Articles Posted in Business

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Individuals create LLCs, same with corporations, for ownership and investment purposes primarily to enjoy limited liability. If you invest $10 in an LLC and someone gets a huge judgment against the LLC, the most you could lose is your investment -the $10. The judgment creditor would not be able to come after you personally to collect the balance of their judgment. However, not all LLCs or corporations have assets from which a judgment may be collected. Sacramento area business and real estate attorneys are occasionally asked by clients withe judgments what can be done to go after the members, managers, directors or shareholders. As one group of LLC members recently discovered, if the LLC’s distributions to them leaves the LLC penniless and essentially dissolved, the creditor may collect from the members.

Yolo LLC attorney.jpgIn CB RICHARD ELLIS, INC. v. TERRA NOSTRA CONSULTANTS, the real estate broker was seeking their commission on sale of 38 acres in Murrieta for $11.8 million. While the broker had the property listed, the buyer made an offer. Before closing, either the listing ended or the LLC which owned the property fired the broker, it was not clear. The sale closed. A few days after the cash went from escrow to the seller LLC’s bank account, it all left the account and was distributed to the members. The broker arbitrated its dispute with the LLC (because there was an arbitration provision in the listing agreement) and obtained a judgment against the LLC. But, of course, the LLC had no money.

The broker than filed suit against the members. Its argument was in the Corporations code, which provides for liability in the event the entity has been dissolved. Applicable was the old Section 17350 (which was replaced by the equivalent section 17707.07) provides:

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Judicial reference, unlike arbitration, works within the court system. A lawsuit is filed, and the judge appoints a referee to assist in the case, or decide it on their own. Parties can agree, in their contracts, that disputes are to be determined by a general judicial reference. This means the entire dispute is to be resolved by a referee. An advantage of judicial reference over other forms of dispute resolution (read ‘binding arbitration’) is that a referee’s decision is treated like a judge’s decision for purposes of appeal. On the other hand, an arbitrator’s decision cannot be appealed for errors of fact or law, as I have railed about several times in this blog. But as some parties found out in a 2011 decision, a judicial reference provision is not a guaranty that the dispute will be decided by a referee, and parties interested in reference should consult with a Sacramento business and real estate attorney as to what is possible. In this case the California Supreme Court concluded that a judge could decline to appoint a referee if there is a possibility of conflicting rulings on a common issue of law or fact.

Sacramento judicial reference attorney.jpgIn Tarrant Bell Property, LLC v. The Superior Court, 120 residents of a mobile home park in Alameda County sued the park owners complaining that they had not maintained the common areas of the park and subjected residents to substandard living conditions. Of those residents, 100 residents’ leases had a provision that provided that disputes were to be resolved, first, by arbitration, or should the arbitration provision be found to be unenforceable, by general judicial reference. Key here is that the remaining 20 residents, 17% of the total, had leases that did not require arbitration and reference.

The plaintiffs asked the judge to order arbitration or reference, the park owners opposed either. The trail court judge refused to order arbitration or reference. The opinion does not describe why the court denied arbitration, but focuses instead on denial of reference.

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I have written in the past about Sham Guaranties – this is a guaranty of a loan where the guarantor has such a close identity with the borrower that they are in effect providing a guaranty of their own loan. Such a sham guaranty is not enforceable. A typical scenario would be with a limited partnership. The general partner is fully liable for the debts of the limited partnership. If all the principals of the general partner sign the guaranty, the question arises of whether anything has been added by the guaranty. This is a sham especially when the lender takes a role in encouraging the formation of the entity, and only investigates the financial wherewithal of the individual guarantors. Business and real estate attorneys for lenders usually pay special attention to make sure they really will have an effective guaranty. In a recent decision. the guarantors were unhappy to learn that they were liable on the guaranty – there was too much separation between themselves and the borrowers, which they did on purpose so that they would not occur direct liability on the loan.

Sacramento real estate loan sham guaranty attorney.jpg In California Bank & Trust v. Lawlor, the bank loaned millions to Heritage Partners, secured by numerous real estate projects. Smith and Lawlor owned and controlled Covenant Management, which owned and controlled Heritage Capital, which was the general partner of the Heritage partnerships. They really tried to isolate themselves from the borrower to avoid personal liability. The lender required Smith and Lawlor to sign continuing guaranties. The borrower went into default, the lender foreclosed, and had a deficiency of $15 million dollars. California Bank and Trust brought this action to collect on the loan guaranties. Smith and Lawlor argued that the guaranties were sham guaranties and therefore they were actually the primary obligors on the loans, not true guarantors. As primary obligors, Smith and Lawlor claimed that they were entitled to the protection of California’s antideficiency statutes. This should prohibit the lender from obtaining a judgment against them for the difference between the value of the security and the outstanding loan balances.

The antideficiency statutes strictly limit the right to recover deficiency judgments for the amount the debt exceeds the value of the security. The antideficiency laws promote several public policy objectives:

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Parties can provide in their contracts that any dispute be resolved by “general reference.” A general reference directs a referee to try all issues in the action. The hearing is conducted under the rules of evidence applicable to judicial proceedings. In a general reference, the referee prepares a statement of decision that stands as the decision of the court and is reviewable as if the court had rendered it. This results in a trial by a referee and not by a court or jury. “Judicial reference,” on the other hand, differs in that in that it involves sending a pending trial court action to a referee for hearing, determination and a report back to the court. The BIG DIFFERENCE between reference and arbitration is that a judgment obtained by reference can be appealed, but an arbitrator’s may not be appealed, regardless of how flawed it is. Sacramento real estate and business attorneys know that all the CAR forms have arbitration provisions, which are usually initialed by the parties without truly understanding them. I have railed before about how arbitrators are not held accountable for erroneous rulings.

The general referee’s statement of decision “stands as the decision of the court,” and once the statement of decision is final and filed by the referee, judgment must be entered thereon “in the same manner as if the action had been tried by the court.” After judgment is entered, the losing party may make post-trial motions for a new trial, and/or to vacate the judgment. The judgment entered on the general referee’s statement of decision may be appealed like any other judgment.

SACRAMENTO CONTRACT DISPUTE ATTORNEY.jpgIn a recent decision the court enforced a general reference provision that did not include an explicit waiver of a jury trial. In O’Donoghue v. Superior Court (Performing Arts LLC), a developer obtained a $20 million dollar construction loan for condos at 973 Market Street in San Francisco. Several individuals signed personal guarantees for the loan; the guaranty instrument had a general reference provision. Default occurred, a lawsuit filed, and the court enforced the reference, appointing a referee. The reference provision did not include a jury waiver; the guarantors appealed.

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I recently described a decision that overruled the rule that a borrower may not make a claim for fraud based on the other party misrepresenting what the contract will say (The Pendergrass Rule). In the past borrowers who claimed that their mortgage broker or lender made promises about their loan that were not true. Where these promises are in direct conflict with the terms of the written agreement, the parole evidence rule as described in Pendergrass prohibited allowing evidence of these statements in court. The California Supreme Court decision in Riverisland concluded that evidence of the false promises may be admitted as evidence of fraud. Another decision went a little farther in clarifying the new rule, finding that even sophisticated parties who engaged in extensive negotiations were not subject to the Pendergrass rule, and evidence of fraudulent statements could be admitted.

sacramento real estate contract fraud attorney.jpgIn Julius Castle Restaurant Inc. V. Payne, the parties entered a lease agreement, as well as purchase of the fixtures, of a restaurant in San Francisco. The lease agreement stated:

“Tenant acknowledges that as of the date of this Lease, Tenant has inspected the Premises and all improvements on the Premises and that the Premises and improvements are in good order, repair, and condition… This instrument constitutes the sole agreement between Landlord and Tenant respecting the Premises, the leasing of the Premises to Tenant, and the specified lease term, and correctly sets forth the obligations of Landlord and Tenant. Any agreement or representations respecting the Premises or their leasing by Landlord to Tenant not expressly set forth in this instrument are void.”

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When a debtor files bankruptcy, an “automatic stay” arises by operation of law which prohibits all actions by creditors to collect, such as foreclosure, repossession, or lawsuit against property of the bankruptcy estate, the debtor, and the debtor’s property (11 U.S.C. (the Bankruptcy Code) §362). Real Estate attorneys frequently see a filing intended to thwart actions against the property, such as foreclosure. Operating like a “blanket injunction,” the stay continues until a court order lifting the stay has been entered or the stay has expired. Actions taken in violation of the stay are void.

Property ceases to be property of the estate if it is sold or abandoned. The trustee may abandon property if it is burdensome or of inconsequential value. (§554) Unless the judge orders otherwise, the property is abandoned back to the debtor. Often, the debtor is behind on their mortgage and the lender, wanting to foreclose, consults a real estate attorney. A recent decision in the 9th Circuit BAP points out just what that means- as property of the debtor, it is still protected by an automatic stay, and a foreclosure is void. The lender should have made sure that the abandonment order included lifting the stay so it could proceed with the sale, or otherwise sought relief from stay..

relief from stay sacramento.jpgIn re Gasprom, Inc. involved abandonment of a gas station in Oxnard, the principal asset of the debtor. The gas station was subject to a deed of trust securing a debt of over $1 million dollars. The trustee brought a motion to abandon the property. Gasprom objected (to prevent its creditors from exercising their state law rights and remedies, bu the court approved the abandonment. The Abandonment order was silent as to the automatic stay, and the secured creditor held a trustee’s sale later that day. Sixteen days later the case was closed. The trustee’s sale was in violation of the automatic stay -if they waited another 16 days, they would have been in the clear.

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A Loan Guaranty is a promise by the guarantor to pay the debt of another. In commercial real estate loans they are commonly used to provide additional security to the lender. Such loans are often given to new entities without a financial history, and the lender wants a person (with assets) on the hook for the debt if the entity fails. Last week I discussed a decision where the guarantor excluded a house from liability on the guaranty, but when he sold the home, the cash proceeds could be grabbed by the creditor. This article concerns the scenario in which the guarantor can escape liability, if the it turns out that they signed what courts consider a “sham guaranty.” This could arise due to deliberate action by the lender, insufficient investigation by the lender, or inartfully worded guaranty language. Parties concerned about what exactly their guaranty covers should consult with a Sacramento real estate attorney.

sacramento loan guaranty attorney 1.jpgCivil Code section 2787 provides that a “guarantor is one who promises to answer for the debt, default, or miscarriage of another…” What has become known as a sham guaranty is one where the guarantor is found to be the same as the borrower. The clearest case is where an individual signs a promissory note promising to pay the debt. The lender requires the same individual to sign a guaranty for the same debt, waiving many defenses. For example, there are statutory anti-deficiency protections for real estate borrowers, prohibiting the lender from collecting from the borrower. These protections are not extended to guarantors, and loan guaranties usually have waivers of all these defenses. In the sham guaranty the lender may think that by having the same borrower guaranty the loan allows for a deficiency judgment against the borrower as guarantor. Or, it may be used in hopes that the borrower/guarantor does not understand, and truly expects to be personally liable for the debt.

The sham guaranty defense extends to partnerships. In a general partnership, where each partner is already liable for debts of the partnership, their guaranty of partnership debt would be a sham. For Limited Partnerships, the same could apply to the general partner. River Bank America v. Diller is instructive, in a case where the principals of the corporate general partner signed the guaranty. The Bank wanted the borrower to form a limited partnership to be the borrower. A new entity was formed to be the general partner. The lender always considered the individuals as the primarily obligors, and had them guaranty the loan. The lender did not investigate the financial health of the new entity created to be general partner. The court found that, had the individuals themselves been the general partners, and had they attempted to guarantee the debt, there is no question such guaranty would have been a sham. Instead, the general partner of the primary obligor is a corporation which the individuals fully owned and controlled. However, the court found that this was a distinction without a difference. (The court was influenced also by evidence of the lender’s intent to subvert the antideficiency protection.

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Loan guaranties are contracts in which the guarantor promises to pay the debt if the principal debtor fails to pay. This is not what happens when someone thinks they guaranteed a home mortgage loan for their son or their significant other- they are usually equally liable on the loan. A guaranty more routinely shows up when an entity, such as an LLC or corporation, borrows money or signs a lease. The lender or landlord wants the individuals involved to guaranty the debt. If the guarantor has substantial assets, the lender may allow them to carve out some assets from being available for collection, such as their residence. Loan guarantors should consult with a Sacramento real estate and business attorney to closely review the terms of their guaranty so that they understand what their liability is. In a recent case (which was the first published opinion on the issue in the U.S.), the guarantor excluded a house from liability. He sold the house, and was surprised when the court ruled that, while the house was not attachable to pay the debt, the proceeds of the house (cash from the sale) were not excluded, and could be grabbed by the Lender. That the house was on Lake Como tells you that this was alota cash.

sacramento loan guaranty attorney.jpgIn Series AGI West Linn of Appian Group Investors DE LLC, Series loaned $3.1 million to a limited partnership which was developing a market in Oregon. Robert Eves, the developer, guaranteed the loan. The lender had Eves sign a Loan Guaranty, which provided:

” The following assets are excluded from the Robert J. Eves personal Guaranty: … The personal residence of Robert J. Eves at Via Regina, 27 Moltrasio, Como, Italy and its contents.”

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Often a party to a lawsuit will have great success at trial, resulting in a money judgment. Then the judgment holder tries to collect the judgment, and finds that the debtor is judgment – proof, has no assets, or files bankruptcy to avoid liability for that judgment. Sacramento business attorneys are frequently presented with the problem of an uncollectible judgment. One solution – A judgment may be amended to add additional judgment debtors on the ground that a person or entity is the alter ego of the original judgment debtor; it is an equitable procedure based on the theory that the court is not amending the judgment to add a new defendant but is merely inserting the correct name of the real defendant. That happened to a plaintiff in a recent decision, and the court found that the creditor met the test to nail the parties responsible for the damages, who were not originally named defendants.

sacramento business lawyer -judgment debtor.jpgIn Relentless Air Racing, LLC v. Airborne Turbine Ltd. Partnership, Relentless sued Airborne concerning purchase of a French military jet that was not certified for flight. Relentless won a money judgment for damages of one dollar ($1.00), plus was awarded attorney fees of over $174,000 and costs of over $6,000. Airborne limited partnership was a deadbeat, with no assets, so Relentless could not collect its judgment. Relentless the sought to add the husband and wife team behind Airborne, plus their two corporations, as judgment debtors.

The court first reviewed the law concerning adding additional judgment debtors. The theory that the court is not amending the judgment to add a new defendant but is merely inserting the correct name of the real defendant. The three-part test requires the judgment holder show:

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Letters of Intent are often ambiguous documents in which parties set out certain key terms of a deal, usually with the intent there will be further negotiation and documentation. They may also be called a ‘term sheet’ or “memorandum of understanding,” and are used extensively in California real estate transactions and Leases as well as in business contracts. The parties usually do not intend this document to be enforceable in court – rather, it is intended to guide further discussions and execution of a formal agreement or approval of a third party. A party entering such a letter should consult with a Sacramento business attorney for guidance in drafting it. However, as open ended as the parties may make them, occasionally they are surprised when a court finds such a letter creates enforceable obligations between the parties. It all depends on the court’s view of the intentions and expectation of the parties. Among the issues considered are whether the parties agreed to the material terms, or left some for later agreement, making it an agreement to agree, and whether the parties intended not to be bound until preparation of a more formal agreement. The two decisions discussed below establish two important rules:

A. A Letter of Intent may be enforceable even if you plan to enter a formal contract. If the material terms of the deal are there, as well as intent, the Letter is enforceable; and,

B. A Letter of Intent may create a duty of the parties to negotiate in good faith, and failure to do so can result in damages.