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Business Law Update: Michigan Supreme Court’s May 15, 2017 Decision on Minority Oppression

 

There are relatively few court opinions covering the Michigan Limited Liability Company Act. There have been even less on the issue of minority oppression claims.

It has been almost 3 years since the Michigan Supreme Court issued its Opinion in the  Madugula v Taub  case on Michigan’s shareholder/member oppression statutes.

The Madugula clarified that a claimant is not entitled to a jury a trial undmoney-73341_640er the Act; and breach of a Shareholder/Operating Agreement can be evidence of “oppressive” conduct.

On May 15, 2017 the Michigan Supreme Court issued its Opinion in Frank, et al v. Linkner, et al.

In summary, the Supreme Court held:

  • that MCL 450.4515(1)(e) provides alternative statutes of limitations, one based on the time of discovery of the cause of action and the other based on the time of accrual of the cause of action; and
  • That a cause of action for LLC member oppression accrues at the time an LLC manager has substantially interfered with the interests of a member as a member, even if that member has not yet incurred a calculable financial injury. See Frank, id. page 1.

 

The facts of Frank are admittedly, interesting (and unfortunate if you are the Plaintiffs):

Facts:

  • Defendant ePrize was founded by defendant Joshua Linkner in 1999 as a Michigan LLC specializing in online sweepstakes and interactive promotions.
  • Plaintiffs are former employees of ePrize who acquired ownership units in ePrize.
  • Plaintiffs allege Linkner orally promised them that their interests in ePrize would never be diluted or subordinated.
  • In 2005, plaintiffs’ shares in ePrize were converted into shares in ePrize Holdings, LLC.
  • In 2007, ePrize ran into financial difficulties and required an infusion of cash.
  • To remedy this problem, ePrize obtained $28 million in loans in the form of “B Notes” from various defendantmembers of ePrize and other investors;
  • plaintiffs were not invited to participate in these investments.
  • In 2009, ePrize remained struggling to meet its loan obligations and therefore issued new “Series C Units.”
  • These units were offered to various investors, including those who had obtained B Notes.
  • In exchange for the Series C Units, investors were required, amo
    ng other things, to make capital contributions, guarantee a portion of a $14.5 million loan from Charter One Bank, and convert their B Notes into “Series B Units.”
  • On August 20, 2012, ePrize sold substantially all of its assets and, pursuant to the Operating Agreement, distributed nearly $100 million in net proceeds to the holders of Series C and Series B Units.
  • Plaintiffs received nothing for their common shares.

Procedural History

Plaintiffs sued on April 19, 2013 alleging among other claims, minority oppression under MCL 450.4515. The trial court dismissed the claims, indicating that they were “untimely” under the 3 year statute of limitation period. The Court of Appeals reversed. This matter then went to the Supreme Court.

 

 

In General – Michigan Minority Oppression Statute

Michigan law provides a cause of action against the shareholders/members who are in control of a company and oppressing minority owners:

Minority Shareholder Oppression, MCL 450.1489 (Minority Member Oppression, MCL 450.4515)

“A shareholder may bring an action…to establish that the acts of the directors or those in control of the corporation are:
illegal;
fraudulent;
or willfully unfair and oppressive to the corporation or to the shareholder.” 
“If the shareholder establishes grounds for relief, the circuit court may make an order or grant relief as it considers appropriate, including, without limitation,
an order providing for any of the following:
(a) The dissolution and liquidation of the assets and business of the corporation.
(b) The cancellation or alteration of a provision contained in the articles of incorporation, an amendment of the articles of incorporation, or the bylaws of the corporation.
(c) The cancellation, alteration, or injunction against a resolution or other act of the corporation…
Therefore, if a court finds that those in control of the business committed misconduct against a minority owner amounting to “oppression”, the Court has broad discretion to create the type of relief it deems is best.
Back to the Supreme Court’s Decision in Frank…
a. Statute of Limitations
The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that:
“MCL 450.4515(1)(e) contains two alternative statutes of limitations:”
1. (2 years) predicated upon discovery of the cause of action and
2. the other (3 years) predicated upon accrual of the cause of action. Id. at pg 6.
The Supreme Court clarified that under the statute “A plaintiff has two years from the time he or she ‘discovers or reasonably should have discovered the cause of action” to bring a claim [under the minority oppression statute]”. Id pg 13. “…a plaintiff cannot bring a claim three years after accrual of the cause of action, even if he or she did not discover and reasonably would not have discovered the cause of action during that period.”
b. when does an oppression claim accrue?
The Plaintiffs/minority members argued that their claims “did not accrue until they first incurred a calculable financial injury after ePrize sold substantially all of its assets in 2012.” Id. pg 16. They reasoned that no monetary damages occurred until the company was liquidated. Id.
The Supreme Court, however reasoned that the “plaintiffs’ argument conflates monetary damages with ‘harm'”.  The Court held that:
the actionable harm for a member-oppression claim under MCL 450.1515 consists of actions taken by the managers that “substantially interfere with the interests of the member as a member,” and monetary damages constitute just one of many potential remedies for the harm.
Therefore, the Court held that :the Court of Appeals erred by focusing on the availability of monetary damages, rather than on when plaintiffs incurred ‘harm’.” The Court reversed the Court of Appeals on this issue. Id. 17.
“Once a plaintiff proves that a manager engaged in an action or series of actions that substantially interfered with his or her interest as a member, the “harm” has been incurred, and therefore the claim has accrued.” Id.
Application 
In application, the Supreme Court therefore found that the alleged harm occurred when the minority members’ interest were subordinated (in 2009) by amendment of the operating agreement and not when the sale occurred (in 2012). Id. at 20.
So, unless plaintiffs can show fraudulent concealment, Plaintiffs’ claims for monetary damages are barred.

 

Take away for Business owners/Investors/Entrepreneurs:

 

1. Get an attorney involved before the business relationship begins and clearly document the business relationship, especially your shareholder/operating agreement. That will contain the exit strategy and relevant buy-out language. Further, any conduct the parties agree to in their shareholder/operating agreement will not be deemed “oppressive”. However, a breach of the agreement, may deemed interference with your rights sufficient to constitute “oppression” however, this is based on a highly fact-intensive analysis.

2. If you believe you are being frozen out of control/profits in a business – do not wait. The Michigan Supreme Court has held that your claim accrues when the harm occurs. Learn from the Frank Decision.  Michigan law gives you broad remedies, including the minority shareholder/member oppression statutes.

Questions?

Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka

Business Law Update: A discussion on Business Shareholder Oppression.

March 10, 2017 Leave a comment

There are relatively few court opinions covering the Michigan Limited Liability Company Act. There have been even less on the issue of minority oppression claims. So I was excited to see a recent Court of Appeals decision on that subject. Check out t2017-02-04-08-16-38-2he February 9, 2017 unpublished decision of Wisner v SB Indiana, LLC, et al

The Wisner case involves two separate parties who claimed an owner/manager, Hardy, violated their rights as members and froze them out of the company.

The first question to ask is, “freeze out from what*?”

                         Control – Decision-making

                         Disclosures of Company Business

                         Profits in the Company

                         Employment in the Company.

What should a business owner/operator do to protect himself/herself?

Well, you have two readily apparent choices – address the issue before the business is formed, or address it once the problem arises.

     1. Addressing the problems before the business starts.

The easiest way is this option: Get an Attorney involved at the onset of the business relationship.

Many of these business disputes in closely held companies could be resolved if, before going into business, the parties openly communicated their expectations, concerns, and clearly articulated in the formation documents (articles of incorporation/organization, Bylaws, shareholder agreement, Operating Agreement) a way out of the business relationship.

This could be the most cost-effective way to ensure to resolve business disputes – address them before they happen – with open communication, and clearly and concisely drafted (and executed!) documents.

       2. Addressing the problems once they occur: Shareholder/Member Oppression Lawsuit.

Michigan law provides a cause of action against the shareholders/member
s who are in control of a company and oppressing minority owners:

Minority Shareholder Oppression, MCL 450.1489 (Minority Member Oppression, MCL 450.4404)

“A shareholder may bring an action…to establish that the acts of the directors or those in control of the corporation are:
illegal;
fraudulent;
or willfully unfair and oppressive to the corporation or to the shareholder.” (*in my experience this has been the most often the scenario where these cases arise – from the “freezing out” the minority owners from the business)
“If the shareholder establishes grounds for relief, the circuit court may make an order or grant relief as it considers appropriate, including, without limitation,
an order providing for any of the following:
(a) The dissolution and liquidation of the assets and business of the corporation.
(b) The cancellation or alteration of a provision contained in the articles of incorporation, an amendment of the articles of incorporation, or the bylaws of the corporation.
(c) The cancellation, alteration, or injunction against a resolution or other act of the corporation.
(d) The direction or prohibition of an act of the corporation or of shareholders, directors, officers, or other persons party to the action.
(e) The purchase at fair value of the shares of a shareholder, either by the corporation or by the officers, directors, or other shareholders responsible for the wrongful acts.”

Although this Statute applies to closely held corporations, there is also a virtually similar Michigan statute that applies to LLCs.

Therefore, if a court finds that those in control of the business committed misconduct against a minority owner amounting to “oppression”, the Court has broad discretion to create the type of relief it deems is best.
Back to the Wisner Case:
Without getting into the details of the case, there are two points the Court made relating to oppression claims.
a. Is failing to communicate with the minority members oppression?
The Wisner Court looked at the claims made by the minority member – that the manager “cut him off from communication.” The court found that, although Defendant substantially interfered with the minority member’s ability to com
municate…this did not constitute unfair and oppressive conduct.  The court found that “it does not appear that his rights as a member of the LLC provided by MCL 450.4102(q), including any right to receive a distribution, or vote were substantially interfered with by Defendant’s conduct.”
b.  If the Operating Agreement allows activity – that activity cannot be “oppressive”
The court also noted that at the formation of the company the parties had executed an operating agreement to govern their relationship.
The court noted that the oppression statute “had no application if the conduct at issue was authorized by an operating agreement. So to the extent that any of Mr.
Hardy’s actions were authorized by the agreements, then he cannot be found to be willfully unfairly oppressing these members.” Id. Pg 4.
“Likewise the case law has indicated that even a breach of those operating agreements would not be enough to find that he was willfully unfair and oppressive in his conduct.”

Lesson:

Sometimes filing a law suit for Minority Oppression is warranted due to the egregious misconduct of those in control of the company.  However, to constitute “oppression” giving a minority owner relief, such conduct will need to be proven with sufficient facts.

The obvious take away points are two-fold:

1. Get an attorney involved before the business relationship begins and clearly document the
business relationship, especially an exit strategy
. Any conduct the parties agree to in their shareholder/operating agreement cannot be “oppressive”.

2. If you are being frozen out of control in a business – Michigan law gives you broad remedies, including the minority shareholder/member oppression statutes.

Questions?

Comments?

e-mail: Jeshua@dwlawpc.com

http://www.dwlawpc.com

Twitter: @JeshuaTLauka