Articles Posted in Closely Held Businesses

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 ›

There are countless stories of a rock band’s members fighting over music and money, but this time it’s the widow of a band’s recently deceased member who’s fighting with the remaining members of the band over the band’s value.

When the singer Chris Cornell died, his widow, Vicky Cornell, inherited his share of the interest in the band, Soundgarden. The other members have offered to buy Cornell’s share for $278,000, but she alleges that amount represents just a fraction of what her share in the band is worth.

Cornell is suing the remaining members of Soundgarden for allegedly devaluing her share in the band, and has asked a judge to decide on an appropriate buyout price based on the value of Soundgarden’s master recordings. Additionally, Cornell is also asking the court to factor in the potential for future sales, including merchandise, tours, and even new music that could be created with artificial intelligence using extant recordings of Chris Cornell’s vocals.

A representative for Soundgarden said the remaining members of the band have acted in good faith in trying to buy out Cornell’s share of interest in the band. The amount they offered was allegedly based on the value of the band as estimated by Gary Cohen, a valuation expert who they claim is highly regarded and respected in the music industry. In trying to settle their disputes with Cornell, the surviving members of the band have allegedly offered to pay Cohen’s estimated value several times over. They say it’s about their music and their legacy, not about the money. But Cornell tells a different story. Continue reading ›

We talked about the lawsuit between Promega Corp., a biotech company based in Madison, Wisconsin, and its shareholders a couple months ago in this blog post. At the time, Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn said she was convinced minority shareholders had been oppressed by the company and its founder and CEO, Bill Linton, but she was unsure of the best way to remedy the situation and make sure the oppressed shareholders received a fair return on their investment. If she accepts the settlement agreement reached by both parties, she might not have to spend any more time deliberating.

Over the summer, both parties had said they were willing to have a third party buy the shares from the minority investors. All that was needed was to define the terms of the settlement, which they did. Afterwards, they submitted an order to dismiss the case.

The third party is Eppendorf AG, a German company that makes life science instruments. Having a third party buy the shares off the minority investors is a solution that works for everyone because the minority shareholders get a return on their investment without the company having to liquidate any assets to come up with the money to buy the shares back. The judge had mentioned the option of dissolving the company in order to come up with the funds to pay back the minority shareholders, but that would have been a drastic option.

The amount of the settlement has not been made public, but Karen Burkhartzmeyer, a spokesperson for Promega, has said the settlement is fair to all parties and affirms Promega’s commitment to remaining a private company. Continue reading ›

When a corporation hires an independent auditor to inspect its financials does that auditor owe fiduciary duties to its client? If no fiduciary duties exist as a matter of law, do they arise by virtue of a “special relationship” between the parties? In a matter of first impression, an Illinois appellate court wrestled with these questions and answered both in the negative.

Asian Human Services, Inc. (“AHS”) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping lower income immigrants obtain health, dental, and employment assistance. After AHS was sued by another non-profit organization, AHS brought a third-party claim for breach of fiduciary duty against its long-time independent auditor, James Wong.

AHS alleged that Wong owed fiduciary duties to the non-profit by virtue of the special circumstances of the parties’ relationship. The complaint alleged that Wong had served as the independent auditor of AHS for more than a decade during which time he became an important advisor to the organization. Additionally, the complaint alleged that AHS relied heavily on Wong and that he even served an integral role in AHS’s hiring process for four separate Chief Financial Officers.

Wong filed a section 2-619 motion to dismiss AHS’s claim arguing that: (1) independent auditors do not stand in a fiduciary relationship with their clients, and (2) there were no special circumstances that created a fiduciary relationship. After briefing and oral argument on the motion, the trial court granted appellee’s motion to dismiss, with prejudice, and included Supreme Court Rule 304(a) language.

AHS appealed and argued that the trial court erred in relying on a federal case, Resolution Trust Corp. v. KPMG Peat Marwick, 844 F. Supp. 431 (N.D. Ill. 1994), which held, as a matter of law, that generally, an independent auditor does not owe a fiduciary duty to its client. Instead, the non-profit argued that the trial court should have relied on case law from various other state courts which have found that independent auditors owe fiduciary duties to their clients.

The appellate court acknowledged that no Illinois case law addressed the issue of whether independent auditors owe fiduciary duties to their clients. But ultimately the appellate court found that AHS waived the argument. In the trial court, AHS expressly stated that it was “not arguing that Mr. Wong became a fiduciary to AHS because he acted as an auditor.” AHS’s attorney in the trial court told the trial judge at oral arguments on the motion to dismiss: “One thing I want to make clear is that we’re not arguing that Mr. Wong became a fiduciary to AHS because he acted as an auditor. Now, clearly that would be the antecedent relationship and it makes his actions that much more strange, but that’s not the basis.” Continue reading ›

As we have written about previously, one of the concerns with purchasing a minority stake in a closely held corporation is the potential for shareholder oppression. This concern is even more relevant when a non-family-member considers buying into a family-owned business. One minority shareholder found this out the hard way when he suffered a backlash after raising concerns about the conduct of the founder and majority shareholder of a closely held Illinois corporation.

In 1962, Kenneth Packer founded Packer Engineering Inc. (“PEI”) and its parent company, The Packer Group, Inc. (“TPG”), in Du Page County. Packer soon grew PEI into a well-respected professional engineering firm. Both PEI and TPG shared a number of the same officers and directors, including Packer who served as the board chairman for both companies.

In 1979, Edward Caulfield was hired by PEI as its director of mechanical engineering. In 2002, Caulfield became president and chief technical officer of PEI. Caulfield was offered a minority equity interest in TPG in addition to his base salary of $500,000. Continue reading ›

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 ›

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 ›

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 ›

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 ›

Contact Information