Filed: August 6, 2015
Opinion by: Robert N. McDonald
(1) The standard for determining whether a minority shareholder has been “oppressed” by the majority is the shareholder’s “reasonable expectations” upon obtaining an ownership interest in the company. This standard does not, however, dictate the type of equitable relief a trial court must provide, unless it is to be dissolution of the company.
(2) A breach of fiduciary duty to a corporation does not constitute fraud, absent a finding of fraud by the court. In this case, the majority shareholder’s self-dealing was a breach of his fiduciary duty, but because it did not involve deception, it did not rise to the level of fraud. The requested remedies of dissolution of the company and an award of punitive damages were therefore denied.
Facts: See prior summary of Bontempo v. Lare (Md. Ct. Spec. App.).
The Court agreed with the opinions of the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals on the standard for determining whether a minority shareholder has been “oppressed”: The court should look to the shareholder’s “reasonable expectations” at the time of acquiring an ownership interest in the company. If oppression has occurred, then dissolution of the company can be a remedy.
The Court of Appeals found, however, that even upon a finding of oppression, other, less punishing remedies can also be considered. In choosing a possible remedy, the court should take into account other stakeholders who may be affected, including other shareholders, managers, employees, and customers.
In this instance, Plaintiff argued that he had a reasonable expectation of future employment when he acquired a stake in the company. He said his investment, in the form of sweat equity, should trump his status as an at-will employee. The Court said a “reasonable expectation” can be used to determine whether oppression has occurred but does not dictate what form of equitable relief a court should grant. In addition, reinstating Plaintiff as an employee would not have been a viable option because he and Defendant could not reasonably have been expected to run a business together.
A provision in the shareholder agreement requires an employee to sell his stock upon termination “for cause.” Plaintiff argued that this provision effectively created an employment agreement, overriding his status as an employee at will. The Court was unpersuaded by this argument as well, noting that a buy-out requirement when a shareholder-employee is terminated for cause does not imply that the individual may be terminated only for cause.
On another mater, Plaintiff asked the Court to reconsider his allegations of fraud, which the Circuit Court had denied. He argued that Defendant’s breach of his fiduciary duty to the company constituted fraud as to the company itself and to Plaintiff as an oppressed shareholder.
The Court affirmed the lower court’s finding, noting that although Defendant’s self-dealing did constitute a breach of his fiduciary duty to the company, he made no attempt to conceal the activity. The illicit personal expenditures from the corporation’s accounts were entered into the company’s books, to which Plaintiff had full access.
Plaintiff made his allegations of fraud in connection with seeking dissolution of the company and an award of punitive damages for his benefit. As to the request for punitive damages, the Court said that they are not available as an equitable remedy and that, in any event, a finding of fraud would not support an award of punitive damages.
The full opinion is available in PDF.