David F. Johnson presented his paper “Business Divorce: Minority Shareholder Rights In Texas” to the State Bar of Texas’s Business Disputes Course on September 2-3, 2021. This presentation addressed shareholder oppression claims in Texas, minority shareholder rights (such as contractual rights, stock rights, disclosure rights, distribution rights, employment rights, and receivership rights), fiduciary duties in business divorce cases, derivative actions, and attorney representation issues.

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The owners of a corporation may enter into shareholder agreements. In Richie, the Texas Supreme Court stated: “Shareholders of closely-held corporations may address and resolve such difficulties by entering into shareholder agreements that contain buy-sell, first refusal, or redemption provisions that reflect their mutual expectations and agreements.” Ritchie v. Rupe, 443 S.W.3d 856, 871 (Tex. 2014).

Regarding shareholder agreements, the Texas Business Organizations Code provides:

(a) The shareholders of a corporation may enter into an agreement that: (1) restricts the discretion or powers of the board of directors; (2) eliminates the board of directors and authorizes the business and affairs of the corporation to be managed, wholly or partly, by one or more of its shareholders or other persons; (3) establishes the individuals who shall serve as directors or officers of the corporation; (4) determines the term of office, manner of selection or removal, or terms or conditions of employment of a director, officer, or other employee of the corporation, regardless of the length of employment; (5) governs the authorization or making of distributions whether in proportion to ownership of shares, subject to Section 21.303; (6) determines the manner in which profits and losses will be apportioned; (7) governs, in general or with regard to specific matters, the exercise or division of voting power by and between the shareholders, directors, or other persons, including use of disproportionate voting rights or director proxies; (8) establishes the terms of an agreement for the transfer or use of property or for the provision of services between the corporation and another person, including a shareholder, director, officer, or employee of the corporation; (9) authorizes arbitration or grants authority to a shareholder or other person to resolve any issue about which there is a deadlock among the directors, shareholders, or other persons authorized to manage the corporation; (10) requires winding up and termination of the corporation at the request of one or more shareholders or on the occurrence of a specified event or contingency, in which case the winding up and termination of the corporation will proceed as if all of the shareholders had consented in writing to the winding up and termination as provided by Subchapter K; (11) with regard to one or more social purposes specified in the corporation’s certificate of formation, governs the exercise of corporate powers, the management of the operations and affairs of the corporation, the approval by shareholders or other persons of corporate actions, or the relationship among the shareholders, the directors, and the corporation; or (12) otherwise governs the exercise of corporate powers, the management of the business and affairs of the corporation, or the relationship among the shareholders, the directors, and the corporation as if the corporation were a partnership or in a manner that would otherwise be appropriate only among partners and not contrary to public policy.

(b) A shareholders’ agreement authorized by this section must be: (1) contained in: (A) the certificate of formation or bylaws if approved by all of the shareholders at the time of the agreement; or (B) a written agreement that is: (i) signed by all of the shareholders at the time of the agreement; and (ii) made known to the corporation; and (2) amended only by all of the shareholders at the time of the amendment, unless the agreement provides otherwise.

Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 21.101. See Batey v. Droluk, No. 01-12-01058-CV, 2014 Tex. App. LEXIS 3979 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Apr. 10, 2014, no pet.) (limitations in shareholder agreement was effective).

If properly executed, such an agreement is enforceable: “A shareholders’ agreement that complies with this subchapter is effective among the shareholders and between the shareholders and the corporation even if the terms of the agreement are inconsistent with this code.” Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 21.104; Skeels v. Suder, No. 02-18-00112-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 4810 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth June 17, 2021, no pet. history). The term of the agreement must be in the agreement. Id. at § 21.012.

There are notice requirements. Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 21.103. If a purchaser of shares does not have knowledge of the existence of a shareholder agreement, it is entitled to rescind the purchase. Id. at § 21.105(a). An action to enforce the right of rescission must be commenced not later than the earlier of: (1) the 90th day after the date the existence of the shareholder agreement is discovered; or (2) the second anniversary of the purchase date of the shares. Id. at § 21.105(c). A shareholders’ agreement ceases to be effective when shares of the corporation are: (1) listed on a national securities exchange; or (2) regularly traded in a market maintained by one or more members of a national or affiliated securities association. Id. at § 21.109(a). The Code does not limit other shareholder agreements: “This subchapter does not prohibit or impair any agreement between two or more shareholders, or between the corporation and one or more of the corporation’s shareholders, permitted by Title 1, this chapter, or other law.” Id. at § 21.110.

The court in Skeels v. Suder, stated: “a shareholder agreement, signed by all shareholders and ‘made known’ to the corporation, governs corporate action notwithstanding a contrary provision in the BOC. And shareholders are, therefore, free to agree to stricter or more lenient rights than those provided in the BOC. Accordingly, the terms of any share redemption may be provided in a governing document or an applicable agreement among the members, even if the document or agreement is broader or narrower than the dictates of the BOC.” No. 02-18-00112-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 4810 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth June 17, 2021, no pet. history) (internal citations omitted). The court held that a shareholder agreement regarding redemptions rights was enforceable even if it was inconsistent with the Business Organizations Code. Id. “[T]he terms of any share redemption may be provided in a governing document or an applicable agreement among the members, even if the document or agreement is broader or narrower than the dictates of the BOC.” Id. at *21. Partners of a law firm entered into a shareholder agreement that allowed certain individuals to take action. Under that power, they forcibly redeemed one shareholder’s shares for zero dollars. Id. The court of appeals affirmed that under the various documents, it had the right to do so: “The plain language of the Resolution—a shareholder agreement—broadly allowed Friedman, Suder, and Cooke as the Firm’s governing authority to take affirmative action on behalf of the Firm; thus, the trial court did not err by finding that the Resolution governed the redemption of Skeels’s shares on the terms dictated by the Firm’s governing authority.” Id. Accordingly, shareholder agreements are very powerful tools in Texas, and parties should be very careful to review same when entering into a corporation.

David F. Johnson presented “Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims Against Trustees/Managers of Closely-Held Businesses” with Kenneth J. Fair of Wright Close & Barger, LLP, on July 22, 2021, for Strafford Webinars to a national audience. This presentation covered various issues involved in a trustee owning an interest in a closely-held business when disputes arise. The presentation discussed why a trust may own an interest in a closely-held business, the fiduciary duties of a trustee, the fiduciary duties of an officer/director and the business judgment rule, the conflicting standards that may apply when a person is both a trustee and an officer/director, how to resolve those conflicting duties, the payment of litigation expenses when suits arise in this area, and issues involving the attorney/client relationship and the attorney/client privilege.

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In Trinh v. Cent. River Healthcare Group, a brother sued his sister over the management of a PLLC. No. 03-19-00393-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 4542 (Tex. App.—Austin June 9, 2021, no pet. history). The brother claimed that the sister promised to pay him a salary, and she did not. The court of appeals affirmed the jury’s finding that there was no such promise based on the sister’s testimony that she did not remember making such a proposal, and even so: “evidence of a proposal does not prove an agreement.” Id.

The brother also challenged the jury’s finding that the sister complied with her duty by disputing that “the transactions in question were fair and equitable to Khiem . . . and 4. Loann [] placed the interests of Khiem [] before her own and did not use the advantage of her position to gain any benefit for herself at the expense of Khiem.” The brother argued that he contributed more than a half million dollars to the business when the sister claimed to own 100% of it and that the sister required the brother to pay federal income tax on 5% of the company’s profits most years, and on 50% of the profits one year while the brother received nothing in return. The jury heard testimony from the sister that

Khiem may have forfeited whatever interest he had in CRHG. In October 2011, he emailed Loann: “I don’t want to run the clinics. I am saving it before they collapse. Those are your clinics. I built them in the beginning for you. . . . I want you to take over without any headache. . . . Every investment in there is yours.” Loann testified to the point of Khiem’s email: “So basically he’s willing to forfeit everything so that way I can come back and run and resuscitate the clinic. That to me means that everything is under my management, my care[]. The whole business is legally under my direction[].” She also testified that she understood this email to mean “that he’s relinquished all his positions whether management, ownership, all investment. So it says every investment is yours.”

Id. Further, regarding the taxes, the court noted:

[T]he evidence does not support Khiem’s assertion that Loann “required” Khiem to pay those amounts of federal income tax. Khiem testified that he and Loann were equally responsible for the preparation of the tax return, that he sent the tax documents to the tax advisor and relied on him to prepare the filings, that he signed the tax filings that indicated the profit attribution of 95% for Loann and 5% for Khiem for the relevant tax years (2005-2012) except the 2007 tax filing indicated a 50% split, and that he “wasn’t interest[ed] in the profit [during] that period of time because there’s no profit.”

Id. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment and the jury’s verdict for the sister.

In Villareal v. Saenz, two co-owners of a limited liability company sued each other regarding conduct surrounding a business divorce. 5-20-CV-00571-OLG-RBF, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94183 (W.D. Tex. May 18, 2021). After the parties asserted allegations against each other, they entered into a release agreement. The parties agreed that “Saenz would assign his entire interest to ZroBlack LLC to Villarreal.” After the release, Saenz refused to return certain property to the company. Villarreal sued for breach of fiduciary duty and other claims.

Saenz filed a motion to dismiss, and the district court magistrate judge recommended that the claims that arose before the release be dismissed, but recommended that the claims that arose after the release continue. Regarding Saenz’s fiduciary duties after the release agreement was executed, the court stated:

As discussed, any claim premised on Saenz’s conduct as ZroBlack’s CEO before the parties executed the Release is barred by the Release’s plain terms. But Plaintiffs also argue that Saenz violated his fiduciary duties by maintaining dominion and control over ZroBlack’s domain and email server to the company’s detriment after the parties executed the Release. Citing case law on partnerships, Saenz contends that his fiduciary duties to ZroBlack ceased once he assigned his interest in the LLC to Villarreal. See Dkt. No. 41 at 21. But under Texas  law, “[a] member of a limited liability company may not withdraw or be expelled from the company.” Tex. Bus. Org. Code § 101.107. Further, “an assignor member does not cease to be a member merely by assigning the member’s interest.” Miller & Ragazzo, 13 Tex. Prac., Texas Methods of Practice § 59:2 (3d ed. 2021) (citing id. § 101.111(a)). At the same time, the Operating Agreement refers to an assignor as an “exiting member” without defining that term or discussing its implications. See Dkt. No. 33-3 at 9. Ultimately, Saenz hasn’t addressed the interplay between Texas law on LLCs and the language in the Operating Agreement. Accordingly, on the present briefing, the Court can’t conclude as a matter of law that Saenz didn’t owe ZroBlack any fiduciary duties after he assigned his interest in the company to Villarreal.

Id.

In Adam v. Marcos, an attorney and his client agreed to a joint venture/partnership. No. 14-18-00450-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 2060 (Tex. App.—Houston March 18, 2021, no pet. history). The attorney sued the client for breaching the agreement. The trial court ruled for the client on the attorney’s breach of the partnership agreement claim and a breach of fiduciary duty claim. The court of appeals affirmed. The court of appeals first held that the partnership agreement was presumptively invalid because the attorney owed fiduciary duties to the client when it was entered into:

Contracts between attorneys and their clients negotiated during the existence of the attorney-client relationship are closely scrutinized. Because the relationship is fiduciary in nature, there is a presumption of unfairness or invalidity attaching to such contracts. The burden is on the attorney to prove the fairness and reasonableness of the agreement. Moreover, as a fiduciary, Marcos had the burden to establish that Adam was informed of all material facts relating to the agreement. Additional important factors in determining the fairness of a transaction involving a fiduciary include whether the consideration was adequate and whether the beneficiary obtained independent advice.

Id. The court of appeals held that the jury’s finding of breach of duty by the attorney supported invalidating the partnership agreement: “Because the jury found that Marcos failed to fulfill his fiduciary duties to Adam in regard to the alleged partnership agreement, and the evidence supports that finding, the presumption that the contract was invalid applies. Thus, the trial court did not err in holding the agreement was invalid and unenforceable.” Id. Continue Reading Partnership Agreement Was Invalid Where IT Was Entered Into Between A Fiduciary And Principal And Was Otherwise Unfair And The Principal Did Not Owe Fiduciary Duties As A Partner Where There Was No Enforceable Partnership

In TSA-Tex. Surgical Assocs., L.L.P. v. Vargas, one partner sued his other partners for various claims regarding the defendants attempt to squeeze the plaintiff out of the partnership. No. 14-19-00135-CV, 2021 Tex. App. LEXIS 1330 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] February 25, 2021, no pet. history). The defendants filed a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), and the trial court denied the motion. The defendants appealed.

The TCPA was enacted “to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of a person to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.” Id. (citing Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.002). It does so by authorizing a party to file a motion to dismiss a legal action that “is based on, relates to, or is in response to a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association.” Id.

The court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss under the TCPA. The defendants argued that the plaintiff’s claims were based on, related to, or in response to the exercise of free speech because the claims purportedly involve communications regarding the provision of medical services. The court of appeals disagreed: Continue Reading Business Divorce: Court Affirms Denial Of SLAPP Motion Regarding Partnership Divorce Suit

A business divorce may mean that the owners need to sell the business or the business’s assets. In the following case, some of the owners/officers took advantage of a sale transaction to benefit from that transaction at the expense of their co-owners. In Rex Performance Prods., LLC v. Tate, a company sued its former officers for breaching fiduciary duties related to the sale of the company’s assets. No. 02-20-00009-CV, 2020 Tex. App. LEXIS 10465 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth December 31, 2020, no pet.). The company alleged that the officers intentionally drove down the price of the sale in order to obtain a separate bonus from the buyer. The defendants alleged that the plaintiff knew of the side bonus agreement and consummated the transaction anyway, thereby establishing a waiver or ratification. The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants, and the plaintiff appealed. Continue Reading Court Found That There Was A Fact Question On Whether Officers Violated Fiduciary Duties By Obtaining A Side Bonus From A Purchaser When Negotiating A Sale Of The Company’s Assets

Last week, the Dallas Court of Appeals overturned a $98 million trial court judgment, which was based on a jury finding that BBVA USA (BBVA) had defrauded one of its commercial borrowers.[1]  See BBVA, et al. v. Bagwell, et al., Dallas App. Ct., No. 05-18-00860, December 14, 2020). [2]  The appellate court concluded the jury’s verdict had to be reversed because, as a matter of law, BBVA’s borrower could not have justifiably relied on allegedly false statements that had been made to the borrower by a representative of the bank.  The Court’s holding and its focus on the element of “justifiable reliance” as a contractual defense to a fraud claim provides valuable guidance for private company majority owners in regard to their relationship with their minority business partners.

In light of the Bagwell decision, this post reviews key provisions that majority owners may want to include in their company governance documents to avoid future claims that may be made against them by their minority co-owners for fraud and/or for breach of the fiduciary duties that majority owners owe to the company acting in their capacity as governing persons. These provisions can be included in the company’s governance documents—in the by-laws of the corporation or in a company agreement for LLC’s—and they concern matters that frequently become the subject of disputes between private company co-owners.

Withholding of Profits Distributions/Dividends

 One frequent area of conflict between majority owners and minority investors concerns the issuance of profits distributions.  Private companies are typically “pass through” entities in regard to income taxes, which means that the business does not pay any taxes on the income that it generates and all taxes on the company’s income are paid by the business owners based on the percentage of their ownership interest.  While majority owners may routinely issue distributions to the company’s owners to cover the amount of their tax liability that is attributable to income generated by the company, majority owners will want to retain flexibility to decide whether or not to issue profits distributions and, if so, in what amounts. Continue Reading BBVA USA Receives Holiday Gift From Dallas Appellate Court:  The Decision Includes Guidance for Private Company Owners 

Under Texas law, when the owners of closely held companies have co-investors, they need to exercise care in managing their business. This need for caution is due in large part to a Texas statute that makes it easier for minority shareholders or minority members of LLC’s (“Minority Owners”) in closely held companies to file derivative lawsuits alleging claims for breach of fiduciary duties against the company’s officers, directors and/or managers (“Control Persons”).  See Tex. Bus. Org. Code (“TBOC”) §§ 21.551 and 101.451-463.   This derivative Texas statute removes substantial procedural barriers that would otherwise exist for Minority Owners in filing a derivative lawsuit, and it has been the subject of our previous posts. (Read:  Shareholder Oppression Claims)

When Minority Owners file derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duties against the company’s Control Persons, however, the Control Persons have significant defenses available to them under Texas law.  These “safe harbor” defenses were highlighted in a recent decision by the Austin Court of Appeals, which dismissed most of the shareholders’ claims.  See Roels v. Valkenaar, No. 03-19-00502-CV Tex App. Lexis 6684 (Tex. App. – Austin, August 20, 2020, no pet. history).  This post reviews the appellate court decision in Roels, and the court’s analysis of the minority shareholders’ claims for breach of fiduciary duty and the available defenses to these claims is helpful for both Control Persons and shareholders to understand. Continue Reading Navigating Safe Harbors: Review of the Protections Provided to Governing Persons by the Texas Interested Party Statute and the Business Judgment Rule