Controlling shareholders distribute profits to themselves while refusing to declare dividends

“Because Wallace and Joan have not authorized dividend distributions, Martin has received no financial benefit from his minority interest in E&E. Meanwhile, Wallace has approved his own annual compensation in the millions of dollars.” Smith v. Smith, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81240, *3 (E.D. Mich. May 8, 2020).

The Smith case, pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, involves issues that regularly present in shareholder oppression cases. First, despite corporate success and the controlling shareholders receiving millions through compensation and self-dealing, the minority shareholder receives nothing of value. Second, the controlling shareholders provide inadequate information for the minority shareholder to recognize the controlling shareholders’ actionable conduct and take legal action.

Judge Mark A. Goldsmith recently issued an opinion touching on these themes in the course of ruling on the parties’ motions for partial summary judgment in Smith. This paper synthesizes the parties’ positions and the court’s analysis of those positions, which provide an illustration of how minority shareholders, majority shareholders, and courts address common issues in shareholder disputes.

Martin Smith, the plaintiff, is a 48.5% shareholder in E&E Manufacturing Corporation, Inc. 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS, 81240 at *2. Wallace Smith and his wife, Joan Smith, own 51.5% of E&E’s stock. Id. Wallace and Joan are E&E’s sole directors and Wallace is E&E’s president, secretary, and treasurer. Id. Martin is not employed by E&E. Id. at *28.

Between 2012 and 2018, E&E generated annual net income of approximately $3.5 million to $5.0 million. Id. *3. Despite the considerable profits, Wallace and Joan did not make any dividend distributions to E&E’s shareholders. Id. Martin alleges that Wallace and Joan also caused E&E to enter into various transactions, including leases in which E&E paid millions, to companies owned by Wallace, Joan, and their children. Id. at *3-4. Martin also alleges that Wallace received, on average, approximately $1.8 million dollars annually in compensation. Id.*28.

Martin filed suit against Wallace, Joan, and others for shareholder oppression, breach of fiduciary duty, and other statutory relief under Michigan’s corporate statutory scheme. Id. at *5. He seeks a buyout of his shares in E&E, payment of dividends, removal of Wallace and Joan from management, an accounting, profit disgorgement, and damages. Id.​*28

The defendants argued that Martin’s claims should be subject to Michigan statutes of limitations of two and three years. Id. at *9-10. The court held that only Martin’s damages claims were subject to those statutes whereas his equitable claims, i.e. all relief other than money damages, were subject to a six-year statute of limitations. Id. at 10-11.

Crucially, the court reserved for trial the issue of whether any application of the statute of limitations should be tolled based on fraudulent concealment. Id. *17-18. Under Michigan law, “fraudulent concealment must be manifested by some affirmative act or misrepresentation, an exception to this rule applies when there is an affirmative duty to disclose material information by virtue of a fiduciary relationship.” Id. at *15. As directors and majority shareholders, Wallace and Joan owed Martin fiduciary duties. Id. at *16.

Martin alleged Wallace and Joan failed to disclose “information bearing on his present claims”, including the sum of Wallace’s compensation, the terms of self-dealing lease agreements, and the value of distributions Wallace, Joan, and their children received through entities receiving rent from E&E. Id. at *16. Additionally, Martin alleges the defendants provided incomplete annual financial reports that excluded information that would have provided notice to Martin of some of his claims. Id. The court agreed with Martin, concluding that “[i]f Wallace and Joan had a fiduciary obligation to disclose this information to Martin—including the information in the full balance sheets—their failure to do so would be consistent with fraudulent concealment.” Id. at *19.

In essence, the court decided which statutes of limitations apply to Martin’s claims with the caveat that whether the statute of limitations are offset by fraudulent concealment for trial. This being a pretrial decision on summary judgment, the final result of the Smith case is as yet undetermined. The opinion nevertheless provides shareholders a case study in the legal issues that arise in what is a remarkably typical shareholder oppression case fact pattern.

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