any time, and there is no entitlement to any distribution upon withdrawal.  Of course, the members themselves may agree otherwise and set forth that entitlement within their operating agreement.

Finally, under the old LLC law in New Jersey, each member is entitled to receive information on the business and financial condition of the company, tax returns, member addresses, the operating agreement itself, and the value of cash and other assets held by the LLC.  The manager may maintain the information in confidence for such time as reasonably believed necessary to maintain trade secrets or other information the disclosure of which is believed not in the best interests of the LLC or required by a third party to keep confidential.

In contrast, RULLCA sets forth a procedure and time in which to secure LLC documents.  In general, RULLCA provides that the LLC shall furnish to each member any information concerning the company‘s activities, financial and other wise, that is material to the member pursuant to its operating agreement and, on demand, any other information.  Each member has that duty to provide information as well.  However, in a manager managed LLC, this information shall be provided by the manager if sought by the member for a “a purpose material to the member’s interest as a member,” and the member must make a written demand “describing with reasonable particularity the information sought and the purpose for seeking the information.”  The law provides a ten day period for the LLC to respond and inform the member when and where the LLC will provide the information and, if declined, the reasons why the information will not be provided.

As shown, a careful review of your current operating agreement should be made and appropriate changes and supplements to address those areas under RULLCA that leave to the members in their operating agreement to clarify and change what RULLCA provides.  With the March deadline looming for the RULLCA to apply to all LLC’s in New Jersey, it is important to make that review and update soon.