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.

Connecticut Business Lawsuit Roundup

As a new addition in 2011, I am going to regularly feature new business lawsuits along with the usual trial and appellate decisions of interest in Connecticut.  Here’s the first installment:

Appellate Court:

Cianci v. Original Werks, LLC 

Appellate Court finds that $150,000 mechanic’s lien was timely filed despite claim that it was made after statutory limit of 90 days from date "services" were performed. The decision includes a discussion of the legislative history of the mechanic’s lien statute and the definition of "services" under the statute. The court determined that services includes work done in or utilized in the building to be constructed, raised, removed, or reparied or the improvement of any lot or subdivision. In this case, the court construed the mechanic’s lien statute liberally and found that that contractor returning to the property at the request of the homeowner to investigate alleged deficiencies constituted lienable services.

Walpole Woodworkers, Inc.  v. Manning

Appellate Court finds that homeowner who raised the Home Improvement Act’s technical requirements of start and finish date in bad faith.  The Home Improvement Act in Connecticut requires registered contractors to include the following in written agreements:

  •  signatures of owner and contractor
  • name and address of contractor
  • cancellation rights
  • start date and completion date

Failure to include these requirements can result in technical defenses to enforcement of a  home improvement contract.  However, a homeowner cannot successfully raise these defenses in bad faith.  In this case, the homeowner had no real dispute with the work but refused to pay.  The Appellate Court upheld a finding of bad faith when the homeowner tried to raise the lack of start date and completion date in the contract.

Read here for one of my old posts on Connecticut’s Home Improvement Act requirements and defenses.

New Lawsuits:

Environmental Energy Services, Inc v. Cylenchar Limited, et al.  United States District Court.

Plaintiff Environmental is a Connecticut corporation and claims that Defendants (both from England) made misrepresentations which induced plaintiff to perform services. Plaintiff claims breach of a partnership agreement, unjust enrichment, fraud, and violation of Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act. Plaintiff alleges that it was in a joint venture business with Defendants to market a technology that removes mercury from exhaust gasses in coal fired utilities. Pursuant to the joint venture, Defendants were to provide a significant cash investment, provide technical assistance, and a license. Plaintiff was to market the technology. Plaintiff alleges that it spent significant sums marketing the technology and gaining a trial customer for the new technology at which time the Defendants issued a cease and desist to Plaintiffs and refused to continue with the joint venture.

 

Tellar v. Webber, et al.  State Judicial District of Hartford.

Plaintiff and Defendant were equal owners of a limited liability company (LLC) engaged in the relish making business.  Plaintiff alleges that Defendant, his co-owner, dissolved the LLC without consent and started another relish business.  Plaintiff alleges the Defendant did so without sharing profits or including Plaintiff.  Plaintiff brought suit as an individual and derivatively on behalf of the the LLC against his co-owner in the LLC and the co-owner’s new business.  The Plaintiff claimed breach of contract to share profits, breach of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, civil theft, unfair trade practices, and usurping a corporate opportunity.

Constructive Trusts In Connecticut For Fraud and Unjust Enrichment

In business litigation in Connecticut, attorneys many times seek to impose a constructive trust over assets or income connected to wrong doing, breach of fiduciary duty, or fraud by business partners or agents.  In a decision to be officially released on November 23, 2010, the Appellate Court upheld a trial court’s  imposition of a constructive trust over certain assets of a business.  The case is Trevorrow v. Marcuccio, and you can download it here.

A constructive trust is not a real trust.  Rather, it is a judicially created trust and thus the term "constructive."  It arises when one party unjustly holds title or rights to property, such as assets or profits of a business partnership or corporation.  The wrongdoing may involve simply retaining property, misappropriating property, or converting the property into another form.  The trust is imposed against the wrongdoer who will be deemed to hold title of the property for the benefit of the innocent party.  In Trevorrow, the Appellate Court stated:

the issue raised by a claim for a constructive trust is, in essence, whether a party has committed actual or constructive fraud or whether he or she has been unjustly enriched

Typically, you see attorneys seeking constructive trusts in cases involving fraud, duress, breach of fiduciary duty, or some type of commission of a wrong.  However, the Trevorrow court clarified that the equitable remedy of a constructive trust is not only available in cases of actual or constructive fraud, but it is also available in cases where one party has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another even without a finding of wrong doing. 

In short, in Trevorrow, there was no finding of fraud or unethical conduct.  Rather, the court simply found that one person in the business relationship would have been unjustly enriched if permitted to keep the property. The Trevorrow case also serves as reminder that the trial court’s enjoy discretionary equitable powers to impose constructive trusts if proper facts are present.

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.