Back view of businessman with umbrella looking at city

  • Business Divorce’ refers to disputes in which the owners of a closely held business, whether a corporation, limited liability company, partnership or limited partnership, must separate their business interests.

  • In many cases, such as oppressed minority shareholder cases or oppressed LLC member cases, there are allegations that those in control of the company have engaged in wrongful behavior.  In other cases, the deadlock of the owners on an important issue is the source of the dispute.

  • Courts that hear business divorce cases have the ability to intervene and impose short-term relief, such as an injunction or appointment of a custodian, and a permanent remedy, include the sale of the business, the compelled purchase of an owner’s interest or even the dissolution and liquidation of the enterprise.


 

achievement-agreement-body-language-1179804-1024x600No one gets married expecting to get divorced.  And no one forms a business expecting that it will fall apart.  Just as people get divorced, many businesses come to the point at which a business divorce is the best alternative because the partners cannot, or will not, continue to work together.  When that happens, the parties need to restructure, and often separate, their business interests.

Business Divorce Defined

We use the term business divorce to describe a series of different types of lawsuits that involve the owners of a closely held business. The defining character of the business divorce is that co-owners of a business must separate their business interests.  There are typically two alternatives. In this article, we focus on the closely held corporation.  Some of the principles are similar with other types of businesses, which we address in other articles, but the application of the principles are often quite different.

The law varies from state to state and much of this discussion is general.  To the extent that we discuss specific state laws that apply to business divorce, we focus on New York, New Jersey and Delaware law. Continue reading

  • In valuing the shares of a minority shareholder, a trial court must consider any valuation technique that is generally acceptable in the financial communities.  Determining fair value is an art, not a science.

  • Directors that hold a majority interest in a closely held business have a duty to deal fairly with the minority and in a merger to make full and fair disclosures and offer a fair price in exchange for shares.

  • A minority shareholder that sits by or acquiesces to wrongful conduct by the majority waives the right to later pursue a claim based on that behavior.

  • Fee awards are available only to shareholders with a statutory right to dissent and in the discretion of the judge.


Casey v. Brennan, 344 N.J. Super. 83 (App. Div. 2001)

Minority Shareholder Valuation Attorney

Statues: NJSA 14A:11-1, NJSA 14A11-3; NJSA 14A:6-14: NJSA 14A:11-6; NJSA 14A:11-10

Action challenging the valuation provided by controlling directors (also majority shareholders) in corporate reorganization as plan to reduce number of shareholders to 75 or less to qualify for subchapter S status. Directors approved plan of merger at $73 a share in reorganization plan requiring small shareholders to sell. Trial Judge set value at $90 a share. (Opinion here.)  The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division.  (Opinion here.)

Facts: Community Bank adopted a plan of merger as part of a plan of reorganization that would reduce the number of shareholders by acquring holdings of persons with less than 15,000 sharesat a price of $73 per share. Statutory dissenters and non-statutory dissenters brought various actions consolidated for trial. Trial court holding that proxy statement was misleading and provided non-statutory dissenters with right to sue, and determined fair value $90 per share. Affirmed in part and remanded for reconsideration of valuation issues that were rejected by trial court. Continue reading

  • The Single Business Theory permits a court to treat related businesses as though they were one enterprise.

  • Courts apply the single business theory in rare cases to prevent injustice.


Pertuis v. Front Roe Rests., Inc., 2018 S.C. LEXIS 85 (2018)

Cases-of-Note-Corporations-300x166Statutes: S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-420; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-15-105; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-200 to -210; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-220; S.C. Code Ann. § 33-18-230; N.C. Gen. Stat. § 55-14-31

An action by minority shareholder and manager of three restaurants, two organized in North and one in South Carolina, seeking valuation and purchase of interests as oppressed shareholder, and alleging that each of three closely held “s corporations” are a single business entity located in South Carolina. On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court recognizes the amalgamation theory under which multiple enterprises may be treated as single entity, but reverses because plaintiff was not assigned the burden of proof and because a South Carolina court has no authority to consider the internal affairs of a foreign corporation.  (Opinion here.) Continue reading

  • New York’s BCL requires at least 50 percent of shares to petition for dissolution based on deadlock, unless there has been a failure to elect directors.

  •  The fact that a shareholders agreement required the election of two deadlocked directors was not a basis to waive the statutory requirement.

  • Parties avoid claims of wrongdoing and oppressed shareholder action that could trigger mandatory sale of minority interest.


Oppressed Shareholder lawsuit attorney

Judicial Dissolution Petition Requires 50 Percent Shareholder

A minority shareholder in New York will have a difficult time pursuing a claim for dissolution because of a deadlocked board of directors or a deadlock among the shareholders.  New York law permits a cause of action for judicial dissolution based on deadlock, but only by shareholders with holdings of 50 percent or greater, unless the shareholders are unable to elect directors.

The statute can be harsh in its application, as demonstrated by a trial judge’s decision to dismiss a petition for dissolution under BCL § 1104, the provision of the New York Business Corporations Law that creates a statutory cause of action for judicial dissolution. (We discuss the issue of deadlock in more detail in our series on the topic, here and here.) Continue reading

  • Courts use their authority to appoint a custodian to take control of a closely held corporation as a remedy to deadlocked directors or shareholders.
  • A showing of serious or irreparable harm is required before a court will intervene in a deadlock among shareholders or directors; more than dissension is required.
  • A court may direct a custodian to dissolve and liquidate a corporation, or sell the entire business as a going concern, in the best interest of the shareholders and other constituencies like employees.

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Appointing a custodian or receiver of a closely held corporation is a recognized remedy when the owners are deadlocked.  Once appointed, the custodian or receiver may be given wide authority to break the deadlock, to manage, to sell or dissolve the corporation — including cases in which the remedy seems to go beyond what is provided in the statute.


A Series Examining Deadlock Among the Owners of Closely Held Corporations, Limited Liability Companies and Partnerships


A bitter business divorce between two former college sweethearts provided the background for the Delaware Supreme Court’s analysis of the circumstances in which it could provide a dissolution-like remedy and order the sale of a large successful business.

INTERVIEW

The decision of the Delaware Chancery Court, Shawe v. Elting, involved Transperfect Global, Inc., a corporation formed by Elizabeth Elting and Philip Shawe in 1992 while the pair lived together in a New York University dorm room.  The two became the co-CEOs, sole directors and equal owners of a company that provided a variety of translation services from locations around the globe, generating $80 million in profits in 2014. (Shaw later transferred 1 percent to his mother, but she remained firmly in his camp, which caused the deadlock to continue.) Continue reading

  • This seminal case by the New Jersey Supreme Court identifies minority oppression as the frustration of a shareholder’s reasonable expectations.

  • A court may order the compelled purchase of a shareholder’s interest as a remedy for shareholder oppression when it is the only practical alternative to judicial dissolution.

  • The minority shareholder seeking to force the purchase of shares must show a connection between the oppressive conduct of the majority and the minority’s interest as a shareholder.


Brenner v. Berkowitz, 134 NJ 488 (1993)

Cases-of-Note-Corporations-300x166

Statutes: N.J.S.A. 14A:12-7(1)(c)

Facts: Partners Resnick and Berkowitz formed successful company. Members of both families were employed in the business. When Resnick died, his shares were distributed to family members, including his daughter, the plaintiff Brenner. Relations between the two family members soured and Brenner’s son was fired. Brenner alleged illegal and oppressive conduct.

Trial court found that Brenner’s expectation was solely as director and investor, not in management of business affairs. Trial court found that some conduct of majority was illegal, but that it was not directed to plaintiff. The oppression was insufficient to trigger the statute. Continue reading

For the closely held corporation, deadlock may be the result of a dispute among the shareholders, or among the directors in circumstances that the shareholders cannot fix by electing new directors.  Whether a court is asked to find deadlock under an applicable corporations statute or as part of a common-law remedy, deadlock is rarely found in circumstances in which there is no threat of significant or irreparable harm.

In this article, we will consider some of the circumstance in which courts have been asked to declare that a deadlock exists among the directors and/or shareholders of a corporation – often in a closely held corporation they are one and the same – and to fashion a remedy.  Most often the principal remedy in theINTERVIEW case of a “true deadlock” is the dissolution of the corporation, which entails the liquidation of the entity.  Courts rarely impose such an extreme remedy on a viable business entity, so such remedies as the sale of a minority interest, sale of the entity as a going concern or other types of injunctive relief are far more common.


A Series Examining Deadlock Among the Owners of Closely Held Corporations, Limited Liability Companies and Partnerships


Continue reading

INTERVIEWDeadlock occurs when the owners of a closely held business, be it a close corporation, partnership or limited liability company, are unable to reach a decision on some matter involving the business. Because deadlock is typically associated with businesses in which most or all of the owners participate directly in management, they are characterized by emotions, self-interest and not always rational.


A Series Examining Deadlock Among the Owners of Closely Held Corporations, Limited Liability Companies and Partnerships


In the simplest case, two 50/50 owners are unable to come to some decision that is critical to the business, for example whether to provide additional capital or give personal guarantees to a lender. Because the ownership is equally shared, the principals have to govern by consensus, or not at all.  This is true whether it is a corporation, limited liability company or partnership.

Cases-of-Note-Corporations

Digital Camera International, Ltd. v. Antebi, et al., 11-cv-1823 (E.D.N,.Y. July 13, 2017)

Statutes: N.J.S.A. 14A:12-7(1)(c)

Facts:Shareholders of a New Jersey corporation participated in a variety of activities that would be classified as oppressive behavior, including the payment of persona expenses with corporate funds, operating a competing business, insider contracts at inflated prices and corporate payments of personal tax liabilities

Cases-of-Note-Corporations-1-300x169

Clark v. Butoku Karate Sch., LLC, No. 326638 (Mich. App., 2016)

Statutes: MCL 450.4101, MCL 450.4305, MCL 450.4509

Plaintiff Joby Clark and Defendant were the sole members of a Michigan Limited Liability Company operating a karate school.  Clark was the subject of a rumor that he had a sexual relationship with an underage student.  The parties agreed that Clark would leave the business to prevent damage to the school.

The law that controls any business organizations is a creature of state law, and disputes among owners in a business divorce involve the application of the law where the business was formed. More often than not that means the law of the state in which the dispute is being heard, but not always. And significantly, at least for our present purposes, it does not mean that we will find the answer to a business divorce issue in the state in which the litigation is pending, even among the binding decisions of the state law where the enterprise was formed.

Here’s an example: a New York court is calleBusiness Divorce Attorneysd upon to determine whether a managing member of a limited liability company breached his or her duty in negotiating a sale of a substantial asset to a third party that the manager negligently believed was an objectively fair price. The plaintiff seeks to expel the manager or to force a dissolution and sale of the business as a going concern. Does the Court apply New Jersey law? If there is no New Jersey case on point – and there is no binding decision on all of the points in this scenario – does the Court apply New York law, and to which issues?

Even if this case is litigated in New Jersey, and there is no law on point, where does the trial court look to guidance. The nearly automatic response is Delaware, because the courts of Delaware have by far the most developed body of law applicable to corporate governance disputes. However, Delaware may be the wrong choice if the limited liability company statute needs interpretation. A well-reasoned decision from an Appellate Court in Illinois, for example, should be much more persuasive to a court construing New Jersey’s limited liability company statute because of the similarity between the two states’ laws.

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