Friday, March 5, 2021

7222 Ambassador Road, LLC v. National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, Inc. (Court of Appeals)


Filed: July 27, 2020

Opinion by: Judge J. McDonald

Holding:  The Court of Appeals held that a Maryland LLC that failed to file the required annual report pursuant to the Maryland Limited Liability Company Act § 4A-91l(c), thereby forfeiting the right to do business in Maryland, was precluded from continuing to prosecute an action in the Maryland courts.  The Maryland LLC’s appeal of a decision adverse to the LLC in the Circuit Court was dismissed because the appeal was not permitted by law. 

Facts:  The issue initially raised in this appeal concerns a discovery sanction imposed in a civil case.  Petitioner 7222 Ambassador Road, LLC failed to formally designate an expert witness by the deadline in the Baltimore County Circuit Court’s scheduling order.  Respondent National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, Inc (NCIA) filed a Motion in Limine that sought sanctions against Petitioner by limiting or excluding testimony of the witness.  The Circuit Court granted the Motion in Limine.  Petitioner as a result of the sanction had no case to present and the Circuit Court entered judgment in favor of Respondent.  Petitioner appealed the decision and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the ruling.  Petitioner filed a petition for certiorari that was granted by the Court of Appeals.  After the Court of Special Appeals issued its opinion, but before the Petitioner filed its petition for certiorari with the Court of Appeals, Petitioner forfeited its right to do business in Maryland because it had failed to file the annual report.  The Petitioner further failed to reverse the forfeiture within the 60 day rectifying period.  Petitioner took no action to rectifying the delinquency until Respondent filed a motion to dismiss the appeal based on the forfeiture of Petitioner’s right to do business. 

Analysis:  The LLC Act permits a forfeited LLC to defend any action.  §4A-920.  Petitioner conceded they were not defending an action, rather initiating litigation.  Petitioner argued that forfeiture does not impair the “act” of the LLC.  §4A-920.  The Court of Appeals examined the legislative history and case law regarding forfeiture and the savings provision.  Any step taken in litigation would be an “act” that could be taken while being forfeited.  The Court of Appeals argued that if the statute were interpreted in such a way it would render wholly superfluous the savings provision that permits a forfeited LLC to “defend” litigation.  The Court of Appeals review of recent case law concluded that an LLC that has forfeited its right to do business may not pursue affirmative litigation, including an appeal, during the period of forfeiture citing to Price v. Upper Chesapeake Health Ventures, Inc., 192 Md. App. 695 (2010).  The Court of Appeals asserted that “the privileges associated with an LLC, such as tax benefits and liability protections, are afforded with the expectation that an LLC will fulfill its statutory obligations.”  Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Prime Realty Associates, LLC, 468 Md. 606, 623 (2020).  Petitioner forfeited its right to do business in Maryland including its ability to prosecute an appeal during the period of forfeiture.  The Court of Appeals concluded the appeal was not properly before the court and dismissed the appeal. 

The full opinion is available in PDF.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Bartenfelder v. Bartenfelder (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed: July 2, 2020 

Opinion by: Judge Steven B. Gould 


In the absence of a petition for dissolution, demand for appointment of a receiver does not trigger the statutory right, under §4-603(a) of the Corporations & Associations Article of the Maryland Code, to purchase the complainant’s stock in the subject company.


Appellant (“Aggrieved Shareholder”, or “Aggrieved”) and Appellee (“Continuing Shareholder”, or “Continuing”) were the sole shareholders in a two Maryland close corporations and one Maryland LLC (the “Businesses”).  In February 2017, Aggrieved Shareholder filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Harford County against Continuing Shareholder and the Businesses, alleging malfeasance by Continuing and requesting (1) injunctive relief in the form of appointment of a receiver to prevent Continuing’s further alleged malfeasance and to conduct forensic accounting in order to detect past malfeasance, (2) an award of damages, expenses, attorney’s fees, and costs, and (3) declaratory relief in the form of a finding that certain of Aggrieved’s actions related to the Businesses were lawful.

Continuing Shareholder considered receipt of the complaint to have triggered his right under CA §4-603(a) to acquire Aggrieved Shareholder’s shares in the Businesses, answering with a request to stay dissolution in order to determine the fair value of Aggrieved’s interests, and enforce his election to purchase Aggrieved’s shares.

In January 2018, Aggrieved Shareholder amended her complaint to add breach of contract claims and other injunctive relief and damages. 

In April 2018 the Circuit Court for Harford County agreed that the statutory right had been triggered and ruled that appraisers be nominated and appointed, and proceedings stayed until the valuation process had concluded.  Aggrieved Shareholder filed motion for reconsideration which was denied, and then filed notice of appeal.

In June 2019, Aggrieved Shareholder filed for bankruptcy, resulting in automatic stay of all litigation.  That month, the appraisers determined Aggrieved’s interest in the two close corporations to be $560,000.  In November 2019, the circuit court granted Continuing Shareholder’s motion to confirm the appraisal and further ordered Continuing to pay to Aggrieved two installments of $280,000.  The court granted leave for Continuing to escrow the installments with the court, to be disbursed only on court order.  Aggrieved appealed in December 2019. The circuit court in February 2020 declared Continuing to have satisfied the payment obligations.

In May 2020, the Court of Special Appeals consolidated the two appeals.


The first threshold issue before the Court was whether to dismiss the second appeal on grounds of mootness; whether the passage of the valuation process and satisfaction of Continuing Shareholder’s ensuing payment obligations had rendered the controversy moot due to the fact that Aggrieved Shareholder had filed for bankruptcy, making the proceeds subject to claims by creditors and therefore unavailable to repurchase the shares.  The bankruptcy court in September 2019 had lifted the stay of the instant litigation, but ordered enforcement of judgments against Aggrieved to remain stayed.  Because the funds Continuing Shareholder deposited with the circuit court remained there, subject to the stay and unavailable to Aggrieved, the Court found the second appeal not to be moot and denied its dismissal.

The second threshold issue before the Court was jurisdictional; because Aggrieved Shareholder’s initial and amended complaints had asserted claims related to the LLC but the circuit court’s orders had applied only to claims related to the close corporations, the decision had not adjudicated all claims, rights and liabilities of the parties to the action and had not resulted in a final judgment.  The Court noted, however, that statutory exceptions to the final judgment rule, enumerated in CJP §12-303 allowed for interlocutory appeal of orders “for the sale, conveyance, or delivery of…personal property or payment of money…”.  Because the circuit court’s second order compelled conveyance of Aggrieved’s personal property (shares in the close corporations) and payment of Continuing's money ($560,000), and its first order meritoriously intertwined with the second, the Court found both interlocutory orders to be properly reviewable on appeal.

The Court subsequently turned to the substantive issue on appeal, whether the purchase right under CA §4-603(a) had been triggered by Aggrieved Shareholder’s complaint for appointment of a receiver.  That statute provided:

Any one or more stockholders who desire to continue the business of a close corporation may avoid the dissolution of the corporation or the appointment of  a receiver by electing to purchase the stock owned by the petitioner at a price equal to its fair value. (emphasis added)

Success in the argument would turn on whether CA §4-603(a) applied to any kind of receiver (statutory or equitable), whether CA §4-603(a) applied only to situations where a receiver had been appointed in a dissolution proceeding, or whether  Aggrieved Shareholder’s plea for appointment of an equitable receiver was tantamount to a statutory receiver.

The Court briefly paused to explain the dilemma affecting “trapped” shareholders in close corporations: with no liquid market for shares, no board of directors, and transfer of shares made possible only on unanimous consent), a shareholder desiring to exit the company is suddenly pit against their partners and left with few options.  Such a shareholder can risk accepting a lower price per share in order to gain unanimous consent, or they can invoke dissolution and either end the going concern or be bought out.

The Court next turned to construe the meaning of CA §4-603: its plain language if clear while read in context of the surrounding statutory section(s); but with other indicia of intent if ambiguous (such as structure, caption, relationship to other laws, legislative history, and purpose, e.g.).  Citing to both CA §4-602 (Involuntary dissolution) and CA §4-603 (Avoidance of dissolution by purchase of petitioner’s stock), the Court made four general observations.

First, the Court pointed out that the captions had been written by the General Assembly and were part of the bills considered prior to enacting the statute, giving weight to the argument that CA §4-603(a) was intended only to apply in situations where a shareholder sought to avoid dissolution.

Second, the Court found the plain language of CA §4-603(a) confirmed the intent espoused by the caption, implying an option (1) created for shareholders who desire to continue the business of a close corporation and (2) one made necessary to spare the business from extinction.

Third, CA §4-603 routinely used the words petition or petitioner, which could only be read logically in conjunction with CA §4-602 as the shareholder/petitioner seeking dissolution in CA §4-602(a).

Fourth, the exchange of shares for value contemplated by CA §4-603 was only possible after a determination of fair value, defined by CA §4-603(b) as occurring on the close of business on the day when the petition for dissolution is filed.

If CA §4-603(a) only operated in the context of dissolution proceedings, did the phrase “or the appointment of a receiver” retain any meaning?  To find an answer, the Court looked to Title 3 of the Corporations & Associations Article, specifically CA §3-413 and §3-414 which defined grounds and process for involuntary dissolution proceedings.  CA §3-414 provided for the appointment of two types of receivers: a temporary receiver to operate the business pending final determination as to dissolution, and a liquidating receiver charged with the dissolution of the company.  Answering its question in the positive, the Court supposed a scenario in which the non-petitioning shareholder might opt to exercise the purchase right rather than suffer a perceived intrusive or meddlesome court-appointed temporary receiver.

Next examining the legislative history, the Court was further persuaded that the CA §4-603(a) purchase right only applied in dissolution proceedings, pointing to its own discussion of the legislative history in Papillo (199 Md. App. at 86), as well as the re-codification in 1975 of the Annotated Code which separated a single section, Article 23 §109 Judicial Dissolution – Close Corporations, into now CA §4-602 and CA §4-603, thus revealing the original legislative intent that they be construed together.  Under the express language of the original text, the buy-out right existed only in a dissolution proceeding.

Finding that CA §4-603(a) applied only to statutory receivers and only in the context of a dissolution proceeding, the Court turned to the last question: was CA §4-603(a)  invoked by a shareholder requesting appointment of an equitable receiver with powers authorized by CA §3-414?  The Court, noting that dissolution consisted of a particularly harsh irrevocable and “all or nothing” remedy, indicated that it had recommended equitable remedies short of dissolution in relevant Maryland caselaw, particularly the appointment of a non-liquidating receiver to continue the operations of the corporation for the benefit of all shareholders.  Aggrieved Shareholder, then, was entitled to seek an equitable remedy short of dissolution without triggering the CA §4-603(a) purchase rights.

The Court noted that while equitable receivers had broad applicability (partnership disputes, mortgagor-mortgagee disputes, divorce proceedings, e.g.) and enjoyed a long history, dating back to the chancery courts of England, such appointments were to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances involving fraud, danger of spoliation, or imminent prospect of loss or injury to property.  An equitable receiver’s authority did not extend to dissolution, which was only granted by statute to a receiver appointed to wind up the corporation’s affairs.

Accordingly, finding that Aggrieved Shareholder’s complaint requested appointment of an equitable receiver vested with authority to operate the Businesses, not to liquidate them, her complaint did not invoke dissolution, did not invoke Continuing Shareholder’s CA §4-603(a) purchase right, and did not compel Aggrieved’s transfer of shares to Continuing.  A shareholder who seeks equitable relief to stop alleged oppression should not have to do so at the risk of being forced to sell her shares to the alleged oppressor.

The Court denied the motion to dismiss, reversed the lower court's orders and ruling, and remanded to the circuit court.

The full opinion is available in PDF.