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Many an article or blog post concerns minority shareholder rights, shareholder oppression or shareholder “freeze out”. As business and litigation lawyers, we are always mindful of the rights between and among business owners, what can and cannot be done in furtherance of those rights and the legal mechanisms applicable to the exercise of those rights. We frequently write on the strategies available to a minority shareholder such as examination of books and records, claims of breach of fiduciary duty and the potential for appointment of a corporate receiver or custodian.
This is not that article.
The fact is, being a minority shareholder means that, by definition, there are often things you simply cannot control. A shareholder or member in a business entity who possesses less than a controlling stake must have reasonable expectations as to the rights attendant to such ownership and understand the limits of such rights so as to make informed decisions concerning the investment of time, energy and money in pursuit of the collective enterprise.
Let’s start with who owns the remaining shares in the company. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the majority shareholder is free to transfer the majority (said another way; controlling) interest in the company without the consent of the minority. A transaction can result in a change in control such that the minority shareholder suddenly works for someone entirely new. While a minority shareholder can enjoy “dissenter’s rights”, such rights are applicable in very narrow situations specified by statute. In fact, in the absence of a prohibition, the stock in a business entity is readily transferrable, just like on an exchange, if a buyer and/or seller can be identified.
Internally, a minority shareholder can find it difficult to impact the direction of the business. Depending on the by-laws of the entity and, frankly, the will of the majority, a minority shareholder may or may not have a voice on the board of directors and thus may not possess a vote on material decisions such as the persons who will fulfill critical roles in the executive branch of the business such as the officers of the corporation. More importantly, a minority shareholder may not have input on the financial operations of the company including distributions, financing arrangements, major purchases of inventory, equipment or talent. All of which can dramatically affect the annual bottom line.
Even employment is not guaranteed to a minority in interest. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the employment of a minority shareholder may simply be at will in the same way as the sales force, the administrative assistants or the custodian. Certainly, terminating a minority’s employment could be one of the factors argued in a freeze out, but in the absence of other factors, termination of employment alone may not give rise to a cause of action. Certain courts have suggested continued employment may be implicit in a “founder” but those situations are few and far between and a plaintiff/minority shareholder must be prepared with more to argue than the end of employment if freeze out is alleged.
In business, like politics, being in the minority means sometimes you are powerless to immediately change the course of the company. Sometimes, a group of shareholders can band together to pool their collective influence for their mutual benefit. Other times, the best strategy is to become the majority even when the acquisition of additional shares comes at an unnecessary or unanticipated cost. Under any circumstances, rights afforded to the majority are not constrained solely because a minority shareholder does not agree with a particular course of action.
As a litigator, I am often contacted by minority shareholders who are frustrated by their lack of control or influence. While the law offers certain protection for holders of such minority interests, those remedies are factually limited and are often unsatisfactory even if granted in full after significant expense in litigation. Certainly an appropriate agreement outlining the respective rights and obligations can change the analysis. Business owners should consider, and plan for, what rights their stake in the company provides.
This is the fourth installment of my continuing blog series explaining the main elements of a contract, which are outlined on the attached infographic . My goal is to demystify some of these basic provisions to help business owners have a better general understanding of what they are signing.
This article discusses representations, warranties, and covenants, which are the “bones” of the parties’ agreement. These provisions represent the statements of the underlying facts, mutual assurances, and promises of performance which form the basis of the parties’ mutual understanding. It’s not uncommon to find these concepts used interchangeably in a contract – “ABC represents, warrants, and covenants…”, but the meaning and effect of each of these are quite distinct from one another. It’s important to understand these distinctions so that your contracts accurately reflect the assumptions, obligations, and risks that you are comfortable with.
A representation is a statement of past or present fact (either express or implied) made by one party to induce the other party to enter into the agreement. For example, the seller of a business might represent that gross revenues from the business were a certain dollar amount for the past several years or that there are no claims asserted against the business. If a representation proves to have been untrue when made, the injured party will have a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation if she can prove that: (i) the party making the representation knew or should have known the statement was false when made; (ii) the other party intended the injured party to rely on the statement; and (iii) the injured party’s reliance on the statement in entering into the agreement was justifiable. The injured party can seek monetary damages for its losses or it may ask the court to rescind (void) the entire contract. It is therefore very important to avoid “over-representing” in your contracts.
A warranty is essentially a promise that an assertion made by a party is true, coupled with an implied promise of indemnity if the assertion made by the party is false. As such, a warranty is both present-focused, like a representation, and forward-looking, like a covenant. If a warranty is breached, the injured party is entitled to be made whole; this usually means that the injured party can recover the difference between the value of the contract as agreed upon and the value of the contract in light of the breach. In other words, the injured party is entitled to receive the benefit of the bargain he initially made. The injured party is not required to demonstrate that he relied on the warranty or that the other party knew that the warranty was false when made.
Often, but not always, representations and warranties go hand-in-hand to allow the parties to preserve remedies that are as broad as possible. In complex agreements, the parties usually spend a significant amount of time negotiating how the risks embodied by representations and warranties should be allocated by qualifying and limiting these concepts (e.g., a representation is true to the best of the maker’s knowledge and/or in all material respects).
Product and service warranties are specialized contractual provisions that are actually hybrids of representations, warranties, and covenants. These provisions commonly create limited express warranties that apply to the products or services, identify specific contractual remedies for breach, and disclaim implied warranties that are provided by law.
A covenant is a party’s promise to perform an action or to refrain from performing an action. It relates to the future, as opposed to representations, which are provided as of a specific date. An example of a covenant is a borrower’s promise to make loan payments in accordance with the terms of a promissory note. Covenants can be express or implied. Pennsylvania law imposes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in most contracts.
Stay tuned for Part 5 of this series, which will move on to discuss some possible hidden perils of what is commonly dismissed as “just boilerplate” language.
On September 24, 2019, the United States Department of Labor announced a new final rule regarding eligibility for overtime pay. The rule requires employers to revisit their classifications of employees as exempt in order to ensure compliance.
As I discussed in previous articles (Texas Federal Judge Blocks New Overtime Rules and Speaking of Overtime Rules and One Final Overtime Update) the DOL announced rules in 2016 to dramatically increase the salary threshold in order for certain categories of employees to meet the standards for exemption from federal overtime requirements. The rules were met with litigation and a stay of their enforcement.
The new final rule raises the salary threshold from $455 a week to $684 a week, or $35,568 a year. Employers may now use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions to satisfy up to 10% of the salary level. Employees will still have to meet requirements related to their duties in order to meet the standards of exemption for the overtime requirements.
This final rule will become effective on January 1, 2020. As we advised in 2016, employers should take steps to ensure compliance by the end of the year. The first step is to identify any employees who are classified as exempt but are making less than $422 a week, and develop a plan to reclassify those employees, or revise their compensation. This is a good time to revisit the job duties of those employees to ensure that they meet the applicable standards for exemption in terms of their duties as well as their salary. This is also a good time to review overtime policies to ensure appropriate recordkeeping, efficient use of overtime and compliance with applicable law.
AMM can help employers navigate these new rules and review their employee classifications to ensure compliance and minimize risk.
This post continues my series explaining the main elements of a contract, which are outlined on the attached infographic. My goal is to demystify some of these basic provisions to help business owners have a better general understanding of what they are signing.
Another key element of a typical contract is a condition. A condition is an event that must occur or a fact that must be true before a party is obligated to perform his obligations under a contract. Conditions are used to allocate risk by making a party’s obligations, which would otherwise be absolute, dependent on circumstances that are usually outside of that party’s control. The risk of those circumstances not occurring is thus shifted to the other party. For example, your agreement to buy a parcel of real estate might be conditioned on your ability to obtain financing. If you are unable to get financing, you are not obligated to proceed with the sale. Your failure to perform your obligations is excused and is not a breach; the seller will have no claim for damages against you based on your failure to perform. A condition is not necessarily tied to a third party’s performance of an action (such as a bank agreeing to lend money to the buyer) but is sometimes linked to the performance of an obligation by the other party. Some conditions are dependent on weather or similar events that are altogether outside of the contracting parties’ and third parties’ control.
Sometimes a condition is drafted so that its non-fulfillment excuses some, but not all, of a party’s obligations under the agreement. As a result, if the condition is not met, the agreement remains in force as to all other obligations. On the other hand, a condition may be drafted so that the entire agreement will terminate if the condition is not satisfied (such as the property sale example above). It is important to note that the party benefitting from the condition may choose to waive the condition and proceed with performance under the agreement. Further, if the party whose obligations are conditioned performs those obligations even though the condition has not been satisfied, he may be deemed to have waived the condition.
Conditions are not necessarily identified in a single specific section of a contract, but often are sprinkled throughout the agreement where the parties’ obligations are identified. Because of the impact of an unsatisfied condition, it is important to be able to recognize conditions on the other party’s obligations before you enter into the agreement. Look for words such as “if”, “provided that”, “in the event that”, “subject to”, “on the condition that”, “conditioned on”, and “contingent on”.
Before you sign any contract, you should be sure to assess whether any of your obligations should be conditioned on the occurrence of facts or events. If so, it is important that those conditions be clearly identified. Similarly, you should review the agreement to identify any conditions to the other party’s obligations and their impact on the agreement overall and your rights under the agreement. Ask yourself:
• Does the agreement set out unrealistic, vague or unpredictable conditions under which the other party could be released from its contractual obligations to me? Will I have incurred unnecessary expenses prior to the determination whether the condition has been satisfied (e.g., purchase of supplies or services)?
What impact will a release of the other party’s obligations have on my business (e.g., finding a substitute vendor)?
• What actions or omissions (by me or key staff) could result in a release of the other parties’ contractual obligations?
• Are any conditions on my performance needed to provide a way out in the case of prohibitive or unacceptable changes in circumstances down the line?
In summary, contractual agreements will ultimately only yield the intended benefits to your business if they are enforceable, and that means understanding under what conditions some or all of the other party’s obligations might be excused.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series, which will move on to the next contract element shown on the infographic: Representations, Warranties, and Covenants.
In 2008, Pennsylvania enacted the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) designed to protect home owners from unscrupulous contractors. However, it is also a trap for the unwary home improvement contractors. In addition to its registration requirements, HICPA specifies what must be in a contract for home improvement services and what may not be in these contracts.
HICPA applies not only to contractors performing renovations and remodels, but also many other types of services including most landscaping work, security systems, fencing companies and concrete work. Any individual or company performing these services needs to be aware of the requirements imposed by HICPA and can read more in this client alert.
Many companies use restrictive covenant agreements with key employees to guard against economic harm to the company by an employee who takes a job with the company’s competitor and/or tries to persuade the company’s customers to stop doing business with the company. These are particularly common with sales staff. In Pennsylvania, these covenants will generally be upheld if they are narrowly drawn to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests and if the employee has been given meaningful consideration in exchange for agreeing to be bound by the covenants. To learn more about Noncompetes, visit our Navigating Noncompetes blog series in the AMM Employment Law Blog.
Companies recognize that merely doing business with other firms can also be risky when it comes to protecting their interests in employees and customers. Consequently, it has become customary to include “no hire” provisions in contracts to prohibit a party from hiring away the other party’s staff. These clauses are particularly common in agreements in the technology field and in non-disclosure agreements that parties often enter into when evaluating whether or not to begin a business relationship. The viability of these provisions is in doubt in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Superior Court struck down a no-hire clause in a service agreement earlier this year. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
In Pittsburgh Logistics Systems, Inc. v. BeeMac Trucking, LLC, the trial court held that the no-hire clause was unenforceable because it prevented individuals from seeking employment with certain companies even though those individuals had not agreed to or been compensated for the restriction. It is important to note that in a separate action, Pittsburgh Logistics Systems (“PLS”), the company attempting to enforce the restrictions against BeeMac, was unsuccessful in its efforts to enforce the restrictive covenants contained in four employees’ employment agreements, each of whom left to work at BeeMac. The trial court concluded that the covenant not to compete was oppressive and overly broad since it had an unlimited geographic scope. The court viewed PLS as having “unclean hands” and refused to enforce the restriction at all.
The Superior Court agreed with the trial court and held that the no-hire clause was unenforceable as a matter of law. The Superior Court was influenced by the lower court’s holding that the non-compete covenants in the employment agreements were not enforceable, noting that it would be unfair for PLS to achieve the same result by using a contractual no-hire provision in its contracts with other companies.
Two Superior Court judges dissented, drawing a distinction between a no-hire provision in a contract between two companies and a non-compete clause binding employees. They reasoned that the no-hire clause did not restrict the employees’ actions; rather, the clause was a bargained-for restriction in recognition of the fact that BeeMac would have access to PLS employees and know-how. The dissenting opinion suggests that the correct analysis is whether the no-hire clause was a reasonable restraint on trade. Using that test, the dissenting judges would have enforced the clause and granted the injunctive relief requested by PLS to prevent BeeMac from “enjoy[ing] the benefit of its purported breach” and “leverag[ing] the specialized knowledge that PLS’s former employees acquired while under its employment.”
It will be interesting to see how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court views these issues when it hears this case. Stay tuned for further developments.