You represent a minority shareholder of a closely-held corporation and the company is having an off year. The majority shareholder is the sole member of the board and serves in every officer position. She draws significant compensation. Without a business justification, she decides to double her salary and have the company pay the mortgage on her vacation home. Your client is the only other shareholder and likely the only person hurt by the majority shareholder’s self-declared raise. Although the minority shareholder suffers a clear injury, characterizing the injury as direct or derivative can have a significant impact on the outcome of the litigation.
Until recently, minority shareholders in closely-held companies could assert claims for breach of fiduciary duty and corporate waste directly against the majority owner. If the claimant was successful, a court could order the majority shareholder to disgorge the spoils of her behavior and pay them to the minority shareholder. This type of direct recovery is no longer permissible. Since 2014, Pennsylvania courts have made clear that claims arising from breach of the duties owed to a corporation, even a closely-held one, belong to the corporation and must be asserted on a derivative basis. This requirement creates procedural and substantive complexities when compared to direct claims. Bringing such claims requires strategic and creative analysis and careful attention to detail.
Without a shareholder’s agreement, minority shareholders are largely at the mercy of the majority shareholder. Minority shareholders have no formal ability to direct how the company spends money, compensates employees or hires vendors. Some majority owners use their power to disadvantage the minority shareholder by excessively compensating themselves or causing the corporation to contract with vendors affiliated with the majority on unfair terms. Although the minority shareholder is the party ultimately damaged by this behavior, the Pennsylvania Business Corporation Law (“BCL”) makes clear that “[t]he duty of the board of directors … is solely to the business corporation … and may not be enforced directly by a shareholder.” To obtain redress for the majority shareholder’s misconduct, the minority shareholder is therefore required to assert their claims on a derivative basis on behalf of the corporation.
In this regime, attorneys representing minority shareholders are required to look for opportunities to assert direct claims in lieu of derivative claims. The same facts that support a derivative claim may also be the basis of a direct claim. This is particularly common when the minority shareholder is involved in the operation of the business. For example, claims arising from the wrongful termination of a minority shareholder’s employment may form the basis of a direct claim on behalf of the minority shareholder, as well as a derivative claim against the majority shareholder for the breach of duty of care owed to the company.
Shareholder oppression claims are direct claims and may provide a viable method for a minority shareholder to obtain an individual recovery. Pennsylvania has long recognized that a majority shareholder has a quasi-fiduciary duty not to use their power in such a way as to exclude the minority shareholder from the “benefits accruing from the enterprise.” Carefully structured, a shareholder oppression claim can often address the same conduct that a court might otherwise classify as giving rise to a derivative claim. A claim that a majority shareholder increased their compensation to a level that leaves no profits available to be distributed to shareholders is likely a direct shareholder oppression claim. It may also be a derivative claim if the compensation is excessive by objective measure.
Fraud claims against majority shareholders may also be asserted directly if they arise from a misrepresentation made to the minority shareholder. The misrepresentation, however, must not be related to malfeasance in relation to the company. For example, misrepresenting the financial status of the business to induce a minority shareholder to invest additional capital that is subsequently lost is likely a direct claim. Falsely representing the terms of the majority shareholder’s excessive compensation is likely derivative because it is so closely related to the breach of the majority’s duty owed to the company itself.
When developing claims, keep in mind that counsel’s labeling of claims in pleadings as direct or derivative is not dispositive. Courts look to the substance of the allegations to determine the nature of the wrong.
The distinction between direct and derivative claims presents a variety of challenges in the context of closely-held business disputes. Recognizing the issue at that outset of the litigation and developing theories for asserting direct claims is critical to the successful representation of the minority shareholder.
Reprinted with permission from the February 28, 2018 issue of The Legal Intelligencer.
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