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.

Elements of Fiduciary Duty Claims

In Roels, the minority shareholders contending that certain of the company’s officers and directors had breached their fiduciary duties to the company by allegedly engaging in interested-director transactions, misusing company resources and failing to pursue a valuable corporate opportunity.  The trial court overruled the defendants’ (Governing Persons) motion to dismiss, but the appellate court largely reversed the trial court’s ruling and, for the most part, dismissed the shareholders’ claims.  The court’s decision arose in the context of considering a motion to dismiss the Defendants filed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (“TCPA”).  It is not necessary to review the TCPA for our purposes here, however, in focusing on the court’s rulings regarding the shareholders ’breach of fiduciary duty claims and the defenses to those claims.
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

According to the financial press, private equity investors are holding huge sums waiting for the right private company in which to invest.  In late March, CNBC reported that private equity firms have a staggering $1.5 trillion in cash on hand (more than double the amount from five years ago) and that they are actively seeking deals in the travel, entertainment and energy industries.   In April, Vanity Fair stated that in each of the past four years, private equity managers have raised more then $500 billion for investment, and noted that from 2013 to 2018, more private equity deals took place than in any five year time frame in American history.

Private equity firms are not the only ones who are making investments in private companies.  Angel investors and others are stepping up to fund privately held businesses, and there are many documented success stories of individual investors who have struck platinum with their private company investments.   It is is also true, however, that a sizable number of fast growing private companies hit the rocks and burned through all or most of the funds that were invested in them.

The purpose of this blog post is not to help pick private company winners—that is a topic for others with the ability to discern which companies have the best ideas, management teams and the staying power to succeed on a long-term basis.  But picking a successful private company is only part of the story.   A private company’s success will not automatically make an investment in the business a success if the company’s governance documents do not provide the investor with a measure of protection on several important fronts.  This blog post therefore focuses on the critical terms that an investor will want to secure in the company’s governance documents before actually making a substantial investment in the company.
Continue Reading Looking Past the Face of the Shiny Penny: Check the Fine Print of All Private Company Investments

There are many reasons for business owners to consider adding new partners, including to secure additional capital, to add needed expertise to help grow the company, to bring family members or close friends to join in building the business and to put a succession plan in place. Adding new partners can therefore provide a boost to the company’s revenues, lighten the load carried by the founder, and put the business on course for long-term success.  But this decision is not without risk because the new business partners may create conflicts, disrupt the business and insist on making changes that put the company’s existence in peril.

If after carefully weighing the pros and cons, business owners decide to move forward in adding new partners, this post reviews important steps they can take to protect themselves and the business from the decisions and actions of these new stakeholders in the company.

Equity Ownership Can Be Conditional or Subject to Cancellation

One protective step business owners can take when adding a new partner is to make the addition of a new partner’s ownership conditional or subject to cancellation. This approach permits the owner to wait to grant the ownership interest in the company to the new partner until he or she has met specified business goals by a certain date or to cancel the grant of equity to the new partner if the specific goals have not been achieved by the agreed date.
Continue Reading Keeping Eyes Wide Open When New Members Join the Pack: A Cautious Approach to the Addition of New Business Partners

Lawyers play a critical role in negotiating and drafting contracts, but when business owners and investors enter into significant agreements regarding or on behalf of their private company, these documents are too important to leave them solely in the lawyer’s hands.  The parties to these business agreements need to carefully read and understand their terms if they want to avoid unwelcome surprises when their agreements become the focus in a future legal dispute.  There are a number of issues to consider in documenting business agreements, and the elements that go into developing binding business contracts is the subject of this blog post.

The Terms of the Written Agreement Control

The starting point in securing an enforceable agreement is to “get it in writing.”  Virtually all business agreements are entered into after the parties have discussed the material terms of the contract, and in some cases, these negotiations may last for weeks or even months.  One party to the contract may therefore conclude that assurances it received from the other party during these negotiations should be as binding as the actual terms of the agreement.  Unfortunately, a party who seeks to enforce oral promises or assurances outside the contract faces a steep uphill climb under Texas law.

Standard contract terms will likely include both a “merger/integration clause” and “anti-reliance provisions.”  These terms exclude from being part of the agreement any offers that were made during the parties’ discussions, as well as any representations the parties made that are not expressly set forth in the contract.  Over the past two years, Texas Supreme Court has made clear that the actual terms of the contract control, and it has repeatedly rejected claims that are based on statements made outside the contract.  In 2018, in Orca, the Supreme Court denied a fraud claim without requiring a trial on the basis that the reliance element of fraud can be “be negated as a matter of law when circumstances exist under which reliance cannot be justified.”[1]  Just last year, the Court overturned large jury verdicts in two separate fraud cases setting aside judgments based on alleged misrepresentations that were not set forth in the contracts at issue.
Continue Reading Did Your Business Deal Just Do a Disappearing Act? Securing Legally Binding, Enforceable Contract Terms