In my many years of practice as a commercial litigator dealing with conflicts between shareholders, it has become clear time and again that one of the best things business owners can do when in business with multiple shareholders or partners is to have a well-defined agreement which governs the operations of the business. Not only can that agreement memorialize the respective rights and obligations of the parties, it can also provide dispute resolution mechanisms which may serve the parties well in the event of material disagreement. Utilizing the powers granted by the Business Corporations Law and granted by the terms of an agreement governing business owners can be complex and risky but can often force an acceptable resolution when the status quo is no longer tenable.
In the case of a corporation, a shareholders agreement or by-laws will often identify the corporate office which holds supreme executive authority subject only to removal of that corporate officer by a vote of the directors. If the officer controls sufficient votes from the board, removal by a disgruntled shareholder may be impossible. The acts of the executive are subject to the business judgment rule and granted a certain amount of deference at law.
A majority shareholder who holds the top executive office is free to wield that power, consistent with the business judgment rule, in many ways - including business dealings with outside parties and, generally, with respect to employment decisions. If the disgruntled shareholder is an employee of the company, which is often the case in small business, that shareholder’s continued employment may be at the discretion of the majority. Termination of employment, if justified, is a use of corporate power which often impacts on the relative negotiating positions.
Of course, a majority shareholder who exercises corporate authority can be faced with claims that the minority has been “frozen” or “squeezed” out of the business. In such cases, it is important that the majority have “clean hands” and has avoided self-dealing, corporate waste or fraud as such allegations, if proven, could result in the appointment of a custodian or receiver and a loss of control. Certainly the majority cannot transfer the assets of the business to a new entity controlled solely by the majority. However, the existing entity can be managed in a way that maximizes benefit to the majority consistent with the exercise of business judgment. The existence of a dispute between shareholders does not in and of itself negate the discretion afforded by the business judgment rule.
AMM counsels clients through the minefield of corporate authority and with regard to available strategies to address disputes which arise between business owners.
In the many years I have been working as outside counsel to closely held businesses, one of the frequent pitfalls leading to costly litigation and operational conflicts is the failure of shareholders to adequately document and formalize their expectations, especially as it relates to minority shareholders. The first question I ask when contacted by a business owner who is dealing with shareholder conflicts is “What does your shareholders’ agreement say?” Unfortunately, too often, the answer is “What shareholders’ agreement?”
Many small businesses are formed by a group of people who share a collective belief at the time of formation. There are often unwritten understandings as to the division of roles within the business. Almost universally, the expectation is that all of these founding shareholders will devote ongoing resources to the business. Conflicts arise when those expectations diverge, when one shareholder fails to perform within the business, or even when a shareholder exits the company.
When conflict does arise, mechanisms for resolution can be limited, complex and expensive. Certainly a transfer of a non-performing shareholder’s stock seems like a simple straightforward course of action. However, in the absence of an agreement providing for transfer upon specified events, the business has no absolute right to remove a shareholder or force a transfer of the share ownership interest. Even a shareholder who has ceased to be actively involved in the business continues to enjoy all of the rights attendant to the ownership of the shares: the shareholder need not come to work, need not contribute capital, need not pursue business opportunity in the name of the company. Employment may end, but the right to enjoy distribution of profits does not, as long as share ownership persists. As most small businesses are organized as subchapter “s” corporations, profits must be distributed in accordance with share percentage.
Ownership of stock gives rise to all of the rights provided by statute. Minority shareholders enjoy the right to obtain information about the performance of the company, attend and vote at shareholders’ meetings, and receive distributions of profits derived from corporate operations. Minority shareholders can be an impediment to stock transfers, anchors against change and obstacles to capital expenditures. Such situations are a constant bone of contention among owners of small businesses.
Of course, the best solution is an agreement that accurately reflects the understandings of the shareholders at the time the shares are assigned, or the company is formed. Such agreements can provide clearly defined roles within the business, mandatory transfer upon termination of employment, death or disability, valuation mechanisms and provisions restricting transfer. Adopting an agreement, at minimum, provides a foundation for the business relationship, and may provide a roadmap in the event of disagreement.
In the absence of an agreement, a dispute with a minority shareholder requires careful management. The majority must take care to avoid vesting a minority shareholder with breach of fiduciary duty claims or shareholder oppression. Compliance with corporate formalities is imperative. While there is no guaranty of continuing employment for a minority shareholder (with exceptions), distributions or profits in accordance with ownership percentages is required if the company has elected “s” corporation treatment. Certainly, majority and employed shareholders may receive compensation for services rendered, but an artificial manipulation of corporate profits would certainly be relevant to a minority shareholder oppression claim.
Pennsylvania Business Corporations Law provides little relief to a majority shareholder who continues to run a profitable business without the assistance of his or her minority shareholders. The statute provides no right to extract a non-performing shareholder against his/her will at any price, and provides no absolute right of liquidation. Even the nuclear option of judicial corporate liquidation requires that the complaining shareholder allege irreparable harm to the company; an allegation which may be impossible if the business is successful as a result of the majority’s efforts.
Formation of an appropriate and workable shareholders’ agreement requires legal representation; as does management of divergent goals between shareholders. Owners of s corporations with minority shareholders would be wise to review their governing documents and take proactive steps to safeguard the future value of their shares, and avoid crippling and costly litigation. Antheil Maslow and MacMinn business attorneys are highly experienced in such matters and leverage a team of professionals in differing disciplines to navigate these complex waters.
Earlier this year, amendments to Pennsylvania’s statutes governing partnerships and limited liability companies (often referred to as unincorporated entities or alternative entities) went into effect. I recently blogged about the “transferable interest” concept adopted by the Act. Today, in Part 2 of this series, I highlight another significant change brought about by Act 170: the clarification of the fiduciary and other duties owed in the context of an unincorporated entity. In general, there are three basic duties:
• Duty of loyalty: generally, a duty to avoid self-dealing, competing and usurping company or partnership opportunities
• Duty of care: a duty to refrain from gross negligence and recklessness
• Duty of good faith and fair dealing: a duty to deal fairly and consistently with the terms of the parties’ agreement and the purpose of the entity
In a general partnership, each partner owes the above duties to each of the other partners and to the entity.
In a limited partnership: (a) the general partner owes each of these duties to the limited partners and to the partnership; and (b) the limited partners owe only a duty of good faith and fair dealing to each other.
In a manager-managed LLC: (a) the manager owes these duties to the members and to the entity; and (b) the members owe a duty of good faith and fair dealing to each other. In a member-managed LLC, the members owe these duties to each other and the company.
Some of these duties may be modified by agreement of the parties. In their operating or partnership agreement, the parties may modify, but not eliminate, the duty of loyalty and the duty of care, as long as the modification is not “manifestly unreasonable.” This standard is not defined and is left to the courts to interpret, but in general the agreement cannot convert the relationship into a strictly arm’s length relationship. The duty of good faith and fair dealing may not be modified or removed, but the owners’ agreement can identify the standards by which this duty will be measured.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly, with significant input from the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Business Law Section, recently passed Act 170, which overhauls the statutes governing partnerships and limited liability companies (often referred to as unincorporated entities or alternative entities). This Act brings these statutes up to date with the uniform laws on which they are based and is now in effect for all new and all existing unincorporated entities. These comprehensive amendments provide default rules for governance and other matters that fill the gaps in the absence of an operating agreement or partnership agreement (or the absence of applicable provisions in those documents). Accordingly, it is important for owners of partnerships and LLCs to review their governing documents and be sure they have a clear understanding of how these new rules apply to them. Owners should work with counsel to draft provisions to vary these default rules if that is the desired outcome.
One significant change brought about by the Act is the recognition that equity interests in unincorporated entities are bifurcated into governance rights (including consent, management, and information rights) and economic rights (i.e., the right to receive distributions). The amendments adopt a concept called a “transferable interest”, which is an interest in the partnership or LLC that includes only economic rights. The holder of a transferable interest has no governance rights; he or she has only the right to receive distributions from the entity (but not the right to demand or sue for distributions). The transferable interest approach honors the “pick your partner” principle, which assures owners of a business entity that they will be able to choose the co-owners of the enterprise. Under the revised statute, the only interest that can be conveyed to a non-member is a transferable interest, unless the operating agreement provides otherwise or the other owners expressly agree. Thus, a creditor foreclosing on a member’s equity interest or a person seeking to attach a spouse’s equity interest in a divorce proceeding can take only a transferable interest. This limitation on the rights of non-members affords owners important protections from assertions of control by outsiders which may not be in the best interest of the entity or its members. The exception to this rule is that a creditor foreclosing on an equity interest in a single-member LLC will take the full membership interest (governance and economic rights). The rationale for this exception is that because there is only one member, the “pick your partner” rationale does not apply to limit the rights of the lender.
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.
No one (not even us legal corporate types) would ever suggest that bylaws are interesting. But recent Third Circuit and Delaware Court of Chancery decisions have highlighted the complexity of issues regarding a company’s fee advancement bylaws and policies. Some corporate indemnification provisions are mandated and other provisions are simply permitted under Delaware state law. In practice, adopted corporate bylaws refer to the right (or absence of a right) of officers and directors of a company to be reimbursed by the company for losses, including legal fees, incurred in legal proceedings that name individual officers or directors if those proceedings relate to their employment or activities on behalf of that company. Mandated indemnification obligations under Delaware statutory requirements attach only to an “officer or director” but many companies nevertheless have bylaws and policies that permit indemnification to “any person” (including officers, directors, employees and agents) who act in good faith and in a manner they reasonably believed to not be opposed to the best interests of the entity. The Third Circuit, however, recently held that the definition of “officer” was ambiguous; an executive title like “Vice President” alone does not automatically prove eligibility for indemnification. And the Court of Chancery held that officers and directors need not prove that they will be indemnified to obtain fee advancement where bylaws tie fee advancement to indemnification. In other words, entitlement to advancement of fees under corporate bylaws is to be considered independently of indemnification entitlement. Examining the requirement that the conduct in question of any person seeking indemnification must be “by reason of the fact” of his or her officer/employment status, the same court determined that bylaws may not exclude entire categories of alleged wrongdoing for the purpose of fee advancement denial. If the alleged wrongdoing relates to an officer’s duties owed to the company (such as breaches of fiduciary duty), fee advancement may be required (even where the same bylaws require a clawback if the officer is ultimately found to have engaged in such wrongdoing).