Articles Posted in Breach of Fiduciary Duty

When Stephen Easterbrook was first fired from his position as CEO of McDonald’s, the firing was listed as “without cause,” which allowed Easterbrook to keep his severance pay, including shares in the company. But that was before McDonald’s found out about the extent of Easterbrook’s alleged misconduct.

At the time he was fired, Easterbrook allegedly denied having any inappropriate relationships with any of his employees, except for one relationship, which he claimed had not been physical. Afterwards, an internal investigation found emails that allegedly revealed Easterbrook’s sexual relationships with multiple McDonald’s employees during his time as CEO. Once these emails were uncovered, the company sued Easterbrook in 2020.

The lawsuit resulted in Easterbrook returning his shares in the company, as well as cash, the combined value of which was about $105 million at the time he returned it. Continue reading ›

In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit federal court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of an action for breach of fiduciary duty brought against two investment firms by a disgruntled customer. In ruling that the District Court properly dismissed the claims, the Court found that the fiduciary duties the investment firms owed to the plaintiff did not include a duty to stop the plaintiff’s daughter who acted under a power of attorney from making certain withdrawals from the plaintiff’s accounts.

The plaintiff, Joseph Allen, amassed a net worth of nearly $8 million dollars. He enlisted the services of the defendants, Brown Advisory, LLC and Brown Investment Advisory & Trust Company, to help him invest and manage his wealth. When Allen and his wife experienced declining health and he could no longer manage their finances, Allen granted a financial power of attorney to his daughter Elizabeth Key. For several years Key used the power of attorney to make withdrawals from Allen’s investment accounts. Those withdrawals had depleted the value of Allen’s IRA accounts from approximately $2.3 million to less than $600,000.

Five years later, Allen revoked the power of attorney and sued the two investment companies in Indiana state court accusing the defendants of breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract. He alleged that Key’s withdrawals (or some of them) were not to his benefit and that the investment companies should not have honored them. The defendants moved to dismiss Allen’s complaint.

The District Court judge granted the defendants’ motion, reasoning that the investment firms could not be liable for breach of contract because the challenged withdrawals were directed by Key and authorized by her power of attorney. The trial court also dismissed Allen’s breach of fiduciary duty claim after holding that Maryland law does not recognize a separate cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty arising from a contractual relationship. Allen appealed the dismissal. Continue reading ›

The death of a loved one or a business partner can be difficult. The administration of a large estate can add to that difficulty. Often the duty of settling the estate and distributing the assets falls to a fiduciary such as an attorney, a trustee, a personal representative, an administrator or an executor. That fiduciary holds a position of trust and is responsible for holding and managing property that belongs to the beneficiaries.

With this position of trust comes certain legal obligations that are owed to the estate’s beneficiaries such as the duties of care and loyalty.

In the context of being an executor or administrator, a fiduciary duty is a legal obligation to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the estate. Illinois law imposes various responsibilities and duties on these individuals, including:

  • Acting in the grantor’s and beneficiary’s best interests
  • Acting loyally and uphold a duty of care
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest
  • Abstaining from engaging in self-dealing (i.e. taking actions that personally benefit the trustee or executor at the expense of or contrary to the best interest of the beneficiaries)
  • Avoiding favoring one beneficiary over another
  • Investing the estate’s assets to maintain or increase their value
  • Distributing estate assets to the intended beneficiaries correctly and in a timely manner

Continue reading ›

Abuse of trust is considered a breach of the fiduciary duties owed by the trustee of a will or estate. When an individual decides how to distribute his or her estate among one or more beneficiaries, he or she will typically name a trustee who will be responsible for carrying out those wishes. A trustee may be a person or an organization and, in fact, can be anyone specified by the deceased, from a family member or friend to a lawyer to a financial investment company.

Depending on the size of the estate and the complexity of the deceased’s instructions, acting as a trustee can involve coordinating with multiple beneficiaries and being entrusted with distributing millions of dollars. Whenever there is a lot of money and someone in a position of trust, there is a potential for abuse. When a person in a position of trust, like a trustee, abuses that trust, it can be devastating for all involved.

If the trustee does not perform its duties in a careful and loyal manner as instructed, the trustee has engaged in an abuse of trust and breached its fiduciary duties. Because a trustee is expected to make judgment calls at times regarding the best disposition of the estate, it can be difficult to determine if an abuse of trust has taken place. This is where it can be useful to consult with an experienced breach of fiduciary duty attorney as not all breaches are cut and dried. Continue reading ›

A Delaware Chancery Court judge recently rendered a post-trial verdict in the In re Tesla Motors Stockholder Litigation in which he found in favor of co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, on claims that Musk breached his fiduciary duties, was unjustly enriched, and created corporate waste in connection with Tesla’s 2016 acquisition of the SolarCity Corporation.

This high-profile, high-stakes lawsuit stemmed from alleged conflicts of interest created by Musk’s leadership and ownership of both companies during the 2016 acquisition. At the time of the merger, Musk was SolarCity’s largest stockholder and chaired its board of directors. At the same time, he owned 22% of Tesla stock and served as CEO and a director of Tesla. When the potential acquisition of SolarCity came up, Tesla’s board elected not to form a special committee of independent directors to negotiate the transaction. It did, however, condition approval of the acquisition on the “affirmative vote of a majority of the minority of Tesla’s disinterested stockholders” and recused Musk from certain Board discussions regarding the acquisition.

Despite these protections, the plaintiff shareholders alleged that Musk, as Tesla’s controlling shareholder, exerted his influence over Tesla’s board to approve the acquisition at an unfair price, following a highly flawed process, in order to bail out his (and other family members’) foundering investment in SolarCity. Plaintiffs named both Musk and members of Tesla’s board as defendants and sought damages as well as equitable remedies. Before trial, all defendants except Musk settled with plaintiffs, leaving only the claims against Musk proceeding to an 11-day trial over July and August 2021. Continue reading ›

The Texas Supreme Court dealt a fatal blow to Brazilian state-run petroleum company Petrobras’s breach of fiduciary duty claims against former joint venture partner Belgian Transcor Astra Group S.A. The Texas high court ruled that an $820 million settlement agreement between the two oil and gas companies precluded Petrobras from asserting breach of fiduciary duty claims accusing Astra of bribing certain high-ranking Petrobras employees.

In 2006, Petrobras and Astra formed an ill-fated joint venture of Pasadena Refining System Inc. The joint venture between the two multi-national oil companies soon began to unravel. After the parties found themselves embroiled in several disputes, they initiated an arbitration to break up the partnership which resulted in a 2009 arbitration award requiring Astra to sell its 50% interest to Petrobras for $640 million.

Astra alleged that pursuant to the arbitration award it turned over its interest in the Texas refining company, but Petrobras never paid the $640 million purchase price for that interest. A series of lawsuits ensued leading to Astra obtaining judgments against Petrobras totaling more than $750 million with more than $400 million more in pending claims when the parties agreed to a global settlement. Under the 2012 settlement agreement Petrobras agreed to pay Astra $820 million in exchange for a release by each party of all claims against the other party.

By 2016, the peace between the companies ended when Petrobras initiated two separate legal proceedings against Astra. First, Petrobras filed a lawsuit against Astra and several of its employees, asserting that they breached fiduciary duties owed to Petrobras by offering bribes to certain Petrobras officials and failing to disclose the offers during the parties’ settlement negotiations. Petrobras also asserted derivative claims for declaratory judgment, conspiracy, aiding and abetting, unjust enrichment, and exemplary damages and attorney’s fees, and sought to invalidate the 2012 settlement agreement and render it unenforceable. Simultaneously, Petrobras initiated arbitration proceedings to invalidate the 2006 stock-purchase agreement due to the bribes Astra allegedly paid to Petrobras officials in connection with that agreement. Continue reading ›

An Illinois appeals court recently held that the plaintiffs in a commercial litigation lawsuit could not sustain claims for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, and tortious interference with contract because the claims were untimely. The Court also affirmed dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims for respondeat superior liability, prejudgment interest and attorney’s fees on the basis that the substantive underlying claims were untimely or had been released by the plaintiffs.

The appeal stemmed from a November 2016 lawsuit filed by Edward Shrock, a minority owner of the company Baby Supermall, LLC, against the company’s bank and the bank’s vice president for allegedly aiding the company’s majority owner, Robert Meier, in using the company as his “personal piggy bank” and misappropriating millions of dollars from the company during a decade-long scheme. According to Schrock’s complaint the company was eventually driven to insolvency as a result of Meier’s scheme.

The 2016 lawsuit followed on the heels of another lawsuit Schrock filed against Meier in 2009, which alleged nearly the same underlying facts as alleged in the 2016 lawsuit against the bank. In the 2009 suit, Schrock won an injunction enjoining Meier and his family from taking payments from the company under certain “profit-sharing” plans Meier had drafted and entered with the company. Following entry of the injunction in the 2009 case, Schrock won an approximately $11 million jury verdict against Meier, which Schrock later released in 2018 even though the judgment had only been partially satisfied. Continue reading ›

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled recently that an energy company could not sustain a claim for stolen corporate opportunities against two of its former business developers. In doing so the Court overturned a ruling by the appellate court which had revived the stolen corporate opportunity claim. The ruling, which many consider to be a bombshell in stolen corporate opportunity jurisprudence, was not without its detractors with three justices dissenting from the majority’s decision.

The plaintiff, Indeck Energy Services, is a privately held Buffalo Grove company that develops, owns, and operates independent power plants. Indeck’s lawsuit targets two former Indeck employees, Christopher M. DePodesta and Karl G. Dahlstrom, whom the energy company alleged secretly operated their own company while employed by Indeck and in doing so secured certain opportunities for themselves in breach of their fiduciary duties to Indeck.

Indeck hired DePodesta in 2010 as its vice president of business development and Dahlstrom in 2011 as its director of business development. The two were brought in to help Indeck scout out and secure new opportunities to develop natural gas powered plants within a region of Texas known as the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas.

Dalhstrom founded Halyard Energy Ventures, LLC (HEV) in late 2010. DePodesta became a member of HEV in 2011. HEV is a consulting, management, and administration firm that develops electrical power generation projects. Following DePodesta and Dalhstrom’s departure from Indeck, the two allegedly negotiated a deal for HEV to partner with a private equity fund to develop, construct, and operate electrical power generation plants. Continue reading ›

An Illinois Appellate Court recently revived a breach of fiduciary duty and shareholder oppression lawsuit filed by minority shareholders against the president, director, and majority shareholder of a lumber company. The suit accused the majority shareholder of diverting nearly a million dollars from the lumber company to a separate company owned by the majority shareholder’s son. The trial court dismissed several of the minority shareholders’ claims and ruled in favor of the majority shareholder following a trial on the breach of fiduciary duty claims. In a blow to the majority shareholder, the Second District appeals court reversed the trial court finding that the majority shareholder did breach his fiduciary duties to the company and engaged in shareholder oppression.

The case provides practitioners and shareholders a useful primer on pleading and evidence requirements for successfully asserting breach of fiduciary duty and shareholder oppression claims against a corporate officer. It also sheds light on the contours and limits of a key legal doctrine implicated in such claims: the business judgment rule doctrine.

The case, Roberts v. Zimmerman, involved four separate but related lumber companies:  Our Wood Loft, Inc. (OWL), Outstanding, 3 Corp. Lumber Company, and Lake City Hardwood. The plaintiffs in the case were minority shareholders who collectively owned one-third of OWL, with the defendant, Stefan Zimmerman, owning the other two-thirds of the company. Zimmerman’s son, Thomas, owned Lake City.

The plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that Zimmerman initially sought to have his son buy shares in OWL but the minority shareholders refused. Instead, the plaintiffs agreed to allow Thomas to work as a manager at OWL. While working at OWL, Thomas started Lake City. Shortly thereafter, Lake City began purchasing lumber and re-selling it to OWL at a profit. The complaint alleged that Zimmerman did not reveal the relationship between OWL and Lake City and that Thomas owned Lake City until several years after OWL started buying lumber from Lake City. Continue reading ›

WeWork’s meteoric rise in popularity and its unceremonious descent back to earth have kept WeWork in the news over the past few years. WeWork’s decision to sue two of its largest shareholders last year seemed no less newsworthy. In a recent development in this ongoing litigation, a Delaware Court of Chancery decision granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss WeWork’s breach of fiduciary duty claims, finding the allegations insufficient to establish a controlling shareholder relationship and the claims to be duplicative of the breach of contract claim.

WeWork was founded in 2010 as a commercial real estate company offering co-working office space with modern designs and state-of-the-art technology. WeWork enjoyed an astronomical initial valuation and was well-funded by some of the biggest names in venture capital. In 2019, WeWork began filings for an IPO. However, after a barrage of negative press involving revelations of WeWork’s shaky financials and its CEO’s erratic behavior, WeWork’s value tanked and its IPO was ultimately scrapped.

Following WeWork’s failed IPO, WeWork’s board formed a two-person special committee which negotiated a rescue funding package with Softbank, one of WeWork’s biggest and most significant investors, and the Vision Fund, a $100 billion venture capital fund that Softbank runs. According to the Complaint, under its agreements with WeWork, Softbank agreed to buy up to $3 billion worth of shares in WeWork and offer billions more in lending, which would have provided needed capital to WeWork while giving Softbank majority control of the company.

After the outbreak of COVID-19 and the rise of work from home, Softbank allegedly rethought its decision to invest in a company whose product is office space. Upon learning that Softbank was considering backing out of its agreements, WeWork filed suit against Softbank accusing it of breaching those agreements as well as breaching its fiduciary duties to WeWork shareholders. In its Complaint, WeWork alleges that Softbank is the company’s controlling shareholder and as such owed certain fiduciary duties to WeWork’s other shareholders. Softbank allegedly breached these fiduciary duties, when it “repeatedly used its influence over the Company [WeWork] to limit the Company’s options and force it into favorable outcomes for SoftBank, to the detriment of the Company’s minority stockholders.” Continue reading ›

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