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By Thomas P. Donnelly, Esquire
Reprinted with permission from the November 23, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2015 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
A high business “tide” does not necessarily float all boats. Often, when business is good and profits increasing, a business owner’s desire to avoid sharing those increasing profits with an underperforming partner can create an irreconcilable divide; particularly in the case of a partner not intimately involved in the day to day operations of the business. Similarly, more difficult economic times stress cash flow, and may motivate a performing partner to explore options to decrease or eliminate that portion of the business income flowing to those performing at a lower level. Of course, the lesser performing partner generally adopts a contrary perspective. In either case, the divergence between two or more partners can render the status quo unacceptable and threaten the business as a going concern.
In approaching disputes among shareholders several factors must be considered. First, does the attorney represent the company, the majority interest, or the minority interest? The practitioner’s potential strategies must be informed by the relative position of the parties. Second, what are the respective goals of the parties? Certainly, the long term goal of extracting the most gain in income or the value of the investment is the goal of all the parties, but short terms strategies can have a dramatic and sometimes unintended consequence. Third, what is the impact of the potential short term strategies, not only on the business, but also on the individuals? Financing arrangements and personal guarantees must be considered. Finally, the respective rights and obligations of the shareholders post dissolution must guide the process.
When approached by a client considering business divorce, the attorney must consider potential conflicts of interest. Often, the majority owner’s first call is to corporate counsel. However, Rules of Professional Conduct 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9 bear upon whether corporate counsel can represent the interests of only one shareholder/member. In summary, representation of the “company” in the same or substantially related matter, or receipt of confidential information which may bear upon the representation of the party not seeking to be represented by corporate counsel, would preclude corporate counsel from undertaking the representation of a single shareholder/member. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate for the company to have separate counsel, such as where the company is a potential defendant in litigation commenced by either a third party or a shareholder. However, such representation is complicated by divergence among board members and can present difficult issues in corporate governance and communication between counsel and the corporate client.
Representation of the majority interest provides for the implementation of whatever remedies may be available under the terms of written agreements among the shareholders or by means of corporate action as to a non-performer. Significantly, there is no statutory right or method for the involuntary removal of a shareholder (arguably, such a remedy may be available in a partnership or Limited Liability Company setting). Potential courses of action include severance of employment or reduction in employment benefits for the non-performer, voluntary dissolution if provided and appropriate pursuant to the agreements between the parties, and modification of corporate governance. Of course, such potential courses of action do not come without risk, and the potential for litigation alleging minority oppression should be anticipated. In such a case, documentation of non-performance and job duties is compelling.
Representation of the minority owner is more difficult. Many times, the minority owner is left with litigation alternatives such as actions for the appointment of a custodian or liquidating receiver pursuant to 15 Pa.C.S.A. Sections 1767 or 1985, respectively. While these litigation remedies can be compelling, it should not be expected that litigation would result in continuation of the status quo indefinitely. Litigation rarely restores a broken relationship. Further, as recently noted by the United States District Court in Spina v. Refrigeration Service and Engineering, Inc. 2014 WL 4632427, a shareholder seeking the appointment of a receiver or a custodian bears a heavy burden and such appointment is at the discretion of the Court.
In addition, litigation alternatives necessarily incorporate business risk. Can the company survive the appointment of a custodian? By definition, a custodian is designed to continue the business as opposed to liquidation. The impact of a custodian on customer relationships, the entity’s capacity to contract and the willingness of business partners to engage in long term planning or projects may render liquidation inevitable. Certainly, the appointment of a custodian or receiver results in a loss of control on the part of the shareholders. All policy and management decisions fall within the purview of the court appointee. Such loss of control can be particularly problematic as it pertains to the case of tax reporting.
That same loss of control must be considered in a liquidation scenario. Liquidation contemplates an orderly winding down and distribution of assets which should be anticipated to include intellectual property and customer lists in addition to any fixed or hard assets possessed by the entity. As noted in Spina, liquidation is generally carried out by public auction so as to ensure fairness among shareholders. In the event of a liquidating receiver, a marketing campaign designed to enhance the value of the assets and maximize the selling price should be anticipated. In such circumstance, neither party may be in a position to acquire the liquidated assets or may be forced to over-pay, thereby rendering such acquisition economically unfeasible. Accordingly, while the goal at the outset of a liquidation proceeding may be to force a buy out of a shareholder, the end result may be that no party is in a position to acquire assets and engage in continued business operations.
The impact of a custodian or receivership on the individual business owners must also be considered. Business owners frequently guaranty corporate debt. The commencement of an action for the appointment of a custodian or receiver is almost always defined as an event of default with regard to the entity’s financing arrangements and could also trigger liability under the personal guaranty.
Finally, post liquidation obligations, or the lack thereof, should also be considered. It should be anticipated that former partners would compete post liquidation. The liquidation of the entity by definition precludes any claim for breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the company to the extent based on post liquidation acts or omissions and any right to enforce a post termination of employment restriction against competition. However, arguably, the sale of the entity’s assets, including confidential information such as customer lists, may implicate the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and preclude use of information known to the shareholders in competition with the buyer. While no case decided under Pennsylvania law addresses the application of the Act to such circumstance, the Act appears to be applicable where a shareholder retains possession of information which was subject to transfer in liquidation.
The complexities of business divorce through litigation mandate that the parties consider and pursue all avenues of amicable dissolution and consider all proposals for voluntary consolidation of ownership before pursuing litigation with uncertain results.
Tom Donnelly is a Partner with Antheil, Maslow & MacMinn. His practice focuses primarily on commercial litigation and transactions, employment disputes and personal injury.
In Roman v. McGuire Memorial, the Pennsylvania Superior Court announced a new basis for challenging terminations of at-will employees. While Pennsylvania law has always recognized a “public policy” exception to at-will employment, the case law has limited that exception. Roman expands the exception to include terminations of health-care workers who refuse to work mandatory overtime.
Roman worked as a direct care worker, subject to McGuire Memorial’s mandatory overtime requirement. She was an at-will employee. The mandatory overtime policy allowed for termination of employees who refused to work mandatory overtime on four occasions. McGuire terminated Roman’s employment after her (disputed) fourth refusal, and Roman sued for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. After a nonjury trial, the trial court found in Roman’s favor, awarded her $121,869.93 in back pay and lost benefits, and ordered reinstatement to her former position.
Relevant to the dispute is Pennsylvania’s Prohibition of Excessive Overtime Act (43 P.S. § 932.1 et seq.). The Act prohibits a health care facility from requiring employees to work in excess of an “agreed to or previously determined and regularly scheduled daily work shift.” 43 P.S. § 932.3(a)(1). Further, the Act prohibits retaliation against an employee who refuses to accept work in excess of those limitations. 43 P.S. § 932.3(b). The Act does not provide for a remedy for employees terminated in violation of its requirements. It does contemplate a regulatory scheme to address complaints by employees, but those regulations are not yet final.
The Superior Court held that the Act established a public policy that healthcare facilities should not require its direct care workers to work overtime hours, and, as such, Roman’s termination for refusing to work overtime hours amounted to wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Further, the Court distinguished cases in which it had refused to recognize a public policy exception to the at-will doctrine because a statute had already created a remedial scheme to address violations of the particular policy identified in that statute, such as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. In the case of the Prohibition of Excessive Overtime in Health Care Act, there existed no remedial scheme to address the wrong.
The Superior Court has thus used The Act to identify a new public policy exception to the at-will doctrine. Health care entities should be mindful of this exception in creating and enforcing overtime policies for direct care workers.
Part 1 of 3 Part Series:
After years of hand-wringing and speculation by entrepreneurs, re-occurring angels, venture capital firms, registered brokers and lawyer types involved with private placements, on October 30, 2015, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) finally adopted equity crowdfunding rules pursuant to Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act of 2012 (JOBS Act). These rules, which rely on Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act, are scheduled to be issued in the Federal Register early in 2016 and will become effective 180 days after publication.
Assuming the issuer is not otherwise ineligible, the crowdfunding rules will permit the following:
• A company can raise a maximum aggregate of $1 million through crowdfunding offerings in a 12 month period.
• Individual investors can invest an aggregate sum, over a 12-month period, in any number of crowdfunded offerings, based on the following formulas:
1. If either the individual’s annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, s/he can invest the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of his/her annual income or net worth.
2. If both his/her annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $100,000, s/he can invest 10% of his/her annual income or net worth, provided that the total investment does not to exceed $100,000.
Not all companies can rely on crowdfunding under the final rules. If the issuer is (i) not organized under the laws of a state or territory of the United States or the District of Columbia; (ii) subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 reporting requirements; (iii) an investment company as defined in the Investment Company Act of 1940, or a company that is excluded from the definition of “investment company” under Section 3(b) or 3(c) of that act; (iv) has a “bad actor” in management or as a major equity holder; (v) has sold securities in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) and failed to make the required ongoing reports within the two-year period before the proposed new offering; or (vi) is a development stage company that has no specific business plan or purpose or does not identify a proposed merger or acquisition target.
The new rules include detailed provisions relating to mandatory disclosures and other requirements, which will be discussed in subsequent posts on this blog.
Reprinted with permission from the September 28, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2015 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
In a precedential opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed an award of punitive damages awarded by a jury in a dispute between two businesses. Brand Marketing Group LLC v. Intertek Testing Services, No. 14-3010 (Sept. 10, 2015), addressed two issues of first or limited impression relating to punitive damages. First, the Third Circuit held that juries may award punitive damages in negligent misrepresentation claims. Second, the Third Circuit considered whether courts may consider harm to the public, rather than harm to the plaintiff only, in awarding punitive damages. As the dissent in Brand Marketing noted, the Third Circuit's decision creates some interesting risks and strategies for commercial disputes.
Brand Marketing Group LLC developed vent-free heaters known as Thermablasters. Brand contracted with a manufacturing company to manufacture the heaters, and a testing company, Intertek Testing Services N.A. Inc., to perform testing for the Thermablasters pursuant to American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. Brand entered into a contract with Ace Hardware Corp. to buy 3,980 Thermablasters for $467,000. Intertek then performed the testing on the heaters and found that they met the applicable ANSI standard. The heaters were delivered to Ace Hardware. Ace halted sales after discovering that the heaters, in fact, failed to meet the applicable ANSI standard. Ace sued Brand and obtained a judgment for $611,060. Brand then filed a claim against Intertek.
Brand prevailed on its negligent misrepresentation claim after a three-day trial. The jury awarded $725,000 in past compensatory damages, $320,000 in future compensatory damages, and $5 million in punitive damages. The jury found that Intertek negligently misrepresented it had the necessary expertise to test the heaters. Relevant to the issue of punitive damages, the jury found, after instruction by the court, that Intertek acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others.
The Third Circuit affirmed the trial court's denial of Intertek's post-trial motions, and thus the jury award of $5 million in punitive damages. In so doing, the Third Circuit predicted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would allow an award of punitive damages for negligent misrepresentation claims, noting there existed no precedent for treating negligent misrepresentation claims differently from general negligence claims for purposes of awarding punitive damages.
However, this holding is not the most interesting part of the case. The Third Circuit next examined whether courts could consider harm to the public in general in awarding punitive damages, or whether the court must limit its analysis to damage to the plaintiff. In this case, Brand experienced financial harm only (Intertek did assert, without success, that the economic loss doctrine barred Brand's claim). No consumer experienced an accident or injury as a result of the testing failure. Intertek argued that an award of punitive damages violated the due process clause under these facts because the jury should not consider potential harm to consumers, and must only consider harm to Brand, in awarding punitive damages. The court found that this issue was "not settled by precedent." The Third Circuit analyzed the case law to conclude that courts may only consider instances of misconduct by the defendant in evaluating a punitive damages award where the conduct is of the same sort as the conduct that injured the plaintiff. The court rejected Intertek's argument that applicable law prohibited consideration of potential public harm in reviewing an award of punitive damages, and found that, in this case, potential public harm was "directly tied" to the harm to the plaintiff. The Third Circuit likewise found that the fact that no one was physically injured by the Thermablasters did not matter, stating that Intertek "should not be rewarded" for the fact the risk did not come to fruition. Thus, Brand stands for the proposition that a court may consider potential harm to the public in reviewing an award of punitive damages as long as the potential harm is directly tied to the injury to the plaintiff.
In his dissent, Judge D. Michael Fisher opined that if an "admission of imperfection" or a "lack of absolute uniformity" allows for an award of punitive damages whenever something goes wrong, "Pennsylvania companies may be in for a rude awakening." Indeed, as Fisher notes, the Brand decision will create new strategies and areas of risk for businesses involved in commercial disputes. Brand represents, at its most basic level, a commercial dispute—a dispute between businesses regarding a failure of one party to do what that entity contractually agreed to do. Interestingly, Brand did not assert that it was entitled to punitive damages as a result of intentional and outrageous conduct of Intertek, but instead proved to the jury that Intertek's "reckless disregard" for a known risk to safety justified punitive damages. Of course, the jury heard evidence that it concluded met the standard, but the application of the standard to a business dispute is an interesting one. Presumably, this standard would have relevance in any business tort case where a failure occurs in, for example, manufacturing or testing products.
Procedurally, Brand allows for the issue of punitive damages to go to the jury, and, arguably, expands the factors a jury may consider in awarding punitive damages in the context of a business tort, but Brand does not mean that a plaintiff will prevail on the issue. It goes without saying that the threat alone may be enough. Brand's strategy in asserting a claim for negligent misrepresentation (and not, for example, breach of contract) created the opportunity to plead and prove punitive damages. Brand was also fortunate to have sufficient facts to overcome the application of the economic loss doctrine. The Third Circuit's opinion in this case supports that strategy by allowing punitive damages in a negligent misrepresentation case and by allowing the consideration of potential (related) harm to the public. In this way, the Third Circuit has created another tool in the commercial litigation arsenal. It will be interesting to see whether courts in the future limit the application of this case to its facts, or if it marks a dramatic change in the available remedies for business torts. •
By Bill MacMinn
A client Googled the name of his own retail store. When he saw the results he was alarmed to learn that the result returned his store name with the name and telephone number of his biggest competitor, and a link to the competitor’s website, appeared in the top three search results and before the link to his own site. My client’s business name included a trademarked national brand. Surely, this must be unlawful?
Google searches return a natural or organic list of results produced by the keywords entered by the user. In addition, Google’s search engine also displays paid advertisements known as “Sponsored Links”. Google’s AdWords advertising platform permits a sponsor to purchase keywords that trigger the appearance of the sponsor’s advertisement and link when the keyword is entered as a search term. My client’s crafty competitor purchased the name of my client’s business as a “keyword” so that when a user searched on my client’s business name his competitor’s name was displayed as a “Sponsored Link” within the top three results and before the information and link to my client’s website. Google, which earns significant revenue from the AdWords platform, permits the use of trademarks as keywords.
There have been a multitude of lawsuits alleging trademark infringement over this practice. Few result in published decisions and of these; nearly all were losses for the trademark owner. Typical of these is 1–800 CONTACTS, INC. vs. LENS.COM, INC., a 2013 case from the Tenth Circuit, involving two internet sellers of contact lenses and related merchandise. At the time the case was filed, 1–800 Contacts, Inc. was the world’s leading retailer of replacement contact lenses, selling them by telephone, by mail order, and over the Internet. It was the owner of the service mark “1800CONTACTS”. Lens.com is one of 1–800’s competitors in the replacement-lens retail market, selling its products almost exclusively on line. Lens.com purchased the keyword 1800 CONTACTS which caused its “Sponsored Links” to appear when a Google user searched for that phrase. The Court ruled that Lens.com did not violate trademark laws. As with most such cases, the legal analysis turned on whether the alleged infringer’s use of the mark was likely to cause confusion to consumers. In ruling that such confusion was unlikely, the Court examined several factors, including the relatively few users who used the Lens.com link generated by the keyword “1800CONTACTS” to click through to the Lens.com site and the dissimilarity between the two companies websites which the Court concluded would minimize the likelihood of confusion. In other cases Courts have held that such factors as the sophistication of the Google users and the fact that the sponsored links generated by the keyword search appeared in boxes and were visually dissimilar from the organic links were sufficient to avoid user confusion.
Efforts to curtail this practice using state trademark common law and laws regulating unfair competition have also failed as these legal theories rely heavily on Federal trademark law requiring plaintiffs to meet the same likelihood of confusion requirement.
One commentator has observed that in many of the cases the sponsored links generated very few visits to the competitors’ site from users “clicking through” on keyword generated links. The economic value of those visits was small. For example, in the 1 800 Contacts case, the most optimistic estimate of damages was in the range of $40,000, much less than the cost of prosecuting the case.
Although the advice was counter-intuitive, I had to inform my client that any action based on his competitor’s use of his trademarked name as a keyword was not likely to succeed. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the strategy doesn’t appear to result in significant loss of revenue.
Scammers targeting Pennsylvania businesses have been hard at work this summer. The Pennsylvania Department of State reports that three separate direct mail campaigns have sought to get unsuspecting Pennsylvania business owners to pay unnecessary fees:
• A mailing from a company calling itself “Division of Corporate Services – Compliance Division” urges companies to complete a form with officer and director information and return the form with a $150 payment.
• A postcard from a company calling itself “Business Compliance Division” urges owners to call a toll-free number “to avoid potential fees and penalties.” When that number is called, the owner is instructed to pay $100 by credit card to obtain a “certificate of existence” in order to comply with state regulations. The address for this company is the same as the address for the “Division of Corporate Services – Compliance Division” above. According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, this is the address of a UPS store in Harrisburg.
• A letter from a company calling itself “Pennsylvania Council for Corporations” instructs business owners to complete a form with names of shareholders, directors and officers and return it with a $125 fee.
These solicitations include citations to Pennsylvania statutes and look official, but they are not: they were neither prepared nor authorized by the Commonwealth. Essentially, these notices represent a business-generating effort from the sender to prepare generic annual minutes for unwitting companies.
The Department of State cautions that any official notices sent to businesses by the Pennsylvania Department of State or the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office will contain letterhead and/or contact information for the Bureau of Corporations and Charitable Organizations. If you receive one of these notices or a similar solicitation, contact the Bureau at 717-787-1057, or feel free to call Sue Maslow, Joanne Murray or Michael Mills at 215-230-7500.