Articles Posted in Shareholder Squeeze Out

When starting a business, co-owners envision the best—working together productively and profitably. But it is all too common for business partners to encounter a serious impasse over how to operate the business. When partners are unable to work through a dispute, it may be time for one partner to exit the company via a buyout of their interest. It is not uncommon for this scenario to arise in conjunction with claims that the majority shareholder or shareholders are oppressing the minority shareholder or shareholders.

For Illinois corporations, the Illinois Business Corporation Act of 1983 (BCA) permits shareholders to pursue legal action against each other based on allegations of fraud, illegal activity, corporate waste or other disruptive conduct. The BCA provides for 12 categories of relief that a court may order as an alternative to dissolving the business. Minority shareholders frequently opt to pursue the remedy of a buyout, in which the exiting shareholder’s interest is purchased by the remaining shareholders for “fair value.” Similarly for Illinois LLCs, the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act provides that a court may order the entity or the remaining members to purchase the interest of the outgoing member.

The BCA defines “fair value” as the value of the shares “taking into account any impact on the value of the shares resulting from the actions giving rise to a petition under this Section.” The statute goes on the explain that “‘fair value,’ with respect to a petitioning shareholder’s shares, means the proportionate interest of the shareholder in the corporation, without any discount for minority status or, absent extraordinary circumstances, lack of marketability.” For many companies, this provides a much more favorable valuation to a minority shareholder than selling shares for fair market value or any other metric of value normally employed when selling an interest in a small business. This is particularly true for closed (or closely held) corporations where a market for the minority’s shares might not otherwise exist since the statutory valuation does not generally speaking allow for a discount for the lack of marketability of the minority’s shares. Continue reading ›

Earlier this year, the governor of Delaware signed Senate bill 273 which amended various provisions of the Delaware General Corporation Law (GCL). The changes became effective August 1, 2022. Most notable among the changes was the amendment of Section 102(b)(7) of the GCL to allow corporations to exclude or limit certain officers from personal liability for breaches of their fiduciary duty of care. In order for corporations to take advantage of this change in the law, companies must include a provision in their certificate of incorporation eliminating or limiting its officers from personal liability for breaches of the duty of care.

Under Delaware corporate law, directors and officers of Delaware corporations owe the corporation and its shareholders certain fiduciary duties. One of the two chief fiduciary duties that directors and officers owe to the corporation and shareholders is called the duty of care. The duty of care requires directors and officers to exercise care and act in an informed manner when acting for the corporation and making decisions on its behalf.

Since 1986, with the addition of Section 102(b)(7) to the GCL, corporations have been authorized to eliminate or limit the personal liability of directors for monetary damages for  breaches of the duty of care. However, until passage of the amended Section 102(b)(7) this year, corporations could not do the same for its officers, even though the Delaware Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed that officers owe the same fiduciary duties as directors. Now corporations can insulate its officers as well as directors from personal liability for breaches of the duty of care.

It is important to understand the limits of this newly amended Section 102(b)(7). First, it doesn’t apply to all officers but only to those officers “deemed to have consented to service by the delivery of process to the registered agent of the corporation pursuant to § 3114(b) of Title 10” which includes the president, chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, chief legal officer, controller, treasurer, or chief accounting officer along with anyone identified in the corporation’s SEC filing as one of the most highly compensated executive officers, or anyone who has, by agreement with the corporation, consented to be identified as an officer for the purposes of Section 3114(b) of the GCL. Continue reading ›

As we have written about previously, shareholders in a corporation have two different types of claims they can assert, direct claims and derivative claims. Direct claims are filed by the shareholder for the benefit of the shareholder. Derivative claims are filed by a shareholder but for the benefit of the corporation itself. An Illinois appellate court recently considered the issue of whether a successful shareholder in a derivative action can obtain an award of attorney fees directly from the defendants personally, as opposed to from the common fund created by the judgment.

The parties were investors in a business known as 15th Street Blue Island, LLC (15BI). The plaintiffs made financial contributions totaling approximately $3.7 million to become members of 15BI. The plaintiffs received 47% interest in 15BI as “Class A Members.” An entity owned by defendants Jerry Karlik and Keith Giles, Kargil Blue Island, LLC (KBI), received a 53% interest in the company as a “Class B Member,” and was named as the manager of 15BI.

15BI was formed in 2006 for the purpose of developing condominiums on a vacant parking lot located in Chicago. After the economic crash of the global recession that began shortly thereafter, the original business plan was scrapped for a new one that involved developing rental residences, which was considered a more feasible plan under the economic conditions.

In 2006, another entity jointly owned by Jerry Karlik and Giles, Kargil Development Partners (KDP), entered into a contract to purchase a vacant parking lot (15BI Property) located at 15th Street and Blue Island Avenue in Chicago for $3.72 million. Pursuant to that agreement, KDP deposited an initial earnest money payment of $100,000 from 15BI accounts into an escrow account. In June 2007, Karlik signed a purchase agreement on behalf of 15BI to acquire property known as the Testa Parcel, for $6,250,000. This purchase agreement also required a $100,000 earnest money deposit from 15BI. In an unusual move for a buyer, Karlik later negotiated a $250,000 increase in the purchase price and provided for payment of a commission to yet another company that he and Giles jointly owned. 15BI later abandoned its efforts to buy the Testa Parcel, resulting in 15BI losing 70% of its earnest money deposit.

In 2008, Karlik and Giles sold a portion of KBI, which managed and owned a percentage of 15BI, to new investors, Gangas and Housakos, for approximately $750,000. Karlik testified that the law firm of Branson & Kahn invoiced 15BI and 15BI paid for its work on that sale.

Defendants stipulated that work “should not have been billed through 15B1.” Continue reading ›

Recently, the Delaware Court of Chancery refused to dismiss an action for post-closing damages stemming from alleged breaches of fiduciary duty brought by former stockholders of Authentix Acquisition Company, Inc. In doing so, the Court rejected the defendants’ arguments that a provision in a stockholders agreement entered by the plaintiffs waived such claims for breaches of fiduciary duties.

The dispute arose out of the sale of Authentix to Blue Water Energy in 2017. The plaintiffs in the case were holders of common stock in Authentix. In connection with their investment in the company, the plaintiffs entered into a Stockholders Agreement which provided that they would “consent to and raise no objections against” any sale of the company approved by Authentix’s board and holders of at least 50% of outstanding shares. In 2017, the board approved a sale to Blue Water Energy over the objection of one of the plaintiffs, a director stockholder. The sale was also approved by holders of more than 50% of the company’s outstanding shares.

In response to the sale, the plaintiffs filed suit for post-closing damages, alleging various breaches of fiduciary duties by three former directors and officers of Authentix as well as the preferred stockholders of Authentix who plaintiffs alleged controlled the company. In response, the defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims arguing that the plaintiffs had waived any right to bring such claims. According to the defendants, because the sale was approved by Authentix’s board and at least 50% of the outstanding shares, the Stockholders Agreement precluded plaintiffs from raising any objections related to the sale. Continue reading ›

While most securities fraud lawsuits accuse the defendant of manipulating their stock prices to keep them artificially high, the current lawsuit against Goldman Sachs alleges the company lied to maintain its high stock prices, rather than lying to cause the prices to rise. It’s a unique allegation, and one the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet recognized, but two lower courts have already upheld it as a valid claim.

Goldman appealed the decision made by the district court and the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court. The company alleges that, if the Supreme Court were to allow the securities lawsuit against it to proceed, the result would be devastating for public companies all over the country.

Goldman is arguing that the allegations against it are too weak to be valid. The allegations made by the shareholders rely on Goldman’s advertising claims that included words like “honesty” and “integrity” and claimed the company always prioritized the interests of its clients, when the opposite turned out to be true.

According to Goldman, the statements cited by the lawsuit are too vague to make the basis of a securities-fraud case. The company has also denied the statements had any effect on its stock price. If the lawsuit is allowed to proceed through the courts, the bank alleges it will allow shareholders to file securities-fraud lawsuits in the future simply by pointing to any kind of aspirational statement that nearly all companies make in their marketing materials. Continue reading ›

After discussions about going public, Promega Corp., a privately-held biotech company based in Wisconsin, decided instead to remain a privately held company back in 2014 and tried to buy back the stock owned by its minority shareholders and regain a controlling interest in the company. Those minority shareholders claimed the price at which Promega wanted to buy back their shares was deeply discounted, and when they tried to negotiate for a higher price point, Promega allegedly refused, which ultimately led to the massive lawsuit between the company and its minority shareholders that dragged on for about five years.

The team of attorneys arguing the case for the minority shareholders was headed by James Southwick and Alex Kaplan, two partners of the Susman Godfrey law firm in Houston, Texas. They recently announced that the lawsuit settled for $300 million, a victory to which they attribute their months of research and preparation leading up to the trial, as well as their decision to stick to one main allegation: shareholder oppression.

Other attorneys might have argued that the defendants had breached their fiduciary duty to their shareholders, or they would have alternated between making the case for shareholder oppression, arguing breach of fiduciary duty, and making the case for other allegations throughout the course of the trial. Instead, Southwick and Kaplan decided their best bet was to argue that Promega had tried to oppress its shareholders and to continue to make that case throughout the month-long bench trial. It was an unusual strategy, but one that ultimately paid off. Continue reading ›

Leprino Foods Co. is the largest manufacturer of mozzarella cheese in the world and is solely responsible for making all the mozzarella that goes on top of Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut’s pizzas. It’s worth billions of dollars, but it’s also a family business.

It was founded in Denver, Colorado in the 1950s by Michael and Susie Leprino. The couple had five children, including Michael Jr. and James. James went into the family business as soon as he had graduated from high school, and while Michael Jr. was involved in the business, he also had his own career in banking and real estate.

James and his daughters, Terry Leprino and Gina Vecchiarelli, together own 75% of the company’s stock.

Michael Jr. died in August of 2018 and his daughters, Nancy, Mary, and Laura Leprino, together own the remaining 25% of the stock in the company. In July, Nancy and Mary sued their uncle and cousins in Denver District Court for allegedly managing the company in a way that provided the greatest financial reward for them, while ignoring the financial interests of the minority shareholders.

The lawsuit alleges James and his daughters tend to align their votes so the outcome always provides them with the greatest financial benefits, but allegedly leaves Nancy and Mary out in the cold. Nancy and Mary also allege they have been unable to obtain financial records to which they are legally entitled as shareholders of the company. Continue reading ›

Envoy Medical is a medical device manufacturer based in Minnesota with technology that has the ability to restore hearing to the deaf. Unfortunately, the company’s prospects were allegedly cut short after Glen Taylor took over as CEO, which not only caused financial harm to the company but denied life-changing technology to the deaf.

As CEO of the medical-device company, Patrick Spearman guided the company to the early success it enjoyed, including getting FDA approval for the invention and marketing the company’s new device as a replacement for hearing aids. A video advertising the device that showed a mother getting emotional when she heard her voice for the first time after getting the implant went viral.

Another remarkable story of the potential of the device was of a Deputy Sheriff with profound hearing loss who, after receiving the implant, passed the hearing test that allows him to work the streets, while law enforcement officers with hearing aids are kept off the streets.

The medical invention was also featured on a variety of prominent television programs, including The Celebrity Apprentice, CNN, and the Ellen DeGeneres Show, among others. In 2011, Google gave the company an award for having created one of the top 11 inventions of the year.

In 2012, Taylor’s daughter was fired with cause by Spearman’s management team, at which point Taylor allegedly retaliated by having Spearman fired as CEO and taking his place in that role. Taylor allegedly then went on to fire all the key people who had the knowledge necessary to ensure the company’s financial success.

The billionaire business owner and majority shareholder of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minneapolis Star Tribune allegedly went on to use his money and influence to force control of the company out of the hands of its shareholders by using a series of loans and preferred share purchases to dilute their voting power. According to the lawsuit, the terms of those loans and purchases were allegedly not fully disclosed to the shareholders. Continue reading ›

After partners in a closely held corporation entered into years of adversarial litigation, a settlement agreement was reached. One of the partners later sued the other two, alleging that he was fraudulently induced into agreeing to the settlement when the defendant’s counsel misrepresented the financial position of the corporation at the time of the settlement. The circuit court dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint, finding that the defendants did not owe him a fiduciary duty during the litigation settlement discussions. The appellate court reversed, determining that because there was no document specifying that the parties’ relationship had been dissolved at the time of the settlement talks, the defendants still owed the plaintiff a fiduciary duty, and there was a question of material fact as to whether the resulting settlement agreement was valid. The appellate panel then reversed the decision of the circuit court.

Samuel Arndt, III, Nicholas Nardulli, and Diana Johnson were shareholders in Redhawk Financial Services, Inc. Arndt owned 49 percent of Redhawk’s shares; Nardulli was the controlling shareholder, a director, and the president of Redhawk; Johnson was a shareholder, a director, and the secretary of Redhawk. In December 2012, Redhawk filed a complaint against Arndt for breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint alleged that Arndt withdrew over $100,000 from Redhawk without an apparent business justification and also diverted Redhawk’s commissions into Arndt’s personal bank account. Arndt filed a counterclaim against Redhawk as well as a third-party complaint against Nardulli and Johnson, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and oppression of him as a minority shareholder. Continue reading ›

Investing is supposed to be a long-term strategy to build wealth, but expecting shareholders to wait more than 60 years before they can get a fair return on their investment is far beyond what any investor would consider reasonable.

That was allegedly the case for the minority shareholders of Promega Corp., the biotechnology company based in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. According to a lawsuit filed by shareholders back in 2016, Bill Linton, Promega’s founder and CEO, allegedly used manipulative and bullying tactics to become a majority shareholder of the company. His actions allegedly left the minority shareholders with no hope of getting a decent return on their investments before 2078 at the earliest.

Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, who has been hearing the case, has said that she was leaning towards the plaintiffs and agreeing that they had been oppressed by Linton’s actions. Now the only two things left to determine are 1) how to punish Promega and provide restitution for the minority shareholders who were allegedly oppressed by Linton’s actions; and 2) how to determine the price of the stocks for which the minority shareholders are allegedly owed compensation. Continue reading ›

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