The return of Ritchie v. Rupe

After the Texas Supreme Court’s reversed the Fifth Court’s analysis of a shareholder oppression claim in Ritchie v. Rupe, 443 S.W.3d 856 (Tex. 2014), it remanded for consideration of a parallel “informal fiduciary duty” claim.  On remand, the Fifth Court rejected that claims, concluding: (1) standing alone, “evidence of domination and control” by the majority shareholder would not establish the necessary duty, and (2) the various familial and business relationships between the plaintiff and the defendants were not enough to establish a relationship of trust and confidence, notwithstanding the interaction of various family trusts over the years.  Ritchie v. Rupe, No. 05-08-00615-CV (Jan. 12, 2016) (mem. op.)

Supreme Court Shareholder Oppression Update: Cardiac Perfusion v. Hughes

Following up on last week’s decision that basically eliminated minority shareholder oppression claims (or more precisely, shareholder oppression remedies) in Texas, the state Supreme Court has reversed and remanded another such case that passed through the Dallas Court of Appeals a couple years ago. In Cardiac Perfusion Services, Inc. v. Hughes, the Court of Appeals had affirmed the trial court’s order of a $300,000 “fair value” buyout of the oppressed shareholder’s stock, holding that the majority’s oppressive conduct justified a departure from the “book value” buyout price provided for by the parties’ shareholder agreement. With court-ordered buyouts no longer a viable remedy for shareholder oppression claims, the Supreme Court vacated that portion of the judgment, but remanded the case to the trial court in the interests of justice in order to afford the minority shareholder an opportunity to try to establish liability under one or more of the alternative claims discussed last week in Ritchie v. Rupe.

Cardiac Perfusion Servs. Inc. v. Hughes, No. 13-0014

Does Shareholder Oppression Still Exist?

This morning’s decision by the Texas Supreme Court in Ritchie v. Rupe raises some pretty substantial questions about the continuing viability of claims for minority shareholder oppression in Texas. By way of background, the decision arises out of a dispute over a family-owned investment business, with the wife and heir of one of the deceased owners claiming that the other owners were hostile to her and told her that she would “never get any money in this family.” Wanting out of the company, she sought to sell her shares to an outside investor, but the majority shareholders refused to meet with any prospective purchasers, make the company’s records available, or otherwise assist in a sale. The jury found that conduct to be oppressive, and the trial court ordered a buyout of the minority’s shares for $7.3 million. The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed the oppression ruling, albeit with a remand for further consideration of the valuation of the plaintiff’s shares.

In reversing that decision, Justice Boyd’s majority opinion for the Supreme Court first analyzed the case under the receivership statute, currently codified at section 11.404 of the Texas Business Organizations Code. That statute permits a court to appoint a receiver when “the acts of the directors or those in control of the corporation are illegal, oppressive or fraudulent . . .” Construing and rejecting previous cases that have considered the meaning of “oppressive” conduct, the court today holds that directors or managers engage in oppressive conduct “when they abuse their authority over the corporation with the intent to harm the interests of one or more of the shareholders, in a manner that does not comport with the honest exercise of their business judgment, and by doing so they create a serious risk of harm to the corporation” (emphasis added). Since shareholder oppression cases have typically focused on whether the minority shareholder has been improperly harmed, the additional question of whether the majority is putting the corporation itself at risk of harm appears to be a significant shift in the law. Because the directors here had legitimate business reasons for refusing to meet with prospective buyers, there was no “serious risk of harm to the corporation,” and therefore no oppression.

Perhaps even more significant are the Supreme Court’s other two holdings in the case. Besides the refusal to cooperate with the sale of her shares, the plaintiff also alleged that the defendants had engaged in other types of oppressive conduct. The court declined to consider those other acts, however, based on its determination that the receivership statute does not authorize the remedy of a buyout of the minority’s shares. Thus, a court may order the appointment of a receiver if the corporation itself is threatened with harm, but it cannot order a buyout just because the minority shareholder is being harmed by the majority’s business decisions. Finally, because the receivership statute does not permit a buyout, the court turned to the question of whether there is a common law cause of action (and remedy) for shareholder oppression, and concluded that there is not. Although the court recognized there Texas law should protect minority shareholders from “freeze-out” or “squeeze out” tactics of the majority, it held that there are already sufficient protections with remedies such as derivative lawsuits, shareholder agreements, and common law claims such as breach of fiduciary duty and accounting. Accordingly, there was no need to recognize a common law claim for minority shareholder oppression, and it therefore could not serve as the basis to order an equitable buyout of the minority’s shares. And in fact, the Supreme Court remanded the case for further consideration of the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim.

Going forward, the majority opinion today imposes significant restraints on shareholder oppression claims, refocusing the claim on harm suffered by the company rather than its minority shareholders and eliminating the ability of courts to order buyouts, whether at fair market value or any other price. Lawyers and clients should also make careful note of the majority’s emphasis on the utility of shareholder agreements in providing for the kinds of contractual remedies that can provide in advance for buyout provisions and other remedies that would moot the need for any shareholder oppression claim. But as Justice Guzman’s dissent correctly notes, this is a decision that puts minority shareholders in a much weakened position when their personal interests clash with the decisions of the majority.

Supreme Court Update: Ritchie v. Rupe

In what will certainly be seen as a landmark decision for Texas business law, the Supreme Court has issued its opinion today reversing the Dallas Court of Appeals in the case of Ritchie v. Rupe. As we noted a while back, the Court of Appeals had affirmed the trial court’s ruling that a minority shareholder was entitled to “fair market value” for her shares, including “discounts for lack of marketability and for the [s]tock’s minority position.” Today, the Supreme Court holds that it was not oppressive conduct for the majority shareholders to refuse to meet with prospective purchasers of the company, that the Business Organizations Code does not authorize courts to order a corporation to buy out a minority shareholder’s stock, and that there is no common-law cause of action for minority shareholder oppression. 

Ricthie v. Rupe (majority, by Justice Boyd)

Ritchie v. Rupe (dissent, By Justice Guzman)

Shareholder Oppression to the Supreme Court

The Dallas Court of Appeals’ recent series of shareholder oppression cases is making its way to the Texas Supreme Court.  Today’s list of petitions granted included Ritchie v. Rupe, in which the Dallas Court of Appeals held that held a minority shareholder who had sought to leave the company was entitled to “fair market value” for her shares, including “discounts for lack of marketability and for the [s]tock’s minority position.  That holding was quite different than the subsequent opinion in Cardiac Perfusion Services, Inc. v. Hughes, in which the court of appeals held that the minority shareholder was entitled to a “fair value” buyout, with no discounts, because the shareholder was being forced out of the company.

You can find links to the parties’ briefs in the Ritchie case here.  Oral argument is set for February 26.  In the meantime, the motion for rehearing at the court of appeals is still pending in the Cardiac Perfusion case.

$85 Million Shareholder Oppression Judgment Reversed

Another installment in the court’s recent spate of shareholder oppression opinions finds the court reversing a judgment in favor of the minority shareholder. Martin and Shagrithaya started a software company named ARGO in 1980 with $1000. Martin and Shagrithaya retained 53% and 47% interests in ARGO respectively and were the sole board members, but Martin had the right to appoint a tiebreaker. There was no express agreement as to employment or compensation, which was determined on a year to year basis. For 25 years, they received equal compensation. By 2008, ARGO was valued at $152 million.

In the early 2000s, tensions arose as Martin became unhappy with what he saw as Shagrithaya’s refusal to take on executive responsibilities. In 2006, Martin unilaterally cut Shagrithaya’s annual compensation from $1 million to $300,000. Soon after, Martin and ARGO’s management began to isolate Shagrithaya. Around this time, the IRS performed an audit of ARGO and found assess it over $7 million in retained earnings tax. ARGO contested this assessment and won. Shagrithaya was not informed of the assessment or contest.

After an independent appraisal of ARGO, Martin offered Shagrithaya $66 million for his shares, representing their values less a 35% minority holder discount. Shagrithaya refused, arguing that there should be no discount because ARGO is not a third-party. Shagrithaya demanded an audit of ARGO and proposed an alternative plan to restore his previous salary, explore a sale of ARGO, and issue an $85 million dividend. ARGO allowed the audit, which uncovered that Martin had misappropriated ARGO funds to his personal use. Martin reimbursed ARGO the amount appropriated plus some amount more. In a final board meeting in December 2008, Martin appointed ARGO president Engebos as the third board member. They voted in favor of Martin’s plans regarding compensation, executive positions, and a$25 million dividend.

After losing the vote on all three issues, Shagrithaya resigned and filed a suit for shareholder oppression and other torts. At trial, Shagrithaya advanced the theory that Martin schemed to withhold compensation and dividends to ARGO so that ARGO could purchase Shagrithaya’s shares at a minority discount and force Shagrithaya out of the company. The jury found in Shagrithaya’s favor, and the trial court entered a judgment awarding Shagrithaya back compensation and ordering ARGO to issue an $85 million dividend.

On appeal, Martin and ARGO challenged the legal and factual sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury’s finding of suppression. The court reviewed eleven of Martin and AGRO’s actions that the jury found to be oppressive to determine whether they (1) substantially defeated Shagrithaya’s objectively reasonable expectations central to his decision to join the venture or (2) constituted “burdensome, harsh, or wrongful conduct; a lack of probity and fair dealing in the company’s affairs to the prejudice of [Shagrithaya]; or a visible departure from the standards of fair dealing and a violation of fair play.”

ACTS 1 and 7: Martin reduced Shagrithaya’s annual compensation by 70 percent and forced him to report to ARGO’s president, Engebos, without the approval of the Board of Directors or shareholders. The court held that it was not reasonable for Shagrithaya to expect to maintain a level of compensation equal to Martin’s indefinitely without an employment contract. Additionally, the absence of board approval was later corrected at the December 2008 board meeting and the board retroactively cured the discrepancy in Shagrithaya’s actual past compensation. Though Shagrithaya voted against the reduction, the court noted that the inability to control board decisions is inherent in the position of a minority shareholder, citing Patton v. Nicholas. Finally, it did not prejudice Shagrithaya’s rights as a board member because these issues were purely employment matters.

ACT 2: ARGO maintained Martin’s compensation at $1 million without board approval. Shagrithaya argued that this constituted a de facto dividend to Martin, but the court found no evidence of such. And again, the boards retroactively approved and cured this action.

ACTS 3-4: Martin schemed to buy out Shagrithaya retaining earnings and refusing to pay dividends. The court held that these actions alone did not constitute oppression. The dividend were equally suppressed for Martin, and some dividends were issued and shared accordingly with Shagrithaya. Further, there was no evidence that these actions reduced Shagrithaya’s share value. The court noted that Shagrithaya had no specific expectation of dividends, and shareholders have not general expectation of dividends.

ACTS 5 and 11: Martin did not disclose the IRS assessment or ARGO’s engagement of a law firm to challenge it. The court held that because the assessment was reversed, there was no harm to Shagrithaya’s interests, and the legal representation benefited ARGO by securing the reversal.

ACT 6: Martin offered Shagrithaya $66 million for his shares at a minority discount and forced him to accept by withholding dividends. The court held that because Shagrithaya was never forced to relinquish ownership – his intent to sell was voluntary – the fair market value of his minority shares, including the discount, was the proper valuation. Using the shares’ enterprise value in the sale would only be required if ARGO or Martin were forced to purchase them. Further, the mere purchase offer, without other financial pressure, was not oppressive.

ACTS 8-10: Martin’s misappropriation of ARGO assets for his personal use. Martin’s repayment remedied any harm to Shagrithaya prior to trial.

The jury also found for Shagrithaya on his claims for fraud, breach of implied agreement, and breach of fiduciary duty. The fraud claim related to Martin’s failure to disclose his buyout scheme. The court held that his failure to disclose did not harm Shagrithaya because Shagrithaya could not force a dividend and possible sale of shares at that time were to speculative. Shagrithaya’s alleged Martin breached an implied agreement to continue their practice of equal compensation. The court held that this practice was not sufficient to establish an agreement, and in any case the terms of any agreement were too indefinite. Finally, Martin’s retaining of earnings, misuse of funds, and sale of ARGO’s assets did not cause Shagrithaya harm even if it breached his fiduciary duties.

ARGO Data Resource Corporation and Max Martin v. Balkrishna Shagrithaya, 05-10-00690-CV

More on Shareholder Oppression

Minority shareholder oppression continues to be a hot topic with the Dallas Court of Appeals, which is helping to fill out an otherwise sparse body of Texas case law. This time, the court has reversed and rendered a take-nothing judgment in an appeal of a $66 million judgment for shareholder oppression and breach of implied contract.  We will have the details in a subsequent post, but you can read the decision for yourself in the link below.

ARGO Data Resource Corp. v. Shagrithaya, No. 05-10-00690-CV

Fair’s Fair

The court issued a significant ruling related to the remedy for shareholder oppression, holding that the equitable relief of a “fair value” buy-out was not precluded by a provision in an Agreement mandating a “book value” buy-out. Joubran, the sole shareholder of a cardiac perfusion company, hired Hughes, sold him 10% of the corporation’s outstanding shares, and entered into an Agreement requiring Joubran to purchase Hughes’s stock at book value upon the severance of his employment. Years later a dispute arose, Hughes was terminated, and Hughes sued Joubran for shareholder oppression. The trial court held that that Joubran engaged in shareholder oppression and awarded Hughes what the jury found to be the fair value of his shares in the company.

On appeal, Joubran argued that the trial court should have calculated the value of the shares based on their book value as required in the Agreement because a party to a contract generally cannot recover equitable relief inconsistent with that contract. But the court held that the trial court had the equitable power to order a buy-out at fair value because the book value of Hughes’s shares was reduced by Joubran’s oppressive conduct and, additionally, Hughes was not suing for breach of contract. This holding squares with the court’s recent decision in Ritchie v. Rupe that the “enterprise value” method for determining stock’s fair value, i.e. determining the pro rata value of each share without any discount based on the stock’s minority status or marketability, is appropriate in shareholder oppression suits when the oppressive conduct of the majority forces a minority shareholder to relinquish his ownership position. 339 S.W.3d 275, 289 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2011, pet. filed)

As a secondary issue, the court addressed whether a shareholder that exercises dominating control over a corporation owes a formal fiduciary duty to the minority shareholders. In its verdict, the jury found that no informal fiduciary duty existed between the shareholders, but nonetheless found that Joubran breached a fiduciary duty to Hughes and awarded Hughes almost $2 million in actual and exemplary damages. The trial court declined to render judgment in favor of Hughes, who argued on appeal that the trial court should have disregarded the first jury finding because, under the circumstances, Joubran owed Hughes a formal fiduciary duty. The court disagreed, citing numerous Texas cases to the contrary and noting that the Texas Supreme Court expressly declined to recognize such a duty in Willis v. Donnelly, 199 S.W.3d 262, 276 (Tex. 2006).

Cardiac Perfusion Services, Inc. v. Hughes, No. 05-10-00286-CV