AND DON’T FORGET THE LITTLE WOMAN …
I got a call yesterday from a friend – I’ll call him Arnie Acme – who wanted me to look at a contract he was signing for office space. As a favor, Arnie said. “You know,” Arnie said, “just a quick read-through. After all, I know it’s OK.”
Enamored with the gravitas of a corporate structure, Arnie owns probably a dozen or more corporations or limited liability companies, all organized (I use that word very loosely) in a maze of affiliates, subsidiaries, parents, and joint ventures that would confuse a lab rat. He forms them online, leaving the tedious work of writing bylaws, naming officers, and drafting minutes of corporate meetings until “later.” You can guess when “later” finally arrives… the day after he discovers he really needs them.
The contract he emailed me was between Office Megapark Corporation and “Acme.” I asked him which “Acme” he had in mind as the contracting party, given that he had “Acme Enterprises, Inc.,” “Acme Management, LLC,” “Acme Services Corporation,” “Acme Systems Limited Liability Company,” and a gaggle of other Acme variations of entities. He said he was not sure, and he would just put “Acme” in as the leasing party, so he could decide later which company he wanted to be the leaseholder. He planned to have his newly-hired office manager sign the lease, because her name had not yet appeared in any business records, and he could write her name and purported office into whatever corporate or LLC minutes he might need later.
Arnie’s devil-may-care attitude toward contract and business association law reminded me of a sad fact. Small business owners sometimes (in Arnie’s case, always) skimp on the legal niceties. After all, they reason, paying out $500 to some lawyer for a bunch of forms and a vinyl corporate book doesn’t really “grow the business,” as the buzz phrase puts it. And who wants to squander money on a lawyer? Not Arnie. He just wanted a free and “quick read-through.”
That’s pretty false economy. In today’s case, a mom-and-pop timber harvesting business was hired to take down trees on one owner’s land, and — predictably enough — the chain saws wandered onto Mr. Follender’s land, to the tune of 439 commercial-quality trees cut down and removed without permission. Follender lost trees worth $54,500. After trebling and some discounts, he ended up with a $120,000 judgment against Bert Maxim, the defendant.
Unfortunately, the timber harvester had involved his wife in the business, and she did enough of the paperwork in the business that she had signed the contract for the timber operation that had gone awry. Oh, if they had only incorporated, formed an LLC, something! And if only Mrs. Maxim hadn’t signed that agreement! But hubby was out cutting down trees and they were in a hurry …
The Court ruled that her involvement in the unincorporated business was enough to make her liable for the $120,000 judgment as well.
Sure, LegalZippy.com or Lawforms-R-Us can sell you some boilerplate-laden forms over the Internet that’ll purportedly set you right up. But how a small business can best be structured to protect its principals from liability is a matter that varies from state to state. The legal niceties of the business organization — not just in the formation of the company but in day-to-day management — are best addressed by your local attorney or a specialist to whom he or she might refer you.
But get the advice now. Usually, by the time you realize you should have spent the money on the legalities of business formation and protection, it’s too late.
Follender v. Maxim, 845 N.Y.S.2d 484, 44 A.D.3d 1227, 2007 WL 3101953 (N.Y.A.D., Oct. 25, 2007). Follender sued Berton Maxim and his wife for “wrongful and/or cutting down/taking of timber” from the purchased property. The Maxims, doing business as Prime Hardwood, had entered into a contract with Follender’s adjacent landowners, Valentine Riedman and Christl Riedman, to log their property. In the process, they inadvertently trespassed on Follender’s property and removed trees. Follender alleged negligence and conversion, with a request for treble damages, against the Riedmans and Maxim. They named his wife as a defendant, too, calling her “Jane Doe Maxim.”
Follender dropped the Riedmans from the suit, but the Maxims failed to answer or defend. After learning that Maxim’s wife’s name was Eileen Tine, Follender filed an amended verified complaint against them both individually and doing business as Prime Hardwood.
Again, they failed to answer or appear. After Follender got a default judgment against them, the court ordered an inquest. When the Maxims again failed to appear, Follender offered extensive proof which included, among other things, the contract between the Riedmans and Tine (signing on behalf of Prime Hardwood), an affidavit from Valentine Riedman which explained that when Maxim came to log his property, he was given a survey map which showed the Riedmans’ boundary line. Valentine Riedman was unaware that Maxim would remove timber outside of those boundaries. Michael Greason, a professional forester, testified that 439 commercial species trees were cut from Follender’s property, 386 of which had a value of $54,506.68. The Court trebled the damages, and assessed damages of $120,000 against Maxim but never mentioned his wife, Eileen. Follender appealed, contending that the failure to include Eileen in the order awarding damages was a mistake.
Held: The judgment was modified, and the order of the trial court awarding treble damages of $120,000 against logger Maxim for negligence and conversion was rewritten to include the logger’s wife in the award of damages. She had signed the contract between Maxim’s business and the landowner’s adjoining property owners, in connection with which the logger had trespassed onto Follender’s property and from which he unlawfully removed trees.
Generally, appellate courts may correct any mistake, defect, or irregularity in a judgment, provided that the correction does not affect a substantial right of a party.