What rights do minority shareholders have when in dispute with majority shareholders?
When starting a business you need to think about what form that business should take. One option is a corporation. You see yourself as the majority shareholder, with others, possibly investors, getting minority shares. What are the limits to the power of majority shareholders? The state’s supreme court took up that issue earlier this year in the case of Ritchie v. Rupe.
In that case a minority shareholder, Ann Caldwell Rupe, filed a lawsuit against a closely held corporation and its board of directors. She claimed the majority shareholders engaged in oppressive conduct (forcing minority shareholders to lose their rights and/or investment in a corporation to the benefit of the majority) and breached their fiduciary duties by refusing to buy plaintiff’s shares for fair value or meet with prospective buyers.
Initially the case went well for the plaintiff. The jury found in her favor and the court ordered defendants purchase her shares for $7.3 million. The court of appeals upheld the decision, deciding the defendant directors’ refusal to meet with Rupe’s prospective purchasers constituted oppressive conduct.
The case turned in the defendants’ favor at the state Supreme Court. It reversed the lower courts’ decisions, deciding that those courts issued orders not authorized by state statute. The court found that the defendant directors’ conduct was not “oppressive” under the relevant statute, that the statute did not allow courts to order a corporation to buy out a minority shareholder’s investment, and that there was no common-law cause of action for “minority shareholder oppression.” The court sent the case back to trial to consider plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty claim.
Often a new business will start as a corporation that is closely held by its founders. Because it’s closely held by a few people, there is no open, public market for these shares. Though initially shareholders may agree to work together and have common goals, as time goes on, differences in managing the business can arise, or if a minority shareholder wants to simply sell his or her shares or retire, majority shareholders may want to limit how much they pay for those shares or put obstacles in the way of the party to find a buyer for the shares.
Before the Rupe decision, when necessary, courts ordered majority shareholders to buy shares owned by minority shareholders at a fair market price set by an independent expert. The Texas Supreme Court decision in this case ended the minority shareholder oppression doctrine in Texas, ceasing that practice by lower courts. But, the court in Rupe didn’t leave minority shareholders totally defenseless. There are several other potential causes of action minority shareholders may be able to use depending on the circumstances, including breach of fiduciary duty claims.
If you are starting a business and will either be a majority or minority shareholder the language of a shareholder agreement plays a critical role in the relationship between shareholders and spells out their duties and responsibilities. If you have questions about business formation, shareholder agreement or and what your rights are as a shareholder, call Austin, Texas business law attorney Sanjeev Kumar at (512)323-6060 to schedule a consultation today.