Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bontempo v. Lare (Md. Ct. Spec. App.)

Filed: April 30, 2014

Opinion by: Douglas R. M. Zanarian


(1) When a minority stockholder petitions a court for dissolution pursuant to Md. Code Ann., Corps. & Ass’ns § 3-413 (the “dissolution statute”), such stockholder’s rights will be informed by any existing stockholder agreement and, where there is no evidence of a deadlock of the board of directors or that the company is likely to become insolvent, the court has discretion under the statute to order alternatives to the extraordinary remedy of dissolution.

(2) The dissolution statute does not provide for personal liability, even if fraud is proven.

(3) The proper remedy when a court finds an officer or director has breached his or her fiduciary duties to the company by diverting money from the company for personal use is an order directing such officer or director to repay such money to the company, not an order requiring the company to declare equivalent distributions for all stockholders.

(4) An award of attorneys’ fees and expenses is only appropriate if the injured company has recovered a common fund.

(5) It is the trial court’s role to determine a party’s credibility and whether evidence is sufficient to support the existence of an oral contract.

Facts: Plaintiff became a minority stockholder of Quotient, Inc. (“Quotient”), a close corporation organized under Maryland law, in 2001. Plaintiff executed a shareholder agreement with the other stockholders of Quotient – the defendants, the Lares (a husband and wife collectively owning 55% of the stock in Quotient). In addition to being a director and officer of Quotient, Plaintiff was also an employee pursuant to an oral agreement with Mr. Lare, which Plaintiff alleged included that he would receive a salary equal to that of the Lares combined. In addition to certain “perks” (e.g., company credit cards for gas, meals and entertainment and a corporate fitness trainer), paid for by Quotient and received by Plaintiff and the Lares, the Lares began paying household employees from Quotient’s payroll account in 2006, advanced interest-free loans from Quotient to two companies in which the Lares had an interest and took a loan from Quotient for renovations to the Lares’ personal home. The relationship between Plaintiff and the Lares began to sour and in 2010 Mr. Lare terminated Plaintiff’s employment with Quotient after Plaintiff refused to voluntarily resign and sell his shares in Quotient. Plaintiff remained an officer and director of Quotient for six months after termination, however, and continued to receive distributions as a stockholder. Plaintiff filed suit against the Lares seeking relief pursuant to Maryland’s dissolution statute and asserted derivate claims on behalf of Quotient for imposition of a constructive trust, breach of fiduciary duty, and constructive fraud and a direct claim for breach of contract.

The trial court ruled in favor of Plaintiff as to his petition for dissolution; however, the trial court refused to dissolve Quotient and instead ordered Quotient to pay Plaintiff $167,638 in damages. The trial court also ruled in favor of Plaintiff as to his claim for breach of fiduciary duty and ordered that the misappropriated funds be treated as a distribution from Quotient and ordered Quotient to pay Plaintiff a proportionate amount, including attorney’s fees, but ruled in favor of the Lares as to Plaintiff’s claim for constructive fraud. The trial court ruled in favor of Plaintiff as to his claim for breach of contract and ordered Quotient to pay Plaintiff $81,818.18 in unpaid distributions, but refused to find an oral equal-compensation contract existed. Both parties appealed.

Analysis: The Court affirmed the holding of the trial court, including the trial court’s refusal to dissolve Quotient; however, it found that the trial court erred in how it allocated the damages.

Although the Court upheld the trial court’s finding, not contested on appeal, that Mr. Lare’s behavior met the standard for oppressive conduct, particularly his threat and ultimate firing of Plaintiff for refusing to voluntarily resign and sell his shares in Quotient, the Court also upheld the trial court’s conclusion that dissolution was not the only available remedy. The Court noted that it was Plaintiff’s status as a stockholder of Quotient, as defined by the shareholder agreement, that defined and bound the rights he was entitled to vindicate under the dissolution statute and the appropriate remedies. Unlike in Edenbaum v. Shcwarcz-Osztreicherne, 165 Md. App. 233 (2005), the Court noted that the shareholder agreement did not mention Plaintiff’s employment rights, thus the shareholder agreement did not give Plaintiff a reasonable expectation of employment or provide an enforceable to such. Instead, the Court found that Plaintiff was entitled to participate in distributions and the affairs and decisions of Quotient consistent with his status as a stockholder. Although Mr. Lare’s actions frustrated such rights, Plaintiff had resigned from Quotient’s board of directors and thus there was no evidence of a deadlock justifying dissolution, nor was there any evidence to suggest that, despite the use by the Lares of Quotient’s funds for personal expenses, Quotient was likely to become insolvent. Therefore, the extreme remedy of dissolution was inappropriate.

The Court also held that the Lares could not be personally liable under the dissolution statute, even if their actions constituted fraud, because the purpose of that statute is to vindicate the reasonable expectations of minority stockholders, in such capacity, against oppression by majority stockholders. Plaintiff’s injury as a minority stockholder was lost distributions, and thus, Plaintiff was made whole by accounting to determine how much money the Lares diverted from Quotient and an order to pay distributions to Quotient stockholders based on the amounts diverted.

The Court also agreed that the Lares had breached their fiduciary duties as directors and officers of Quotient by diverting money from Quotient for personal use; however, the Court held that the trial court erred in ordering a distribution to all stockholders as a remedy. The Court noted that it was Quotient, not Plaintiff, who was harmed because it was Quotient’s money that was taken by the Lares and, thus, distributions would not make Quotient whole but would instead take more money from Quotient. The Court held that the appropriate remedy would have been ordering the Lares to repay Quotient for the money taken. Because such payment would result in a recovery by Quotient of a common fund, the Court noted that an award by the trial court on remand of attorneys’ fees and expenses would be appropriate under the common fund doctrine.

Despite holding that the Lares had breached their fiduciary duties to Quotient, the Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of the Lares as to Plaintiff’s claim for constructive fraud. Although constructive fraud usually arises from a breach of fiduciary duty, the Court noted that they are not equivalent and that “a director can breach fiduciary duties without committing fraud.” The Court found that, although the Lares had used bad judgment in using funds from Quotient for their personal expenses, they had not engaged in a long course of illegal or fraudulent conduct, especially since all of the transactions were recorded on the books of Quotient and Plaintiff had access to such books. For the same reason, the Court found that the Lares did not act with malice.

Finally, the Court found that the trial court committed no error in refusing to find that an oral equal-compensation contract existed between Plaintiff and Quotient. Although Plaintiff and his wife testified to the oral equal-compensation agreement and evidence showed that Plaintiff was paid a salary equal to the Lares for four years, there was also evidence that, for multiple years in the beginning and towards the end of his employment, the salaries of Plaintiff and the Lares differed significantly. The Court noted that it was the trial court that heard the evidence and it was not for the Court to determine on appeal whether the trial court gave appropriate weight to the parties’ credibility.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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