New York Court Orders Dissolution of LLC - Recharacterizes Capital Contributions as Loans to Reach Equitable Result

An involuntary dissolution case was decided by the New York Supreme Court (the trial court) two weeks ago, on a petition for dissolution by one of the two members of a limited liability company. Mizrahi v. Cohen, No. 3865/10, 2012 WL 104775 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Jan. 12, 2012).

Background. Mizrahi and Cohen’s LLC owned a four-story commercial office building, with the ground floor rented by Cohen’s optometry business and the second floor rented by Mizrahi’s dental practice. The LLC consistently operated at a loss from 2006, the first year the building was occupied. The losses were covered by the members’ periodic capital contributions, although the LLC’s operating agreement didn’t require any additional capital contributions after the initial contributions. The two members each had a 50% ownership interest in the LLC, and initially they contributed additional capital in equal amounts. After a few years, however, Cohen’s capital contributions became sporadic and Mizrahi contributed most of the capital necessary to keep the LLC from defaulting on its mortgage. Over a span of several years Mizrahi contributed approximately $900,000 more than Cohen.

Mizrahi sued for dissolution of the LLC and an accounting of the proceeds of the company. The New York LLC Act uses the familiar standard for judicial dissolution: “it is not reasonably practicable to carry on the business in conformity with the articles of organization or operating agreement.” N.Y. Ltd. Liab. Co. Law § 702. (Washington and Delaware, for example, have similar provisions in their LLC statutes. RCW 25.15.275; Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 18-802.)

The Appellate Division held in 2010 that Section 702 requires that for dissolution to be ordered, the petitioner must show, “in the context of the terms of the operating agreement or articles of incorporation, that (1) the management of the entity is unable or unwilling to reasonably permit or promote the stated purpose of the entity to be realized or achieved, or (2) continuing the entity is financially unfeasible.” In re 1545 Ocean Ave., LLC, 72 A.D.3d 121, 131, 893 N.Y.S.2d 590 (N.Y. 2010).                                                                                      

Dissolution. The gist of the court’s analysis was that continuing the LLC was financially unfeasible because of (a) the significant losses incurred over the years, (b) Cohen’s failure to contribute equally in meeting the losses and his undermining the financial integrity of the LLC by unilaterally withdrawing $230,000 of his capital, and (c) the likelihood that it was only a matter of time, should Mizrahi exercise his right to refrain from making further capital contributions, until the LLC would default on its mortgage and the mortgage be foreclosed upon. Mizrahi, 2012 WL 104775, at *8.

The facts of the case and the court’s analysis are ably described in more detail by Peter Mahler in his New York Business Divorce law blog, here.

Accounting and Winding Up. Having determined that the LLC would be dissolved, the court discussed the accounting procedures to be followed and the winding up and distribution requirements of the LLC’s operating agreement. The operating agreement required that after payment to the LLC’s creditors and satisfaction of its liabilities, any remaining assets would be distributed to the members “according to their ownership interests,” i.e., 50% to each. There was no provision for returning a member’s capital, apparently on the assumption that the members would contribute capital in equal amounts, thus maintaining the 50/50 ratio for contributions as well as for their ownership interests.

But as it turned out, Mizrahi had contributed $900,000 more than Cohen. Ignoring that fact in the final 50/50 distribution would be consistent with the operating agreement but manifestly unfair. “[C]rediting the sums advanced by plaintiff to his capital account would work an inequitable result in that the Operating Agreement prevents the return of a Capital Contribution.” Id. at *11.

The court therefore ordered that Mizrahi’s capital contributions in excess of the amount of Cohen’s capital contributions would be treated as a loan to the LLC, to be repaid to Mizrahi as a debt of the LLC prior to the distributions to the members based on their 50/50 percentage of ownership. Id.

The court also ordered that Cohen’s $230,000 withdrawal from the LLC, whether treated as a loan or a capital withdrawal, would be applied to reduce the amount of any distribution to Cohen. Id. at *9.

The court’s resolutions of these two issues are clearly equitable and fair, but it is striking that the court gives no explanation or authority for either, other than its passing reference to avoiding an “inequitable” result. Trial courts have broad equitable powers, but one would have expected at least some citations to authority for the court’s application of those powers.

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