Thousands of businesses across the United States fall within the definition of what is commonly referred to as “small business”. Many of these small business are formed by two “friends” with compatible skill sets and both possessing knowledge of a particular industry. Business owners commonly refer to their co-owners as “partners”. As the business and its’ complexity grows, deficiencies in performance or capacity on the part of one partner may be exposed. Alternatively, the absence of immediate success can cause a less patient partner to seek other opportunities and abandon the work that is necessary for the collective good. What starts as a promising partnership can quickly turn sour. Here are a few tips on moving forward:
1. Agree on material issues ahead of time. It goes without saying that a written agreement which contemplates and addresses material issues benefits everyone. Terms frequently addressed in such agreements include the relative duties of the parties, corporate officers, duties of directors and financial matters. If shareholders/partners/members are required to devote substantially all of their time to the venture, the agreement must so state. Similarly, if shareholders/partners/members can be required to contribute capital to the business, the prevailing agreement must so state. Agreed upon rights and remedies upon abandonment of functions within the business by a shareholder/partner/member can provide the road map for resolution and expedite transition.
2. Change terms of employment. An option which may be available to a shareholder/partner/member is the exercise of corporate power to change terms of employment with respect to the non-performing shareholder/partner/member. While a founding shareholder/partner/member may arguably have certain rights to continued employment, such guarantees are limited and may not preclude a change in terms when faced with non-performance or abandonment. Exercise of corporate power does not come without risk and any change in employment terms is almost always alleged as part of a minority shareholder oppression claim.
3. Offer a buy-out. Certainly the cleanest and most efficient means to end an unproductive arrangement quickly is to acquire the non-performing shareholder/partner/member’s interest in the business by the payment of money. Of course, such an agreement is not always financially available. Moreover, a voluntary transfer necessarily implicates that that non-performing shareholder/partner/member agree. Issues of valuation, income streams, indemnification and restrictions against competition can complicate any potential buy-out.
4. Sell the business. Often the solution to a disagreement on partner performance is a sale of the business with a corresponding post sale employment agreement for the performing shareholder/partner/member. Money is a powerful motivator. A sale generates money in a lump sum which can induce a shareholder/partner/member to forego the ongoing income stream that results from future operations. Certainly, control over the sale process, including the legal right to effectuate a sale by virtue of agreement or corporate control, are essential factors for evaluation.
5. Dissolve and start something new. As a matter of last resort, dissolution of the entity may be the only way to gain freedom from a non-performing shareholder/partner/member. The Business Corporations Law provides a mechanism for dissolution. Provided the requirements can be met, a shareholders/partners/member may seek judicial dissolution of the entity essentially forcing a judicial sale. An important aspect of dissolution is relief from fiduciary duties owed to the business and minority owners. Dissolution can be a complicated and expensive proposition and very disruptive to ongoing business operations but remains a viable strategy when business owners can no longer work together but also cannot agree on separation.
Business partnerships are like marriages; sometimes they work great from the start and before you know it you are celebrating a 25 year anniversary with a big party with all of your clients and customers in attendance. And sometimes; not so much. For reasons unique to business relationships and the personalities involved, business partners sometimes find they can no longer function together, no longer share the same vision, and can no longer tolerate sharing the responsibilities or benefits of common ownership. We refer to the painful and expensive process of separation as “business divorce”.
As in any divorce, emotions run high. The natural instinct is to assess blame and recruit those close to the business to one “side” or the other. Such recruiting efforts implicate disclosure of sensitive, often damaging information with the idea that inflicting pain will induce a desired course of conduct. Rarely is such an ill-conceived plan rewarded with success.
The reality is that preservation of the business as an asset should be the primary concern. Often that means preserving the opportunity for the business venture to continue operations without interruption, modification or additional added pressures attendant to disharmony. Whether the business can be divided according to an acceptable plan among the shareholders, sold as a going concern, or liquidated in an orderly fashion, continued successful operations are essential to return on the shareholders’ investment.
Successful operations are a function of several factors. First and foremost, management, employees, contractors and staff must be confident in the direction of the entity. Public disclosure of disputes among ownership breeds workforce instability, discontent, mass departure and potential competition on the part of key employees with the capacity to do so.
Customer relationships must also be protected. Instability will most certainly cause a client to search for an alternative provider of the same product or service. A client will not risk their own business by not addressing the potential impacts of instability in yours.
The bank can become concerned as well. Lending relationships are complicated. Often businesses obtain term loans or lines of credit which must be “rested” (reduced to zero) from time to time. A borrower’s options upon maturity can be limited and, notwithstanding a long and happy banking relationship, the bank may not be required to extend credit on the same terms and conditions. The bank may even take the position, under certain circumstances and certain loan agreements that the bank is insecure as a result of dissention thus forcing very difficult financial decisions.
Finally, in all likelihood, public disclosure of internal disputes results in the parties becoming entrenched in their respective positions such that a future together is impossible. Even a sale under such circumstances is likely to net less than market as a buyer is quick to assert pressure on one shareholder or the other in an effort to negotiate the best deal.
Really no good can come of a public airing or an internal dispute. Just like a married couple should not publicize their grievances on Facebook, business owners should take care to keep their disputes in house while seeking resolution through any number of mechanisms – at least until it becomes apparent that such resolution is not possible. Even then, the minimum amount of information necessary to effectuate a course of conduct should be disclosed in the least applicable public way.
People often ask, “What kind of lawyer are you?” After my stock (and feeble) comedic response of “a good one”, I often say I am a “commercial litigator”. I explain that our practice includes litigation of disputes which arise between businesses and business owners. Commercial litigation includes a wide range of potential issues ranging from business torts to breach of contract, both internal to a business entity, and between two or more separate entities. While there are a wide range of potential issues which must be considered, there are certain basic tenets which I always discuss with our clients before recommending litigation or taking on their representation.
First, do you have an agreement which might apply to the situation and, if so, what does that agreement say about your position? Agreements can come is various shapes and sizes, such as corporate by-laws, a formal shareholder agreement, a proposal combined with an acceptance or performance, or even a simple exchange of emails. Documentary evidence is key, as a litigator is challenged to explain why the written word should not be impactful.
Second, what is your goal? The kiss of death as to our representation is a client who says “it’s not about the money, it’s the principle”. When I was a young lawyer I had a mentor who gave sage advice when he communicated the firm’s policy that litigation was only appropriate when money was involved. He would politely say, “we don’t litigate over principle”. In many ways and in most situations that adage applies. However, in the corporate setting, sometimes the connection to money is not readily evident or direct such as with regard to disputes over corporate control or enforcing a covenant not to compete. In many situations, I caution stakeholders to take the long view and weigh the probable outcomes from a purely practical standpoint, taking care never to lose sight of their long range business goals.
Third, what is your capacity for litigation and business distraction? Litigation not only costs money in terms of attorney fees, accountant fees, experts and costs, but participation also requires commitment of a leader’s most valuable commodity; time. Business people are first and foremost concerned with business (daily operations, management and the bottom line). Litigation invariably requires substantial client involvement in developing strategy, reviewing pleadings, searching for documents, reviewing documents produced by other parties and preparation for testimony. I advise potential parties to litigation to think long and hard about the cost/benefit to the business of such an undertaking.
Fourth, what can you hope to recover or save; and what will it cost to do so? While a corollary to litigation about money, it is not the same question. The evaluation of potential cost is complex and issue dependent. In a recent case, settlement discussions in a commercial litigation setting were driven by the anticipated six figure cost to translate thousands of pages of information from Chinese characters to English. Costs of experts on any issue involving an opinion on issues ranging from the standard of care applicable to a corporate officer, to whether a machine functioned in the way represented, can rapidly accumulate. Unless there is a provision in an agreement which provides for the recovery of attorney fees or such recovery is otherwise permitted under law, those fees and costs are not recoverable.
The above is not to discourage litigation of bona fide disputes; of which we handle many. It is simply imperative that the lawyer and the client be on the same page as to expectations, risks and litigation management. These questions can assist in forming the framework of a solid attorney client relationship in a commercial litigation setting, which goes a long way toward developing realistic expectations, reducing the stress inherent in the process, and optimizing the chances of a successful outcome.
It is not unusual for business owners such as manufacturers and their suppliers and consultants to enter into joint ownership in the pursuit of mutual business goals. Those pursuing this strategy should consider that such entanglements can lead to costly future litigation should circumstances change and interests of the parties diverge. In a recent case, a dispute arose between owners of a custom manufacturing limited liability company in which AMM’s client (and a supplier to that same LLC) possessed 33 1/3% of the issued and outstanding ownership interests. The firm’s client also owned 100% of the stock in a separate business entity which supplied materials to the jointly owned custom manufacturer.
When the owners had a falling out, an issue arose with regard to the payment of outstanding invoices generated by the supplier for materials provided to the jointly owned custom manufacturer. When a resolution could not be reached, AMM, on behalf of the supplier, commenced litigation. During the litigation, the majority member of the jointly held custom manufacturer transferred all of the inventory and other assets to a newly formed entity, owned entirely by him, without the payment of consideration, that is to say, without compensating the supplier entity. The transfer of assets left the jointly held entity with insufficient assets to meet its’ liabilities; including the liabilities to the supplier. As a matter of strategy, the controlling member of the jointly owned entity allowed default judgment in favor of the supplier and against the jointly held custom manufacturer. The newly created entity went about doing business utilizing the inventory transferred without regard to the liability to the supplier.
The transfers gave rise to new and additional claims under the recently adopted Uniform Fraudulent Conveyances Act and claims of breach of fiduciary duty; all of which had to be litigated while the newly formed company operated a separate business. Clearly, a small business owner can no longer simply set up shop as a new entity when things go bad and debt accumulates. However, the complexity of ownership structure and relationship between the various entities made judicial intervention very difficult. In the end, the newly formed entity was forced to file a general assignment for the benefit of creditors; the majority owner lost his interest in all of the respective entities and eventually filed for personal bankruptcy.
The above is just one of many “war stories” encountered in attempting to unwind jointly owned business enterprises. Business owners and potential investors should think very carefully before engaging in shared ownership. What may seem like a mutually beneficial relationship at the outset can be costly and challenging to undo if things go bad in the future.
The take away for business owners and potential investors is to think very carefully before engaging in shared ownership. What may seem like a mutually beneficial relationship at the outset can be costly and challenging to undo if things go bad in the future.
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.
Business divorce, just like traditional matrimonial divorce, can occur for many reasons. Many times, business divorce is occasioned by underperformance and the need to separate an underperforming owner. However, the opposite circumstance, a business that has done well, can also spur desire for change in structure. Just like matrimonial divorce, business divorce can be a long, painful and expensive proposition. Consideration of trigger events for dissolution and setting an exit strategy before commencing the business venture can manage the expectations of the parties and facilitate transition when it becomes necessary. And it almost always does.
One of the primary considerations is trust. Consider the level of trust you place in a business partner on so many levels. Trust ranges from the basics of whether you can trust your partner not to have a hand in the cookie jar, to more esoteric questions of whether you can trust your partner to share your long term vision. All too often clients come to us with stories of unexplained payments for personal expenses which are only discovered by accident. What are the rights and obligations of the company and the business partners in such event? These rights should be spelled out in the agreement between the parties, otherwise the company, and the innocent shareholders, are left to argue common law claims and may be without a way to specifically extract the untrustworthy owner.
Trust goes deeper than the simple situation of defalcation (misuse of funds). Can you trust your business partner to have the same desire to grow your business and increase sales and performance metrics over an extended time? Business entities generally have perpetual existence. Can you trust that your partner will continue to make the requisite investments of time, energy and money that are necessary to bring the success you work so hard to achieve? If the agreements between the parties do not provide for a mechanism to remove that partner, or at least monetarily induce that partner to voluntarily separate, what strategy is available to accomplish the necessary change?
If extraction of a non performing owner is one side of the coin, the terms of voluntary separation are the other. Even in the absence of material differences between owners and managers, time and circumstance often require parties to go their separate ways. The terms of voluntary separation can be every bit as complex as forcible removal. Often, the most problematic inquiry is the right to be compensated in consideration of separation. Such terms of separation can vary based on valuation methodologies such as “market” or “book” values, timing of payments, reductions or additions to value based on subsequent conduct. In the absence of advance planning, the parties are almost certain to find dispute.
Post-employment obligations and fiduciary duties are also fertile ground for dispute. Corporate officers and directors have fiduciary obligations to the business. Partners, shareholders and members may have fiduciary obligations to each other. A departing shareholder may or may not be permitted to directly compete either during or after termination of the business relationship. Certainly, issues arise with respect to client/customer relationships and confidential information. More substantial issues may arise when the business develops a new technology or intellectual property which one party seeks to exploit in a different way. Agreements between the parties can address such possibilities and preserve rights by contract which might otherwise be ambiguous.
What if it all goes wrong? Again, business entities are generally established to have a perpetual existence, so termination must be accomplished by agreement or statutory procedure. What kind of consent is necessary to effectuate dissolution? Must all of the shareholders or members agree? Agreements can specify events and effect of dissolution including specific assignments in distribution of assets according to differing methodologies or factual circumstances. In circumstances where one party is opposed to liquidation or dissolution, the situation can become even more complex. Occasionally, only the appointment of a receiver can effectuate liquidation or dissolution; a generally unappealing circumstance as such an appointment necessitates the loss of control.
The questions posed and circumstances described above underline the importance of careful consideration prior to establishment of business entities. Such considerations during the business “engagement” and before business matrimony are necessary to prevent significant hardship when expectations are not managed. Advance planning though counsel can address many of the issues potentially faced by business owners and help the parties realize their expectations when circumstances change.
Two guys are sitting at a bar discussing how they are going to quit their current jobs and start their own business. A lawyer sits next to them, overhears their happy ramblings and pipes in, as lawyers always do, that their mutual promise to devote 100% of their working energy to the new biz has to be reduced to writing. You know this joke, right?
Well, maybe not, and maybe it’s not such a knee slapper anyway. Under Delaware’s Limited Liability Company Act (the “Act”), a person may be admitted to a LLC as a member and may receive a LLC interest without making a contribution or being obligated to make a contribution to the LLC. If an interest in a LLC is to be issued in exchange for cash, tangible or intangible property, services rendered or a promissory note or obligation to contribute one or more of these items, however, the LLC’s operating agreement can and should, identify that obligation. The Act goes further and makes it clear that the operating agreement may provide that a member who fails to perform in accordance with, or to comply with the terms and conditions of, the operating agreement shall be subject to specified penalties or consequences, When a member fails to make any contribution that the member is obligated to make, the operating agreement can provide that such penalty or consequence take the form of reducing or eliminating the defaulting member’s proportionate interest in a LLC, subordinating the member’s interest to that of nondefaulting members, a forfeiture of that interest, or a fixing of the value of his or her interest by appraisal or by formula with a forced redemption or sale of the LLC interest at such value.
If only our clients made it easy on us by letting us write agreements with such detail! A more common scenario is the member who wants us to get rid of the 50% member, formerly a dear buddy, who walked out the door for whatever reason after a few months (or, even worse, walks in and plays on the computer all day doing nothing that needs to be done). Unfortunately, without an operating agreement that clearly identifies expectations with respect to contributions of services and remedies for breach, it is a challenge to argue the defaulting member forfeits his or her interest for failure of consideration as s/he might for failure to “pay” for the interest with cash or property.
While I continue to look out for case law in support of the idea of forfeiture in the context of LLCs, a recent Kansas case did address alternative remedies for breach of obligations with respect to contributions of cash. In Canyon Creek Development, LLC v Fox, the court struggled with the appropriate remedy available to a LLC when a member failed to satisfy a required capital call. The defaulting member, Fox, argued that he should not be held personally liable for the nonpayment of a post-formation capital contribution where the only remedy set forth in the operating agreement was a reduction of his ownership interest. Interpreting a statute that appears to be similar to the Act, the court ultimately agreed with Fox, making a distinction between the initial contributions (which could be in the form of cash or services, measured by their “net fair market value”) and later capital infusions which had to be in cash (unless the manager otherwise consented). The court concluded that the statutory default rule that a member is obligated to perform any promise to contribute cash or property or perform services, even if a member is unable to perform, supports the proposition that a member may be required, at the option of the LLC, to contribute an amount of cash equal to the agreed value of any initial, unmade, contribution. The court stated this was the law even where the LLC may have other rights against the noncontributing member under the operating agreement or other law. Turning to subsequent capital calls, however, the court found it significant that the remedy of cash damages, the most fundamental remedy for breach of contract, was conspicuously absent from the provisions of the operating agreement. Thus, the court concluded that the failure to include such a fundamental remedy as damages when a member fails to contribute additional capital after the LLC’s initial capitalization was not an oversight, but rather expressed a clear intent that damages are not recoverable from a member who failed to contribute additional capital after the venture was up and running. In the Fox case, the right to reduce the breaching member’s LLC interest was all that the LLC could do to punish the breaching member. No divorce, but better than a non-collectable judgment for a sum certain from my perspective.