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.

 

7th Circuit Provides Primer on Fraudulent Transfer and Alter Ego Doctrine In Contract Dispute

The Seventh Circuit affirmed an almost $3M judgment against the defendants under fraudulent transfer, successor liability and alter ego rules in Center Point v. Halim, 2014 WL 697501.

The plaintiff energy company entered into a written contract to supply natural gas to defendants’ 41 Chicago area rental properties.  The individual defendants – a husband and wife – managed the properties through a management company (Company 1).

Over a two-year period, defendants used over $1.2M worth of plaintiff’s gas and didn’t pay for it.  Plaintiff sued Company 1 in state court and got a $1.7M judgment.  When plaintiff discovered that defendants transferred all of Company 1’s assets to Company 2, plaintiff sued Company 2 and the husband and wife in Federal court alleging a fraudulent transfer and successor liability.  The Northern District entered summary judgment for plaintiff in the amount of $2.7M on all claims and defendants appealed.

Affirming, the Seventh Circuit first found that the defendants’ conduct violated the Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 (the “Act”).  The Act punishes debtor attempts to avoid creditors through actual fraud or constructive fraud.

Constructive fraud applies where (1) a debtor transfers assets without receiving a reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer and (2) the debtor intends to incur or reasonably should believe he will incur debts beyond his ability to pay them as they become due.  Halim, *2, 740 ILCS 160/5.

The Court found that the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent. First, the Court noted that during a three-year time span, Company 1 (the state court judgment debtor) transferred almost $11M to the individual defendants; ostensibly to repay loans.

But the Court found it odd there was no documentation of loans or a paper trail showing where the millions of dollars went.  The suspicious timing of defendants’ creation of a new company – Company 2 – coupled with the defendants’ inability to account for the millions’ whereabouts, bolstered the Court’s constructive fraud finding.

Since the individual defendants’ depletion of Company 1’s assets made it impossible for it to pay the state court judgment, the defendants’ actions were constructively fraudulent under the Act. *3.

The Court also affirmed summary judgment for the plaintiff under successor liability and alter ego theories.  In Illinois, the general rule is that a company that purchases assets of another company does not assume the liabilities of the purchased company.

A common exception to this rule is where there is an express assumption (of liability) by the purchasing company.  Here, the record showed that Company 2 assumed all rights, obligations, contracts and employees of Company 1.  As a result, the unsatisfied state court judgment attached to Company 2 under successor liability rules.

The Court also affirmed the judgment under the alter ego doctrine.  Alter ego applies where there is virtually no difference between the business entity and that entity’s controlling shareholders.  That is, the dominant shareholders don’t treat the corporation as a separate entity and fail to follow basic corporate formalities (e.g. minutes, stock issuance, incorporation papers, etc.).

The individual defendants treated Company 1 as their personal piggy bank by commingling their personal assets with the corporate assets.  There were no earmarks of “separateness” between the individual defendants’ assets and Company 1’s corporate assets.  *3-4.

Because of this, the husband and wife defendants were responsible (in the Federal suit) for the unsatisfied state court judgment entered against the defunct Company 1.

Take-away: Halim illustrates that where a judgment debtor corporation or controlling shareholders of that corporation transfer all corporate assets to a new, similarly named (or not) entity shortly after a lawsuit is filed, it will likely look suspicious and can lead to a constructive fraud finding.

The case also underscores the importance of following corporate formalities and keeping corporate assets separate from individual/personal assets – especially where the corporation is controlled by only two individuals.  A failure to treat the corporation as distinct from the dominant individuals, can lead to alter ego liability for those individuals.

Corporate Five-Year Winding Up or “Survival” Period Has Harsh Results for Asbestos Injury Plaintiffs – Illinois Court

An Illinois appeals court recently considered the interplay between the corporate survival statute, 805 ILCS 5/12.80 (the “Survival Act”), which governs lawsuits against dissolved corporations) and when someone can bring a direct action against another person’s liability insurer.

The personal injury plaintiffs in Adams v. Employers Insurance Company of Wasau, 2016 IL App (3d) 150418 sued their former employer’s successor for asbestos-related injuries. Plaintiffs also sued the former company’s liability insurers for a declaratory ruling that their claims were covered by the policies.

The former employer dissolved in 2003 and plaintiffs filed suit in 2011. The plaintiffs alleged the dissolved company’s insurance policies transferred to the shareholders and the corporate successor. The insurers moved to dismiss on the basis that the plaintiff’s suit was untimely under the Survival Act’s five-year winding up (“survival”) period to sue dissolved companies and because Illinois law prohibits direct actions against insurers by non-policy holders.

Affirming dismissal of the suit against the insurers, the court considered the scope of the Survival Act and whether its five-year repose period (the time limit to sue a defunct company) can ever be relaxed.

The Survival Act allows a corporation to sue or be sued up to five years from the date of dissolution. The suit must be based on a pre-dissolution debt and the five-year limit applies equally to individual corporate shareholders.  The statute tries to strike a balance between allowing lawsuits to be brought by or against a dissolved corporation and still setting a definite end date for a corporation’s liability. The five-year time limit for a corporation to sue or be sued represents the legislature’s determination that a corporation’s liability must come to and end at some point.

Exceptions to the Survival Act’s five-year repose period apply where a shareholder is a direct beneficiary of a contract and where the amount claimed is a “fixed, ascertainable sum.”

The Court held that since the plaintiffs didn’t file suit until long after the five-year repose period expired, and no shareholder direct actions were involved, the plaintiffs’ claims against the dissolved company (the plaintiffs’ former employer) were too late.

Illinois law also bans direct actions against insurance companies. The policy reason for this is to prevent a jury in a personal injury suit from learning that a defendant is insured and eliminate a jury’s temptation to award a larger verdict under the “deep pockets” theory (to paraphrase: “since defendant is protected by insurance, we may as well hit him with a hefty verdict.”)

The only time a direct action is allowed is where the question of coverage is entirely separate from the issue of the insured’s liability and damages. Where a plaintiff’s claim combines liability, damages and coverage, the direct action bar applies (the plaintiff cannot sue someone else’s insurer).

Here, the plaintiffs’ coverage claim was intertwined with the former employer’s (the dissolved entity) liability to the plaintiffs.  As a result, the plaintiffs action was an impermissible direct action against the dissolved company’s insurers.

Take-aways:

The Case starkly illustrates how unforgiving a statutory repose period is.  While the plaintiff’s injuries here were substantial, the Court made it clear it had to follow the law and that where the legislature has spoken – as it had by enacting the Survival Act – the Court must defer to it. Otherwise, the court encroaches on the law-making function of the legislature.

Another case lesson is that plaintiffs who have claims against dissolved companies should do all they can to ensure their claims are filed within the five-year post-dissolution period.  Otherwise, they risk having their claims time-barred.