If One Sells a Sole Proprietorship, What Is Being Sold?

If one sells a corporation, the shares of stock are what is being sold. If one sells a limited liability company, the membership interest is what is being sold. However, when one sells a sole proprietorship – a business which is not an entity– what exactly is being sold?

Generally speaking, the answer is that the assets are what is being sold. Some of these assets are easy to spot. For example, if the business has inventory; if it has vehicles or real estate, those can be the principal asset being transferred. Other times, especially in regard to a personal services sole proprietorship business (such as a doctor or lawyer’s practice), what is being sold is general intangibles. This can be everything from a copyright or a trademark to a right to collect money. These general intangibles are essentially the beginning and end of the value that of personal services sole proprietorships.

One of the more interesting dillemas is how to set a value on such general intangibles. Normally, this will be the central issue in determining the price for a sole proprietorship that does not have tangible assets.

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

If the Seller of a Business Does Not Comply with Legal Requirements for the Sale, May They Use That Fact to Void the Sale Altogether?

May a Seller seek to void a contract for sale of his business by taking the position that the sale contract was violated and therefore unenforceable, when the seller itself is the one that did not comply? That issue was raised in Meadowbrook Industries, LLC v. Walker Management Systems, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-3568-11T4 (March 5, 2013).

In that case, the seller violated a contract for sale of a waste disposal business by failing to obtain the approval of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before entering the agreement. NJSA 48:3-7(c).  As it turned out, the seller was the one who wanted to scuttle the deal.  It tried to argue that because the requirement had not been complied with, the contract was unenforceable.

The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey rejected that argument.  It held that the seller’s legal theory was barred by the doctrine of unclean hands. What this meant was that the party asserting the breach could not have caused that breach. The law protects those who did not cause their own harm.

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC

How Can a Business Owner Use a Prenuptial Agreement to Protect Their Business from a Divorce?

On June 28, 2013, Governor Chris Christie signed a law (Bill S-2151) which requires judges in New Jersey to evaluate prenuptial agreements as of the date of their signing and not as of the date of their enforcement.  This was a major change in the law.

It is of particular concern to business owners considering marriage. Typically, an owner will want to protect the business from being mandatorily sold in the event of a divorce. This law strengthens the enforceability of prenuptial agreements; therefore, it makes the protection afforded business owners that much more predictable.

The import of the law is that it prevents judges from considering the changes in circumstances between the time of signature and the time they are to be enforced. Prior to its enactment, N.J.S.A. 37:2-32 required judges to interpret premarital contracts as of the date of their enforcement. Therefore, if a contract was fair when it was signed, but when it was enforced would leave one spouse without financial support, it would be subject to attack.

Is a Forum Selection Clause in a Franchise Agreement Enforceable?

Most franchise agreements contain forum selection clauses – language that requires, among other things, disputes to be determined in a particular state or county. But are they enforceable?
The Supreme Court of the United States recently determined that not only are they enforceable, but they will be enforced in almost every instance.  Specifically, in Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, No. 12-929, 571 U.S. ____ (2013), [READ CASE HERE] the Supreme Court held,
Normally, a district court considering a §1404(a) motion must evaluate both the private interests of the parties and public-interest considerations. But when the parties’ contract contains a valid forum-selection clause, that clause “represents [their] agreement as to the most proper forum,” Stewart, 487 U. S., at 31, and should be “given controlling weight in all but the most exceptional cases,” id., at 33 (KENNEDY, J., concurring). 
The case made it clear that the preference of the party bringing the suit (the Plaintiff) would no longer be taken into account.  As the Court stated, “the plaintiff’s choice of forum merits no weight, and the plaintiff, as the party defying the forum-selection clause, has the burden of establishing that transfer to the forum for which the parties bargained is unwarranted.” Id. at 3.
Another interesting aspect of the ruling was that the parties’ private interests would be overridden by the forum-selection clause. Only in unusual circumstances would it not control. “[T]he court should not consider the parties’ private interests aside from those embodied in the forum-selection clause; it may consider only public interests. Because public-interest factors will rarely defeat a transfer motion, the practical result is that forum-selection clauses should control except in unusual cases.” Id. at 3.

What is Business Goodwill?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a seller of the “good will” of a business is not barred from answering the factual inquiries made by the former client as long as the seller’s responses are within the scope of the information sought by the former client. Bessmer Trust Co v. Branin, 16 N.Y. 3d 549 (2011).
Branin worked as an investment portfolio manager at Brundage, Story & Rose, LLC (Brundage). While working at Brundage, Branin became the favorite of one of Brundage’s clients, the Palmer family. Eventually, Brundage sold its assets, including client accounts and related good will, to Bessemer. For a while, Branin continued to work for Bessemer. Eventually he resigned from Bressemer to join Stein Roe. Before leaving Bessemer, Branin prepared a list of his clients to help Bessemer transition the accounts to other investment advisors at the firm. Branin did not notify his clients about his decision to join Stein Roe. Thus, he did not actively solicit any of his former clients. In spite of this, several of Branin’s clients decided to transfer their accounts to Stein Roe. The Palmers were among them.
Before transferring their accounts to Stein Roe, the Palmers had a separate meeting with each of the firms to discuss how the firms would handle their accounts.  Branin participated in the meeting between Stein Roe and the Palmers, but only as a passive participant. Finally, after meeting with both the firms, the Palmers decided to transfer their accounts to Stein Roe. Based on this, Bressemer, Branin’s former employer brought an action for breach of good will against Branin. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York found that “Branin ‘improperly induced the Palmer account to leave Bessemer and that this inducement in fact caused the Palmer account to leave Bessemer and join Stein Roe’ in violation of New York law.” Id at 555.
Branin appealed and the Court of Appeals barely provided anything useful other than the basic principles regarding solicitation of former clients. The Court not only acknowledged the absence of a specific rule to determine whether a seller of “good will” has engaged in improper solicitation of his former clients, but also declined to create one.  The Court held that “while a seller may not contact his former clients directly, he may, ‘in response to inquiries’ made on a former client’s own initiative, answer factual questions. Furthermore, under the circumstances where a client exercising due diligence requests further information, a seller may assist his new employer in the ‘active development . . . [of] a plan’ to respond to that client’s inquiries. Should that plan result in a meeting with a client, a seller’s ‘largely passive’ role at such meeting does not constitute improper solicitation in violation of the ‘implied covenant.’ As such, a seller or his new employer may then accept the trade of a former client.” Id at 560.
The lesson of this case is to tread very carefully when one could be accused of backtracking on the sale of business good will.

New York Franchised Motor Vehicle Dealer Act: When Does a Franchisor Have to Provide a 180-Day Notice of Termination of Dealership Agreement?

Compass Motors, Inc. (“Plaintiff”) was a franchised motor vehicle dealer for Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., (“Defendant”).  As a part of the dealership agreement, Plaintiff agreed to renovate its facilities pursuant to a Facility Renovation Agreement (the “Agreement”). The Agreement required Plaintiff to renovate its facilities in order to incorporate a Volkswagen-only showroom with a minimum of 1800 square feet and three offices. According to the Defendant, the Plaintiff failed to implement those required facility renovations. Id. at 284-285 As a result, the Defendant sent Plaintiff a 90-day notice of termination. The notice explained that if Plaintiff failed to cure the alleged breach within 90 days Defendant would terminate the dealership agreement between them.  Id.
Plaintiff commenced an action in the Supreme Court of New York (the “Court”), seeking a declaration that the notice of termination was invalid. Compass Motors, Inc. v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., 944 N.Y.S. 2d 845 (2012). Plaintiff argued that under the New York Franchised Motor Vehicle Dealer Act (the “Act”), particularly §463(2)(e)(3), Defendant was required to give it a 180-day, as oppose to a 90-day, notice to cure. In its analysis, the Court cited the relevant portions of the Act as follows:

 (d) (1)  To terminate, cancel or refuse to renew the franchise of any franchised motor vehicle dealer except for due cause, regardless of the terms of the franchise. A franchisor shall notify a franchised motor vehicle dealer, in writing, of its intention to terminate, cancel or refuse to renew the franchise of such dealer at least ninety days before the effective date thereof, stating the specific grounds for such termination, cancellation or refusal to renew. In no event shall the term of any such franchise expire without the written consent of the franchised motor vehicle dealer involved prior to the expiration of at least ninety days following such written notice except as hereinafter provided.

(e) (3) The franchisor shall provide notification in writing to the dealer that the dealer has one hundred eighty days to correct dealer sales and service performance deficiencies or breaches and that the franchise is subject to termination under this section if the dealer does not correct those deficiencies or breaches. If the termination is based upon performance of the dealer in sales and services then there shall be no due cause if the dealer substantially complies with reasonable performance provisions of the franchise during such cure period and, no due cause if the failure to demonstrate such substantial compliance was due to factors which were beyond the control of such dealer.

Vehicle and Traffic Law, article 17-A §463 (emphasis added).

The Court stated that subsection (2)(e)(3) which affords a breaching party notice that he or she has 180 days to cure prior to termination of the dealership agreement, by its plain terms, applies only to notices to correct a dealer’s sales and service performance deficiencies or breaches. The Court explained that since Defendant’s notice of termination was based upon Plaintiff’s failure to properly renovate its facility in accordance with the Agreement, it had nothing to do with sales and service performance deficiencies or breaches. Therefore, the Court held that the 180-day notice requirement encompassed within §463(2)(e)(3) was not applicable. On this basis, the Court  concluded that the 90-day notice to cure was sufficient under the Act. Id. at 294-295.

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