You Must Prove Damages With Reasonable Certainty In Business Lawsuits

Determining if you have provable damages is often the first step in analyzing whether to pursue a business lawsuit as a shareholder, partner, or member of a limited liability company.  Likewise, if you have been sued as a result of a partnership or shareholder dispute, reviewing the exposure or possible damages you face is an important part of determining an appropriate litigation strategy.  The question that must be answered is, how will the plaintiff prove to a judge or jury that the damages allegedly sustained are real, quantifiable, and reasonably certain.

In Connecticut, the party that brings the lawsuit has to prove damages with reasonable certainty.  A plaintiff must put forth evidence to afford a judge or jury a sufficient basis for estimating the alleged damages with reasonable certainty.  In other words, there must be evidence for the court or jury to calculate damages.  You cannot simply state “I have lost money” or “I have damages.”  There must be proof beyond speculation or your own subjective belief.

On the other hand, Connecticut law does not require exactitude or precision.  There are no hard and fast rules as to the level of proof required, but it must rise to the level of reasonable certainty or a reasonable estimate.  The level of proof may differ depending on the case facts, and that type of damages at issue.

For example, lost business opportunities may be harder to prove for business attorneys than other types of damages.  A recent appellate court case highlighted some of the evidentiary issues with lost profits.  In System Pros, Inc v Kasica, two equal shareholders of a company went through a lawsuit involving dissolution of their corporation and a trial on other tortious conduct.  At the trial level, the plaintiff shareholder convinced a trial court that he had damages for lost earning opportunities due to wrongful conduct of the other shareholder defendant.  To support his case, he admitted in evidence a series of documents and calculations as to wages he would have earned as a consultant if he was not locked out of the business.  The trial judge was persuaded and awarded damages.

However, the appellate court reversed on the issue and found that the plaintiff did not prove that he would have been hired as a consultant for any specific opportunities.  The appellate court decided:

Although the plaintiff presented ample evidence regarding the nature of the opportunities for employment that were not communicated to him, his testimony as to whether he would in fact have secured such employment resorted to conjecture and subjective opinion, which cannot constitute the basis for an award of damages

The appellate court decided that plaintiff left the trial court to speculate as to the lost opportunities based on plaintiff’s own opinion and assumptions.   The appellate court determined there were too many unknowns as to whether plaintiff would have profited from the opportunities he claimed he was denied by the defendant. The court highlighted that plaintiff needed to establish not only that there were opportunities, but that he was qualified for the positions and would have obtained the positions.

The Systems Pros case serves to highlight the various levels of proof that may be required to recover damages in a shareholder lawsuit.  To summarize, to establish damages for a shareholder in a business lawsuit, an attorney will need to offer evidence at trial showing a reasonable estimate of damages beyond speculation and personal opinion.

What To Do If You Suspect Your Business Partner Is Stealing – Some Basics

In any case involving theft by a business partner or business dispute, it is very important to have an understanding of the basic issues and legal framework. Although these cases often involve complex problems, you cannot determine a good course of action without starting with the basics.

 

Here are 5 of the basic issues and what to do if you anticipate a business dispute with a partner or small business in Connecticut.

1. Figure out the type of entity you formed for your business

Principals of small or closely held companies or partnerships typically start off their businesses by choosing an entity such as a Limited Liability Company (LLC), Limited Liability Partnership (LLP), or Corporation (C Corp. or S Corp.). This may seem like a "no brainer" but you might be surprised that many partial business owners (typically minority owners) do not know the exact type of business entity they own.  

To determine what type of entity you formed look for documents such as Articles of Organization, Articles of Amendment, Certificate of Incorporation, Organization and First Report, Certificate of Amendment, Certificate of Limited Liability Partnership, or Statement of Partnership Authority. These are the so called "incorporating" documents or "originating" documents filed with the Secretary of State. These documents clarify the type of entity chosen and the original incorporators or members of the entity. These documents are available to the public and are available for searching at the Secretary of State website www.concord-sots.ct.gov . If you cannot find your documents, try searching the Connecticut Commercial Recording Division website.

2. Figure out the structure and control of your entity.

The structure and operations of an entity often are governed by formal documents in most cases, or by default rules in others. Formal documents may include bylaws, resolutions, shareholder agreements, stockholder agreements, voting agreements, or operating agreements. These documents likely detail your ownership and management rights.

Of course, we see many cases where these agreements do not exist or were never finalized. It remains important to find what you have to show any agreement, even if informal. Maybe you exchanged some emails or you drafted a memorandum of understanding or informal partnership agreement. However, if you do not have a formal or informal agreement, Connecticut General Statutes can operate as a fall back or default to govern the operation and management of corporate entities. You can review the basic statutory laws of Corporations on the Connecticut General Assembly Website www.cga.ct.gov/current/pub/titles.htm . For example, Connecticut statutory laws for Corporations are found in Title 33.

3. Get access to the books and records of the business.

Many times, clients come to us after the business partnership has fallen apart, become insolvent, or dissolved. In many of these instances, one of the partners has access to all the records, and the other partner does not. Your rights to obtain company records may be spelled out in the agreements or documents mentioned in # 2 above. Alternatively, inspection rights for books and records are provided by statutory law. For example, Connecticut General Statutes § 33-946 – 950 permits inspections of books and records by shareholders and directors. However, many times feuding business owners end up having to file a so called "books and records" lawsuit in Connecticut state court to get access to the corporate books and records.

Getting access to the company financials is important. At minimum, you should seek to obtain summary financials, such as income statements, profit and loss statements, or trial balances. However, the ideal is to have access to the actual raw data. This means getting access to bank account(s) (including web access), loan accounts, credit accounts, and the company accounting journals. Getting access to this data may depend on whether the accounting software is server based, such as Peachtree, or cloud based such as QuickBooks online.

4. Identify all sources where records might be stored

>Businesses generate all kinds of data and records. Increasingly, this data is completely digital and electronically stored on a computer, server, or at third party sites such as Rackspace or Boxnet. Additionally, emails seemingly become critical in every case that ends up in litigation. You need to identify where emails and other electronic means of communication (text or instant message) might exist such as the company email servers or third party sites (i.e. Google, Microsoft, Comcast, or Verizon).

Once you identify the locations of the records, you may need to try to preserve this information so you have it in usable form in the event of a dispute. Correctly copying digital records may require an expert in computer forensics. You also may want to involve an attorney so that you understand the full extent of your obligations to preserve evidence and gain protections from discovery.

If your dispute requires a lawsuit to resolve, you many need to act quickly to subpoena records from third party providers before records become lost, destroyed or deleted. If you suspect key evidence exists in emails, you may need to subpoena Internet service providers or third parties that provide applications over the Internet such as Google. Generally, to get the authority to issue a subpoena, an attorney will need to bring a lawsuit concerning the dispute or a lawsuit seeking permission to seek "discovery" of these documents to help build a case.  This is known as a bill of discovery. 

5. Seek help from professionals.

Various professionals, such as forensic accountants, computer forensic experts, fraud investigators, and attorneys can assist in most business disputes. It is a good idea to consider a conference with a professional to review your concerns. Also, you should always consider having your attorney lead the investigation as the involvement of an attorney can add a layer of protection when your opponent later seeks to obtain the results of your investigation.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty In Connecticut

Here is a quick summary of another of the so called "business torts" in Connecticut known as breach of fiduciary duty.  A fiduciary duty can arise in a number of contexts in business including relationships with partners, lawyers, accountants, trustees, investment advisers, brokers and employees.  When one party in a relationship is a fiduciary, it requires the party to act with the utmost good faith, fair dealing and loyalty. 

Many times, breach of fiduciary lawsuits are filed in Connecticut when the relationship breaks down over lost or mismanaged money.  Frequently, business partners are also found to be fiduciaries with respect to each other.  A fiduciary relationship may be formed when the following factors exist:

  • unique degree of trust and confidence between the parties
  • one party has superior knowledge and skill
  • the party with superior knowledge has a duty to represent the interests of the other part

Connecticut’s common law on breach of fiduciary duty law is flexible in that it will not exclude new situations, but is also clear that not all business relationships are fiduciary relationships. For example, courts will not recognize a fiduciary relationship for parties that are dealing at arm’s length for transactions.  This is because the relationship lacks a dominance by one party or dependence by the other, or the lack of a special relationship.

The legal recognition of a fiduciary relationship is very significant in a lawsuit in Connecticut.  If a plaintiff proves that a fiduciary relationship exists, the standard and burden of proof changes.  A plaintiff has to prove that a fiduciary duty exists by a preponderance of the evidence. Once established, the burden shifts to the fiduciary as a defendant to prove good faith and fair dealing.  Further, the fiduciary must prove good faith by clear and convincing evidence.

Because of the burden shifting and higher standard, fiduciary cases are often won or lost on the legal characterization of the relationship. 

Dispute Between Business Partners Ends In Dissolution and Double Damages Under Connecticut Wage Act

In Saunders v. Firtel, a decision to be officially released on September 22, 2009, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld an award of double damages under Connecticut’s wage and hour laws in what amounted to a dispute between two business partners, Barry Saunders and Burton Firtel.  The supreme court also upheld judicial dissolution of a company owned by the partners.  The case highlights the complications that can arise between partners when one partner is also an employee in the business.  

In this case, Saunders became part owner of a company that Firtel previously formed by himself.  Saunders also became an employee of the company as part of a larger business relationship.  This is not an uncommon arrangement in business, especially when a small business is purchased by a larger company.    Saunders and Firtel also formed another limited liability company together as equal owners. The business relationship was documented with an operational agreement. 

Although the partners successfully operated the business for years, a dispute arose out of unpaid wages after Saunders unsuccessfully tried to change the compensation structure of the business relationship.  In response, Firtel fired Saunders.  Saunders brought a lawsuit in Connecticut state court for unpaid wages claiming he was an employee.  He also sought to dissolve the limited liability company formed with Firtel. 

A few months ago, Connecticut’s wage and hour laws were in the national spotlight because of the scandal with AIG’s bonus plan for its employees in Wilton, Connecticut.    AIG claimed that it had to pay the bonuses because it feared double damages under Connecticut’s wage and hour laws.  In this instance, Saunders brought his case in court relying on the same provisions that AIG feared. 

Connecticut’s unpaid wage law, General Statutes section 31-72 ,provides that:

When any employer fails to pay an employee wages . . . the employee may recover, in a civil action, twice the full amount of such wages, with costs and such reasonable attorney’s fees as may be allowed by the court . . 

To recover double damages, although not mentioned in the statute, courts require a finding of bad faith, arbitrariness, and unreasonableness by the employer.  In Saunders’ case, he won because the trial court found that the failure to pay was willful.  What might seem strange about the case is that Saunders was not only an employee, but he was also a 49% stockholder and an officer in the company he sued to obtain double damages.  Firtel was a 51% owner, and the President. 

Dan Schwartz’s Employment Law Blog has a nice summary of the supreme court’s treatment of how Saunders qualified as an employee as well as the implication of the decision on employers.  I tend to agree with Dan that there is no significant impact on employers because if wages are earned, the wages should be paid regardless of the business relationship.

I think the case does highlight important considerations for business partners.  The case demonstrates how a breakdown in the relationship between two business partners can turn into a dispute where one partner effectively ends up in the shoes of the employer subject to wage and hour laws.  This was probably not intended and it is unlikely that Saunders and Firtel viewed themselves as employee and employer.  In fact, they appeared to be nearly equal partners.

The case is also another example of a once successful business partnership ending in arguments over compensation and written agreements.  It further shows that dissolution of a company is another judicial remedy, along with disassociation and expulsion in partnerships, for a company that can no longer operate in a practical manner. 

 

Connecticut Supreme Court Confirms Expulsion Is Available Remedy In Partnership Dispute

In an issue of first impression, the Connecticut Supreme Court confirmed that partnerships can expel a partner rather than dissolve when there is a breakdown of the business of the partnership.  The case is Brennan v. Brennan Associates, et al.  The official opinion will be released on August 18, 2009, but the advanced opinion already was released online. 

The case involves a complicated set of facts and circumstances surrounding the deterioration of a once successful partnership that operated a shopping center in Trumbull.  The breakdown of the partnership began after the death of a partner.

The decedent partner essentially ran the partnership and kept all the books until his death.  The decedent’s will directed that his interest go to his two cousins.  Following the will reading, the partnership broke down over disputes on check writing authority, access to records, the transfer of interest, and an old tax conviction of a surviving partner who was the plaintiff in the case. 

The plaintiff  offered to buy out the decedent’s interest, which as rejected by the estate.  The plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking, among other things, to accomplish a buy out of the decedent’s partnership interest and to gain access to the books and records.  The surviving partners wanted to continue the partnership’s business rather than dissolving it.  As such, in addition to other claims by the defendant administrators, they filed a counterclaim application seeking to expel the plaintiff from the partnership under section 34-355 of Connecticut’s Uniform Partnership Act.

The statutory scheme at issue permits a trial court to grant an application for expulsion if a partner engages in conduct that "makes it not reasonably practicable to carry on the business in the partnership with the partner." In this case, after a bench trial, the court issued a ruling granting the application filed by the surviving partners to expel or dissociate the plaintiff partner.  The plaintiff appealed claiming that acrimony and distrust between partners may be proper for a dissolution, but it was not a proper basis for dissociation.

On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court  disagreed with the plaintiff and ruled that dissociation was an available remedy given the facts present as an alternative to dissolution.  The supreme court noted that under Connecticut’s Partnership Act,

a partnership now has a choice, either to dissolve the partnership or to seek the dissociation of a partner who has made it not reasonably practicable to carry on the partnership with him.  The new remedy of dissociation permits a financially viable partnership to remain intact without dissolving the partnership and reconstituting it.

In this case, the conduct at issue for the dissociated partner was a past felony tax conviction, a pattern of adversarial conduct toward other partners, and a false accusation of fraud against the others partners.  With these facts present, the supreme court found that a trial court had enough to grant an application for expulsion and dissociation of the partner.  The court stated:  

irreparable deterioration of a relationship between partners is a valid basis to order dissolution, and, therefore, is a valid basis for the alternative remedy of dissociation.

It is worth noting that the court indicated that an old felony conviction standing alone likely would not meet the required standard.   In any event, the case essentially provides that there is no basis for a higher burden for dissociation as opposed to dissolution.

My takeaway from the decision is that it promotes the policy of cooperation amongst partners by confirming expulsion as an option for getting rid of a "problem" partner.  As noted in the decision, prior to the statutory scheme permitting dissociation, partnerships faced with similar problems had to dissolve.  This process could perhaps create too much leverage for a "problem" partner forcing dissolution.  Instead, this decision confirms the statutory availability of dissociation under no higher of a standard than dissolution.  This may be a more preferable remedy for many Connecticut partnership disputes.

The decision also serves as a reminder of how a partnership or  closely held company can breakdown following the death or disability of a partner or key member of the business.  These circumstances highlight the need for specificity in partnership and operating agreements including buy out provisions for death and disability, transfer or assignment of interests, and continuation of operations.   

It is also important to note that the supreme court left open the dissociated partner’s rights to bring a proceeding to compel valuation and purchase of his interest after dissociation.  The court also indicated that the partnership agreement could have included a provision allowing the remaining partners to initiate a valuation proceeding, but it did not in this case.