Articles Posted in Partnership/Shareholder Disputes

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Ideally, in a perfect world, corporate shareholders of a family-owned business would always get along and cooperate effectively. Unfortunately, the real world is not a perfect world, and sometimes shareholder disputes arise and end up in litigation. That is when you need to be sure you have experienced Georgia business attorneys on your side. One such shareholder dispute recently went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court earlier this year, with that court reversing a trial judge’s decision and sending the case back for more action.

The corporate entity at the center of this dispute demonstrates the issues that can arise when family relationships and business relationships collide. The business, an electric services contractor, had been in existence since 1937 and incorporated since 1959. In 1988, the incorporator decided to award ownership interests to each of his three sons, all of whom were working for the company at the time. (The bylaws restricted stockholders to employees of the entity.) Two sons, Gary and Phillip, got 25% each. A third son, Doss, received 16.67%. (The father retained 33.33% himself.)

The sons moved in different directions. Doss ended his employment at the family business in 1994. Gary and Phillip went on to become the company’s CEO and CFO, respectively. By 2011, the brothers were in court. Doss alleged that he had not received a payment that the business owed him for his stock. All sides agreed that only employees of the business could be stockholders and that Doss ceased being an employee in 1994. Doss, in his complaint, contended that the entity’s bylaws required the company to buy out his stock and to pay him for his ownership interest based upon the book value of the stock. This buyout and payment, Doss alleged, never took place.

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Whenever any business person or entity decides to create a new joint venture, the people behind that venture likely hope for great success. Sometimes these joint ventures do go on to yield positive results. Other times, however, the venture doesn’t work out. When joint ventures fail and break up, that can sometimes lead to litigation. When they do, the exact language that was contained in your operating agreement may prove to be the key to resolving the case. Whether your joint venture has failed and entered into the court system, or you are at the beginning phase and are fleshing out the terms of an operating agreement, it is important to make sure you have experienced Georgia business attorneys handling your case.

An example of a joint venture that didn’t meet with success and did trigger litigation was an Athens-based LLC formed to develop medical technology. Ownership of the joint venture was split equally between a holding company and another LLC, Healthy-IT, that was formed expressly for the purpose of entering into the joint venture. Specifically, the venture’s goal was to develop electronic medical record software.

Eventually, the venture devolved into a dispute, and the joint venture LLC, along with the holding company and others, sued Healthy and related entities for, among other things, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and misappropriation of trade secrets. The defendants filed a counterclaim that accused the plaintiff of breach of contract, among other things.

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Winning your commercial litigation matter is about more than just making sure that you have the facts on your side. It is about having the law on your side and also making sure that you have cleared all of the necessary procedural hurdles, like pursuing your case in the correct venue. These are all areas in which knowledgeable Georgia business litigation counsel can help you ensure that you are equipped to succeed.

One recent case in which venue was an issue was an action pitting against each other two former business partners whose relationship had definitely deteriorated. The defendant was a Norcross-based real estate developer. The plaintiff was an Israeli company that raises capital for real estate investments. In 2008, the two businesses consummated a Solicitation Agreement. The agreement came with an arbitration clause. That provision said that the parties agreed to arbitrate their disputes. If the capital company brought the case, the arbitration would proceed in Atlanta. If the developer brought the case, it would be arbitrated in Tel Aviv.

Some time later, once the relationship had soured, the capital company brought a breach of contract claim. In that same action, which was handled in Atlanta, the developer brought a counterclaim that accused the capital company of defaming the developer in statements made to other Israeli investors.

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In your complex business litigation case, there may be several points in the process at which you could find yourself in a “courtroom battle” situation with the other side. Obviously, the trial is one. Before that, though, you may have to litigate disputes over things like the disclosure of certain information. In business, much information can be material that is kept hidden and whose disclosure could be harmful to that entity’s business interests. To that end, it may be important to take any steps available to avoid making that disclosure. On the other hand, obtaining certain disclosures may be the key to achieving success in your business litigation lawsuit. For these and other adversarial battles, it pays to have experienced Georgia business litigation counsel on your side.

A recent case from the federal courts provided an example of this and the processes that can be involved in certain complex business litigation actions. The plaintiffs in the case were a finance company and an individual. The pair were both minority shareholders in a Luxembourg-based entity that was in the life insurance settlements business. The minority shareholders planned to bring a legal action in Luxembourg against one of the company’s board of directors for his undisclosed ownership interest in another third-party life settlement management entity.

The minority shareholders brought their 28 USC 1782 action in the Southern District of Florida federal court because the undisclosed life settlement company, which they sought to compel to produce certain documents for the Luxembourg case, was based in Pompano Beach. The trial court sided with the minority shareholders and ordered the Pompano Beach-based company to give the minority shareholders the information they sought.

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When you form a business venture with another person, you doubtlessly hold out high hopes that the collaboration will be fruitful and rewarding for all. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. In real life, sometimes relationships sour and disputes arise. When they do, it is important to make sure that you have an experienced Georgia business lawyer on your side to protect your commercial interests and rights.

One example of a business entity whose shareholders ended up in litigation was a pair of North Georgia dermatologic surgeons who formed a practice together. At some point after problems erupted, one doctor (the president) threw the other (the vice president) out of the practice. This meant removing him not only as a employee but as an officer and director of the practice as well. Both doctors were equal shareholders in the practice. The expelled doctor took two steps:  he formed his own practice, and he sued for being thrown out of the original practice.

The expelled doctor won his lawsuit, and the court ordered him reinstated as an employee, as well as the vice-president, secretary, and treasurer of the practice. That case went to the Georgia Court of Appeals, and the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision because it decided that the action was improper. (One doctor threw out the other when only the practice’s board of directors could properly take such an action.)

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