The dismissal of a legal malpractice claim was affirmed by the New York Appellate Division for the First Judicial Department
Plaintiff David Lichtenstein owns and manages real estate through his entities, plaintiffs The Lightstone Group, LLC and Lightstone Holdings, LLC. In 2007, Lichtenstein and a consortium of investors purchased Extended Stay, Inc. (ESI), which owns and manages hotels. Most of the purchase price was financed through a combination of $4.1 billion in mortgage loans to ESI and $3.3 billion in 10 mezzanine loan tranches to its subsidiaries. As part of the loan transaction, Lichtenstein and Lightstone Holdings executed 11 guarantees that subjected them to $100 million in personal liability in the event of particular "bad boy" acts which included the voluntary filing of a bankruptcy petition by ESI. Lichtenstein managed ESI and became its president, CEO and chairperson. The majority of ESI's board of directors was comprised of Lichtenstein and representatives of entities he controlled.
The following year, ESI was faced with a liquidity crisis as its financial situation declined. ESI retained nonparty Weil, Gotshal & Manges as its restructuring counsel. As stated in the complaint, Weil Gotshal could not represent both ESI and Lichtenstein. As further alleged in the complaint, Lichtenstein retained Wilkie Farr in December 2008, "to advise and represent [him] in his role as an officer and director of ESI, particularly as to the liability of him and his entities in any restructuring, as well as to advise and represent affiliates of the Lightstone Group regarding their interests in ESI." Acting as ESI's counsel, Weil Gotshal recommended that ESI file for bankruptcy and advised that its board members, including Lichtenstein, were obligated as fiduciaries to achieve that result. Plaintiffs allege that their counsel, Willkie Farr, embraced Weil Gotshal's position although it was allegedly erroneous and would have exposed plaintiffs to $100 million in liability on the guarantees.
According to the complaint, ESI's financial condition continued to deteriorate, leaving Lichtenstein with a choice to either a) have the company file for bankruptcy, exposing Lichtenstein to liability on the guarantees or, "b) seek an alternative, including to refuse, or at least delay, and force the Lenders' hand to file a petition for involuntary bankruptcy or foreclose on the collateral (in which case Lichtenstein would risk a lawsuit under a breach of fiduciary claim [sic])." The complaint further alleges that Willkie Farr insisted that Lichtenstein had a fiduciary obligation to put ESI into bankruptcy for the benefit of the lenders. Willkie Farr warned that Lichtenstein otherwise faced the prospect of unequivocal and uncapped personal liability in any subsequent action by the lenders absent a bankruptcy filing by ESI. Before having ESI file for bankruptcy, Lichtenstein offered to surrender the collateral to the lenders as a group. Some of the lenders, however, balked and went to court to block any such surrender in what plaintiffs describe as a likely effort to force ESI into voluntary bankruptcy and trigger the "bad boy" guarantee. On Willkie Farr's advice, Lichtenstein caused ESI to file its bankruptcy petition on June 15, 2009. The lenders brought actions on the guarantees and a judgment was subsequently entered against Lichtenstein and Lightstone Holdings in the sum of $100 million.
This action was filed in June 2012. In making the instant motion to dismiss, Willkie Farr argued that its advice was reasonable and consistent with controlling Delaware law which imposed upon Lichtenstein, a director of an insolvent corporation, a fiduciary duty to maximize the company's long-term value for the benefit of its creditors and other constituencies such as equity holders and employees. Willkie Farr further asserted that the complaint is deficient because it does not allege that absent ESI's bankruptcy filing, Lichtenstein's liability would not have been triggered. The motion court granted Willkie Farr's motion, finding that the complaint contains no allegation of a failure "to exercise the ordinary reasonable skill and knowledge commonly possessed by a member of the legal profession which results in actual damages to plaintiff" (see Ambase Corp. v Davis Polk & Wardwell, 8 NY3d 428, 434 ). We affirm.
There is no merit to plaintiffs' argument that Willkie Farr overlooked the availability of an equitable defense under the doctrine of in pari delicto. By operation of the doctrine, the position of a party defending against a claim is better than that of the party asserting the claim in a case of equal or mutual fault (see In re Oakwood Homes Corp., 389 BR 357, 365 [D Del 2008], affd 356 F Appx 622 [3rd Cir 2009]). Here, plaintiffs argue that the lenders could have been faulted for structuring the loan transactions in a way that prevented ESI from declaring bankruptcy. Plaintiffs' argument is flawed because they allege no wrongdoing that the lenders...
September 22, 2014 in Clients | Permalink
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