An Unexpected Adversary for Private Companies: the SEC

Wednesday, 15 February 2012 16:15 Written by  Joanne Murray

It is not uncommon for a minority shareholder to cry foul when the corporation is sold and the shareholder believes he received less than fair value for his shares. Such claims often result in shareholder oppression suits, with the majority shareholder accused of having breached a fiduciary duty to the minority owner. Now it seems that controlling shareholders of even privately held corporations have another potential adversary: the Securities Exchange Commission. The SEC recently sued Stiefel Laboratories and its then-controlling shareholder and CEO Charles Stiefel, alleging that they defrauded current and former employee shareholders out of more than $110 million by buying back shares in the company at undervalued prices prior to the sale of the company to GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

The complaint alleges that the defendants misled the employee shareholders, who had acquired the shares as part of a stock bonus plan, by concealing material information about the potential acquisition of the company by GlaxoSmithKline. Information regarding several offers from private equity firms to acquire stock in the company at a higher price than the valuation provided to employees was also allegedly withheld from employees. The complaint further asserts that the valuation that the company provided to employees was prepared by an unqualified accountant who used flawed methodology. Adding insult to injury, a 35% discount incorporated into the valuation was not disclosed to the employees.

The complaint cites, among other things, the company's repurchase of 800 shares from employees at a price equal to $16,469 per share in the months leading up to the sale to GlaxoSmithKline, which acquired the company for $68,000 per share. As a result of the reduced number of outstanding shares, the remaining shareholders (consisting mostly of Stiefel family members) received a windfall.

The SEC warns that privately held companies and their officers should be aware that federal securities laws are intended to protect all shareholders, regardless of whether they acquire their shares in a private transaction such as a stock bonus plan or on a public market. Corporate officers in corporations with stock bonus plans should take care to obtain appropriate valuations to support stock repurchases from accredited professionals using commonly accepted valuation methodologies. Stock option plans and corresponding summary plan descriptions should be carefully reviewed, with a particular focus on their stock repurchase provisions. All material facts must be fully disclosed to plan participants in a timely manner.

To avoid post-transaction cries of foul play from former shareholders, we often include “tail” provisions that allow the former shareholders to enjoy the same economic benefit of a major company transaction such as a sale or merger that follows the sale of their shares. Such provisions are usually of limited duration (e.g., twelve months). This protects the company and senior management from claims like those raised by Stiefel Laboratories employees after the expiration of the tail period.

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 16:23
Joanne Murray

Joanne Murray

Joanne concentrates her practice in the areas of Business Law, Business Transactions, Contracts, Banking and Finance and Consumer Product Safety. She has represented a variety of financial institutions, privately held businesses, physician practices, and nonprofit entities in a wide range of business transactions including stock and asset acquisitions, affiliations, financing and loan restructuring, software license agreements, nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts and leasing transactions.

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