Articles Posted in Closely Held Businesses

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When two sisters, minority shareholders and directors of a moving company, were denied access to corporate books, the trial court erred in finding that, as corporate directors, they had absolute access to corporate records. Rather, they had presumptive access and the corporation was required to demonstrate that request for documents was made for the improper purpose.

Barbara Munroe-Diamond, Sally Sharkey, James P. Munroe, and Michael F. Munroe are siblings and the shareholders and directors of the Pickens-Kane Moving and Storage Company. In the winter of 2013, the board of directors hired Ft. Dearborn Partners, Inc. to provide a fair market value for the company’s stock. The next summer, a valuation of $3158 per share for controlling share and $1522 per share for minority shares was issued. Controlling shares of the company were entirely owned by James and Michael Munroe, while Barbara and Sally owned minority shares.

The board of directors unanimously authorized the company to redeem minority shares for $1522 per share. In early 2015, following negotiation, the company paid $1600 per share for minority shares. Every minority shareholder except Barbara and Sally redeemed their stock. Both sit on the board of directors. In July 2016, Barbara and Sally made a demand upon the company to make available for inspection and copying any and all documents pertaining to the corporate minutes, stock certificates, lists of assets and liabilities, and other business records. James and Michael refused to comply with the request, arguing that Barbara and Sally gave no purpose for their request or how their request related to their duties as directors.

After negotiations for the records failed, the sisters filed a mandamus action in Illinois court seeking to compel production of the records. The circuit court entered an interim order requiring the brothers to allow access to the books, finding that the sisters, as directors, had an absolute and unqualified right to examine the books and records of the corporation. The brothers then appealed. Continue reading

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In one of our previous blog posts, we looked into what Facebook was doing with the data of millions of users and profiting from it.  The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg, was subject to scrutiny in his testimony and angered both users and shareholders. Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has also been accused of meddling in the elections by having a Mercer backed political data firm collect information as well.

Zuckerberg later confessed that he made mistakes and that did not know how to handle a large company. This has led to the undermining of public confidence in him, including that of the shareholders.  So now a possibility of removal from a chairman position and being replaced as an independent executive is talk that is being touted.  A dual structure system of shares allows for the usurpation of power.  Too much power in his hands is now deemed unacceptable.  Activists are also calling for his removal.  The Investment company has gone so far as to file a proposal to oust him. The main changes that are most likely include the creation of a role division between a chairman and CEO.  That leads to a greater check on the power that he holds which is more than 60 percent of a voting share. A dual role weakens management of the board and is what currently is in place. This is one of the reasons cited as being a contributing factor in the mishandling of the Facebook controversies.

Separating a chair and a CEO also reduces conflict.  Shareholders are unable to check the founder’s power because he owns 60 percent of the company and occupies the two highest positions. As it stands, Facebook stock is of two types and the ones that Zuckerberg owns have 10 times a greater voting power. “When you open yourself up to more opinions, more independent voices, you’re more likely to make better decisions. It’s more likely that someone with independent governance would have spoken up about some of these things,” Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, who has $35 million invested in Facebook, told Business Insider. Continue reading

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Disputes are a normal part of any relationship: be it business, personal or professional.  When business mixes with family, disputes would seem an unavoidable part of the deal.  For such a reason, litigation would be a route that most would want to avoid due to cost, time and the tensions placed on parties involved.  In general, most suits settle prior to trial and a majority of these via mediation.  Judges also recommend that parties settle prior to trial.

As we have discussed on our previous blog posts, Mediation is a way to appoint a neutral third party, often a retired judge or attorney with a vast amount of experience, who will resolve the dispute between both parties utilizing a problem-solving approach.  These sessions are confidential and a way for parties to explore and resolve issues.

For privacy reasons, and for a quicker resolution method, it would appear that such measures are more viable if a dispute was to occur within a family owned business.  Such cases may involve the ownership or management of a family-owned business are at issue, settlement agreements also can include provisions requiring, for example, transfers of shares, changes to corporate governance processes, or changes to a family member’s employment or other involvement with the company. Even if the parties begin to litigate their disputes, but then proceed to mediation, a judge will typically enforce a settlement agreement reached by the parties through mediation. Continue reading

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A recent case in the Northern District of Illinois, Helfer v. Associated Anesthesiologists of Springfield (2016 WL 183501, addressed what a plaintiff must show to sustain a claim for retaliatory termination under the False Claims Act.

Donald H. was an anesthesiologist and partner at Associated Anesthesiologists of Springfield, Ltd. in Springfield, Ill., which provides anesthesia services for Memorial Medical Center. Donald’s employment agreement gave Associated the right to terminate him with 90 days’ notice.

Donald’s fellow partners had expressed their displeasure with him for taking it upon himself on several occasions to contact third parties, such as Memorial and the Internal Revenue Service, to discuss billing and other matters concerning Associated, without the authorization of the other partners. These communications had resulted in Associated being audited. Some time thereafter, in June 2009, Donald raised concerns with other partners and shareholders about Associated’s billing of Medicare. When his concerns went unresolved, he emailed the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services directly, again without authorization from the partners. Continue reading

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It’s almost always newsworthy when a friend or family member of a wealthy celebrity publishes a “tell all” book or files a lawsuit against the celebrity in question or against other people close to the celebrity. But all this gossip has to be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the person making the accusations never bothered to make them until after they were cut off from the celebrity. Money is a powerful motivator for a lot of people and it’s common for some to lash out after having been cut off.

The 92-year-old Sumner M. Redstone, a media mogul with a $42 billion media empire that includes CBS and Viacom, has been accused by his ex-girlfriend and long-time friend of losing his mental competence. The friend is 51-year-old Manuela Herzer, who first started dating Redstone back in 2000 when he was in the process of getting divorced from his first wife. Redstone asked Herzer to marry him, and although she turned him down, the two remained good friends and Herzer has reportedly been active in Redstone’s entertainment companies.

Herzer received gifts, real estate money, and tens of millions of dollars in cash from Redstone. She even moved into his $20 million mansion at his request, and he gave her the mansion in his will, along with an addition $50 million. Herzer helped make healthcare decisions for Redstone, along with Sydney Holland, whom he was dating at the time. Holland was ejected from the home in 2015 after admitting to having been unfaithful, at which point Herzer said she took over the management of Redstone’s healthcare.

That all ended suddenly last October when Herzer was ejected from both the mansion and Redstone’s will in one fell swoop. Continue reading

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An interesting recent Illinois appellate court decision from the First District addressed who may inherit from a testator’s estate when one of the named beneficiaries dies before the testator, with the outcome turning on the meaning of “survivors” as written in the will.  Albert Lello, who passed away in 2012, drafted a will leaving his entire $8.2 million estate to his wife and two sisters “in equal shares, or to the survivor or survivors of them.” One sister, Virginia H., predeceased him by seven months. Her four children argued that “survivors” referred to them as the survivors, or heirs, of one of Albert’s named beneficiaries, and they should inherit what would have been her one-third share. The Cook County probate court and First District appellate court disagreed, siding with the two surviving beneficiaries, Albert’s widow and sister Rita S., who argued that the will unambiguously created a class gift that could only be inherited by surviving members of that class.

In 2013, Virginia’s children filed a petition for construction of the will, alleging that Albert would have intended them to inherit Virginia’s share because of the close relationship they shared with him and the fact that he had no children of his own, and that ambiguity in the will as to the “survivors” language should be construed in their favor under state laws of intestate succession. After further motions by both sides, the probate court entered an order finding the will unambiguous as a matter of law. Continue reading

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The following lists some of the key factors to consider as you face business dispute or shareholder dispute litigation:

Business Litigation Goals. It is important to consider what you hope to accomplish through business dispute litigation. It is important to consider the ideal end result as you evaluate your options and litigation strategies. Unfortunately, the ideal end results often gets lost in the highly-charged emotions of litigation so it is important to set out your litigation goals at the outset and remind yourself of your optimal resolution through the partnership litigation process. Understanding your goals will also help you evaluate potential settlement offers.

Litigation Strategy. It is important to know where you want to go so that you can then develop a litigation strategy, a legal map of sorts, on how you plan to reach your end goal. A business litigation strategy should be developed in close collaboration with your business litigation lawyer. At Lubin Austermuehle, our knowledgeable Illinois business lawsuit attorneys can help you analyze complex legal issues, such as potential violations of fiduciary duties, alleged breach of contracts, available accounting information, and civil procedure requirements, in order to develop the appropriate business litigation game plan.

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Franchises can be a great opportunity for a business to branch out and expand while limiting their risks, but only if the contract is fair to both parties. Any time anyone signs a contract, they should read it carefully and have a qualified attorney look it over or they could find themselves bound to abide by terms they never meant to agree to.

Contracts exist in order to hold both parties accountable and make sure everyone does what they said they would do. They also provide guidelines for how to break up the business in the event one or more parties want to leave.

When going into business with family, it can be tempting to trust that they’ll do what they say they’ll do, but that’s actually a really bad idea. Business disputes and familial disputes can get very messy and even more so when they’re combined, as in the recent dispute over the cheesesteak restaurant, Tony Luke’s.

Anthony “Tony Luke” Lucidonio Sr. founded the restaurant in 1992 in Philadelphia and has since opened several more locations. In 2007, his son, Anthony “Tony” Lucidonio Jr., recommended his father and brother, Nicholas Lucidonio, become franchisors with Tony Jr. as the franchisee. The agreement allowed Tony Jr. to use the Tony Luke name in exchange for franchise fees and 15% royalties. Continue reading

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Companies doing business in America are influenced by multiple factors. Not only do they need to keep track of the federal and local laws that vary between states and even cities, but court systems in different locations treat businesses differently.

Every year, the Lawsuit Climate Survey is used to rank states on how fair they are to businesses that get sued. This year, the survey was conducted by Harris, a polling firm, on behalf of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform.

In 2010, Illinois was ranked 45th, out of all 50 states and it’s only gotten worse since then. In 2012, the last time the survey was conducted, Illinois ranked 46th. Now the most recent poll has put us in 48th place, ahead of only Louisiana and West Virginia. Continue reading

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Familial relationships can be tough. When you combine them with the added stress of trying to run a family business together, sometimes it can be a recipe for disaster. Marla Cramin, the owner of Sarkis Cafe, a popular diner that has been business in Evanston for many years, has filed a second lawsuit against her brother, who also happens to be the former manager she had hired to run Sarkis Cafe for many years.

Cramin and her husband, Jeff Cramin, bought the diner in 2000 from its original owner, Sarkis Tashjian. When Jeff died in an accident in 2002, Marla hired her brother, Scott Jaffe, to manage the diner for her. Cramin fired her brother in 2012 and he went on to start his own restaurant in Highland Park, which just opened in April. It was originally called the Order Up Diner, but after he settled a lawsuit with his sister, he changed the name to the Uptown Diner. Continue reading