Our Oak Brook, Ill. shareholder dispute attorneys and Chicago business law lawyers took note of a recent appeals court decision in a heavily disputed case involving a family business. In Santella v. Kolton and Food Groupie Inc., Nos. 1-08-1329, 08-1357 & 08-1847 consolidated (Ill. 1st July 31, 2009), Rick Santella accused his sister, Mary Kolton, and her husband William of undermining the family’s business to enrich themselves once they became majority shareholders. The business is Food Groupie, Inc., which markets and sells use of anthropomorphic food characters and educational products that promote healthy eating. According to Santella, the intellectual property is the collective work of the family.
When Food Groupie was originally formed in 1987, Santella held a 35% interest; Mary and William Kolton held 25% each; and a non-party, their brother Ron Santella, held 15%. All four were named directors. In 1988, the plaintiff bought Ron Santella’s interest, giving him a 50% interest in the corporation to match the Koltons’ combined 50%. Shortly afterward, plaintiff transferred 1% of his interest to Mary Kolton, with the understanding that William Kolton would transfer his 25% to Mary, giving her a majority 51% interest with the idea that Food Groupie would be more successful if it was known as a woman-owned company. In exchange for this transfer, Santella claims, the parties executed an agreement that company decisions would be made only by a unanimous vote.
The business ran without incident until 2002. During that time, Santella claims Food Groupie made a profit each year between 1992 and 2001 and the three shareholders always unanimously approved compensation. But in 2002, Santella alleges that the Koltons called a shareholders’ meeting without him or Ron Santella, and gave themselves salary increases, bonuses and 401(k) contributions. This cost Food Groupie a total of 45% of gross company sales, despite a profit that year of only $15,000. The alleged ruse was repeated in 2003 and 2004. As a result, Santella claims, he was paid only one dividend of $1,470 during that time, rather than the $28,808 he believes he was entitled to as a 49% shareholder.
When he confronted his sister about this in 2003, he says she froze him out of the business decisions, changed the locks on the office and was interested only in buying him out. He further claims she usurped Food Groupie’s intellectual property by trademarking characters in her own name, and inappropriately licensed the company’s intellectual property without his consent. Finally, he claims the Koltons held a secret shareholder meeting in 2004 at which they voted to replace him with William’s brother, Anthony Kolton. He sued the Koltons, individually and as a shareholder derivative claim, for breach of the shareholder agreement, breach of fiduciary duty, usurpation of corporate opportunities and violations of the Illinois Business Corporations Act.
In 2005, that lawsuit resulted in the court’s appointment of John Ashendon as custodian of Food Groupie. In 2008, Santella filed an emergency motion to stop what he claimed was his sister’s plan to liquidate the company and move its misappropriated intellectual property to a similar business called Healthypalooza. He also alleged that the couple had continued to pay themselves inappropriately high salaries and commissions, and use the company’s profits for their personal legal defense. He sought to remove the Koltons as officers and enjoin them from using the company’s assets or competing with it, among other things. The court eventually found for Santella on some issues, removing the Koltons and ordering them to return the $144,019 in commissions they had been paid in 2005, 2005 and 2007. It said the court would appoint new officers and directors. It did not say any of these remedies were interlocutory or time limited.
The Koltons filed an interlocutory appeal in 2008, but failed to move to stay the repayment order or actually repay the $144,019. The trial court found them in contempt and ordered them to pay a fine for every day they were late. They eventually paid back the $144,019, but not the roughly $20,000 or so in fines.
On appeal, the Koltons argued that the relief granted to Santella was not supported by sufficient evidence or proof. Specifically, they argued that the Business Corporations Act requires a plaintiff like Santella to prove his claims of improper conduct before the court may order return of the allegedly improper bonuses or their removal as corporate officers. For that reason, they said, the court orders must be reversed. Santella made several arguments against the appeal, most notably that the appeals court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the non-financial claims. The defendants filed their appeal pursuant to Rule 307(a)(1), which applies to appeals concerning injunctions, and Santella argued that the trial court’s orders removing and replacing directors and officers were not injunctions.
The First agreed with this, saying it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over those orders because they were not direct orders to the Koltons “to do a particular thing, or to refrain from doing a particular thing.” In fact, it took the analysis a step further and examined whether it had jurisdiction over the repayment order. That order was an injunction, the First wrote, but it also must be interlocutory to fall under Rule 307(a)(1). If it was a permanent order, it was outside the scope of the rule. The appeals court found that it was a permanent order, because it did not preserve the status quo. In fact, the court noted, the trial judge had specifically said so when she made her contempt ruling. The trial court had also made conclusions about the rights of the parties and had not time-limited the order. For those reasons, the First found that it also lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the repayment order, and dismissed the appeal entirely. The opinion noted that appellants may still seek a finding from the trial court under Rule 304(a).
The Chicago business dispute lawyers at DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle handle all types of disputes among shareholders, members or partners in the same business. That includes disputes among people involved in closely held businesses as well as large corporations, partnerships and limited liability corporations. Our Illinois shareholder litigation attorneys have more than two decades of experience in Illinois business litigation. We understand what behaviors constitute a breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation of assets, breach of business agreement and other common causes of action. Our goal as Chicago commercial trial lawyers is always to resolve our clients’ cases favorably and as quickly as reasonable, so clients can get back to their businesses.
If you’re caught up in a partnership or shareholder dispute or another business dispute and you’re looking for experienced legal counsel, call DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle for a free consultation at 1-877-990-4990 or send us an email today.