Florida Series III: Parent Company’s Merger Doesn’t Impact Subsidiary’s Noncompete with M.D.

Collier HMA v. Menichello a medical noncompete dispute, considers whether a third party can enforce a noncompete after a merger.  Jettisoning the “changed corporate culture and mode of operation” test, the Florida appeals court applied basic principles of corporate law to determine whether a parent company’s merger necessarily meant its subsidiary merged too and couldn’t enforce a noncompete involving one of its staff doctors.

Halfway through a three-year employment contract between the plaintiff and doctor defendant, the plaintiff’s corporate parent was acquired by another entity.  The plaintiff-doctor employment contract contained a 12-month noncompete and specifically said it was not enforceable by third parties, successors or assignees of the parties.

After the acquisition, the doctor defendant quit and went to work for one of plaintiff’s competitors.  The plaintiff sued the doctor for violating the 12-month noncompete. The doctor defended by stating that the parent company’s merger with another entity made the plaintiff a successor under the law that could not enforce the restrictive covenant.  The trial court agreed and entered summary judgment for the doctor.  The employer appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Plaintiff employer can enforce the doctor’s noncompete.

Reasons:

Under Florida law, S. 542.335(1)(f), Florida Statutes (2012),  an employment contractual provision that authorizes a third-party beneficiary, assignee or successor to enforce a restrictive covenant is valid.

The statute is silent on the meaning of “successor” but case law defines it to mean “a corporation that, through amalgamation, consolidation or other assumption of interests, is vested with the rights and duties of an earlier corporation.”

Here, the plaintiff employer’s status did not change after its parent company’s merger.  Under the law, a parent corporation is a separate and distinct legal entity from its wholly-owned subsidiary.  As a corollary, a parent company cannot exercise rights of its subsidiary.

The subsidiary plaintiff here continued its existence after the merger as the same single member LLC and didn’t sell or transfer its assets to another entity.  Any change in company ownership several tiers up the corporate chain simply didn’t impact the doctor’s employment contract since plaintiff continued to operate and to employ the doctor.  As the lone signer of the employment contract that contained the noncompete, plaintiff could enforce it.

Afterwords:

The Court refused to apply the nebulous “culture and mode of operation” test which looks to the parties’ post-merger conduct (i.e., did the parties act as though the acquiring company was dictating the acquired company subsidiary’s actions?) to decide whether a third-party can enforce a noncompete.  Instead, the Court considered whether the plaintiff continued its operations (it did) in the wake of the parent company’s merger.

Under black-letter corporate law principles, the Court found that the plaintiff’s parent company’s merger had no impact on the plaintiff as “no other entity emerged from the transaction as a successor to [plaintiff].”  Summary judgment for the plaintiff reversed.

 

Florida Series II: RE Broker Can Assert Ownership Interest in Retained Deposits in Priority Dispute with Condo Developer’s Lenders

Plaza Tower v. 300 South Duval Associates, LLC considers whether a real estate broker or a lender has “first dibs” on earnest money deposits held by a property developer.  After nearly 80% of planned condominium units failed to close (no doubt a casualty of the 2008 crash), the developer was left holding $2.4M of nonrefundable earnest money deposits.  The exclusive listing agreement (“Listing Agreement”) between the developer and the broker plaintiff provided the broker was entitled to 1/3 of retained deposits in the event the units failed to close.

After the developer transferred the deposits to the lender, the broker sued the lender (but not the developer for some reason) asserting claims for conversion and unjust enrichment.

The trial court granted the lenders’ summary judgment motion.  It found that the lenders had a prior security interest in the retained deposits and the broker was at most, a general unsecured creditor of the developer.  The broker appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether the broker could assert an ownership interest in the retained deposits such that it could state a conversion claim against the lenders.

The Court’s key holding was that the developer’s retained deposits comprised an identifiable fund that could underlie a conversion claim.  Two contract sections combined to inform the Court’s ruling.

One contract section provided that the broker’s commission would be “equal to one-third of the amount of the retained deposits.”  The Court viewed this as too non-specific since it didn’t earmark a particular fund.

But another contract section did identify a particular fund; it stated that commission advances to the broker would be offset against commissions paid from the retained deposits.  As a result, the retained deposits were particular enough to sustain a conversion action.  Summary judgment for the developer reversed.

Afterwords: Where a contract provides that a nonbreaching party has rights in a specific, identifiable fund, that party can assert ownership rights to the fund.  Absent a particular fund and resulting ownership rights in them, a plaintiff’s conversion claim for theft or dissipation of the fund will fail.

 

Florida Series: Charging Order that Gives Receiver Management Control over LLC Finances Too Broad – Fla Appeals Court

A creditor’s exclusive remedy against a debtor who is a member or manager of a limited liability company (LLC) is a charging order on the debtor’s distributional interest.

McClandon v. Dakem & Associates, LLC, (see here), a recent Florida appellate case, illustrates that while the charging order remedy is flexible enough to allow for some creative lawyering, it still has limits.

McClandon’s facts are straightforward: the plaintiff obtained a money judgment against an individual who had an interest in several limited liability companies.   In post-judgment proceedings, the plaintiff sought a charging order against the debtor’s LLC interests.  The court granted the charging order and appointed a receiver to take control of the LLCs’ finances.

The debtor appealed.

Partially reversing the charging order’s terms, the appeals court found the trial court exceeded its authority and encroached on the legislature by giving the receiver managerial control over the LLCs.

Section 605.0503 of the Florida LLC statute permits a court to enter a charging order as a creditor’s exclusive remedy to attach a debtor’s interest in a multi-member LLC.  The statute further provides that a court can apply broad equitable principles (i.e., alter ego, equitable lien, constructive trust, etc.) when it fashions a charging order.  Florida’s LLC act is based on the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act of 2006 which specifically provides that a court can appoint a receiver to assist in collection of a debtor’s LLC distributions.  See RULLCA Section 503(b)(1).

The court had discretion to appoint a receiver to help the creditor foreclose on the charging order against the debtor’s LLC interests.  But the court exceeded its boundaries by giving the Receiver expansive management authority over the LLC’s finances.

Since there was no statutory predicate for the court to allow the Receiver to exert managerial control over the LLCs, the trial court’s charging order was overly broad.

Afterwords:

The charging order remedy lends itself to flexibility and creative lawyering.  While a creditor can have a receiver appointed to assist in collecting LLC distributions, the receiver cannot – at least in Florida and other states following the Uniform LLC Act – exert control over the LLC’s financial inner workings.  When petitioning for a receiver, creditor’s counsel should make sure the receiver does not engage in the management of the LLC’s business operations.