Articles Posted in Shareholder Disputes

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 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 attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation and Consumer Rights Litigation. Lubin Austermuehle’s Oak Brook and Chicago business trial lawyers have over thirty years experience litigating complex class action, consumer rights and business and commercial litigation disputes. We handle emergency business lawsuits 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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As a Chicago law firm that focuses on business litigation, Lubin Austermuehle pays close attention to shareholder lawsuits filed in Illinois’ courts. Our Elmhurst business attorneys discovered a case filed in the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division that answers questions regarding the appropriate statute of limitations to apply in a shareholder action for common law damages.

Carpenter v. Exelon Enterprises Co. is a case filed by multiple minority shareholders against the majority shareholder, Exelon, for breach of fiduciary duty and civil conspiracy. Defendant Exelon owned 97% of InfraSource, and Plaintiffs owned a portion of the remaining 3% of the company. Defendant then allegedly decided to divest its interest in the company through a series of complex merger transactions. The alleged end result of these transactions was to grant all shareholders in InfraSource would receive a pro rata share of the net proceeds. Using its majority stake in InfraSource, Defendant allegedly voted its shares in favor of the merger transactions, which was subsequently executed according to Defendant’s plan. After the merger, Plaintiffs filed suit against Exelon alleging breach of fiduciary duty and civil conspiracy that caused the minority shareholders to be inadequately compensated for their shares in InfraSource. Defendant then moved to dismiss the action because Plaintiffs’ claims were barred under the three year statute of limitations in the Illinois Securities Law of 1953. The trial court denied Defendant’s motion, stated that the applicable statute of limitations was the five year period contained in section 13-205 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. The trial court then stayed the matter and certified the statute of limitations issue for an interlocutory appeal to the Appellate Court.

On appeal, the Court examined Defendant’s argument that, despite the fact that Plaintiffs did not allege specific statutory violations, Plaintiffs’ claims fell within the scope of the Illinois Securities Law and its three year statute of limitations. Plaintiffs argued that, because of the similarities between Illinois and federal securities law, federal case law should be utilized by the Court. Plaintiffs’ cited federal cases holding that securities fraud does not include the oppression of minority shareholders nor does it include oppressive corporate reorganizations, and thus the case did not fall within the purview of the Illinois statute. The Court performed a statutory analysis and determined that subsection 13(A) of the Law did not apply to Plaintiffs because their claims did not arise out of Plaintiffs’ role as purchasers of securities. The Court went on to explain that Defendant’s argument based upon subsection 13(G), which provides a remedy to any party in interest in the unlawful sale of securities, was unpersuasive. Instead, the Court held that subsection 13 of the Illinois Securities Law of 1953 does not “concern retroactive common law damages claims for breach of fiduciary duty brought by sellers of securities in general, or minority shareholders in particular.” By so holding, the Court declared that the three year statute of limitations did not apply and remanded the case back to the trial court.

Carpenter v. Exelon Enterprises Co. provides potential shareholder litigants with a ruling that gives them an additional two years to bring their claims. Conversely, those facing liability in a common law action surrounding a securities transaction should be aware that such claims are viable for a longer period of time than they may have previously thought.

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Members of the board of directors of a corporation have the responsibility to orchestrate the business in such a way that is advantageous to the shareholders and the continued growth and prosperity of the company. However, there are times when those directors may act in a way that serves their own interests, and the only way to protect the business is for shareholders to file a derivative suit on behalf of the company. Lubin Austermuehle is always researching new developments in this field of law, and our Chicago shareholder derivative action attorneys recently came across one such case filed here in the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern District federal court.

Reiniche v. Martin is a double derivative suit brought by individual plaintiffs who are shareholders of a corporation, Health Alliance Holdings (HAH), that itself is a primary shareholder of HA Holdings (Holdings), another corporation. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants sought to freeze them and other HAH shareholders out through a series of illegal and wasteful acts that resulted in an insider transaction to sell Holdings for $10 and debt relief to another company in which Defendants had an interest. That transaction was approved by Holdings’ board of directors in spite of the fact that there was no quorum present to do so, and HAH was denied its right to sit on the board. In doing so, Plaintiffs alleged that the Defendant directors and other shareholders of Holdings breached their fiduciary duties to the company. Defendants then moved to dismiss the suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), claiming that Plaintiffs lacked standing, their claim was untimely, and the claims are insufficient under the law and barred by the business judgment rule.

The Court held that Plaintiffs did not have double derivative standing because such standing is only granted in the context of a parent/subsidiary relationship, and HAH was only a shareholder in Holdings – it was not a parent or holding company of Holdings. The Court went on to say that because the individual Defendant shareholders were each minority owners, none of them had a controlling interest in Holdings, and therefore did not owe a fiduciary duty to the Plaintiffs. As such, the Court found no policy reason for invoking a double derivative action and granted Defendants’ motions to dismiss.

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NPR reports:

Courts in West Virginia and Delaware will consider preliminary injunctions Tuesday against Wednesday’s expected merger of coal mine giants Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources.

Massey owns the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 mine workers died in a massive explosion last year. The disaster figures heavily into the attempts to block the merger by large institutional investors.

“The mine explosion last year was not some bolt of lightning hitting a corporate factory where there’s really nobody to blame,” says Mark Lebovitch, an attorney representing the New Jersey Building Laborers Pension Fund and other institutional Massey shareholders with a lawsuit pending in Delaware.

“What you had with Massey was a board and a senior management team that over the course of years put profits above safety,” Lebovitch contends. “[They] really showed contempt for anyone on the outside warning them, saying ‘You are running this business in a way that is dangerous and you are going to harm people, kill people and, frankly, destroy corporate value.'”
Massey’s stock price plummeted after the April 2010 explosion, generating strong interest in a takeover from several rivals. The company owns deposits of metallurgical coal used for making steel. Met coal, as it’s called, is in great demand and is fetching high prices.

Some shareholders had so-called “derivative” lawsuits pending against Massey long before the Upper Big Branch explosion. They cited lax safety oversight and won a court-ordered settlement requiring specific “corporate governance enhancements” designed to improve safety and restore the company’s value.

But the Upper Big Branch explosion prompted those shareholders to seek a contempt of court citation against the company. Their case is in West Virginia courts.

In both cases, the shareholders say the Massey board and company executives agreed to a takeover by Alpha Natural Resources to shield them from liability in the lawsuits. Massey and its board would cease to exist after a merger and the lawsuits would presumably become moot.

Alpha could continue the lawsuits but it benefited from the diminished value created by Massey’s poor safety record and the Upper Big Branch explosion. Alpha has also announced that it will fold into its new management team several Massey executives, including Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins.

Adkins will assist in the integration of Alpha’s safety program, called Running Right, across the merged companies.

That makes it unlikely that Alpha will continue the shareholder claims after the merger, says Badge Humphries, an attorney representing the California State Teachers Retirement System and other institutional shareholders in the West Virginia lawsuit.

Humphries says he finds it difficult to believe that Alpha will make “a claim against their new co-head of safety asserting that he’s responsible for the Upper Big Branch disaster. It’s just not going to happen,” he says.

Also moving to Alpha if the merger is approved is Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel. Harvey, Humphries says, was responsible for making sure Massey met the terms of the safety settlement.

The suing shareholders want preliminary injunctions to block a planned merger vote among all Massey and Alpha shareholders Wednesday morning.

“Trying to undo a merger after it is closed is a difficult task,” Humphries adds. “The courts have compared it to unscrambling an egg.”

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals will also consider Tuesday a request from NPR and the Charleston Gazette to unseal documents in the case in that state, which include depositions from Massey and Alpha executives.

Humphries suggests the sealed documents show that Massey agreed to the sale so that its board of directors and executives would be free of liability in the lawsuits. He declined to provide details given a confidentiality agreement that made the depositions possible.

The sealed depositions include statements from Massey executives who declined to testify in the joint state and federal investigations into the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

“Certainly the public [and] shareholders have a right to know what impact the Upper Big Branch tragedy has on this proposed merger,” says attorney Sean McGinley, who represents NPR and the Charleston Gazette in the case.

Davitt McAteer led an independent investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion and noted in the group’s final report two weeks ago that the failure of the Massey executives to testify keeps the probe from being complete.

“The fact that they failed to provide testimony made it more difficult for us to understand the thinking that was going on prior to and during the course of the disaster,” McAteer says. “The opening of the sealed transcripts and sealed depositions will be helpful to us to try to understand…the actions of [Massey] management.”

Massey Energy did not respond to an NPR request for comment for this story but has said it operated its mines safely. The company also blames the Upper Big Branch explosion on a natural, unpredictable and unpreventable infusion of explosive natural or methane gas. McAteer contests that in his report.

Massey asked the West Virginia Supreme Court to keep documents sealed at least until 5 p.m. EST Tuesday. That would leave little time for review by Massey and Alpha shareholders before they’re scheduled to vote on the merger at 9:30 am EST Wednesday morning.

A spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources says the company will not comment “while the litigation is playing out.” But Alpha has said in court documents that it believes Massey shareholders are getting a good price in the takeover. The company also insists its board will consider continuing the shareholders lawsuits.

In a hearing in the Delaware case last week, Judge Leo Strine referred to Massey stockholders as “the least sympathetic characters” in the case.

“Any investor who invested in Massey…knew the managerial culture it was buying into,” Strine said. “And knew that you had people who believed that their way of doing it was better than the people charged with enforcing the law.”

Strine unsealed some documents in the case last week. He may issue a ruling Tuesday. West Virginia’s Supreme Court considers Tuesday the shareholders’ request for an injunction and the request by NPR and the Charleston Gazette to unseal court records.

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Many corporations are owned by a group of shareholders, but the business decisions are made by a Board of Directors. Shareholders trust that the board will make decisions that are in the best interests of the business, but when directors fail to do so, shareholders can bring a derivative lawsuit on behalf of the company itself. The Arlington Heights shareholder lawsuit attorneys at Lubin Austermuehle have been involved with many shareholder disputes, and our attorneys recently uncovered a decision in the field handed down by the Northern District of Illinois Federal District Court that we found quite interesting.

In Oakland County Employees Retirement System v. Massaro, the plaintiff shareholders brought a derivative action on behalf of nominal defendant Huron Consulting Group against Huron’s Board of Directors and executive officers. Plaintiffs brought the suit because they believed that Defendants overstated Huron’s revenue for years, which artificially inflated the value of Huron stock. Plaintiff brought suit for violations of the Securities Exchange Act, breach of fiduciary duty, waste of corporate assets, and unjust enrichment. However, in addition to the suit brought by Oakland County Employees Retirement System in federal court, two separate state court actions were previously filed by other individual Huron shareholders. Because of these state court actions, the Defendants in Oakland County filed a motion to stay the federal proceedings pending the outcome of the lawsuits filed in state court. Defendants argued that the federal action should be stayed under the abstention doctrine because the state and federal lawsuits were parallel actions.

The Court stated that for the lawsuits to be deemed parallel, they must involve substantially the same parties and substantially the same issues. Upon evaluating the pleadings, the Court held that because Plaintiffs brought a federal claim under section 14(a) of the Securities and Exchange Act — and no such claim was included in either of the Illinois state litigations — the state and federal actions were not parallel. The Court thusly denied the motion to stay, and went on to state that even in the absence of the 14(a) claim, Defendants did not show that exceptional circumstances existed to justify the court abstaining from ruling in the case.

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The issues faced by our clients, and particularly our business clients, are often complex both factually and legally. Our Palatine business lawyers recently discovered a case filed in Du Page county that illustrates how business legal issues can, and often do, dovetail with personal legal issues. Prignano v. Prignano demonstrates the importance of obtaining legal advice before making business agreements and contracts that include will and probate issues.

In Prignano v. Prignano, the widow of George Prignano, a man who owned several businesses with his brother Louis, sued that brother for allegedly failing to honor an agreement that the survivor of the two brothers would buy the decedent brother’s share of their co-owned businesses. The Prignano brothers jointly owned two corporations, Sunrise Homes and Rainbow Installations, and were equal partners in 710 Building Partnership. The Plaintiff widow alleged that the Defendant had an oral agreement with her deceased husband George whereupon Louis would purchase George’s share of their three businesses with the proceeds from life insurance policies purchased for that purpose. Plaintiff also alleged that she and Defendant had an oral agreement that Defendant would purchase his brother’s share of the businesses from Plaintiff.

After George’s death, Defendant, who was the executor of George’s estate, allegedly kept George’s share of the businesses and the life insurance payments for himself unbeknownst to Plaintiff. When Plaintiff discovered this, she filed suit against him for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. The trial court ruled in her favor on all counts and awarded her damages and prejudgment interest. Defendant then appealed the trial court’s finding of liability and the award of prejudgment interest.

On appeal, the Second District of the Appellate Court of Illinois reaffirmed the trial court’s finding that both oral agreements (between the brothers and between Plaintiff and Defendant) were valid and enforceable due to the testimony of third parties who were aware of the oral agreement between the brothers, and the existence of a written agreement that was drawn up after the oral contract between Plaintiff and Defendant was initially formed. The Court also found that Defendant owed a fiduciary duty to Plaintiff as he was a corporate officer and partner in the businesses, and upon George’s death, his interest in the businesses was transferred to Plaintiff. As such, the Court held that Defendant owed Plaintiff a duty to exercise “the highest degree of honesty and good faith” in dealing with Plaintiff, and Defendant breached that duty. The Court then vacated the trial court’s judgment on the unjust enrichment claim because Plaintiff was victorious on her breach of contract claim. The Court stated that unjust enrichment does not apply when there is a breach of contract under Illinois law. Finally, the Court reaffirmed the award of prejudgment interest because Plaintiff had been deprived of money that was rightfully hers, and Defendant should not profit from his wrongful retention of the funds.

Prignano v. Prignano exemplifies why business owners should have all of their business agreements and contracts reviewed by a trained legal professional. Family business owners, in particular, should guard against casual or oral agreements, as personal relationships can be strained when there is a misunderstanding regarding such agreements. If you are unsure about the legality or legitimacy of your business agreements, or are currently in a dispute, you should consult a discerning Chicago and Naperville business attorney to determine your rights.

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