Thomas P. Donnelly

Thomas P. Donnelly

Tom’s practice focuses on commercial litigation and transactions. In litigation, Tom represents both Plaintiffs and Defendants. Throughout his career, he has undertaken the representation of both individual and corporate clients in subject matters concerning fraud, contracts, employment agreements, breach of fiduciary duty, securities violations, real estate and insurer bad faith. Tom’s clients include individuals and businesses local to the Philadelphia area, as well as national corporations.

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Business divorce, just like traditional matrimonial divorce, can occur for many reasons.  Many times, business divorce is occasioned by underperformance and the need to separate an underperforming owner.  However, the opposite circumstance, a business that has done well, can also spur desire for change in structure.  Just like matrimonial divorce, business divorce can be a long, painful and expensive proposition.  Consideration of trigger events for dissolution and setting an exit strategy before commencing the business venture can manage the expectations of the parties and facilitate transition when it becomes necessary.  And it almost always does.

One of the primary considerations is trust.  Consider the level of trust you place in a business partner on so many levels.  Trust ranges from the basics of whether you can trust your partner not to have a hand in the cookie jar, to more esoteric questions of whether you can trust your partner to share your long term vision.  All too often clients come to us with stories of unexplained payments for personal expenses which are only discovered by accident.  What are the rights and obligations of the company and the business partners in such event?  These  rights should be spelled out in the agreement between the parties, otherwise the company, and the innocent shareholders, are left to argue common law claims and may be without a way to specifically extract the untrustworthy owner.

Trust goes deeper than the simple situation of defalcation (misuse of funds).  Can you trust your business partner to have the same desire to grow your business and increase sales and performance metrics over an extended time?   Business entities generally have perpetual existence.  Can you trust that your partner will continue to make the requisite investments of time, energy and money that are necessary to bring the success you work so hard to achieve?  If the agreements between the parties do not provide for a mechanism to remove that partner, or at least monetarily induce that partner to voluntarily separate, what strategy is available to accomplish the necessary change? 

If extraction of a non performing owner is one side of the coin, the terms of voluntary separation are the other.  Even in the absence of material differences between owners and managers, time and circumstance often require parties to go their separate ways.  The terms of voluntary separation can be every bit as complex as forcible removal.  Often, the most problematic inquiry is the right to be compensated in consideration of separation.  Such terms of separation can vary based on valuation methodologies such as “market” or “book” values, timing of payments, reductions or additions to value based on subsequent conduct.  In the absence of advance planning, the parties are almost certain to find dispute.   

Post-employment obligations and fiduciary duties are also fertile ground for dispute.  Corporate officers and directors have fiduciary obligations to the business.  Partners, shareholders and members may have fiduciary obligations to each other.  A departing shareholder may or may not be permitted to directly compete either during or after termination of the business relationship.  Certainly, issues arise with respect to client/customer relationships and confidential information.  More substantial issues may arise when the business develops a new technology or intellectual property which one party seeks to exploit in a different way.  Agreements between the parties can address such possibilities and preserve rights by contract which might otherwise be ambiguous. 

What if it all goes wrong?  Again, business entities are generally established to have a perpetual existence, so termination must be accomplished by agreement or statutory procedure.  What kind of consent is necessary to effectuate dissolution?  Must all of the shareholders or members agree?  Agreements can specify events and effect of dissolution including specific assignments in distribution of assets according to differing methodologies or factual circumstances.  In circumstances where one party is opposed to liquidation or dissolution, the situation can become even more complex.  Occasionally, only the appointment of a receiver can effectuate liquidation or dissolution; a generally unappealing circumstance as such an appointment necessitates the loss of control.

The questions posed and circumstances described above underline the importance of careful consideration prior to establishment of business entities.  Such considerations during the business “engagement” and before business matrimony are necessary to prevent significant hardship when expectations are not managed.  Advance planning though counsel can address many of the issues potentially faced by business owners and help the parties realize their expectations when circumstances change.    

Tuesday, April 22 2014 20:24

TITLE ISSUES IN ORPHANS’ COURT

Lis pendens is a powerful tool which can be utilized in civil litigation pertaining to a claim against title to real estate.  The filing of a lis pendens and recording that lis pendens against a parcel of property puts the world on notice that the owner may not have clear title, and thus, may be unable to convey same.  A lis pendens effectively precludes transfer of the real property as any buyer must take subject to the cloud on title.  Of course, a lis pendens must be supported by a writ of summons or a civil action complaint relating to real property.

Curiously, a lis pendens is not an available tool in an Orphans’ Court proceeding.  Accordingly, a lis pendens cannot be utilized to place the world on notice of a claim against an administrator or executor where a transfer of property is made in connection with estate administration.  Nor can it be used to place the world on notice of the claim relating to that transfer or a defect in their authority to effectuate same.  Thus, the lis pendens is not an effective tool to  preclude further transfer or encumbrance by mortgage or other debt instrument. 

Although lis pendens is not available, the same purpose can be accomplished under the Orphans’ Court rules, provided a Petition for Citation has been filed with respect to the administrator’s activity.  Pursuant to 20 Pa. Cons. Stat. §3359, any pleading in Orphans’ Court may be recorded in the Recorder of Deeds Office with reference to the property in question.  While little case law is available to address the impact of such filing, the practical effect of providing notice of any existing claim to title may be satisfied.

Antheil Maslow and MacMinn is experienced in matters of estate administration and litigation pertaining to estate matters. 

 

 

By Thomas P. Donnelly, Esquire, Reprinted with permission from the March 27, 2014 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c)
2014 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

It happens all the time.  A potential or existing client calls and advises they have been stiffed by a customer on a commercial contract.  Often times, your client has provided goods or services to a client business only to be advised their client, the other named party to agreements in place, has ceased business operations.  [As filing under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code does not result in a discharge of corporate obligations, a bankruptcy filing is generally not forthcoming.]  There is no event which gives the client finality as to their loss.  The client is left with only their suspicions that operations have commenced under a new corporate umbrella and whatever assets remained have simply been transferred out of the client’s reach.   

While certainly not in an advantageous position, your client’s claims may not be dead.  Under the right factual circumstance, recovery may still be had.  Claims against successors, affiliated business entities, and corporate principals are fact specific and often necessitate pre complaint development through available public information or, potentially, through the issuance of a writ of summons.  If sufficient information can be mined, causes of action for violation of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfers Act, successor liability under the de facto merger doctrine, unjust enrichment, and claims for piercing the corporate veil may have merit and be successfully pursued.

By Thomas P. Donnelly, Esquire, Reprinted with permission from October 11, 2013 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c)
2013 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

Senior Judge Anita Brody of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently presided over a non- jury trial in the matter of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. v. Gateway Funding Diversified Mortgage Services, L.P. Judge Brody is expected to render a decision in the coming weeks.  Lehman Brothers represents the first occasion for the District Court to consider the legal principal of de facto merger under Pennsylvania law following the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Fizzano Brothers Concrete Products, Inc. v. XLN, Inc., 42 A.3d 951 (Pa. 2012).  In Fizzano Brothers, the Supreme Court substantially modified the application of the de facto merger doctrine allowing trial courts far greater flexibility in the application of the doctrine to a broader set of facts.

Before Fizzano Brothers, Pennsylvania courts were constrained to a mechanical application of four elements: (1) continuation of the enterprise of the seller corporation; (2) continuity of shareholders; (3) cessation of ordinary business operations on the part of the selling entity; and  (4) assumption of those obligations of the seller ordinarily necessary for the uninterrupted continuation of normal business operations.  In practical application, the “continuity of shareholders” requirement was nearly impossible to satisfy where sophisticated business people with legal representation structured the transaction as a sale of assets to a new entity.  Consequently, mechanical application of the continuity of shareholders element was the stumbling block in the de facto merger analysis.

The Fizzano Brothers court substantially modified the analysis by discarding the mechanical application of continuity of shareholders.  Citing public policy and recognizing the sophistication of business transactions in the current climate, the court ruled that “where the underlying cause of action is rooted in a cause of action that invokes important public policy goals, the continuity of ownership prong may be relaxed.”  Fizzano Brothers, 42 A.3d at 966.  The question of successor liability should first be viewed in light of “whether, for all intents and purposes, a merger has or has not occurred between two or more corporations, although not accomplished under the statutory procedure.”  Id. at 969.

The Supreme Court went on to hold that the shareholders of the predecessor company were no longer required to become shareholders of the successor to meet the requirements of de facto merger. The court concluded such a holding would be “incongruous” with provisions of the Pennsylvania Business Corporation Law stating; “because a de facto merger analysis tasks a court with determining whether, for all intents and purposes, a merger or consolidation of corporations has occurred, even though the statutory procedure had not been used, the continuity of ownership prong of the de facto merger analysis certainly may not be more restrictive than the relevant elements of a statutory merger as contemplated by our legislature.”  Id. at 968.

The court then adopted a more flexible approach. After Fizzano Brothers, cases rooted in breach of contract and express warranty no longer require strict transfer of ownership.  Rather, the de facto merger doctrine now requires “’some sort of’ proof of continuity of ownership or stockholder interest. . . . However, such proof is not restricted to mere evidence of an exchange of assets from one corporation for shares in a successor corporation.” Id. at 969 (internal citations omitted).

The Fizzano Brothers factors are at issue in Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. v. Gateway Funding where Lehman Brothers raised claims of successor liability relating to indemnification agreements with Gateway’s alleged predecessor.  At trial, evidence was admitted indicating that  Gateway had specifically and intentionally purchased all assets that were necessary to the continuation of the mortgage origination business formerly conducted by the predecessor.  Such evidence included direct testimony on the part of Gateway’s management team that the acquisition was designed to acquire not only the current “pipeline” of loans in progress, but also the potential for continued loan origination.  Contemporaneously, Gateway also undertook to acquire debt obligations owed by the predecessor which were necessary to loan origination including securing warehouse lines of credit utilized to temporarily fund mortgage loans until sold on the secondary market.  Finally, documents related to the transaction reflected the intention that the business operations of the predecessor entity were to be “wound down”.  In that regard, restrictions against competition imposed upon the former principals of the predecessor, now Gateway employees, were permitted to “compete” only for the purpose of effectuating that wind-down.

While evidence was admitted as to each element of the de facto merger doctrine, continuity of ownership was specifically contested.  The transaction at issue was characterized by the buyer and seller as an asset transaction with no stock transfers. However, the four shareholders of the predecessor entity were provided compensation in a variety of ways which Lehman Brothers argued were illustrative of ownership.  The four shareholders received employment agreements with Gateway which included substantial severance benefits, a right to share in the profits of the same operations as had been conducted by the predecessor, and cash considerations.  One former shareholder indicated the cash component was paid, at least in part, as a result of his equity position in the predecessor.

In contrast, Gateway argued that the four shareholders were valuable and experienced revenue generating employees with corresponding compensation arrangements following the acquisition.  Objectively, the four shareholders of the predecessor were not granted stock in the acquiring entity.  Further, although certain of the agreements between the four shareholders and Gateway referenced the shareholder’s equity stake in the predecessor, no provision for consideration set forth in the language of the agreements was expressly tied to that equity position. 

The Lehman Brothers trial is the first test of the new more relaxed application of the continuity of ownership prong of the de facto merger analysis.  Judge Brody’s decision will provide guidance to both transactional practitioners in structuring transactions where liabilities may remain post-closing, and to litigators when faced with claims against a defunct entity where assets were transferred leaving a hollow shell.

The author served as local trial counsel to Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc.

Reprinted with permission from April 5, 2013 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c)
2013 ALM Media Properties.
Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is set to hear argument on April 10, 2013 regarding the scope of the work product doctrine and the discovery of materials contained in a testifying expert’s file on April 10, 2013.    The specific issue on appeal is whether Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 4003.3 provides absolute work product protection for all communications between a party’s counsel and its testifying trial expert.  The decision may provide clarity and guidance to litigation counsel facing an otherwise clouded issue.

In Barrick v. Holy Spirit Hospital, 32 A. 3d. 800 (Pa. Super. 2011), the trial court was faced with a subpoena directed to a medical provider who was both a treating physician and an expert retained for the purpose of offering trial testimony.  The trial court, after an in camera inspection, ordered the enforcement of the subpoena and the disclosure of communications between the expert and the Plaintiff’s counsel.  Plaintiff appealed, arguing the application of the work product doctrine under Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 4003.3 and trial preparation materials under Rule 4003.5 protected the communications from disclosure.


Restrictions against competition are frequently included in employment agreements and agreements for the sale of business assets or stock.  The restriction against competition is designed to secure a time period for the employer or buyer of business assets, as the case may be, during which the employer/buyer is free from competition for a departed employee or seller so as to facilitate the transition and better protect their own business assets and customer relationships.  If properly drafted and implemented, restrictions against competition are enforceable under Pennsylvania law.

The primary method of enforcement in the event of breach is a preliminary injunction in equity.  In order to prevail on a petition for preliminary injunction, a petitioner must demonstrate several factors including (1) the need to prevent irreparable harm which cannot be compensated by money damages, (2) that more harm will result from the denial of the preliminary injunction than from granting same, (3) that the injunction will restore the parties to the status quo, (4) the likelihood of success on the merits, (5) that the injunction is designed to abate the offending activity, and (6) that the injunction will not negatively impact public policy.   In most cases the issues of likelihood of success on the merits and irreparable harm incapable of compensation with money damages represent the contested issues.

In Bucks County, the petition for preliminary injunction must be accompanied by a verified complaint and an order for hearing.  The petition is often, though not always, heard by the initial pre-trial judge assigned to the case at the time of filing.  Court administration reviews all petitions for preliminary injunction and assigns the presiding judge, courtroom and date for evidence to be taken.  The order for hearing is an essential aspect of the petition; without it, no hearing will be scheduled.

The petitioner in any injunction matter bears a heavy burden.  Adequate evidence as to the need for enforcement of the covenant, the potential irreparable harm and right to relief must be presented.  Because the entry of injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy, the evidence must be clear and persuasive.  In employment and business asset transfer cases, the language of the restriction in the applicable agreements must be constrained to those aspects of competition which are reasonably necessary for the protection of the employer/buyer.  For example, a covenant which is overbroad in terms of geography, time or scope will not be enforced.

Preliminary injunctive relief may be acquired in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas if supported by the underlying agreement and if properly perfected under the practices and procedures employed in the County.

Often, in the business context, agreements contain representations and warranties of the parties to the agreement.  The representations and warranties can range from general items such as business forms and the payment of taxes, to more specific items, such as the accuracy and reliability of financial information.  While such representations and warranties are commonplace in business agreements, their importance should not be overlooked.

Under Pennsylvania law, when performance of a duty under contract is due, any non-performance is a breach.  If a breach constitutes a material failure of performance, the non-breaching party is discharged from its duties under the contract.  A party who has materially breached a contract may not complain if the other party refuses to perform.  In other words, a material breach of contract may excuse performance by the non-performing party.

In the context of representations and warranties contained in a business agreement, should the representations and warranties contained in the agreement prove to be false, the party to whom the representations and warranties were made may raise the falsity of the representations and warranties to excuse further performance of any contractual obligations under the agreement.  Such a circumstance could spell disaster in the business context – particularly in a case where the payment of money is due at some time after closing.

Pennsylvania courts impose an element of materiality to the breach of a representation or warranty.  The elements of materiality under Pennsylvania law include the extent to which an injured party will be deprived of the benefit which he reasonably expected, the extent to which the injured party may be adequately compensated for that part of the benefit of which he will be deprived, the likelihood that the party failing to perform or offer to perform will cure, and the extent to which the party failing to perform comports with the standards of good faith and fair dealing.

Accordingly, representations and warranties contained in an agreement should not be taken lightly, but should be made with any eye toward the potential ramifications in the event of breach.

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