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Business Law Update: Business Owners: Bill Would Restrict Non-Competition Agreements with Employees.

2017-05-09 08.08.30On June 14, 2017, House Bill 4755 was introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives.

If passed it would limit the enforceability of a non-competition agreement signed between an employer and an employee.

In my opinion – in some pretty significant ways.

I have spent several articles discussing the legal consequences/enforceability issues of non-competes.

It appears the Legislature is wrestling with the question posed by Nick Manes of MIBiz in an article a few years back: “Are noncompetes a barrier to growth?

You can check out the text of the bill here

The Bill was referred to the committee on commerce and trade.

The Bill has a few key components to it:

1. Require Employers to follow a Specific Procedure prior to enforcing a non-compete.

The Bill would only permit Employers to enforce a non-competition agreement if the Employer followed a procedure intended to notify the Employee of the requirement of signing a non-compete as a condition of employment.

(A) INFORMED THE PROSPECTIVE EMPLOYEE IN WRITING OF THE REQUIREMENT AT OR BEFORE THE TIME OF THE INITIAL OFFER OF EMPLOYMENT.

(B) Disclose the Terms of the Non-Compete in writing; and

(C) Post the Text of the Law at the Worksite in a CONSPICUOUS LOCATION

2. Non-Compete unenforceable if the Employee is a “low wage” worker.

Defined generally as $15.00/hr or $31,000 annually.

 

3. Voids Certain Provisions in a Non-Compete – shifts the burden to Employer.

The Bill also has some teeth in it for Employees, including:

  1. Prohibits an Employer from including a clause that states a different state’s laws control the Agreement – this would be an obvious attempt to circumvent the prohibition of non-compete against “low wage” workers;
  2. Gives the Attorney General power to prosecute a violation of the Act;
  3. Automatically places the Burden on the Employer to prove that the Non-Compete was reasonable, as to “scope, duration, time limit.”
    1. Moreover, if a Court limits the non-compete in any respect, the employee is entitled to recover attorney fees.

 

Wow. This bill has a lot of bite to it. My first thoughts – if this Bill does come out of the Trade and Commerce Committee, I can’t imagine it will look the same as its current version.

I understand the legislature’s interest in protecting “low wage workers” from unreasonable restrictions. Check out my prior post on the subject of Jimmy John’s non-competes.

However, in my opinion the restrictions as written places an enormous burden on the employer to narrowly tailor the non-compete, to a judge’s definition of “reasonableness”.

 

 

 

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Warning for Real Estate Investors: Three Northern California Real Estate Investors Convicted of Rigging Bids at Public Foreclosure Auctions

 

There are many pitfalls for real estate investors who purchase dIMG_1513istressed property.

In today’s market, good deals are getting harder to come by. With distressed property becoming a scarce resource and competition ever increasing, some real estate investors have resorted to illegal acts to boost their profit.

Investors should know that the Department of Justice as well as State Agencies are cracking down on fraudulent real estate practices.

Today, the Department of Justice announced that a federal jury convicted three real estate investors for their roles in a conspiracy to rig bids at public real estate foreclosure auctions held in Northern California.

This after a 3-week trial.

You can see the press release here.

Based upon the DOJ’s investigation – this was a large conspiracy “to rig bids to obtain hundreds of properties sold at foreclosure auctions. The conspirators designated the winning bidders to obtain selected properties at the public auctions, and negotiated payoffs among themselves in return for not competing. They then held second, private auctions at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held, awarding the properties to conspirators who submitted the highest bids.”

 

What is particularly striking to me is that including today’s convictions the DOJ report that:

68 individuals have pleaded guilty or been convicted after trial as a result of the department’s ongoing antitrust investigations into bid rigging at public foreclosure auctions in Northern California.

 

Question for Real Estate Investors:

What type of unfair practices, including bid rigging, do you believe is going on in your state? What are you seeing foreclosure sales?

In Michigan the record numbers of foreclosed properties since 2008 has provided a market (albeit one that is slowing down) for flipping and rehabbing residential real estate.

This has also created opportunities for abuse and fraud.  The real estate legal landscape is complex enough, do yourselves a favor – follow the rules.

You don’t want to expose yourself to undue liability.

 

Questions? Comments?

E-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

 

Business Law Update: Michigan Supreme Court’s May 15, 2017 Decision on Minority Oppression

 

There are relatively few court opinions covering the Michigan Limited Liability Company Act. There have been even less on the issue of minority oppression claims.

It has been almost 3 years since the Michigan Supreme Court issued its Opinion in the  Madugula v Taub  case on Michigan’s shareholder/member oppression statutes.

The Madugula clarified that a claimant is not entitled to a jury a trial undmoney-73341_640er the Act; and breach of a Shareholder/Operating Agreement can be evidence of “oppressive” conduct.

On May 15, 2017 the Michigan Supreme Court issued its Opinion in Frank, et al v. Linkner, et al.

In summary, the Supreme Court held:

  • that MCL 450.4515(1)(e) provides alternative statutes of limitations, one based on the time of discovery of the cause of action and the other based on the time of accrual of the cause of action; and
  • That a cause of action for LLC member oppression accrues at the time an LLC manager has substantially interfered with the interests of a member as a member, even if that member has not yet incurred a calculable financial injury. See Frank, id. page 1.

 

The facts of Frank are admittedly, interesting (and unfortunate if you are the Plaintiffs):

Facts:

  • Defendant ePrize was founded by defendant Joshua Linkner in 1999 as a Michigan LLC specializing in online sweepstakes and interactive promotions.
  • Plaintiffs are former employees of ePrize who acquired ownership units in ePrize.
  • Plaintiffs allege Linkner orally promised them that their interests in ePrize would never be diluted or subordinated.
  • In 2005, plaintiffs’ shares in ePrize were converted into shares in ePrize Holdings, LLC.
  • In 2007, ePrize ran into financial difficulties and required an infusion of cash.
  • To remedy this problem, ePrize obtained $28 million in loans in the form of “B Notes” from various defendantmembers of ePrize and other investors;
  • plaintiffs were not invited to participate in these investments.
  • In 2009, ePrize remained struggling to meet its loan obligations and therefore issued new “Series C Units.”
  • These units were offered to various investors, including those who had obtained B Notes.
  • In exchange for the Series C Units, investors were required, amo
    ng other things, to make capital contributions, guarantee a portion of a $14.5 million loan from Charter One Bank, and convert their B Notes into “Series B Units.”
  • On August 20, 2012, ePrize sold substantially all of its assets and, pursuant to the Operating Agreement, distributed nearly $100 million in net proceeds to the holders of Series C and Series B Units.
  • Plaintiffs received nothing for their common shares.

Procedural History

Plaintiffs sued on April 19, 2013 alleging among other claims, minority oppression under MCL 450.4515. The trial court dismissed the claims, indicating that they were “untimely” under the 3 year statute of limitation period. The Court of Appeals reversed. This matter then went to the Supreme Court.

 

 

In General – Michigan Minority Oppression Statute

Michigan law provides a cause of action against the shareholders/members who are in control of a company and oppressing minority owners:

Minority Shareholder Oppression, MCL 450.1489 (Minority Member Oppression, MCL 450.4515)

“A shareholder may bring an action…to establish that the acts of the directors or those in control of the corporation are:
illegal;
fraudulent;
or willfully unfair and oppressive to the corporation or to the shareholder.” 
“If the shareholder establishes grounds for relief, the circuit court may make an order or grant relief as it considers appropriate, including, without limitation,
an order providing for any of the following:
(a) The dissolution and liquidation of the assets and business of the corporation.
(b) The cancellation or alteration of a provision contained in the articles of incorporation, an amendment of the articles of incorporation, or the bylaws of the corporation.
(c) The cancellation, alteration, or injunction against a resolution or other act of the corporation…
Therefore, if a court finds that those in control of the business committed misconduct against a minority owner amounting to “oppression”, the Court has broad discretion to create the type of relief it deems is best.
Back to the Supreme Court’s Decision in Frank…
a. Statute of Limitations
The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that:
“MCL 450.4515(1)(e) contains two alternative statutes of limitations:”
1. (2 years) predicated upon discovery of the cause of action and
2. the other (3 years) predicated upon accrual of the cause of action. Id. at pg 6.
The Supreme Court clarified that under the statute “A plaintiff has two years from the time he or she ‘discovers or reasonably should have discovered the cause of action” to bring a claim [under the minority oppression statute]”. Id pg 13. “…a plaintiff cannot bring a claim three years after accrual of the cause of action, even if he or she did not discover and reasonably would not have discovered the cause of action during that period.”
b. when does an oppression claim accrue?
The Plaintiffs/minority members argued that their claims “did not accrue until they first incurred a calculable financial injury after ePrize sold substantially all of its assets in 2012.” Id. pg 16. They reasoned that no monetary damages occurred until the company was liquidated. Id.
The Supreme Court, however reasoned that the “plaintiffs’ argument conflates monetary damages with ‘harm'”.  The Court held that:
the actionable harm for a member-oppression claim under MCL 450.1515 consists of actions taken by the managers that “substantially interfere with the interests of the member as a member,” and monetary damages constitute just one of many potential remedies for the harm.
Therefore, the Court held that :the Court of Appeals erred by focusing on the availability of monetary damages, rather than on when plaintiffs incurred ‘harm’.” The Court reversed the Court of Appeals on this issue. Id. 17.
“Once a plaintiff proves that a manager engaged in an action or series of actions that substantially interfered with his or her interest as a member, the “harm” has been incurred, and therefore the claim has accrued.” Id.
Application 
In application, the Supreme Court therefore found that the alleged harm occurred when the minority members’ interest were subordinated (in 2009) by amendment of the operating agreement and not when the sale occurred (in 2012). Id. at 20.
So, unless plaintiffs can show fraudulent concealment, Plaintiffs’ claims for monetary damages are barred.

 

Take away for Business owners/Investors/Entrepreneurs:

 

1. Get an attorney involved before the business relationship begins and clearly document the business relationship, especially your shareholder/operating agreement. That will contain the exit strategy and relevant buy-out language. Further, any conduct the parties agree to in their shareholder/operating agreement will not be deemed “oppressive”. However, a breach of the agreement, may deemed interference with your rights sufficient to constitute “oppression” however, this is based on a highly fact-intensive analysis.

2. If you believe you are being frozen out of control/profits in a business – do not wait. The Michigan Supreme Court has held that your claim accrues when the harm occurs. Learn from the Frank Decision.  Michigan law gives you broad remedies, including the minority shareholder/member oppression statutes.

Questions?

Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Real Estate Law Update: Investors Purchasing at Foreclosure – Take Care in Handling Personal Property Left at the Property.

May 11, 2017 1 comment

Today I am posting about a Court of Appeals case decided on April 25, 2017  – Suzor v Kamlay 2016-07-22 13.10.20

Foreclosed Property = high risk/high reward.

Real estate investors are always wary of the many pitfalls when purchasing property at foreclosure.

I’ve previously posted on problems when someone is still occupying the Property after foreclosure.

The latest case talks about what happens if the holdover is no longer in the property – but has left personal belongings.

Should you take matters into your own hands and remove the stuff?

What liability does a purchaser have after foreclosure and the expiration of redemption if they remove any personal belongings?

FACTS:

  • Plaintiffs’ home was foreclosed on.
  • The property was sold at a sheriff’s sale.
  • Plaintiffs did not redeem the property.
  • Purchaser sued  and was given a judgment of possession and an order of eviction.
  • Purchaser hired defendant to secure and clean the property and remove any remaining personal property—a process commonly referred to as a “trash out.
  • Plaintiffs brought a claim for conversion, arguing that their attempts to get defendant to return the items of personal property he removed from the foreclosed property were to no avail
  • Defendant argued – I have immunity under the Anti-Lockout Statute, since I was operating pursuant to a Court Order.
  • Trial Court agreed.

 

Anti-Lockout Statute – MCL 600.2918 

Any landlord who has gone through the process of evicting a tenant knows that, in the residential leasing context, there are heightened duties of landlords, and heightened rights of tenants.  Tenants have the right not to have their possessory interest in the property interfered with, without the proper court procedure being complied with (Summary Proceeding Action in District Court).

 

Here, Defendant claimed he was shielded from liability under MCl 600.2918(3)(a) which provides

that “[a]n owner’s actions do not unlawfully interfere with a possessory interest if . . . [t]he owner acts pursuant to court order.” Id. page 2.

The Court of Appeals held though that such immunity only shields from liability if the parties have a landlord-tenant relationship.

“However, the parties to this case did not have a landlord-tenant relationship.”

Also, The Court noted that

“While an owner has the right to lawfully enter the premises and remove belongings left therein pursuant to court order, the owner does not have title over the property removed.” Id. page 4.

 

The Court of Appeals would have presumably reversed on this point, but held that the trial court essentially “got it right, but for the wrong reasons.”   The Plaintiffs failed to provide any evidence to prove their case – that the defendant when he removed the personal property converted them by failing to allow the Plaintiffs to recover the property, or otherwise “that a bailment existed”. Id.  page 4.

 

Conclusion:

A purchaser at foreclosure should be careful in handling the personal property leftover.

 

As the Court of Appeals noted – the purchaser is not shielded from liability under the Anti-Lockout Statute, since there is no landlord-tenant relationship.

Also, the owner may have purchased title to the real estate, but not to the personal property.

 

To avoid any unfounded claims by holdovers, it always makes sense after purchasing property at foreclosure, when there are any occupants present, to go through the lawful channels for a court proceeding to extinguish any possessory rights and to make sure any personal belongings are handled appropriately.

You don’t want to expose yourself to undue liability.

 

Questions? Comments?

E-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Landlords/Investors/Property Managers: Single Member LLCs Could Evict Tenants without Legal Representation under House Bill

April 27, 2017 Leave a comment

 

A common scenario in my legal practice:2015-11-26-13-04-02

Investor purchases property in an LLC. Investor locates a tenant. Tenant falls behind in rent. Investor hires attorney to evict Tenant.

Why hold real estate in an LLC?

Most of my investor clients own investment real estate in a Limited Liability Company.

This is for liability protection.

 

Once a limited liability company comes into existence, limited liability applies, and a member or manager is not liable for the acts, debts, or obligations of the company. “Duray Dev., LLC v. Perrin, 288 Mich. App. 143, 151 (2010).

 

Why not hold real estate in an LLC?

Some investment property owners decide not to do so. The primary driving reason from my experience is cost.

Cost associated with setting up the LLC; and

Cost associated with hiring an attorney and evicting non-paying tenants.

Some landlords don’t want to hire an attorney to evict a tenant.

Under current Michigan law, since an LLC is a separate legal person independent of the actual owners of the LLC, unless such owner is a licensed attorney, an owner of an LLC cannot file a lawsuit on behalf of the LLC.

To do so would be the unauthorized practice of law.

You can practice law on your own behalf – just not on behalf of someone else.

Although, the saying goes – he who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

 

Proposed House Bill Would Allow LLCs to Evict without Legal Representation.

 

House Bill 4463 was introduced last month ago and referred to the  committee on law and justice.

 

The Bill would allow owners of a single-member LLC (or a married couple under certain conditions) to file their own eviction actions on behalf of the LLC without the need for legal representation.

If the Landlord is seeking money damages, the amount, not including taxable costs, must be under the small claims Court maximum.

The Bill would also allow a Property Manager or other Agent to represent the LLC.

This makes sense for Landlords who want quick and cost-effective resolutions. I understand that an Investor who is not making money on a tenant also doesn’t want to expend additional legal fees to evict a Tenant. This is particularly true since the most attorney fees that a Landlord can recover against a residential tenant is limited to the statutory amount (currently $75).

I would be surprised if this bill passes, although other states have similar laws.

 

However, I will refer readers back to the lawyer who has a fool for a client…

 

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Law Update: Unfair Competition may not be Preempted by Michigan’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act

April 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings on this cloudy Friday in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 Business owner: I’m going to give you a scenario.

Let’s say your business wants to engage the services of another business to sell its products.

Q: When a business wants to engage the services of another business that will necessarily involve the business divulging confidential infoIMG_1513rmation what do you do?

A: Enter into a Non-Disclosure/Confidentiality Agreement.

Another question:

Q: What happens when the business that received the confidential information goes on to develop a product eerily similar to your product after learning about your confidential information?

A: Potentially, a lawsuit.

Yesterday I read a new published decision from the Michigan Court of Appeals,

Planet Bingo LLC v VKGS, LLC

In the words of the Court of Appeals:

the relevant procedural history is complex“.

Therefore, I won’t delve into the history. Suffice it to say, the parties filed lawsuits based upon the same claims in several different courts across the country.

“This case arises out of Video King’s use of a software program (“EPIC”) that was developed by Planet Bingo’s subsidiary Melange, Video King’s subsequent development of a competing software program (“OMNI”), and plaintiffs’ allegation that Video King wrongfully developed OMNI using confidential information gleaned from EPIC.” Id. pg 1.

The parties entered into a confidentiality agreement.

According to the court –  the parties entered into a contract in 2005 that “had a substantial confidentiality clause:”

Such agreements are necessary to protect in a broad manner all confidential information disclosed to another party in a business agreement.

In a nutshell, Planet Bingo claimed Video King had access to Planet Bingo’s confidential information for its software program EPIC. Thereafter, Video King allegedly used that confidential information to create its own competing software program.

Planet Bingo sued VKGS (Video King) for –

breach of contract (confidentiality agreement),

unfair competition, and

unjust enrichment.

What is unfair competition?

“unfair competition” may encompass any conduct that is fraudulent or deceptive and tends to mislead the public.  See Atco Indus. v Sentek Corp., Lexis 1670, page 7 (July 10, 2003).

This court went back and forth among several courts/jurisdictions and eventually, the Trial Court in Ingham County dismissed plaintiffs’ claims. Among other things, the Court said that the Michigan Uniform Trade Secrets Act (MUTSA)  MCL 445.1901 et seq, preempted – or replaced the common law claim of unfair competition.

The Court of Appeals reversed.

According to the Court:

MUTSA generally “displaces conflicting tort, restitutionary, and other law of this state providing civil remedies for misappropriation of a trade secret,” Id. pg 6.

“It has been recognized from common law, on the other hand, that unfair competition encompasses more than just misappropriation. See In re MCI Telecom Corp Complaint, 240 Mich App 292, 312; 612 NW2d 826 (2000) (“[T]he common-law doctrine of unfair competition was ordinarily limited to acts of fraud, bad-faith misrepresentation, misappropriation, or product confusion.”) (Emphasis added). Id. pg 7.

“Thus, MUTSA does not preempt all common-law unfair competition claims, only those that are based on misappropriation of “trade secrets” as defined by MUTSA.” Id.

“The pertinent question, then, is whether plaintiffs’ unfair competition claim was based on misappropriation alone or also on fraud, bad-faith misrepresentation, or product confusion.” Id.

Conclusion:

We can glean from the Planet Bingo Case that a claim of unfair competition can be brought when based on:

  • Fraud
  • Bad-faith misrepresentation; or
  • product confusion.

If a claim for unfair competition is brought solely related to misappropriation of Trade Secrets, then the MUTSA is the controlling statute.

Questions? Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

www.dwlawpc.com

twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Law Update: When are Non-Competes Enforceable?

March 20, 2017 2 comments

Welcome to Spring! I took this photo from my office, the first day of Spring. It is fitting that the ice rink in Rosa Parks’ circle is melting.

With spring comes new opportunities – including employees leaving their jobs.

What happens if the employee signed a non-competition agreement during the course of employment? Are non-competes enforceable?IMG_1456

 – it depends.

 

A few years back I posted on an article written by Above the Law titled – Jimmy John’s Serves Up Sandwiches And Oppressive Non-Compete Agreements.

See the link from the “Above the Law Blog”

In Michigan, Non-Competes are enforceable to protect legitimate busines
s interests.

MCL 445.774a provides:

“1) An employer may obtain from an employee an agreement or covenant which protects an employer’s reasonable competitive business interests…”
Further the Agreement must be reasonable:
  • “as to its duration,
  • geographical area, and
  • the type of employment or line of business.”

In November I posted an article about a possible change to Michigan covenants not-to compete statute, you can see that article here – no new movement on th
at HB. It appears that it got stuck in committee and left to die…

Of note, a bill was proposed earlier this month that would require employers to offer Paid Sick Leave

At any rate, going back to the topic at hand…

The question posed by the Above the Law article is a good one – ok, Jim
my Johns, you have a non-compete agreement, that may be valid…so,

to what end?

What is the point? What type of legitimate business interest is Jimmy Johns trying to protect here?

Going back to the initial topic of this post – when can a business enforce a non-compete?

One Answer:

When a business has a legitimate interest to protect.

 

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals on the topic of Non-Competition Agreements provides some illustration on this point.

BHB Investment Holdings v Ogg

I won’t delve into the details, but the first paragraph of the Opinion is telling:

“Steven Ogg took a job with Aqua Tots Canton after being terminated by its competitor, Goldfish Swim School of Farmington Hills. Ogg’s actions breached a noncompetition agreement he signed with the Goldfish franchisee, BHB Investment Holdings. BHB sought to preliminarily enjoin Ogg from working with Aqua Tots, but presented no evidence of irreparable harm. BHB later failed to establish that the agreement protected a legitimate business interest to support the issuance of a permanent injuncti
on. Nor did BHB substantiate that it suffered any damages as a result of the breach.”

 

Is restricting a former employee from swim instruction a legitimate business interest?

The Court on page 3 recognized a number of factors in the analysis in denying enforcing the non-compete, including:

  1. the position was a low-level position;
  2. employee had no access to confidential information;
  3. employee didn’t take any information;
  4. employee didn’t solicit customers;
  5. interestingly, the employer didn’t previously enforce the non-compete when other employees left.

One other interesting piece of information – the Court rejected the employer’s allegation that its swimming lessons were proprietary information. The Court’s rationale?

the employer “placed its methods in the public domain because this was a public building and the students parents, as well as any member of the public, could watch the lessons and glean the methods.” pg 8.

Having no proprietary information, the employer “could not establish a legitimate business interest it needed to protect.” Id.

 

Lessons:

  1. Non-competes will not be enforced unless they protect a legitimate business interest.
  2. Non-competes are less likely to be enforceable against low-level positions with no access to proprietary information.
  3. If you are going to seek an injunction in court, it helps to have some evidence that your former employee is unfairly competing.

 

questions? comments?

email: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka