Business Lawsuit Roundup

New Connecticut business litigation decisions and lawsuits of interest for February 2011:

Appellate Decisions:

Schirmer v. Souza

The Appellate Court upheld an award in favor of the plaintiffs on claims of unjust enrichment concerning renovations to a residence on defendants’ property. In a somewhat strange set of facts, the plaintiffs loaned money to the occupants of a home thinking they had title when the defendants actually had title. The defendants sold the house after the renovations.  Plaintiffs expected  over $100,000 from the sale of home to cover the renovation costs and instead got nothing.  Plaintiffs sued an recovered   based on unjust enrichment. 

Gateway, Kelso and Co. v. West Hartford No. 1, LLC

The Appellate Court upheld denial of summary judgment holding that a court finding in a pre-judgment proceeding could not provide the basis for summary judgment.  Plaintiff moved for a prejudgment remedy and it was denied because the defendant raised a defense based on the plaintiff’s failure to be licensed.  The defendant then tried to use that same ruling to obtain a judgment in the case.   The trial court denied the motion finding that the earlier ruling was not sufficient.  The Appellate Court upheld the denial of summary judgment and agreed that the ruling in the prejudgment remedy proceeding could not be the basis of the summary judgment ruling.

Tzovolos v. Wiseman

The Appellate Court adopted the trial court’s findings in full in this case involving two complex commercial disputes over the ownership and security interests in restaurant equipment.  The plaintiffs alleged breach of a purchase and sale agreement and a promissory note related to the equipment. The most significant aspect of the decision is the trial court’s decision to hold the individual defendants liable for the corporate defendants.

Trial Decision:

Directory Assistants, Inc. v. Albano

This case was filed in the federal district court over breach of a non-compete agreement.  The parties reached a stipulated settlement requiring the defendant to either file for bankruptcy or pay plaintiff $66,000.00 by way of a stipulated judgment.  At the time of the settlement agreement, the defendant was not sure of his ability to file for bankruptcy.  After agreeing to settle, the defendant either changed his mind or was not able to file for bankruptcy.  The defendant then tried to back out of the settlement.  The trial court ruled in plaintiff’s favor following arguments on a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. The court ruled that a litigant cannot agree to a settlement and then change his mind after the fact.  The court entered judgment.

New Lawsuits:

Coach, Inc. v. Tropical Sun, LLC, et al

This is a trademark infringement action under the Lanham Act, and a copyright infringement act under the Copyright Act. The action is brought by  Coach , well known for its leather made products like handbags and wallets. Coach owns several trademarks in various classes for its goods dating back to 1963 for leather goods and wallets. Coach alleges that its trademark is famous.  Coach also alleges that many of the combinations or design elements on its products are "protected works" under the Copyright Act.  Coach alleges that the defendants are selling look a likes from a retail store in Connecticut. 

The lawsuit gives some insight as to how trademark owners can police their products.  In this case, Coach sent a private investigator into the store to purchase the fake Coach products.  The products were retailing for far less than Coach’s genuine products.

Jacqueline Millan v. AIG

This is a whistleblower lawsuit.  Ms. Millan alleges she was fired from AIG Financial Products after identifying irregularities in AIG stock trading. She alleges that she was employed as a compliance associate and reported the irregularities to her supervisor and then was "shut out of the investigation and subjected to intimidation."  She alleges she was fired shorty thereafter.  The complaint seeks recovery for retaliatory discharge under Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Connecticut’s whistleblower law (31-51q).  The irregularities related to AIG employee stock trades at time when AIG was considering bankruptcy.

Does A Limited Liability Company Protect Its Members From Personal Tort Liability?

Not always.  An individual member of an LLC or an officer of a corporation may be individually liable for their own torts.  This rule is well settled and the Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed it in Strum v. Harb Development, which will be officially released on August 31, 2010.  

Business owners often chose to a form a business entity to operate under, such as a limited liability company (LLC), limited liability partnership, or professional corporation.  In basic terms, the entity operates as an individual for legal purposes. There are many reasons to form a business entity. One of the more common reasons is to limit your personal liability and protect your assets.  The idea is, if you make a mistake in business, the entity is responsible, not you personally.  

Many times, a properly formed and maintained business entity, like an LLC or corporation, can provide a shield or "veil" of protection for an individual member or officer.  However, the protection is not absolute, and there are many instances where you can be personally liable in business despite the formation and operation of a business entity.    Two of the most common methods of establishing personal liability are "piercing the corporate veil" and individual responsibility for torts, such as breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, fraud, and misrepresentation. 

In the Strum case, the Connecticut Supreme Court addressed the later situation involving personal liability for torts (I will do a post on veil piercing soon). The Strum case involved a homeowner alleging poor workmanship and breach of a construction contract for new home construction.  The plaintiff homeowners in the case brought a lawsuit against not only the entity, Harb Development, LLC, but also its principal member, John Harb.   The plaintiffs alleged, among other claims, that Mr. Harb was personally liable for negligence.  Mr. Harb moved the trial court to strike the allegations against him personally seeking protections of his LLC, Harb Development.   His attorney argued that absent facts sufficient to pierce the veil of protection of the LLC, Mr. Harb personally was immune from liability.

At the lower level, the trial court granted the motion to strike primarily on the grounds that there were no facts in the complaint to pierce the veil of the LLC.  Although the Supreme Court ultimately found that there were insufficient facts alleged in the complaint to establish the negligence claim against Mr. Harb personally, the Court rejected the argument that Mr. Harb could not be personally liable for negligence merely because he was a member of an LLC. 

The Supreme Court noted that Connecticut’s common law provides for personal liability of officers of a corporation for torts personally committed (such as negligence) that injure third parties provided  the injured party can show a legal duty, breach of that duty, causation, and damages.   As such, if an officer of a corporation commits a tort in business, the officer may be personally liable even if the corporation is also responsible.  The Strum case makes clear that this common law rule applies even in the absence of facts sufficient to pierce the corporate veil.  This same common law rule also applies to members of an LLC. 

The Strum case serves as a reminder to business owners that formation of a business entity will not protect you from personal liability in all circumstances.  Liability for individual torts and piercing the veil of a business entity are two common scenarios where business owners may face personal liability despite the shield that a business entity may provide.  Whether a business owner can face personal liability for negligence, fraud, or misrepresentation involving the business will often depend on the facts of the case.