Archive for May, 2011

William Penn Partnership – There are No Winners

Monday, May 30th, 2011

The Delaware Supreme Court recently decided William Penn Partnership v. Saliba, a case in which there are no winners.  In the case, one of the members breached his fiduciary obligations, but his conduct caused no damage.  Nonetheless, the court awarded attorneys’ fees as an “equitable remedy.”  In this author’s view, the award distorts the law of equitable remedies, creates uncertainty in the law, and rewards fruitless litigation.

The facts were as follows.  The parties were members of a limited liability company called Del Bay Associates, LLC.  Del Bay built the Beacon Motel in Lewes, Delaware in 1987, with 66 guest units.  Later, some of the members (the Lingos) wanted to “end their business relationship” with the other members.

The Lingos concocted a story about their need to dissolve the limited liability company and sell the motel to fulfill obligations under a section 1031 tax-deferred exchange.  Explained the court, “On June 10, 2003, the Lingos convinced Hoyt to sign the contract immediately so they could present it to the JGT board. The Lingos told Hoyt that if he did not sign the contract, JGT might back off.”

The court found that the representations were not true.  Instead, the Lingos controlled both sides of the transaction – seller and buyer.  For example, “The Lingos manipulated the sales process through misrepresentations and repeated material omissions such as (1) imposing an artificial deadline justified by ‘tax purposes;’ (2) failing to inform Saliba and Ksebe that they were matching their offer by assuming the existing mortgage; [and] (3) failing to inform Saliba and Ksebe that they had already committed to selling the property to JGT, an entity the Lingos controlled.”

So, we have a transaction in which one member abused his fiduciary duties to the other members.  More bluntly, “The Lingos here acted in their own self interest by orchestrating the sale of Del Bay’s sole asset, the Beacon Motel, on terms that were favorable to them.  By standing on both sides of the transaction – as the seller, through their interest in and status as managers of Del Bay, and the buyer, through their interest in JGT– they bear the burden of demonstrating the entire fairness of the transaction.”

Such proof of “entire fairness” was a burden the Lingos could not meet.  “The concept of entire fairness consists of two blended elements: fair dealing and fair price.  Fair dealing involves analyzing how the transaction was structured, the timing, disclosures, and approvals.  Fair price relates to the economic and financial considerations of the transaction.  We examine the transaction as a whole and both aspects of the test must be satisfied; a party does not meet the entire fairness standard simply by showing that the price fell within a reasonable range that would be considered fair.”

In fact, the price did fall with “a reasonable range.”  The buyer paid $6,625,000 for the Beacon Motel, while the trial court found that the “retained appraisal valued the property at $5,480,000.”  Thus, the price paid by the buyer was greater than the fair market value for the motel, meaning that the non-controlling members suffered no compensable injury.

The court found that this result was not satisfactory.  “Merely showing that the sale price was in the range of fairness, however, does not necessarily satisfy the entire fairness burden when fiduciaries stand on both sides of a transaction and manipulate the sales process.”

OK, but we have no basis on which to award damages.  “Saliba and Ksebe were left without a typical damage award because the Court’s appraisal of the property came in at a value lower than the sale price.”

What to do?  This court decided to award attorneys’ fees to the non-controlling members.  “The Chancellor concluded it would be unfair and inequitable for Saliba and Ksebe to shoulder the costs of litigation arising out of improper prelitigation conduct attributable to the Lingos that amounted to a violation of their fiduciary duties.”

Although there was no statutory or contractual basis for an award of attorneys’ fees, the Delaware Supreme Court held that “The Chancellor’s decision to award attorneys’ fees and costs was well within his discretion and is supported by Delaware law in order to discourage outright acts of disloyalty by fiduciaries.  Absent this award, Saliba and Ksebe would have been penalized for bringing a successful claim against the Lingos for breach of their fiduciary duty of loyalty.”

Which perhaps would have been the better result.  This litigation was surely driven by the attorneys, not by the injured parties, with substantial attorneys’ fees.  The court’s award of attorneys’ fees on equitable grounds will only foster litigation in the future, which is hardly an optimal result.

William Penn Partnership v. Saliba (Del. Supreme Court Feb. 9, 2011) 2011 Del. LEXIS 91

Trust Does Not Create Contractual Rights in Favor of Beneficiary

Friday, May 13th, 2011

The courts are increasingly faced with the cases involving the interpretation and enforcement of estate planning trusts.  In Diaz v. Bukey (May 10, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 6650, the court concisely framed the dispute:

“The beneficiary of a trust petitions to remove her sister as trustee of their parents’ trust.  The trustee responds by seeking to compel arbitration of their dispute as provided by the trust documents.

“Though the sisters are beneficiaries of the trust, neither was party to any agreement that such disputes would be resolved by arbitration.

“Here we hold that the beneficiary of a trust who did not agree to arbitrate disputes arising under the trust may not be compelled to do so.”

It seems that the trust was a standardized form.  It included the following provision:

“Any dispute arising in connection with this Trust, including disputes between Trustee and any beneficiary or among Co–Trustees, shall be settled by the negotiation, mediation and arbitration provisions of that certain LawForms Integrity Agreement (Uniform Agreement Establishing Procedures for Settling Disputes ) entered into by the parties prior to, concurrently with or subsequent to the execution of this Trust.   In the event that the parties have not entered into a LawForms Integrity Agreement (Uniform Agreement Establishing Procedures for Settling Disputes ), then disputes in connection with this Trust shall be settled by arbitration in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association.”

(Of course, someone needs to produce the “integrity agreement.”)

BogotaOn appeal, “Bukey contends that Diaz is a third party beneficiary of the Trust and she is equitably estopped from denying her obligation to arbitrate.”  Further, “Bukey relies on a trio of cases in which appellate courts have characterized a trust as a contract between a trustor and trustee.”

Explained the court of appeal, “We do not find these cases persuasive for several reasons.  First, they are factually inapposite.  The controversy here involves a dispute between the trustee and a beneficiary over the internal affairs of the Trust.”

Also,  “In Saks v. Damon Raike & Co. (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 419, the court rejected the argument that a trust was a third party beneficiary contract. The court said: ‘The rules governing the respective rights of action of trustees and beneficiaries of express trusts are not the same as those generally applicable to promisees and third party beneficiaries’ . . .

“The general right of a third party beneficiary to sue on a contract made expressly for his or her benefit has no application where a trust has been created in favor of that party, and the contract in question is between the trustee and an agent of the trustee.”

The court concluded that the arbitration provision was not enforceable because the trust was a relationship, not a contract (which is the correct result).  “As a matter of law, the trusts at issue here were not contracts.”

“A beneficiary of a trust receives a beneficial interest in trust property while the beneficiary of a contract gains a personal claim against the promissor. Moreover, a fiduciary relationship exists between a trustee and a trust beneficiary while no such relationship generally exists between parties to a contract.”

“The legal distinctions between a trust and a contract are at the heart of why the beneficiaries cannot be required to arbitrate their claims against the defendants. Arbitration rests on an exchange of promises.  Parties to a contract may decide to exchange promises to substitute an arbitral for a judicial forum. Their agreement to do so may end up binding (or benefitting) nonsignatories.

“In contrast, a trust does not rest on an exchange of promises.  A trust merely requires a trustor to transfer a beneficial interest in property to a trustee who, under the trust instrument, relevant statutes and common law, holds that interest for the beneficiary.”

So, we have the correct result for the correct reasons.

Diaz v. Bukey (May 10, 2011) 2011 DJDAR 6650, 2011 WL 1759798