Controlling shareholders and managers of family-owned businesses often direct the use of company funds and other resources to provide employment and other benefits to non-shareholder family members. In a business that is wholly-owned by close family members, there may be little concern that other family member shareholders will complain about the use of such resources, as long as there is disclosure and perceived fairness concerning the use of company funds and access to employment opportunities. The risk of a potential claim for breach of fiduciary duty or minority shareholder oppression may increase, however, when non-family members are admitted into the ownership structure. At that point, historic and perhaps informal practices concerning family member involvement in, and benefits from, the company may not be acceptable to a new owner. The controlling family member owners must therefore be careful to follow good corporate governance practices when making decisions on the company’s behalf. Continue Reading Watch Out For Minority Shareholder Oppression Claims After Admitting Non-Family Shareholders To The Family-Owned Business
Michael Connolly is a partner in the Firm’s Litigation Department. He represents owners and managers of family-owned businesses and closely-held businesses in connection with disputes between business owners under LLC operating agreements, shareholder agreements, and partnership agreements; claims against directors and officers concerning company management and operations; and other internal disputes concerning business valuations, corporate distributions, and access to company information.
Michael also has an active business litigation practice representing clients in commercial disputes involving contracts and trade practices. These include business asset purchase and sale agreements, commercial leases, financing and franchise agreements, trademarks disputes, trade secrets, and other confidential business information.
Disputes between and among owners of family-owned businesses are sometimes unavoidable. When such disputes progress to litigation, they can be extremely costly, time-consuming, and disruptive for the business and its owners. However, most civil lawsuits still settle before reaching a trial before a judge or jury. More specifically, many of those suits settle through mediation. Indeed, judges routinely encourage parties to attempt to settle their disputes, through mediation or otherwise, before setting a trial date.
Mediation is a process through which parties to a dispute select a neutral third-party – often a retired judge or an attorney with subject-matter experience – to attempt to broker a deal between the opposing sides. Mediation sessions are confidential and provide an opportunity for parties to explore a variety of options for resolving their dispute that otherwise may become unavailable once the case is put in a judge or jury’s hands. If done early in the life of a case, mediation can also allow the parties to avoid substantial litigation costs and business disruption.
Owners of family-owned corporations often enter into shareholder agreements that spell out whether and to whom corporate shares can be transferred. Frequently, these agreements provide for rights of first refusal by the other stockholders or a stock repurchase by the company if a shareholder wishes to transfer shares during his or her lifetime. These agreements also typically address whether shares may be transferred to any heirs upon a shareholder’s death. Unless the language regarding permitted transfers is clear, claims may arise between generations of owners concerning the proper ownership of shares upon a shareholder’s death.
A recent California Court of Appeal decision – Saccani v. Saccani – is illustrative of the type of dispute that can arise between family members over a deceased owner’s shares. Albert Saccani started Saccani Distributing Company in 1933. According to the Court, Albert’s “desire was that the company would always be kept in the family.” When he died, each of his sons – Donald, Roland, and Gary – received one-third of the company’s shares. Continue Reading Definitions in Shareholder Agreements Matter When Transferring Family-Owned Business Stock
Corporate shareholders often expect to receive dividends in connection with their ownership of corporate shares. This is particularly true when owners invest capital in or provide other services to the company in exchange for their ownership interests. But do shareholders’ rights to or expectations of dividends change when shares are acquired through gift or inheritance? This issue frequently arises in family-owned businesses where shares are transferred from one generation of owners, who may have built the business through their investment of capital and labor, to the next generation, who themselves may never have worked in, or invested in, the business.
In Jones v. McDonald Farms, Inc., a Court of Appeals in Nebraska recently was presented with a claim by Diane Jones against her two brothers, seeking a decree of judicial dissolution of the company based on the brothers’ alleged “corporate oppression” through their failure to pay dividends to Diane in proportion to her share ownership. Charles and Betty McDonald had incorporated McDonald Farms, Inc. in 1976. Their two sons, Donald and Randall, began farming with Charles in the mid-1970s and they became officers of the company in 1989, while continuing to perform all farming duties. From 1976 through 2010, Charles and Betty were majority shareholders and Donald and Randall were minority shareholders. In 2010, Betty died and her shares were devised equally to her four children, including Donald, Randall, Diane and another sister, Rosemary. In 2012, Charles gifted his stock equally to Donald and Randall. Charles died in 2014. As a result of these transfers, Donald and Randall each held 42.875% of the company’s stock, while Diane and Rosemary each owned 7.125% of the stock.
Family-owned businesses that are organized as limited liability companies typically reflect the terms of the company’s governance, along with the members’ financial rights and obligations, in a written operating agreement. The terms of the operating agreement often specifically include what, if any, payments a member is entitled to if he or she withdraws as a member of the LLC before the LLC dissolves. For example, the operating agreement may limit the right to payment of a withdrawing member to the return of any balance in his or her capital account. An operating agreement may even provide that a member is entitled to no payment whatsoever upon withdrawal. In any case, agreed-upon provisions concerning payments upon withdrawal will reflect the members’ expectations from the outset. Such provisions can also protect the LLC from having to make large and unplanned payments upon a member’s unilateral decision to withdraw at a point in time when the LLC may not have the funds to pay such a withdrawal distribution.
Family members often transfer family-business ownership interests or other assets between each other. Their discussions sometimes progress from informal negotiations to a written term sheet to a final written agreement. However, a term sheet itself can be found to be a binding agreement if the terms are sufficiently definite for a court to determine each party’s obligations and if the parties’ conduct evidences their agreement to perform according to those terms.
In Kunz v. Kunz, a Court of Appeals in Iowa recently ruled upon a claim by one family member against another to enforce a “Settlement Memorandum” which provided for the purchase and sale of stock in the family business, even though the Memorandum contemplated the drafting of later documents to finalize the transaction. In 1973, brothers Richard and Robert Kunz formed Happy Homes, Inc., a company that sold factory-built homes. Richard died in 2007 and his 50% interest in the company was transferred to his wife, Connie. Connie and Robert then began discussing the sale of Richard’s interests and later participated in mediation to aid in these discussions.
Family-owned businesses often employ multiple family members. Even if there is an expectation that employment will continue indefinitely, the company and the family member employees both usually reserve the right, explicitly or implicitly, to terminate the employment “at-will,” meaning at any time and for any reason. The terms of such at-will employment need not be set out in writing, though sometimes they are. However, where the parties contemplate the right and obligation of lifetime employment, they should put the employment terms in writing to avoid the potential application of the statute of frauds.
The statute of frauds, generally, bars a party from bringing a claim for breach of an agreement that cannot by its terms be performed within one year, unless the agreement is in writing. In some states, such as Massachusetts, an otherwise enforceable oral agreement for lifetime employment does not fail due to the statute of frauds, because, the courts reason, the agreement could theoretically be fully performed if the employee dies or the company goes out of business within one year of the contract date. In other states, such as Illinois, an oral lifetime employment agreement is not enforceable under the statute of frauds, because, as the courts reason, a lifetime employment agreement “anticipates a relationship of a long duration – certainly longer than one year.” Courts in those states apply the statute of frauds to such agreements in recognition of the evidentiary concern that memories can and do fade over time and thus become unreliable and in order to protect defendants and the court from “confusion, uncertainty and outright fraud.” Continue Reading If You Expect to Work in the Family-Owned Business for Life, Be Sure to Get It in Writing
Shares in family-owned businesses are often transferred between family members, whether through a sale or gift during a shareholder’s lifetime or through inheritance after an owner’s death. The parties to such a transfer should make sure it is properly documented to reflect the intention to transfer the shares. Typically, this is done through the transferor’s delivery of a signed share transfer instrument and the company’s issuance of a share certificate in the new holder’s name. In the absence of proper documentation, the transferee may not have a valid claim to the share ownership. Even worse, the company may find itself in the middle of an ownership dispute if the transferee has attempted to acquire the shares through fraud or deceit.
A United States Tax Court recently issued a decision after trial that should serve as a reminder to management and controlling shareholders of family-owned businesses that salaries or other compensation paid to family-member employees may only be deductible if the salaries are “reasonable.” In Transupport, Incorporated v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the Tax Court conducted a trial on the company, Transupport’s appeal of an IRS notice of deficiency. In the notice, the IRS had determined that amounts the company attempted to deduct for compensation to four sons of the company’s founder and president were not reasonable. The IRS also had disallowed the deductions to the extent of the unreasonable compensation and assessed a penalty based on a “substantial understatement of income tax.”
Litigation among family-business owners often ends with a negotiated settlement agreement instead of a trial and entry of judgment on the parties’ claims. Through a settlement, the parties have the flexibility to agree upon any applicable business terms, including any payment to be made to the claimant and the scope of any release to be provided in exchange for the payment. However, settling parties should document any settlement agreement clearly so they know what rights, if any, are being released and, what rights, if any, they can continue to assert against each other after the settlement is finalized.