Articles Posted in Business Litigation

Section 544 of the Bankruptcy Code, commonly referred to as the “strong arm” clause, gives the bankruptcy trustee the rights of a secured creditor.  This allows the trustee to avoid for the benefit of the debtor’s creditors transfers or obligations that could have been avoided by an unsecured creditor under nonbankruptcy law, provided such creditor exists.  Generally, this allows the trustee to avoid unperfected liens and fraudulent transfers.

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Section 544 of the Bankruptcy Code sets out the strong arm clause in full.  Section 544 provides in relevant part that “[t]he trustee shall have, as of the commencement of the case, and without regard to any knowledge of the trustee or of any creditor, the rights and powers of, or may avoid any transfer of property of the debtor or any obligation incurred by the debtor” that could have been avoided by certain judicial lien holders or bona fide purchasers. The Bankruptcy Code can be confusing and intimidating to some.  An experienced San Jose bankruptcy lawyer can help creditors understand their rights, options and risks not only with the “strong arm” clause, but the entire Bankruptcy Code.

What Claims Can Be Avoided?

Government contracts can be lucrative for many companies, large or small. Often, one company wants to bid on a government contract but needs assistance from another company to fully perform the contracted work. In such cases, the two companies would combine their resources to share the bid and the contract, if awarded.  When this situation arises, it is critical to ensure that the companies have an agreement, a “teaming agreement”, stating how the work set forth in the government contract is to be divided to protect the interests of each business.

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Many teaming agreements involve a large corporation acting as the primary contractor and one or more smaller businesses acting as subcontractors. Smaller businesses naturally want to protect their interests against larger corporate entities with more resources. Preparing bids can be costly and time consuming and can take focus away from other day to day operations of the business.

Unfortunately, the problem is that many teaming agreements have been deemed unenforceable by California state courts. Because a teaming agreement is signed before a contract is awarded and whether it takes effect is dependent upon winning the contract, many courts have stated that teaming agreements are “an agreement to agree” in the future instead of a binding contract. This means that a subcontractor could take the time to prepare a bid and enter into an agreement with a primary contractor, and once the government contract is won by the primary contractor, it could decide to use a different subcontractor, leaving little legal recourse for the subcontractor.

Real estate transactions are complex and often involve valuable property and a significant sum of money. In a real estate transaction, both the buyer and seller of real estate have significant interests on the line they desire to protect; one way of doing this are escape clauses. Since many things can go wrong in a real estate transaction, real estate contracts include many different provisions and clauses that can come into play during the course of the deal or transaction. It is often wise to have an experienced California real estate attorney draft or review any contracts.

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A real estate buyer understandably wants to be aware of the condition and known risks of the property they are purchasing and to ensure the transaction will not unknowingly cost them more money than anticipated in the long run. On the other hand, if a real estate seller enters into a contract with a particular buyer and stops soliciting other buyers, they can lose out on opportunities  if that buyer suddenly backs out of the deal.

To protect buyers while also protecting the interests of sellers, many real estate contracts in California have one or more “escape clauses”. These escape clauses allow the buyer to withdraw from the transaction if certain circumstances arise and the seller has proper notice that the contract is contingent upon these clauses.

Every time a contract is signed, the potential exists that one party fails to perform the obligations specified under the contract. In such cases, the aggrieved party may elect to file a lawsuit to try to seek performance under the contract or, more typically, for losses incurred as a result of the other party’s non-performance. However, in some cases, there may be a defense to the enforcement of the contract.  One such defense is undue influence.

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Undue influence is the unfair or improper persuasion of one person by another or excessive persuasion that causes another person to act or refrain from acting by overcoming that person’s free will resulting in inequity. A party’s apparent consent to a contract (or transaction) is not free or real when it is obtained through undue influence. In other words, a contract obtained though undue influence is voidable.  Consent is deemed to have been obtained through undue influence when the purported consent would have been refused if the acts constituting undue influence had not existed.

In California, there are four circumstances, prescribed by the civil code, in which undue influence occurs:

If your company sells products or services online, the purchase process almost certainly includes a click through agreement, also known as “clickwrap,” “web-wrap,” or “click and accept” agreements. This refers to the button the consumer must click to indicate they accept all of the terms of the sale. If they choose not to accept, the sale will not go through. This agreement often includes intellectual property protections for the company, license restrictions, liability limitations, disclaimers involving warranties, among other standard contract terms.

The large majority of online consumers often click through without carefully reading the terms of the agreement. If a consumer later contests a term in the click through agreement, will a court uphold and enforce the terms of the initial agreement? This is important to know, as an unenforceable agreement can result in liability and losses. Consulting with an e-commerce attorney is the best way to guarantee a legally binding contract.

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Court Ruling on “Shrinkwrap Agreements”

One of the primary benefits of incorporating your business and complying with corporate governance laws is that a corporation provides personal liability protections for its owners from the debts and liabilities of the corporation. These protections exist because a corporation is viewed as an entity that exists separate from its owners and this creates a “corporate veil” which is intended to protect the shareholders from personal liability. However, there are some circumstances in which an injured party may hold shareholders personally responsible for the debts or actions of the corporation. This is commonly referred to as either “alter ego liability” or “piercing the corporate veil.”

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Generally speaking, when a party sues a corporation, that party seeks money from the corporation and not from shareholders as individuals. In some situations, however, owners may simply be using a corporation as an “alter ego” for themselves and they do not actually treat the corporation as a separate legal entity. In such cases, a party suing the corporation may pierce the corporate veil and try to hold the owners personally liable as well. While successful alter ego liability is rare, it does occur and all corporate owners should take steps to avoid it whenever possible.

Signs of “Alter Ego” Corporations

In the early stages of a merger and acquisition (M&A) transaction, owners may be willing to overlook certain differences in favor of focusing on the benefits of the deal. However, as the M&A transaction is completed, the rose-colored glasses may come off and sudden concerns may develop into serious legal disputes between owners. If these disputes are not handled correctly, it can result in long-term consequences, both financially and regarding the relations of the parties. The following are some information regarding common post-closing M&A disputes.

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Deferred Payment of Purchase Price

Many M&A agreements are structured such that part of the purchase price is paid at closing and the rest is paid at some point in future.  This is done with “earn-out” clauses and purchase price adjustment clauses, among others.  An earn-out clause is where the amount of future money paid depends on selling company’s performance after the acquisition, i.e. the money has to be earned after the closing before it is paid out.  These types of clauses are sometimes interpreted differently by buyers and sellers after the closing.  For example, if the selling company’s product is upgraded after the closing, the buyer and seller may view the revenues from those sales differently under an earn-out clause.  As another example, if the buyer and seller have different accounting practices that could certainly affect their interpretation of purchase price adjustment clauses.  Resolving these disputes can involve complex accounting and negotiations by both parties.

The last thing a business wants is the unexpected surprise of having to pay back money it has received from a customer for goods or services. Although charge-backs and payment disputes may be more common in today’s digital world, a startup or business will likely be caught off guard when it is served with a “preference action” filed by a bankruptcy trustee or bankrupt customer.

The Bankruptcy Code permits the trustee to avoid and recover from creditors for the benefit of all creditors of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate certain pre-petition transfers made within 90 days (and sometimes longer) of the debtor’s bankruptcy filing that would otherwise benefit one creditor at the expense of others. Such transfers are referred to as “preferences.”  Simply put, a preference is where a trustee can recapture certain payments made by the debtor prior to its bankruptcy filing.

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The avoidance and recovery of a preference payment helps to ensure equal distribution among the debtor’s creditors and is intended to discourage aggressive collection tactics by creditors that force the debtor into bankruptcy. An adversary proceeding (a lawsuit filed in the debtor’s bankruptcy) is required to avoid and recover a preference, but a preference action is often preceded by a demand letter from the trustee setting forth the trustee’s claims and demanding immediate repayment of the preference payment.

Going to court is expensive and can take your focus away from running your business for a significant period of time. In order to avoid the added cost and stress of litigation whenever possible, include these steps in your business practices.

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Every business relationship should be memorialized in a written contract. This includes between owners, with clients and customers, with employees, with vendors, and more. Having a contract that is properly drafted to best govern the specific relationship and responsibilities at hand can help avoid disagreements down the road. Each party will know his or her obligations and expectations because it is in writing and the contract can help dictate how disputes will be resolved out of court.

When a shareholder of a corporation believes that he or she has been wronged, the shareholder generally has two options to file a lawsuit.  The shareholder may either bring a direct action or a derivative action, depending on the facts of the case.  In many instances, it is only appropriate for the shareholder to bring one of these two types of actions against the company.   Below is a general explanation of how a corporation is set up, and a discussion of the differences between the two types of shareholder actions.

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Let’s say that you decide to open a lemonade stand by yourself as a simple business.  In a simple business, you would own the lemonade stand.  If the lemonade stand did well, you would make more money, and if it did badly, you would not.  In addition to being the owner, you would also run the lemonade stand.  You would make day-to-day decisions about the lemonade stand, like how where to order to the lemons from, what equipment to use, and how much customers should pay for the lemonade.  To sum up, you alone would both own and run everything.