Rights of Minority Owners



Just because someone may be a majority owner of a company does NOT mean the company can do whatever they please.  Minority owners have substantial rights and remedies to protect their interests.  Minority owners may not feel in control, but this does not mean they do not have power. 

 

A minority owner, in the context of business, is someone who holds less than 51% interest in the company, and this may be a group or an individual.  It’s an identification of who does not have the majority of the ownership.  The minority owner, is to some measure, the opposite of the majority owner.  Normally, the minority shareholders come to be when there is an entrepreneur who has a brilliant dream and is able to convince others to invest in him/her.  The entrepreneur than sells interest of the business to those people who want to participate, and they buy-in to a minority interest, leaving the entrepreneur “in control”.

 

In a Limited Liability Company (LLC), there are two types of structure.  One type of structure is member management and the second type is manager managed.  In a member managed LLC, everyone who owns a piece of the company gets to vote.  They get to run the business electively as members.   If there is no specification in an operating agreement that the LLC is to be managed by managers (or if there is no operating agreement) ALL members have equal rights to management of the company.  In a manager managed LLC, the operating agreement specifies that there will be managers.  The managers may, but do not have to be, members.  The members are the ones who vote to elect a manager.  Conversely, the manager managed LLC must have directors and those directors are charged with running the company.  This is important because ultimately, it is the directors or managers responsibility to run the company.

 

Corporations are set up a bit differently.  In a corporation, all management is vested in (one or more) directors.  In corporations and manager-managed LLCs, the directors/managers are elected by shareholders/members.  There are exceptions to this though.  Unless there is a contrary provision in the articles of incorporation or operating agreement, directors/managers are elected one at a time and are removed by a majority vote.  Unless there are special provisions in the Articles of Incorporation or Bylaws each share gets one vote.  Voting in a LLC is controlled by its operating agreement.  Directors and managers are charged with the operation of the company, which means they hire, fire and determine the salaries for employees (which also includes officers).

 

There are opportunities for abuse of minority owners.  Areas in which problems may occur are sometimes seen in salaries.  The directors who are representing the majority owners decide they need excessive salaries and/or benefits.  A director could also decide to withhold distributions (dividends).

 

We also see that when a business gets sold, we find that the sale price can sometimes include different types of considerations for the majority owner or for the officers of the company.  If there is a lousy manager, their dealings could fall under the Business Judgement Rule.  The Business Judgement Rule is if in good faith the manager is exercising their judgement, the fact that things didn’t quite work out as anticipated, is not exactly the type of thing that is designed to be a protection for the minority owner.  On the other hand, if the manager is advertently acting or engaging in self-indulgence, then you have a situation whereby the Business Judgement Rule factors in.  It is important who runs the company, because everyone who runs the company gets an equal vote in the company.  What is meant by this is, if you have two directors, and one director is represented by the majority, and the second director is the minority owner, they each get one vote in making decisions, so it is an indirect link between ownership, capital accounts and voting rights.  More importantly, you have to look at what the applicable documents define the role of the manager(s) or director(s).

 

There can be protection for minority owners which would be written as provisions in the bylaws or operating agreement.  All shareholder/members have the right to access, inspect, and copy business records.  These records include minutes of meetings and financial and accounting records.  The directors, managers and officers have a duty to the company and ALL owners.  Their actions must be in good faith, in reasonable belief of the director /officer to be in the best interests of the corporation, and there must be a reasonable basis for decisions being made.  Otherwise, the minority owners can sue for damages or injunctive relief if directors or officers fail to meet this level of care.  When it comes to the sale of substantially all assets or dispositive merger, the sale requires unanimous consent of the LLC members.

 

There is a different type of protection for corporations.  In a corporate setting, they have what is called a shareholder that votes against action to be taken.  Shareholders who vote against the sale or dispositive merger[1] have the right to have their shares purchased by the corporation at “fair value” and if necessary can get their legal fees paid by the corporation.   This provides a right for the majority to buy-out a minority, but it does have to be at fair market value, whatever it may be at the time, by statute.  This is one of the differences between Corporations and Limited Liability Companies.

 

In a Samson option to dissolve a business, a court can order the dissolution under certain circumstances.  One situation is when directors/managers are deadlocked in the management of the corporate affairs, and the shareholders are unable to break and the deadlock is injurious to the corporate business affairs.  Another condition may be if the directors, managers, or those in control of the company have acted, are acting, or will act in a manner that is illegal, oppressive, or fraudulent.  A court may also dissolve a business if the company’s assets are being misapplied or wasted.

 

When a company is dissolved, it cannot carry on ANY business EXCEPT as appropriate to liquidate its business assets and activities.  After all creditors are paid, the assets are distributed to owners (pro-rata).  There are some assets, like intellectual property, that may have to be valued and distributed “in-kind” to owners.  For corporations, in lieu of a judicial dissolution, the remaining shareholders can purchase the complaining shareholder’s shares at “fair value”.

 

What is to be learned by this, is don’t cheat minority partners.  Make sure there is a clear agreement among all the parties as to what their rights are going in.  For instance, how do directors get picked, how do operating agreements get amended, who gets what and when do they.  These are important things to question and think about.

 

Contact the Kreamer Law Firm, P.C. at 515-727-0900 or info@kreamerlaw.com if you need assistance dealing with co-owners of your company from a West Des Moines lawyer who knows business law.  Kreamer Law Firm also specializes in Wills, Trusts, Estate Planning, Powers of Attorney, and Probate issues.  Give us a call today. We get things done®.

[1] Abuse could be selling on terms which wind up benefiting the majority shareholders; or refusing to sell on terms which could benefit minority shareholders. A dispositive merger is where the company owned does not survive.

[2] Iowa Code 489.407(1)(a)

[3] Iowa Code 489.407(3)(f)

[4] Iowa Code 489.407(1)

[5] Iowa Code 489.407(2)(a) and (b)

[6] Iowa Code 490.803(2)(a) Can be changed by vote of Shareholders

[7] Iowa Code 490.801(2)

[8] Iowa Code 490.803(3), Iowa Code 489.407(3)(e)

[9] Iowa Code 489.407(2)(c), Iowa Code 490.803(3), and Iowa Code 490.808

[10] Iowa Code 490.721(1)

[11] Iowa Code 489.110(1)

[12] Iowa Code 490.801(2)

[13] Iowa Code 490.1602(1) and Iowa Code 489.410

[14] Iowa Code 490.830(1), Iowa Code 490.84.(1) and Iowa Code 489.409

[15] Directors, managers, and officers have a duty to make decisions with the care that a person in a like position would reasonably believe to be appropriate. See Iowa Code 490.830(2), Iowa Code 490.831, Iowa Code 490.832(3), Iowa Code 489.409(8). This confers some responsibility to investigate the factual basis for the decisions being made.

[16] Iowa Code 490.831, Iowa Code 490.842(3) and Iowa Code 489.701(2).

[17] Iowa Code 490.1301 et. seq.

[18] Iowa Code 490.1331

[19] Iowa Code 489.407(2)(d) and (3)(d). The impact of an operating provision varying this requirement (per Iowa Code 489.110) is unclear.

[20] Iowa Code 490.1430(2) and Iowa Code 489.701(d) and (e)

 

 

 

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