The billionaire CEO of yogurt company Chobani Inc. indicated in a Wednesday court filing that his newly hired Kirkland & Ellis LLP defense team will mount a full-on defense against his former wife's $530 million suit claiming she owns a significant share of the company.
The filing, which hinted Hamdi Ulukaya intends to target New York City doctor Ayse Giray's status as a shareholder in Chobani’s predecessor company, came a day after court filings showed he had hired a commercial litigation defense team from Kirkland & Ellis including partners Yosef Riemer and David S. Flugman.
"Defendants collectively plan to file a motion to bifurcate the issue of plaintiff's status as a shareholder of Euphrates," Ulukaya's filing said, referring to the predecessor company. A decision to split the case along those lines would sever one of Giray's central factual assertions from others in her lawsuit.
Giray says she lent Ulukaya — whose family operated a dairy farm in Turkey — hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him launch Euphrates and received a stake in that company in return.
But Ulukaya used assets from Euphrates to launch a separate yogurt business, dubbed Agro-Farma Inc., that ultimately became the wildly popular Chobani, the suit alleges.
Giray's lawyer, responding to the Kirkland team in a filing also made public Wednesday, said there is clear evidence that Giray is a shareholder of Euphrates.
"We do not believe there that there is any issue as to plaintiff's status as a shareholder," Giray's counsel wrote. That letter also refused the defense team's request to limit Giray's scheduled Oct. 15 deposition to that lone issue, saying she should not have to endure two depositions.
Ulukaya's actions in forming Agro-Farma were not a secret to the plaintiff, who demanded compensation related to Chobani and, according to the suit, was told at one point that "she would have the same ownership interest" in Chobani.
Years went by without adequate payment and last year, when she made a demand for her share of Chobani profits, she was threatened, the suit claims.
Giray's $530 million claim assumes a $1 billion value for Chobani. The lawsuit calls for an accounting of the private company that is under Ulukaya's complete control to determine the true value of her ownership stake.
Both Giray and Ulukaya are from Turkey, the suit notes. They met in New York City in 1997, married that year, then divorced in 1999 but remained friends and business partners, the complaint says.
In September, the Bloomberg Business Index said Chobani's status as the best-selling yogurt brand in the U.S. gave Ulukaya a net worth of $1.1 billion.
Chobani, which says the suit is without merit, also has said the claims are a private matter between Giray and Ulukaya.
Chobani and Ulukaya are represented Kirkland & Ellis LLP and by Douglas A. Foss of Harris Beach PLLC.
Giray is represented by Richard B. Feldman, Michael H. Smith and Stephen J. Sassoon of Rosenberg Feldman Smith LLP.
The case is Giray v. Ulukaya et al., case number 652838/2012, in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE OCTOBER 10, 2012 EDITION OF LAW360 © 2012 PORTFOLIO MEDIA INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. FURTHER DUPLICATION WITHOUT PERMISSION IS PROHIBITED. WWW.LAW360.COM