Joanne Murray

Joanne Murray

Joanne concentrates her practice in the areas of Business Law, Business Transactions, Contracts, Banking and Finance and Consumer Product Safety. She has represented a variety of financial institutions, privately held businesses, physician practices, and nonprofit entities in a wide range of business transactions including stock and asset acquisitions, affiliations, financing and loan restructuring, software license agreements, nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts and leasing transactions.

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Website URL: http://www.ammlaw.com/attorney-profiles/joanne-m.-murray.html

The Pennsylvania legislature recently enacted changes to the state sales tax code that affect computer software providers and their customers. These changes went into effect on August 1, 2016.

Under the Pennsylvania Tax Reform Code of 1971, a tax is imposed on the sale of “tangible personal property”, which is defined generally as “corporeal personal property” along with a non-exclusive list of various types of property. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the term “tangible personal property" includes canned computer software and that the licensing of such software is subject to the tax. In so holding, the Court rejected the argument made by the taxpayer (Philadelphia-based law firm Dechert LLP) that canned computer software consists of intangible intellectual property rights that are not subject to the tax. The Court noted, however, that fees paid by Dechert for software maintenance and support services did not represent the payment for the transfer of tangible personal property and were likely not taxable (though for whatever reason Dechert did not make the distinction and so it was not part of the Court’s holding).

The Pennsylvania General Assembly apparently disagreed with the Court’s categorization of maintenance and support. While the amendment in question was ostensibly intended to just capture digital downloads of property already subject to the tax (e.g., games, apps, video streaming, canned software, etc.), the language adopted by the legislature arguably broadens the scope of the tax. The definition of “tangible personal property” was modified to include video, books, apps, music, games, canned software, and other items “whether electronically or digitally delivered, streamed or accessed, whether purchased singly, by subscription or in any other manner, including maintenance, updates and support”. The highlighted language contradicts the Supreme Court’s commentary in Dechert that software maintenance and support, as services, are not subject to the tax. Nevertheless, the General Assembly has spoken and prudent software vendors should collect sales tax not only on the price of the canned software package itself, but also on digitally or electronically delivered maintenance, update and support services, at least until the interpretation of this provision is clarified by the Department or through the courts.

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue has published a summary of this and other changes that are part of the recent amendment to the Pennsylvania tax code: http://www.revenue.pa.gov/GeneralTaxInformation/TaxLawPoliciesBulletinsNotices/Documents/State%20Tax%20Summary/2016_tax_summary.pdf

Wednesday, August 26 2015 12:54

Scam Alert for Pennsylvania Business Owners

Scammers targeting Pennsylvania businesses have been hard at work this summer. The Pennsylvania Department of State reports that three separate direct mail campaigns have sought to get unsuspecting Pennsylvania  business owners to pay unnecessary fees:

• A mailing from a company calling itself “Division of Corporate Services – Compliance Division” urges companies to complete a form with officer and director information and return the form with a $150 payment.

• A postcard from a company calling itself “Business Compliance Division” urges owners to call a toll-free number “to avoid potential fees and penalties.” When that number is called, the owner is instructed to pay $100 by credit card to obtain a “certificate of existence” in order to comply with state regulations. The address for this company is the same as the address for the “Division of Corporate Services – Compliance Division” above. According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, this is the address of a UPS store in Harrisburg.

• A letter from a company calling itself “Pennsylvania Council for Corporations” instructs business owners to complete a form with names of shareholders, directors and officers and return it with a $125 fee.

These solicitations include citations to Pennsylvania statutes and look official, but they are not: they were neither prepared nor authorized by the Commonwealth. Essentially, these notices represent a business-generating effort from the sender to prepare generic annual minutes for unwitting companies.

The Department of State cautions that any official notices sent to businesses by the Pennsylvania Department of State or the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office will contain letterhead and/or contact information for the Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations. If you receive one of these notices or a similar solicitation, contact the Bureau at 717-787-1057, or feel free to call Sue Maslow, Joanne Murray or Michael Mills at 215-230-7500.

On July 1, 2015, the Pennsylvania Association Transactions Act (also known as the Entity Transactions Act) (the “Act”) went into effect. The primary purpose of the Act is to simplify the architecture of Title 15 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes by moving the provisions applicable to names, fundamental transactions and registration of foreign entities into a new Chapter 3. Presently, those provisions are spread out in numerous subsections applicable to each entity type (e.g., corporations, limited liability companies, etc.). The thinking was that since identical or nearly identical provisions already applied to most or all entity types, they should be moved to a new chapter to streamline the statute and hopefully simplify the process for undertaking fundamental changes. The Act adopts new terms to refer to various entity concepts, so practitioners will have to learn a new vocabulary. For example:

  •  Association: a corporation for profit or corporation not-for-profit, partnership, limited liability company, statutory or business trust, or an entity or two or more persons associated in a common enterprise.
  • Governor: a person by or under whose authority the powers of an association are exercised and under whose direction the activities and affairs of the association are managed (e.g., a corporate director, the general partner of a limited partnership, a partner of a general partnership, a manager of a manager-managed LLC, etc.).
  • Interest holder: a direct or record holder of an interest (e.g., a shareholder, member, general or limited partner).

    While much of the Act is simply a reorganization of the statute, some changes are substantive. For example, the Act expands the use of conversions. In a conversion transaction, one Pennsylvania entity type converts to another Pennsylvania entity type. Until now, this result could be accomplished by using a 2-step process: forming a new entity of the desired type and merging the old entity into it. Alternatively, a business seeking to change its form would have to wind down its business and dissolve, then start again by forming a new entity type. Both approaches were cumbersome and can involve significant transaction fees and delays so the new one-step process is welcomed. But even the simplified conversions can have tax consequences, so a tax advisor should be consulted.

    At the opposite end of the transaction spectrum is the division transaction. Prior to the Act, an entity could only divide into like entity types. The Act permits an entity to divide into different entity types (e.g., a corporation can now divide into a corporation and a limited liability company). Once again, care should be taken to avoid unintended tax consequences.

    Another significant change is a new provision that allows for contractual dissenters rights where such rights would not otherwise be available under the statute. Additionally, the existing concept of share exchanges is expanded to include other association types and bundled into a new subchapter called “Interest Exchanges.”

    All of the transactions included in new Chapter 3 require a plan approved by the interest holders of the constituent associations, although the approval process and plan contents vary depending on the type of association. Many of these transactions have tax consequences for the entity and/or the interest holders, so the advice of tax counsel is critical.

    The Act is based on the Model Entity Transactions Act (known as META). The Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Section on Business Law, which drafted the Act, continues its work to modernize the remainder of Pennsylvania’s association statutes to make them consistent with the uniform laws passed in other states.

Commercial lenders in Pennsylvania await action by the legislature to fix what appears to be an unintended byproduct of recent amendments to the Pennsylvania Probate, Estate and Fiduciaries (PEF) Code that went into effect earlier this year. You may be wondering what a statute that generally applies to trust and estate matters has to do with commercial lending transactions. The answer is that the recent changes applicable to powers of attorney generally could be interpreted to apply to powers of attorney granted in commercial loan documents, leases and other contracts (such as those granted in connection with confession of judgment clauses and certain other remedies). Historically, these statutory provisions did not apply to commercial agreements. It appears that the legislature was focusing on trust and estate documents when enacting this legislation and didn’t understand the impact of these amendments on commercial transactions.

These amendments are troubling from a lender’s perspective because they require that an agent must “act in accordance with the principal’s reasonable expectations to the extent actually known by the agent and, otherwise, in the principal’s best interest.” In a commercial loan transaction, the agent is the lender and the principal is the borrower, so the tension is obvious: a lender that is foreclosing on property, confessing judgment, collecting rents, or exercising Article 9 remedies  is not likely to be acting in the best interest of the borrower.

Pennsylvania House Bill #665 would amend the PEF Code to clarify that the power of attorney requirements do not apply to commercial transactions. This bill is presently in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Until this bill becomes law, lenders should consider making the following adjustments to commercial loan documents containing powers of attorney (typically these include documents with confessions of judgment, security agreements, assignments of rent, and mortgages):

• Include an acknowledgement by the borrower that its reasonable expectations include confession of judgment, foreclosure and other actions typically taken by a lender under the power of attorney;

• Include a waiver of the duties imposed by the PEF Code; and

• Add a notary page.

Commercial lenders were left shuddering in the wake of a September 6, 2013 Pennsylvania Superior Court decision that affirmed a $3.6 million Bucks County jury verdict in favor of a local developer against an area bank. In County Line/New Britain Realty, LP v. Harleysville National Bank and Trust Company, the developer successfully argued that the term sheet provided to it by Harleysville was in fact a binding contract notwithstanding evidence of the parties’ intent to execute subsequent, more detailed agreements. The court also upheld the lower court ruling that Harleysville’s decision not to fund the loan described in the term sheet constituted a breach of contract. The court dismissed Harleysville’s claim that the term sheet did not contain the essential terms of a loan agreement (such as the closing date, how interest would be calculated, a repayment schedule, representations and warranties, and defaults and remedies) and therefore was not enforceable. The court held that the term sheet contained sufficient terms to create a binding contract, such as the identities of the borrower and lender, the principal amount of the loan, interest rates, the term, the manner of repayment, the names of the guarantors, and an identification of the collateral. The court acknowledged that the evidence showed that the parties intended to execute subsequent agreements but nevertheless held the term sheet to be binding.

Harleysville also argued that the developer did not meet all the loan conditions specified in the term sheet, so Harleysville was not required to fund the loan. Specifically, Harleysville asserted that two conditions were not met: (i) a satisfactory review by the lender of an “environmental assessment” of the parcels, and (ii) a satisfactory review by the lender of all specifications, engineer reports and government approvals. It argued that the trial court impermissibly allowed the jury to consider evidence regarding industry custom and practice, the course of dealing between the parties, and evidence of Harleysville’s motives in evaluating whether these loan conditions had been met. The Superior Court found that the term sheet did not articulate these conditions in sufficient detail and that it was appropriate for the jury to consider additional evidence in order to interpret the parties’ intent. This extrinsic evidence was particularly damning to Harleysville because it showed that Harleysville lost interest in making the loan shortly after the term sheet was issued, due in part to its desire to reduce the amount of commercial real estate loans in its portfolio and its precarious position as a result of the recent bankruptcy filing of its largest customer.

From time to time, a client asks about when and why a corporate seal is necessary. Even some attorneys (particularly from out of state) question during contract negotiations whether the phrase “executed under seal” should be removed from a contract as an archaic concept. Historically, seals were affixed to a document as a formality to attest to the parties’ intention to be legally bound by the promises contained in the document. In several states, however, the execution of an agreement under seal continues to have specific legal significance that is not always understood or intended by the parties.

As a general rule, the Pennsylvania Judicial Code provides that the statute of limitations for actions based on a contract is four years. For instruments that are executed under seal, however, the statute of limitations is twenty years. The guarantor of a commercial loan recently learned the hard way that his guaranty was subject to the extended statute of limitations. In Osprey Portfolio, LLC v. Izett, the lender confessed judgment under Mr. Izett’s guaranty nearly five years after the loan went into default. Mr. Izett argued that the action was precluded because it was filed after the four-year limitation period. While acknowledging that the document was executed “under seal”, Mr. Izett maintained that the twenty-year limitation period did not apply because the guaranty agreement was not an “instrument”, which he defined as instruments under Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code. Article 3 defines “instrument” as a “negotiable instrument”, namely “an unconditional promise to pay a fixed amount of money.” Because his guaranty related to a line of credit (not a loan for a fixed sum) and was conditional upon the default of the borrower under the note, he reasoned that it did not meet this definition of “instrument.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed the lower courts’ rulings. It held that the term “instrument”, as used in the Judicial Code,  should be interpreted using its ordinary meaning: a written document that defines the rights and obligations of the parties, such as a contract, will, promissory note, etc. Using this broader definition, the guaranty in question clearly qualifies as an instrument. Since the instrument was executed under seal, the twenty-year statute of limitations applied and the action was allowed to go forward.

It should be noted that the Judicial Code section providing for the twenty-year statute of limitations is due to expire on June 27, 2018. Of course, the sunset date for this provision has been extended in the past, so only time will tell whether the execution of contracts and other writings “under seal” will continue to have special legal significance in Pennsylvania.

Four years ago, the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) went into effect, forcing home improvement contractors to register with the Commonwealth and to comply with various contracting requirements (for more information, see our Client Alerts on the subject https://www.ammlaw.com/general/articles.html). We have found that unfortunately many contractors remain unaware of this law. Failure to comply with HICPA could result in civil and criminal penalties. But does non-compliance also mean that a contractor is prevented from receiving payment from its customer for completed work? Not necessarily, held the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which recently gave hope to contractors when it concluded that a contractor who does not comply with HICPA may nevertheless recover the value of its services from the customer.

In Shafer Electric & Construction v. Mantia, an out-of-state contractor entered into a written contract with a Pennsylvania homeowner (who also happened to be a contractor) to build an addition to the homeowner’s garage and provided services valued at over $37,000. The contractor did not register with the Commonwealth under HICPA. After the homeowner failed to pay the amount due, the contractor sued to recover its fees. The homeowner asserted that the complaint was legally insufficient because the underlying contract was not enforceable under HICPA. The contractor countered that even if the contract were unenforceable, the contractor should be able to recover its fees under the equitable doctrine of quantum meruit, a theory which allows a party to recover the reasonable value of its services so as to avoid unjust enrichment of the other party. Unfortunately, although HICPA preserves a contractor’s right to recover its fees under a quantum meruit theory, the language of the statute appears to require compliance with HICPA as a prerequisite to recovery. The lower court, strictly interpreting the statute’s plain language, ruled in favor of the homeowner. The Superior Court reversed, holding that the plain language of the statute impermissibly limits the purpose of the provision allowing recovery under quantum meruit. It reasoned that to require the contractor to comply with HICPA before recovering under a quantum meruit theory made no sense because a compliant contractor can recover its fees under a breach of contract theory and does not need an equitable remedy such as quantum meruit.

While Shafer Electric provides reassurance for home improvement contractors doing work in Pennsylvania, the prudent contractor will not rely on it to ensure collection of its fees. Because of the hefty fines and possible criminal penalties that may be imposed for violations, we strongly encourage contractors to register and comply with the other requirements set forth in HICPA.

Just when minority owners of Delaware LLCs thought that the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act (the “Act”) protected them from overreaching managers, along comes the Delaware Supreme Court to say “better get it in writing.” It appears that practitioners longing for certainty will have to wait until the Delaware legislature steps in and revises the statute.

The Delaware Supreme Court recently published an opinion in a case involving a Delaware LLC (Gatz Properties, LLC) that was the manager of another LLC (Peconic Bay, LLC). Gatz Properties is managed and controlled by William Gatz, and the Gatz family and their affiliates owned controlling equity interests in Peconic Bay. They also owned real estate that was leased to Peconic Bay, which in turn subleased the property to a national golf course operator. The golf course proved to be unprofitable because it was poorly managed, and Mr. Katz anticipated that the sublease would be terminated. He decided to acquire the sublease and Peconic Bay’s other assets for himself. Consequently, he foiled the efforts of a third party to buy the sublease rights. He then engaged a valuation expert to appraise the property but did not provide the expert with information about the prior third party offers or tell the expert that the golf course’s unattractive financials were the result of its being mismanaged. Not surprisingly, the resulting appraisal showed that Peconic Bay had no net positive value. Next, Mr. Katz hired an auctioneer with no experience in the golf course industry to sell the golf course business. After lackluster advertising for the auction, Mr. Katz was the sole bidder and acquired the property for $50,000 plus the assumption of debt. Peconic Bay’s minority members brought suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery, alleging that Mr. Katz had breached his fiduciary duties to them. The Court of Chancery held that Gatz had breached both his contractual and statutory duties to the minority members, and Gatz appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

The Delaware Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Chancery that the LLC agreement’s clear language prohibited self-dealing without the consent of 2/3 of the minority owners, and Mr. Gatz testified on several occasions that he understood that Gatz Properties owned fiduciary duties to the minority members. The Court also upheld the lower court’s finding that Gatz breached this duty.

Moving on to whether Gatz breached a statutory duty under the Act, the Court noted that it was “improvident and unnecessary” for the Court of Chancery to decide that the Act imposed “default” fiduciary duties on managers where the LLC agreement is silent because, in the case at bar, the issue could be decided by interpreting the text of the LLC agreement. Additionally, no litigant asked that the lower court resolve the issue by interpreting the Act. Another concern for the Court was the lower court’s suggestion that its statutory interpretation should withstand scrutiny because practitioners rely on its rulings. The Court remarked that, as the highest court in Delaware, it was not bound to follow the lower court’s decisions. The Court rebuked the lower court for using the case at hand as a “platform to propagate [its] world views on issues not presented.” The Court concluded its reprimand by stating that because the issue of whether the Act imposes default fiduciary duties is one on which reasonable minds can differ, the matter should be left to the legislature to clarify.

Following the decision in Gatz Properties, equity holders in Delaware manager-managed LLCs would be prudent to clearly identify in the LLC agreement which fiduciary duties are intended to apply to their managers. Given the Court’s position that the issue is a matter for the legislature (not the courts) to decide, practitioners will be monitoring the activities of the legislature to see if it takes up the gauntlet.

It is not uncommon for a minority shareholder to cry foul when the corporation is sold and the shareholder believes he received less than fair value for his shares. Such claims often result in shareholder oppression suits, with the majority shareholder accused of having breached a fiduciary duty to the minority owner. Now it seems that controlling shareholders of even privately held corporations have another potential adversary: the Securities Exchange Commission. The SEC recently sued Stiefel Laboratories and its then-controlling shareholder and CEO Charles Stiefel, alleging that they defrauded current and former employee shareholders out of more than $110 million by buying back shares in the company at undervalued prices prior to the sale of the company to GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

The complaint alleges that the defendants misled the employee shareholders, who had acquired the shares as part of a stock bonus plan, by concealing material information about the potential acquisition of the company by GlaxoSmithKline. Information regarding several offers from private equity firms to acquire stock in the company at a higher price than the valuation provided to employees was also allegedly withheld from employees. The complaint further asserts that the valuation that the company provided to employees was prepared by an unqualified accountant who used flawed methodology. Adding insult to injury, a 35% discount incorporated into the valuation was not disclosed to the employees.

The complaint cites, among other things, the company's repurchase of 800 shares from employees at a price equal to $16,469 per share in the months leading up to the sale to GlaxoSmithKline, which acquired the company for $68,000 per share. As a result of the reduced number of outstanding shares, the remaining shareholders (consisting mostly of Stiefel family members) received a windfall.

The SEC warns that privately held companies and their officers should be aware that federal securities laws are intended to protect all shareholders, regardless of whether they acquire their shares in a private transaction such as a stock bonus plan or on a public market. Corporate officers in corporations with stock bonus plans should take care to obtain appropriate valuations to support stock repurchases from accredited professionals using commonly accepted valuation methodologies. Stock option plans and corresponding summary plan descriptions should be carefully reviewed, with a particular focus on their stock repurchase provisions. All material facts must be fully disclosed to plan participants in a timely manner.

To avoid post-transaction cries of foul play from former shareholders, we often include “tail” provisions that allow the former shareholders to enjoy the same economic benefit of a major company transaction such as a sale or merger that follows the sale of their shares. Such provisions are usually of limited duration (e.g., twelve months). This protects the company and senior management from claims like those raised by Stiefel Laboratories employees after the expiration of the tail period.

We’ve all heard of someone who hit the Enter key too quickly and sent an email he later regretted sending. Unfortunately, in some cases, the result is that the correspondents are deemed to have entered into a contract, without a formal writing and even in the face of evidence that the parties intended to later sign a formal contract. That was the case a few years ago when counsel for Amazon.com sent a one-word reply (“Correct”) to an email from opposing counsel outlining several specific terms of a settlement of a lawsuit. A Pennsylvania court faced a similar case in 2006, when it enforced an unsigned settlement agreement between Commerce Bank and First Union National Bank after concluding that the signing of the agreement was a mere formality since the parties had already evidenced their intent to be bound.

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