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:

We do not agree that Vargas’s claims are based on communications regarding the provision of medical services because the communications at issue relate to Vargas’s withdrawal from the partnership and occurred after Vargas stopped practicing medicine. This case involves a private contract dispute affecting only the fortunes of the partners. The alleged representations were made to a limited business audience concerning a business dispute among the partners related to Vargas’s withdrawal from the partnership. Because the statements are not relevant to a wider audience of potential patients, the statements were not made “in connection with a matter of public concern.” The issues presented by this case are simply not a matter of public concern.

Id. The court of appeals also addressed whether plaintiff’s claims were based on, related to, or in response to the exercise of the right of association. The exercise of the right of association is defined in the applicable version of the TCPA as “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.” The court held that the communications did not constitute an exercise of the right of association:

We have defined the word “common” in the TCPA to mean “`of or relating to a community at large: public.’” The only communications at issue in Vargas’s claims are based on Vargas’s allegations that appellants (1) breached the Partnership Agreement and breached their fiduciary duties by “making false statements and denying [Vargas] access to important records,” (2) wrongfully assumed and exercised control over Vargas’s partnership interest, (3) sought to deprive Vargas of his partnership interest, and (4) attempted to fraudulently induce Vargas “to surrender his stake in the venture below its proper value.” These communications therefore are related to disagreements about Vargas’s withdrawal from the partnership. These communications concern a private transaction between private parties, not a matter of “common interest,” as we have held that expression is used in the applicable version of the TCPA. Accordingly, the communications do not constitute an exercise of the right of association protected by the TCPA.

Id.

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

Small, private companies are often viewed as a key to the growth of the GDP in the U.S. Even small companies quickly realize, however, that they are competing for business not just in their own neighborhood, but as part of a global marketplace. Therefore, when companies enter into contracts with other firms doing business in different states or countries, they often include terms in their agreements to select both the state in which to litigate any future disputes between them (choice of forum), as well as the county in which the litigation will take place (choice of venue). This post considers whether these choice of forum and choice of venue provisions the parties opt to include in their contracts will be deemed enforceable under Texas law. Continue Reading Under Texas Law, You Can Have Your Cake, But Not Always Eat it Too: Choice of Forum Clauses Are Enforceable, Choice of Venue Has Limits

As we have noted in previous posts, it can become critical for the majority owner of a private company to remove a business partner who holds a minority ownership stake in the business and who is causing major dysfunction in the company.  See “The Devil You Know: Pick Business Partners Wisely and Plan For Problems AheadBy the same token, a minority investor may desire to exit the business when the majority owner is taking actions that benefit himself to the detriment of the company. This is the second of two posts that discusses issues involved in separating from bad business partners, and it reflects the perspective of both majority owners and minority investors. (Read Part 1) Continue Reading Don’t Wait to Jump Off the Bandwagon: Cutting Ties With a Bad Business Partner (Part 2)

Experience teaches us that all relationships have ups and downs, including those existing between business partners.  When the relationship becomes strained between partners in a private company, however, the majority owner of the business must decide whether these problems are fixable, or whether the best decision is to remove the partner who holds a minority ownership stake in the company.  This is Part 1 of 2 posts, and it focuses on identifying some of the most common characteristics of difficult business partners.  When these vexing attributes exist in a business partner with a minority ownership interest in the company, the majority owner needs to consider whether to buy out the partner’s stake, or at least end his/her involvement in the day-to-day operations of the company.  In Part 2, we will discuss the process for the company’s majority owner to remove a difficult partner from the business, and we will also look at strategies that enable minority investors to exit the business and secure a buyout of their ownership interest in the company when serious conflicts arise with the majority owner.

Continue Reading When to Pull The Plug: Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Your Business Partner? (Part 1)

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It is common for private company co-owners to have disagreements while they operate their business, but they typically work through these disputes themselves.  In those rare instances where conflicts escalate and legal action is required, business partners have two options—filing a lawsuit or participating in an arbitration proceeding.  Arbitration is available, however, only if the parties agreed in advance to arbitrate their disputes.  Therefore, before business partners enter into a buy-sell contact or join other agreements with their co-owners, they will want to consider both the pros and the cons of arbitration.  This post offers input for private company owners and investors to help them decide whether litigation or arbitration provides them with the best forum in which to resolve future disputes with their business partners.

Arbitration is often touted as a faster and less expensive alternative to litigation with the additional benefit of resulting in a final award that is not subject to appeal.  These attributes may not be realized in arbitration, however, and there are other important factors involved, which also merit consideration.  At the outset, it is important to emphasize that arbitrations are created by contract, and parties can therefore custom design the arbitration to be conducted in a manner that meets their specific needs.  The critical factors to be considered are: (i) speed—how important is a quick resolution to the dispute, (ii) confidentiality—how desirable is privacy in resolving the claims, (iii) scope—how broad are the claims to be resolved, (iv) expense—how important is it to limit costs, and (v) finality—is securing a final result more desirable than preserving the right to appeal an adverse decision. Continue Reading Feuding Business Partners in Private Companies: Considering Arbitration to Resolve Partnership Disputes

The legal front remains forbidding for private company minority investors who seek to secure a buyout of their ownership stake based on claims for oppression against the company’s majority owners.  It has been six years since the Texas Supreme Court eliminated a court-ordered buyout as an available remedy for minority shareholders claiming oppression, and no other legal avenue exists that provides minority owners with a buyout of their interest based on claims for mistreatment by business owners who manage the company.  See Ritchie v. Rupe.[1]  The best advice for minority investors therefore is simply this—before investing in a private business, minority owners need to insist on securing a buy-sell agreement.

We have written extensively about the terms of buy-sell agreements in previous posts (Read Here).  A buy-sell contract provides investors with the right to obtain a buyout of their minority ownership interest in the company at a future time.

No BuyOut For Breach of Fiduciary Duty

When minority owners have claims for misconduct by majority owners, these claims most commonly include: (1) breach of contract, (2) fraud, and (3) breach of fiduciary duty.  None of these claims permit the trial court, however, to award the minority owner with the remedy of a buyout of his/her or its minority interest.  Instead, the remedy for these claims is typically the recovery of actual damages.  In the case of fraud, if the minority owner can prove that he/she was fraudulently induced to make the investment in the company, the court could rescind the transaction and require the majority owner to return the investor’s purchase price.  Instances of outright fraudulent inducement are relatively rare, however, and this will not be a claim or remedy available to most investors.  The fiduciary duty claim against the majority owner in control of the company does give rise to a potential shareholder derivative action, however, which is discussed below. Continue Reading The Plight of Oppressed Private Company Minority Investors:  No Legal Escape Available Without a Buy-Sell Agreement in Place

In February 2009, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes made a toe tapping catch in the back corner of the end zone[1] to secure a thrilling, come-from-behind win and crush the hearts of Arizona Cardinals fans in Super Bowl 43.  For private company owners running their own firms, the boundaries for their conduct are set by the fiduciary duties they owe to their companies.  But in both sports and the management of private businesses, team leaders can find it challenging to remain inbounds.  This post therefore reviews the legal lanes of proper conduct that owners will want to follow to avoid future claims.

The Scope of Fiduciary Duties

The fiduciary duties of corporate directors and officers are not included in the Texas Business Organizations Code (“BOC”), but Texas case law for more than a century makes clear that both directors and company officers owe duties of obedience, care, and loyalty, and these duties are owed to the company, not to the individual shareholders.  See Tenison, v. Patton, 95 Tex. 284, 67 S.W. 92 (1902); Ritchie v. Rupe, 443 S.W.3d 856, 868 (Tex. 2014).  These same fiduciary duties also apply to LLC managers and officers, and all of these parties are referred to in this post as “control persons.”

The Ritchie case focused on whether minority shareholders have a legal right to secure a court-ordered buyout of their minority ownership interest based on claims that control persons engaged in shareholder oppression.  The Court held no claim for shareholder oppression exists in the BOC or at common law that would authorize a trial court to order the company or majority owners to buy the minority owner’s stake in the business.  But, the Ritchie Court did uphold the right of minority shareholders to pursue claims against officers and directors for breach of their fiduciary duties, and recognized that these claims could be brought on a derivative basis.

In this regard, the Court stated that:

“Directors, or those acting as directors, owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation in their directorial actions,and this duty “includes the dedication of [their] uncorrupted business judgment for the sole benefit of the corporation.”
443 S.W.3d at 868.

The BOC permits the fiduciary duties of control persons to be limited in the company’s governance documents, but the statute does not permit a company to remove the duty of loyalty owed by control persons.  The remainder of this post focuses on what the duty of loyalty requires from governing persons in their business relationship with their companies.

Conflicts Transactions by Control Persons Can Lead to Claims

Owners of private companies commonly engage in transactions with their businesses in their capacity as control persons.  Majority owners may buy, sell and lease property from or to their companies, buy and sell products or services from other businesses they also own or control, and loan money to their companies to fund their business operations.  All of these transactions are not at “arm’s-length” and, instead, they are “interested party” transactions, which are sometimes referred to as “conflict transactions.”  These types of conflicts transactions may result in claims by the minority owners who allege that the transactions breached the control person’s fiduciary duties because they were not fair to the company.

Once again, the Supreme Court in Ritchie addressed this problem:

“[T]he duty of loyalty that officers and directors owe to the corporation specifically prohibits them from misapplying corporate assets for their personal gain or wrongfully diverting corporate opportunities to themselves. Like most of the actions we have already discussed, these types of actions may be redressed through a derivative action, or through a direct action brought by the corporation, for breach of fiduciary duty.
443 S.W.3d at 887.

There is a “safe harbor” provision in the BOC for company control persons when they engage in business with their company for their personal benefit.  Section 21.418 of the BOC provides that when a control person enters into a transaction with the Company, which would otherwise be void or voidable, the transaction will be nevertheless be upheld as valid if certain conditions are met.  We discussed this safe harbor statute in more detail in a previous post (Read Here).  In summary, a conflict transaction by a control person will be upheld if (i) the details of the transaction were fully disclosed to and approved by a majority of the shareholders and/or by a majority of the disinterested directors or (ii) if the transaction is deemed to be objectively fair to the company.

Fairness is not defined in the BOC provisions, but fair is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “characterized by honesty and justice” and “free from fraud, injustice, prejudice or favoritism.  Once the minority shareholder brings a claim and demonstrates that a control person engaged in a conflict transaction, the control person will then bear the burden of demonstrating in the case that the terms of the transaction were fair to the company.  To avoid being forced to litigate the issue of fairness, control persons may want to avoid the following types of conflict transactions or, alternatively, they may want to take steps to head off the expected challenge from minority owners that the transaction was not fair to the company.

Examples of Conflicts Transactions

The following are the most common types of conflict transactions that control persons engage in with their companies, and for each of these, an approach is suggested that can either eliminate or reduce the potential for future claims.

  • Theft of corporate opportunity
    The duty of loyalty requires control persons not to take business opportunities for themselves that rightfully belong to the company.  When control persons take company opportunities, this is referred to as usurpation or misappropriation and it is a breach of fiduciary duty.  There is a clear way, however, for control persons to avoid this claim.  In 2003, the BOC was amended to allow for a company to include in its certificate of formation, bylaws or in its company agreement an express waiver of the control person’s duty not to usurp a company opportunity.  See. BOC Section 2.101(21).  The specific language gives the company the power to:

 . . . renounce, in its certificate of formation or by action of its governing authority, an interest or expectancy of the entity in, or an interest or expectancy of the entity in being offered an opportunity to participate in, specified business opportunities or a specified class or category of business opportunities presented to the entity or one or more of its managerial officials or owners. 

As indicated by this provision, the certificate, bylaw or provision of the company agreement needs to make clear the specific type or category of opportunities that are being excluded from the duty.  By including this limitation on the duty of loyalty, however, the control person will be immune from any liability for usurping a corporate opportunity of the company as it is defined in the bylaws or in the provisions of the LLC agreement.

  • Purchase or sale or lease of property to company, and loans to company 
    It is common for control persons to either sell, purchase or lease property, assets or services to/from the company they control or to provide loans to the company.  These are all conflict transactions that can, and often do, give rise to claims for breach of fiduciary duty and fights about whether the control person engaged in a transaction that was unfair to the company.  To avoid or at least limit claims related to these types of transactions, there are a number of common sense, practical steps that control persons can take before they engage in the transaction.

First, the control person should fully disclose all material terms of the transaction to other shareholders, the board and/or managers of the company and seek their approval, which if given, should eliminate all future claims.  Second, when there are objections raised to the transaction, the control person should consider securing input from outside experts to provide objective information.  For example, if the control person is selling or leasing property to the company, the control person should arrange for an independent appraiser to provide a written appraisal to set the property’s market value.  If a lease of property is at issue, an independent broker can provide market value lease rates for the type of property at issue.  Third, when the company is receiving loans from the control person, bankers can readily provide loan terms that reflect market rates.

Finally, the control person should consider structuring the transaction in a way that provides the company with a better deal on terms more favorable than market rates.  The control person does not need to give the company a gift in the transaction, but if the company receives a deal that is better than market rates, that will make it harder for the other shareholders or LLC members to complain that there was any lack of fairness in the transaction to the company.

  •  Compensation and bonuses 
    Finally, a hot button point with shareholders and members is often compensation, and more specifically, how much money is paid in base compensation and bonuses to the majority owner in his/her capacity as an officer, director or manager.  The obvious concern is that funds paid in compensation should, instead, be issued as dividends or distributions to all owners, and that the compensation paid to the majority owner is considered a “disguised distribution.”

If the other shareholders or members express concern regarding the compensation and bonuses that are being paid to the majority owners, this issue should be addressed by hiring an experienced and independent executive compensation expert.  The compensation expert will provide the company with a range of compensation that is being paid to executives at similarly situated companies in the same or similar industry and geographic region.  As noted above, rather than choosing a compensation/bonus level at the top end of the range determined by the expert, the majority owner is advised to select a range of compensation in the 70-80% range to limit the likelihood of any claim being brought by minority owners on this basis.

Conclusion

In King Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  One cause for this unease by private company owners who wear the mantle of leadership is that they are subject to suits by co-owners for breach of loyalty to the company.  But staying inbounds is by no means an insurmountable challenge for majority owners, as control persons, if they follow a few simple ground rules.  In short, majority owners need to be fully transparent in all of their transactions with the company, they should seek agreement when possible with other owners, but when an agreement is not possible, they need to secure specific input from outside experts who can validate the fairness of the transaction to the company before it takes place.  And regarding that Santonio Holmes TD catch, let’s look ahead and hope the Cardinals get another chance at a Super Bowl win soon led by their exciting QB and No. 1 Draft Choice, Kyler Murray.

_____________________________

[1] Cardinals fans like me continue to question whether Holmes actually managed to get his right toes down on the turf in the end zone before he was pushed out of bounds, and photographs of the catch prolong this debate.