Articles Posted in Shareholder Disputes

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Walking the tightrope of business ethics and practice becomes more and more under scrutiny in a climate where minorities are divided.  Business owners want to maximize potential, please customers and, let’s face it, the money does matter! Have a business and then be implicated with being racist will come into play in affect image negatively.  That’s where allegations of a racist slur have hit the founder of Papa Johns. He came under fire for criticizing the National Football League’s leadership when it came to the anthem “take-a-knee” protests by players. Comments made have come to haunt him in such a way to put him in trouble and, eventually, have led to suit.  In the suit filed, company documents are to be inspected due to the company’s treatment of him since the publication of a rumor.  He says they are false.

The incident surrounds a conference call made and use of the N-word when it came to Colonel Sanders and KFC.  Papa Johns was a sponsor of the National Football League and the context of the conversation came about when national anthem protests were being discussed. In asking him to resign from the company, he feels ousted without proper investigation into the matter. This has, in turn, lead to a “breach of fiduciary duties” in cutting him off from the company.  All marketing materials and commercials, including logos have been edited to remove his name or image as well.  It is likely that all materials that he is entitled to will be brought into the lawsuit.  He feels he will be exonerated. 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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Despite stepping down as CEO of Uber, the ride-sharing start-up he founded, Trevor Kalanick’s troubles are far from over. On top of allegations that the company mistreats its drivers, discriminates against and sexually harasses women at work, and stole trade secrets from another ride-sharing service, Kalanick is now being sued by Benchmark, one of Uber’s investors.

In 2016, Kalanick proposed an amendment to Uber’s charter, giving him the right to nominate three new directors to the start-up’s eight-member board. At the time, Kalanick got Benchmark to approve the amendment, but Benchmark is now saying Kalanick deliberately misrepresented key information regarding the company and the amendment, and is now asking for the amendment to be voided.

Six years ago, Benchmark invested in what was then a tiny ride-sharing start-up, called Uber. It bought a 20% stake in the company, which has since grown to be worth billions of dollars. Kalanick and Gurley (and, by extension, Uber and Benchmark) remained close for years until Kalanick and Uber started getting hit by one scandal after another. At that point, Gurley began to put some distance between himself and Kalanick, finally joining other investors to push Kalanick out as CEO of the company.

Although he was forced to give up his seat on the board when he stepped down as CEO, Kalanick immediately reappointed himself to one of the board seats he controls as a result of the amendment he had added last year, and he still holds a 10% stake in the company. It’s not as much as Benchmark’s 13% stake, but it’s enough to make life at Uber difficult for anyone who opposes Kalanick – something he has allegedly set out to do. Continue reading

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Shareholders are not philanthropists. They are investors who expect to see a return on the money they put into a company. Because companies have a vested interest in attracting shareholders, laws have been put in place to make sure they act fairly and honestly when communicating with their shareholders about the state of the company. This generally means requiring companies to reveal the state of their finances, market value, any legal issues they may be having that could affect their profits, etc.

Before handing over large sums of money to the control of another, it makes sense that shareholders would want to make sure their money is in safe hands. If it turns out the shareholders were deceived or lied to, filing a lawsuit against the company for fraud and/or breach of fiduciary duties is common. Unfortunately, thanks to a new ruling by the Delaware Supreme Court, shareholders have a new reason to hesitate before taking their grievances to the courts. Continue reading

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Super Lawyers named Chicago and Oak Brook business trial attorneys Patrick Austermuehle  and Andrew Murphy Super Lawyers/Rising Stars in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation and Consumer Rights Litigation. DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business litigation lawyers have over a quarter of century of experience in litigating complex class action, consumer rights and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business law suits involving injunctions, and TROS, covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud.

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An Illinois federal court granted a motion to dismiss in a putative shareholder derivative class action, having already denied the plaintiff’s application for a temporary restraining order (TRO). Noble v. AAR Corp., et al, No. 12 C 7973, memorandum and order (E.D. Ill., Apr. 3, 2013). The plaintiff asserted causes of action for various alleged breaches of fiduciary duty on behalf of the corporation, but the court found that the lawsuit was a direct action, primarily for the plaintiff’s benefit as a shareholder, rather than a derivative one.

The dispute related to a recommendation by the Board of Directors to the shareholders of AAR Corporation, a publicly-traded company, regarding an executive compensation plan. The Board made a unanimous proposal regarding the corporation’s “say on pay” plan, which allowed the shareholders to vote on executive pay as required by Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act), 15 U.S.C. § 78n-1. In a seventy-page proxy statement, the Board asked the shareholders to approve an advisory resolution regarding executive compensation at the corporation’s annual shareholder meeting, which was scheduled for October 10, 2012.

The plaintiff filed suit against the corporation and individual Board members, alleging that the Proxy Statement failed to disclose various details about what the Board considered before making its proposal. Noble, memorandum at 5. He claimed that the individual defendants breached their fiduciary duties of good faith, care, and loyalty to the shareholders, and that the corporation aided and abetted these breaches. Id. at 5-6. The defendants removed the case to federal court on October 4, 2012. The following day, the plaintiff filed a motion for a TRO, asking the court to stop the shareholder vote. The court held a hearing on October 9 and denied the motion. On October 10, the shareholders approved the Board’s proposal, with seventy-seven percent of the shares voting in favor. Id. at 1-2.

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Two shareholders and former officers of a closely-held New Jersey company, DAG Entertainment, Inc., sued two fellow shareholders, the company, and a new company formed by the defendant shareholders in U.S. District Court. The suit, Egersheim, et al v. Gaud, et al, alleged eighteen causes of action related to alleged usurpation of corporate opportunities. The defendants moved for summary judgment as to fifteen of the eighteen causes of action, and the district court ruled that those causes of action amounted to a single cause of action under the Corporate Opportunity Doctrine. The court granted summary judgment on the fifteen causes of action, allowing three causes to proceed.

Plaintiff Kathleen Egersheim owned a three percent shareholder interest in DAG and was its former Vice President and Assistant Secretary. Plaintiff Christopher Woods owned 22.5% interest and was the former Creative Director. Defendants Luis Anthonio Gaud and Philip DiBartolo owned or controlled most of the remaining stock of the company. According to the plaintiffs, DAG began exploring an opportunity to partner with the media conglomerate Comcast in 2001. The plaintiffs claim they developed characters and show ideas for children’s television programming through 2004.

In 2005, the defendant shareholders allegedly began excluding the plaintiffs from meetings and decisions regarding DAG’s activities, and also allegedly created a new business entity called Remix, LLC without plaintiffs’ knowledge. Remix entered into a formal joint venture with Comcast. The defendants proposed ceasing DAG’s major business operations, according to the plaintiffs, and the defendants voted them out of their officer positions when they objected to this plan in September 2007. DAG essentially stopped operating at that point.

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While the internet boom led to a lot of money in a very short amount of time for many people and businesses, it is important to remember that developing a business and making business deals are two very different things. The makers of Dragon Systems, a company that sold speech recognition software, learned this the hard way after they sold the company to Lernout & Hauspie in exchange for $580 million in Lernout stock. The deal was made in 2000 and, in 2001, Lernout’s accounting was exposed as a huge fraud. The company collapsed into bankruptcy, taking with it Dragon’s shareholders, including James and Janet Baker, the founders of Dragon and owners of 51% of its stock.

Since then, the Bakers have spent the better part of the past 12 years in litigation against several parties, taking about $70 million in court. In 2009, they turned their legal sights on Goldman Sachs, who had helped negotiate the deal. According to the Bakers, the advice they were given came from a team of four investors who they referred to as the “Goldman 4”. Their testimony presented this team as a group of inexperienced young bankers who had failed to properly perform their jobs. Their inadequacies allegedly cost the Baker’s a fortune while making a pretty $5 million for Goldman Sachs.

The Goldman Sachs side however, tells a very different story. Their financial engagement letter, which was heavily negotiated by high-powered lawyers on both sides, required that it provide nothing more than “financial advice and assistance in connection with the transaction”. As an investment bank, its job did not include that kind of research and due diligence. According to Goldman Sachs, that part of the deal was up to Dragon and its accountants. The firm was responsible only for coordinating the sale, negotiating the price and evaluating growth prospects for Lernout.

In its briefs, Goldman refuted the depiction of the “Goldman 4”. During the trial, the firm provided testimony saying that the Bakers were in a rush to sell Dragon, in part because it was in financial trouble. (Dragon was later sold out of the Lernout bankruptcy for $33 million). Goldman Sachs also pointed out that there were warning signs about Lernout, including news reports about Lernout’s questionable accounting practices. Goldman even provided a memo to Dragon warning that, for these reasons, it should conduct extensive research on Lernout before making the deal.

One of the “Goldman 4”, Richard Wayner, testified voluntarily in order to clear his name. He testified that, after Goldman Sach’s memo warning Dragon about the possible risks involved in selling to Lernout, he had “a very heated conversation” with Ellen Chamberlain, Dragon’s CFO. In this conversation, Chamberlain allegedly said that “Dragon did not want to do this additional level of detail.”

Other problems included Dragon choosing to take an all-stock deal instead of the standard half-stock and half-cash. This was arranged during a meeting which did not include Goldman Sachs (the bank says it was never invited, whereas the Bakers called the bank a no-show). Once the stock was received, the Bakers allegedly did not take steps to hedge the Lernout stock they received, even after they were advised to do so.

After 16 days of trial, the jury sided with Goldman Sachs on all counts and also found that the Bakers had breached their fiduciary duties to the board in failing to inform it of Lernout’s issues.

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Super Lawyers named Chicago and Oak Brook business trial attorneys Peter Lubin and Vincent DiTommaso Super Lawyers in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation and Consumer Rights Litigation. DiTommaso Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business trial lawyers have over a quarter of century of experience in litigating complex class action, consumer rights and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business law suits involving injunctions, and TROS, covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud.

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The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed a dispute among shareholders of a closely-held corporation in Warren v. Campbell Farming Corporation. It affirmed a district court ruling that the majority shareholder did not breach fiduciary or statutory duties to the corporation by approving a bonus proposal over the minority shareholders’ objections. The court considered arguments relating to conflicts of interest and fairness, the business judgment rule, and the majority shareholder’s fiduciary duty.

Campbell Farming Corporation is a closely-held Montana corporation whose principal place of business is in New Mexico. The plaintiffs, H. Robert Warren and Joan Crocker, were minority shareholders with 49% of the shares, while defendant Stephanie Gately controlled 51%. Warren and Gately served as directors with Gately’s son, Robert Gately, who also served as the president. Stephanie Gately proposed a bonus to her son totalling $1.2 million in cash and company stock, in part to prevent him from leaving the company. Stephanie Gately voted all of her shares in favor of the proposal, so it passed despite Warren and Crocker’s votes in opposition.

Warren and Crocker filed suit in New Mexico federal court, asserting breach of fiduciary duties and various common law claims. The district court ruled in favor of the defendants after a bench trial. It found that, while the bonus met Montana’s definition of a “conflict of interest,” it was permissible under a safe-harbor statute that allowed conflict-of-interest transactions if they were “fair to the corporation.” Mont. Code. Ann. §§ 35-1-461(2), 35-1-462(2)(c). The court also found that the bonus was permitted by the business judgment rule and that the defendants did not breach any fiduciary duties. The plaintiffs appealed to the Tenth Circuit.

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