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Recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision summarizes Massachusetts Law on Statute of Limitations on Promissory Notes and Successor Liability

Posted on Apr 17th, 2013

If you look at promissory note in your form file, odds are that the signature line indicates that the note was signed “under seal.” Aside from custom, there are several reasons why this somewhat archaic language was included. The most important reason, at least in Massachusetts, was that the language elevated the note from a plain contract to a sealed instrument. This extended the statute of limitations relating to the Note from six years to twenty.

In 1998, in connection with the revision of Article 3 of the UCC, Massachusetts adopted G. L. C. 106, § 3-118, which provided for a uniform six year statute of limitations for all negotiable instruments. In its recent decision in Premier Capital, LLC v. KMZ, LLC, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that Section 3-118 governs all negotiable instruments, sealed and unsealed. However, to the extent that a cause of action predates this adoption of law, the Court held that the law in effect prior to 1998 will apply. As there are probably few instruments still lying around that predate this adoption, odds are that we may start see the “under seal” language slowly disappear from these types of documents.

The other significant aspect of this decision is the Court’s concise restatement of Massachusetts law on successor liability. (The issue in the case was whether a promissory note could be enforced against KMZ, an entity that the plaintiff claimed to be a successor in interest to Max Zeller Furs, Inc., the party that signed the original note.)

First, in order to be deemed a “successor corporation”, there must be a transfer to that entity of “all or substantially” of another corporation.

If the first test is met, then to impose liability on the successor corporation, one of the following factors must also be met:

  • the successor assumes the predecessor’s liability expressly or impliedly
  • the transaction is a “de facto merger”
  • the succession is merely a continuation of the predecessor, or
  • the transaction is really just a fraudulent attempt by the predecessor to avoid liability.

Here, the Court affirmed the ruling in favor of the defendants, holding that there were no undisputed facts proving that Zeller transferred “all, or substantially all” of its assets to KMZ. While Premier argued that Zeller transferred its good will to KMZ, it could not show any actual agreement memorializing that transfer. The court also held that engaging in the same business and having the same stockholders, without meeting the transfer test, was not enough.

The take away from this case is that successor liability can only be established with a clear showing of facts within the established guidelines of the case law. Courts are not likely to find successor liability for purposes of summary judgment without undisputed proof of transfer of liability.

If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to email us.