Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Valuation Terms for a Buy/Sell, Operating Agreement and Shareholder Agreement

In prior posts, I stressed the importance for business owners to enter into an agreement that sets forth the right to require a redemption or buy-out of a owner's equity interest upon the occurrence of certain triggering events.  Ideally, business owners should have a well-drafted document that addresses the buy-out rights as well as a number of other key issues relating to management and control, financial terms, restrictions on transfer of interests, and a number of other matters.  Whether in the form of an Operating Agreement (for an LLC), a Shareholder Agreement (for a Corporation), the Partnership Agreement or in a separate Buy-Sell, it is imperative that the owner's of a business address these fundamental issues in writing.  A major area of concern is the right to buy-out a partner upon the occurrence of certain triggering events, including death, disability, and "for cause" termination.  Now let's say the partners have agreed that upon defined triggering events either the company (through a redemption of the interests) or the other partners can force a buy-out/termination of a partner or the partner's legal interests, the questions becomes how is that interest valued?  Below are some thoughts about how to address the difficult issue regarding valuation in the context of a partner "buy-out."

1.  Include a Valuation Method in the Governing Agreement Between Business Partners.

Before examining how valuation should be addressed in the governing document among the partners,  it is important to state what may be obvious but is often overlooked in these agreements:  actually include provisions that detail the method or procedure for determining valuation.   On many occasions, the governing agreement will only go half way -- it will include a redemption and/or buy-out right but not include how to value the departing owner's interest.  As you can imagine, this invariably leads to costly litigation over the proper valuation of the business.  Avoid creating a problem by including the valuation method in the governing document.

2.  There is no Single Valuation Method that is Appropriate for all Businesses.

The next question is what is the appropriate valuation method.  The bottom line is there is no single correct answer, as it depends on a number of factors, including (i) the nature of the business, (ii) the operating history and status, and (iii) the perception of the partners.  The nature of the business matters because, for example, you would not value a real estate holding company in the same way you would an online retailer.  The operating history/status of the business is significant because it may not make sense to apply the same valuation method to a mature company with an established operating history and revenues to a pre-revenue start-up.  Finally, there is the perception of the partners, which can create some of the biggest issues in determining valuation.  For example, the partners of an early stage company may believe that even without any current revenues, they have a new technology or concept that will attract substantial investment and eventually substantial revenues, requiring the valuation to take into account their understanding of the potential market for their product.

3.  What are the Possible Valuation Methods or Procedures?

So, if no single method of valuation applies, how is the issue then addressed in the governing document?  The answer is really a matter of the partners agreeing on the appropriate method.  In some cases, the agreement will actually state a formula for calculating the valuation:  whether it is book value, a multiple of gross or net income, an income multiple that looks at historical earnings, or a calculation based on discounted cash flow.  In other circumstances, the partners may recognize that they are cannot determine the appropriate methodology or feel it may need to adjust as the company develops, and instead would rather leave it to a third party to determine the valuation.  If the parties decide that engaging a professional to determine the valuation upon the triggering event, then they must next decide who would be engaged:  obvious choices include a CPA, investment bank, or a company specializing in business valuations.  Assuming a professional is to be engaged, the next question is how is that person/firm chosen?  One possibility is to specifically name them in the agreement, but what if they are no longer in business at the time the valuation is needed.   The parties can instead state that they will mutually agree who should be retained at the time of the triggering event, but what if they don't agree?  An alternative which is often utilized is to set a time by which the parties have to agree, barring which they each choose a person to conduct the valuation, and subject to the reasonableness of the issued valuation opinions the final valuation is the average.  Or, the agreement can provide that each party chooses their expert and the two experts then choose a third, with average of the three constituting the final valuation.   Recognize, however, that engaging three experts can be costly, and the parties need to set forth how the fees will be paid (likely, they each pay their own expert and share the cost of the third one).

Lastly, the governing agreement should include provisions about timing -- in other words, when   the valuation must be completed if the methodology is set forth in the agreement or when the experts must be chosen and their valuation opinion issued.  Without clear deadlines, the process can drag-on without a timely resolution.

Disclaimer:  The above does not create any attorney-client relationship and is for informational purposes only.  It is important to retain a knowledgeable business lawyer before entering into any business relationship .

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Recovering Lost Profits In Business Litigation

Today's post features a guest entry by James T. Hunt, Jr., a business litigator and a partner at Slater, Tenaglia, Fritz & Hunt, P.A.

Business lawsuits involving the claim of “lost profits” as damages can present unique challenges, especially if your business cannot identify specific transactions or deals that were lost due to the defendant’s wrongful conduct or breach of a contract. Some states have strict guidelines governing the ability to recover lost profits, while others actually prohibit lost profit recovery in certain circumstances.

A Tale Of Two States: New York vs. New Jersey

Despite their proximity and the similarity in contract caselaw, New York and New Jersey have somewhat different standards regarding recovery of lost profits. In New York, any business can recover its lost profits in a lawsuit, regardless of how long the company has been operating.  In fact, lost profits are somewhat treated the same way as any other type of damages.  New Jersey courts, however, have steadfastly refused to permit recovery of lost profits in cases involving a new business, which known as the “new business rule.”  Only an established business with a history of revenue and profits can recover lost profits.

New York

New York courts require a plaintiff to prove its lost profits in the same manner as any other damages. Lost profits, therefore, must be proven with a “reasonable certainty.”  This does not mean that absolute precise mathematical accuracy is required. Rather, courts are mindful that a prediction of future profit is inevitably speculative to some degree. 

In essence, there must be some rational basis on which to support an award of lost profits.  But a request based on pure speculation will most certainly be rejected.  Generally, three criteria need to be satisfied to obtain an award of lost profits: (1) the damages were actually caused by the breach, (2) the particular damages were fairly within the contemplation of the parties to the contract at the time it was made, (in other words, the damages were foreseeable), and (3) that the alleged loss is capable of proof with reasonable certainty.  New York falls in the majority of states that permit recovery of lost profits even if it is a new business with no track record of profitability.  A new business endeavor is held to the same standard – it must prove lost profits with reasonable certainty.  At the same time, however, a New York court will not allow an award to be based on pure conjecture or speculation. While the standard is the same for an existing business or new business, in the case of a new business a stricter standard is imposed because there is no experience from which lost profits may be estimated with reasonable certainty and other methods of evaluation may be too speculative. The more risky and speculative the industry, the less likely a new business could prove lost profits with such certainty. 

What constitutes “reasonable certainty” can be nebulous and difficult to pin down. For example, in a leading New York case, the court rejected a claim for lost profits arising from a domed stadium that was never constructed. The court concluded that the multitude of assumptions required to quantify the lost profits award contained an impermissible level of “speculation and conjecture.”  Some of these questionable assumptions included that the facility would be completed, available for use, and operating profitably for over 20 years. In another federal New York case, the court rejected as speculative a lost profit calculation that assumed the occurrence of numerous successive hypothetical transactions. The court found this constituted precisely the sort of conjecture that the reasonable certainty standard prohibits.

In a Second Circuit Court of Appeals case, Trademark Research Corp. v. Maxwell Online, Inc.,  a trademark search service brought suit against a software design firm for alleged breach of a contract that required the defendant to create for the plaintiff a trademark database and search system. The Second Circuit held that plaintiff's claim for future profits from in-house trademark searches and sales of disks providing direct access to plaintiff's database should not have been presented to the jury because it was incapable of proof with reasonable certainty as a matter of law.  For example, the plaintiff's accounting expert had assumed an abrupt expansion of the market for trademark search services, assumed that plaintiff would reverse the long decline in its market share, assumed that plaintiff's historically aggressive competitors would take no measures to counter plaintiff's ascendancy, and predicted which choices customers would make among a variety of new and old search technologies. To cap it off, all of these assumptions were reduced to speculative exact dollar amounts and spun out to the year 1998. Even though there was a significant amount of evidence submitted, the court found that it consisted of a “network of conjecture.”

By contrast, an established business often is in a good position to offer evidence of past experience as a reasonable basis from which a jury may determine lost profits with the requisite degree of certainty. For example, in a case involving a sidewalk cafĂ© seeking lost profits for breach of contract, the New York Court of Appeals upheld a jury award for lost profits. The Court of Appeals held that the evidence of the past experience and profits of the established restaurant to which the cafe would be attached was sufficient “to remove plaintiff's lost profit claim from the realm of impermissible speculation.”  In a federal New York case, a company in the business of selling costume jewelry through the mail brought suit for breach of contract to distribute 8,000,000 advertising supplements in newspapers. The company had been in business for over forty years.  The company offered statistical evidence of its past performance in a remarkably similar advertising program. The court found this evidence was sufficient to prove its lost profits with reasonable certainty.

New Jersey

Just across the river, New Jersey courts allow recovery of lost profits but not if the business is new and has no history of generating revenue.  This rule is called the “new business rule,” and is the law in a minority of states. Generally, profits lost by reason of breach of contract may be recovered if there are any criteria by which probable profits can be estimated with reasonable certainty. Indeed, New Jersey courts do permit considerable speculation by the trier of fact as to damages. As one court has stated, “[t]he rule relating to the uncertainty of damages applies to the uncertainty as to the fact of damage and not as to its amount, and where it is certain that damage has resulted, mere uncertainty as to the amount will not preclude the right of recovery.”  Courts have pointed out that the mere fact a plaintiff cannot pinpoint its damages with laser preciseness should not get a breaching party off the hook, since the breaching party caused the problem in the first place.  Accordingly,  the  fact that a plaintiff may not be able to fix its damages with precision will not preclude recovery of damages. But a request for damages that is based on pure speculation and on mere opinion evidence without factual support will not succeed. Again, “reasonable certainty” is the touchstone.

A lack of past performance is why New Jersey continues to apply the New Business Rule, which prohibits a new business from recovering lost profits. The reasoning behind the new business rule is that lost profits cannot be determined with a reasonable degree of certainty because there is not an established history of revenue and profits. Under the New Business Rule,  prospective profits of a new business are considered per se too remote and speculative to meet the legal standard of reasonable certainty.  The short existence of the entity makes a determination of lost profits too speculative. A New Jersey appellate court acknowledged it is in the minority of states that preclude lost profits in new business cases, and conceded that it was without any power to award such damages unless the New Jersey Supreme Court changed the law.

So what constitutes a “new business”?   The answer is decided upon a case-by-case analysis of the individual factual circumstances involved and the type of industry in which the business operates. For example, in one case an appellate court deemed a 2 ½ year old business to be “new.” The business offered educational, recreational and entertainment services for children, teens, and adults in one modern community center.  In so doing, the court deemed the business “new and unproved.” Under other circumstances, courts have permitted an award of lost profits where the business had operated only two years (from 1996 to 1998). In fact, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has permitted lost profits for a business operating for only 1 ½ years. Obviously, the more risky and speculative the industry, the less likely a newer business could prove lost profits.

Past Is Prologue

So how important is it to demonstrate past performance? In fact it is the key to recovering lost profits. Past experience of an ongoing, successful business can provide a reasonable basis for the computation of lost profits with a satisfactory degree of definiteness.   Past profit experience on other projects is widely accepted as relevant to a determination of damages based on lost profits.  Courts have held that evidence of such a past performance may form the basis for a reasonable prediction as to the future.  In addition, courts have accepted other evidence of the profitability of a business, such as industry-wide information and projections and even revenue data of a competitor. While a newer business with no track record may ultimately be able to recover lost profits, it will be a much more difficult task than a business with a solid, several-years record of profitable performance.

Proving Your Damages: The Battle of the Experts
Proving a company’s lost profits to a reasonable degree of certainty will most likely require expert testimony. In most cases, if the stakes are high, a battle of the experts will ensue, where both parties retain experts who submit differing and contradictory expert opinions.  Victory will then hinge on which side retained the most convincing expert.  While it is possible to use the owner of the business as a sort of “expert” given his or her deep knowledge of the business and the industry, it is far too risky to go it alone without a qualified expert. Experts will have to analyze the company’s operating and revenue history, its costs and expenses, and forecast a lost profit figure that can pass muster. Retaining a highly competent, qualified, and trial-experienced accountant as your expert is a necessity. 

Jurisdiction is Important

If you have the option to file a lawsuit in several different jurisdictions, it is always important to confer with an experienced business law attorney to determine which jurisdiction will be most beneficial to you. This is especially true if you have a new business that intends to claim lost profits as part of the damages suffered. Certain factors may dictate where you can sue and what state law applies to the case. For example, if the matter involves an inter-state transaction across jurisdictional lines, determining “where” the transactions occurred as a legal matter will impact your case. Further, your contract may contain a choice of law provision that requires application of the law of a particular state.  You need an experienced business lawyer to assess the ramifications of such a provision and the hurdles the applicable state’s law would raise in your case.

About the author: James Hunt is a business litigator and a partner at Slater, Tenaglia, Fritz & Hunt, P.A., a commercial and business litigation firm with offices in NY and NJ. To learn more about claiming lost profits, contact Slater, Tenaglia, Fritz & Hunt, P.A., to schedule a free initial consultation

Friday, March 28, 2014

My Biz Lawyer: Due Diligence and the Business Transaction: Making...

My Biz Lawyer: Due Diligence and the Business Transaction: Making...: Even fledgling entrepreneurs are aware of the importance of conducting due diligence in a business transaction, but possessing a true und...

Due Diligence and the Business Transaction: Making the Examination Fit the Deal

Even fledgling entrepreneurs are aware of the importance of conducting due diligence in a business transaction, but possessing a true understanding of the process is another story.   A simple dictionary definition of the meaning will generally focus on analyzing a company in the context of corporate mergers or a stock purchase.  However, as with any simple definition, reducing an understanding of a due diligence investigation to a few words paints a woefully incomplete picture of its significance in a business transaction. If there is any one concept that should be emphasized before entering into any business transaction, it is this:  Do not engage in any important business transaction until a due diligence investigation that is tailored to the the nature, scope, and terms of the transaction has been completed. 

We conduct due diligence all of the time in our daily lives.  We make decisions about purchasing goods or engaging someone's services based on certain considerations with or without consciously realizing that what we are actually doing is a form of due diligence. It is common for us to conduct due diligence and make decisions about familiar and not-so-familiar transactions—such as trying a new restaurant, downloading a smartphone application, buying the latest high-definition television, hiring a lawyer, and so on— and although we might not realize it, we routinely engage in legal, financial, technology, personal, and other forms of due diligence depending on the product or service we are considering buying.  the legwork required to be a well-informed consumer and to ensure you are getting the right product or service at the right price is simply a less structured and less detailed form of the due diligence an entrepreneur should perform before entering into a business transaction.

Before purchasing a product or engaging a service, diligent consumers research the company/service provider, research the product or the services, try to determine the value of the product or services being offered, and, sometimes, conduct a background check or investigation of potential hires. Parties to a potential business transaction apply due diligence criteria similar to those precautions consumers perform before buying products or hiring professional services:  they will investigate the company and its business operations, research the products or services offered by the company, determine the appropriate valuation of the target business, examine management capabilities and perform background checks and investigations of founders and key personnel.  Due diligence therefore involves the process of examining and developing the necessary level of understanding of (i) the company and (ii) its business operations (in other words, its products, assets, and/or services and how the company functions); (iii) determining an appropriate valuation of a business and the transaction; and (iv) vetting personnel (management capabilities, key personnel and employment matters) before entering into a business transaction with, investing in, licensing assets or services of, or purchasing all or part of a business or its assets. I call these four aspects of any business the business cornerstones.

Whether you are buying or investing in a business, entering into a joint venture or partnership, considering making a business loan, or entering into a variety of other business transactions, you should focus on these business cornerstones before entering into any type of transaction.  While the amount of focus given to each of these areas varies greatly depending on the nature of the transaction and the goals of the parties, these four aspects of any business should comprise the basis for the due diligence investigation. What should you learn from your examination of the cornerstones? The goals of a due diligence examination corresponding to each of the four business cornerstones are shown in the Table below:

Table:  Due Diligence Goals
The Business Cornerstone
The Due Diligence Goal
The Company
To understand the legal and financial structure of the company and identify potential organizational or structural risks
The Business Operations

To understand the nature of the business and its products, assets, and services; the operational aspect of the business, and to identify potential legal, financial, and business risks

To determine an appropriate valuation of the company and/or the transaction and identify potential financial risks

To identify the key personnel and ascertain whether they are capable of operating the business, executing business plans, and/or fulfilling post-closing obligations

The common denominator of these four goals is that the due diligence process impart to you a level of understanding of the company, its business and operations that is sufficient to enable you to decide whether to engage in the contemplated transaction. To achieve this appreciation, the due diligence investigation necessarily involves, not only examining materials and data provided by the company or your potential business partner but also information obtained from various sources, including public and private information and the advice of professional consultants. 

Simply put, think of due diligence as a process of first hearing the company’s business story—as it may have been provided in an investment presentation or business plan—and then conducting an investigation to corroborate the story. A proper due diligence examination will focus on the four business cornerstones, and includes not only broad-based legal and financial questions, but also requires that you identify the critical areas of the business and thereby gear your inquiries to the specific business and the nature of the transaction involved. It is not enough rely on the standard due diligence set of questions; instead, tailoring the due diligence to the target company’s business operations and the underlying facts of the transaction is essential to conducting a productive due diligence examination. 

For a a comprehensive discussion of the role of due diligence in a wide variety of business transactions, please see Due Diligence and the Business Transaction:  Getting a Deal Done, by Jeffrey W. Berkman (Apress 2013) (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble) 

Disclaimer:  The above is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.  You are advised to consult an experienced business lawyer before entering into any business transaction.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Due Diligence is Important in a Variety of Business Transactions.

The due diligence process should not be limited to buying or investing in a business. It should be conducted in a variety of business transactions, including if you are becoming a partner in a new or existing business, licensing intellectual property, or a taking on a new business partner. And, if you are considering selling your business or taking on new investors, conduct due diligence on your business first so that potential issues can be resolved before they are discovered by a potential purchaser or investor.

Due Diligence and the Business Transaction: Getting a Deal Done (Apress 2013) is a practical guide to due diligence for anyone buying or selling a privately held business or entering into a major agreement with another company or business partner. The book will help you understand when to conduct due diligence, whom to include, and how to spot the red flags that signal danger. In addition, you will learn:

· How to conduct due diligence when contemplating a variety of business transactions, including a business loan, purchase of a business, investment, commercial real estate transaction, franchise opportunity, or licensing deal

· How to calibrate the correct scope and breadth of the due diligence investigation depending on your situation

· How the results of due diligence may and often will change the elements of the final deal

· How to draft due diligence documents so they protect your interests.

The book is available at http://www.apress.com/9781430250869 or on Amazon.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Crowdfunding: When Will the SEC Finally Enact the Implementing Rules?

The below was released in conjunction with Sequel Technology & IP Law (SequelTech), which is Of Counsel to The Berkman Law Firm, PLLC

                                                                                                Media Contact:
                                                                                                Dan Shafer, Shafer Media

Crowdfunding: A Hot Potato

on Which the SEC Must Make Decisions Soon

WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 13, 2013 -- Attorneys at Sequel Technology & IP Law, PLLC (Sequeltech), a well-known intellectual property firm based in Washington, D.C., are calling for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to move the process of regulating so-called “crowdfunding” Web sites closer to its front burner.
When President Obama signed into law the Jump Start Our Business Startups (JOBS) legislation in April, 2012, he and Congress took official notice of the existence for the preceding few years of a fund-raising technique for small and startup businesses called “crowdfunding.” The law established a broad framework for crowdfunding Web services like Project Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com), Indiegogo (http://www.indiegogo.com) and EquityNet (https://www.equitynet.com/), which actually pioneered the field.
“Up to now, crowdfunding services have been acting as mostly passive intermediaries between companies seeking funding for projects and products and large numbers of individuals who are interested in providing small-dollar donations to help them along,” says Jeffrey W. Berkman, Of Counsel to SequelTech.
Companies who use crowdfunding sites to raise capital do not offer securities in return. Rather, they provide themed give-aways, credits on a movie, a chance to get a pre-release or free copy of the product, and the like.
From the start, crowdfunding sites have been viewed with suspicion and wariness by traditional securities brokers and salespeople. They clearly operate outside any framework of SEC regulations. However, in the current economic climate, many government officials see these sites as providing a much-needed service for companies that need to raise capital but can’t afford the sometimes staggering fees associated with registering a stock offering with the government or raising funds through the current framework of a private placement.
With the passage of the JOBS Act, the SEC was given authority over these unconventional funding services. A few broad guidelines were included in the legislation:
        Businesses wishing to avail themselves of crowdfunding must not raise more than $1 million per year through the mechanism.
        Crowdfunding sites will be required to be registered with a self-regulatory organization and regulated by the SEC.
        There will be some sort of means test to insure investors are qualified in the sense that investors in other, more traditional, private placement offerings are qualified, albeit with perhaps fewer restrictions.
        The firm behind the crowdfunding site must be a broker or can be a non-broker but it still must be registered with the SEC.
        Significantly, crowdfunding will allow general advertising and solicitation to accredited investors in a non-registered offering, which is prohibited under securities law.
But the passage of the JOBS Act didn’t have the immediate effect of clarifying the rules and regulations which would govern crowdfunding. Rather, the JOBS Act placed the obligation on the SEC to adopt the required rules and regulations for implementation.
“Unfortunately, up to now the SEC has failed to enact the implementing rules and regulations governing crowdfunding,” SequelTech Founder and Managing Partner Melise Blakeslee points out.  There is speculation as to why the outgoing SEC Chairman failed to act by the January 31, 2013 deadline.  However, with the appointment of Mary Jo White as SEC Chairman, Berkman sees the dawning of a new era at the SEC. “Chairman White,” he says, “has a reputation for being tough and getting things done, so many observers who want to see crowdfunding clarified and properly regulated are expressing hope that the time may now come soon.”
It will soon be a year since the JOBS Act was signed into law. The crowdfunding industry has continued to grow and prosper. Thousands of companies, projects and non-profit organizations have received funding. But so long as the SEC fails to issue the needed regulations spelling out in detail the restrictions it will impose on these Websites, crowdfunding, which is hailed by many start-ups and emerging companies as a game-changing opportunity to raise funds, remains unavailable.
What does this mean if you’re interested in funding a product or project via a crowdfunding site? It means you’ll want your attorneys to keep a close eye on the SEC regulatory process so that you can make timely adjustments to your plans and fund-raising tactics as needed without losing out on the enormous potential of crowdfunding. “And if you’re thinking about starting a new business to get in on the ground floor of crowdfunding, you should pay close attention to the news about the forthcoming SEC regulations,” warns Blakeslee.

            Sequel Technology & IP Law (SequelTech) is a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in intellectual property and high-technology law. Founded in 2009, the firm is headed by Managing Partner Melise Blakeslee.  Melise Blakeslee and Jeffrey W. Berkman work together as "of counsel" on various business law, IP and high-technology law matters for clients in a variety of industries.  

Disclaimer:  The discussions in this Blog do not constitute legal advice nor create an attorney-client relationship.  You are urged to seek the advise of an experienced lawyer who can provide counsel with respect to your corporate/business law matters.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why You Need a Shareholders Agreement (Part I)

If you are forming a corporation with a partner, regardless of whether it is with your best friend that you have known since birth or a new business relationship, executing a well-crafted Shareholders Agreement is essential.  Too often, partners mistakenly believe that the corporate By Laws answer all the questions and will adequately set the parameters for the relationship between shareholders.  While the By-laws address day-to-day operations of the corporation, the Shareholder Agreement is where a number of specific rights and obligations of the shareholders are set forth.  Common provisions of a Shareholders Agreement will address such issues as voting rights, restrictions on voluntary and involuntary transfers of stock, buy-out clause, non-competition obligations, death, incapacity or divorce of a shareholder, and limitations on Board of Directors powers.  The next several posts will address the importance of the Shareholders Agreement, some of the common provisions, as well as several issues that are often overlooked in drafting the Agreement.

1.  Do Not Confuse the Articles, By-laws and Shareholders Agreement.

Entrepreneurs forming a corporation for the first time may find that they are unclear as to the differences between the Certificate of Incorporation (or Articles of Incorporation), By-laws and the Shareholders Agreement:

    A. Certificate of Incorporation:  This document (which often have a different name outside of New York, such as Articles of Incorporation), is the only document that must be filed in New York to form a corporation.  As with many states, New York provides a simple form requiring only limited information to be included in the Certificate (name of the entity, purpose, county where located, number of authorized shares, and name of registered agent).  While you may draft your own form, the simple New York form is all that is required to incorporate.  There are siutations where you might draft your own Certificate of Incorporation, as where there are different classes stock, and the Certificate of Incorporation will be more complex.  However, the basic Certificate of Incorporation is a bare-bones document that does not address any issues relating to corporate governance, authority of the Board of Directors, or the rights and obligations of the shareholders.

  B.  By-laws of a Corporation.  The By-laws serve the purpose of setting forth important terms relating to the governance of the corporation.  Thus, the By-laws establish important aspects for day-to-day operation of the corporation:

            (i) Board of Directors:  the number of members of the Board of Directors, meetings of the Board, voting, removal, vacancies, and powers of the Board of Directors;
            (ii) Shareholders:  Annual and Special Meetings of Shareholders, including notice, voting, and general procedures;

           (iii)  Officers:   election/appointment and removal procedures and authority of officers;

           (iv)  Indemnification:  indemnification of Directors, officers, employees of the corporation; and
          (v)   Miscellaneous:  Stock, Maintaining Books and Records, Seal of the Corporation, Amendments to the By Laws.        

    C.  The Shareholders Agreement.  The Shareholders Agreement  is the document among the Shareholders and the Corporation where a number of specific rights and obligations of the shareholders and the corporation are detailed.  The Shareholder Agreement is a contract, and can include essentially any terms that do not violate the New York Business Corporation Law (or any other applicable law).  Typical provisions can include voting agreements or rights among the shareholders, restrictions on voluntary transfers of stock (i.e., selling stock to a third-party) and involuntary transfers (death, bankruptcy or divorce of a shareholder), a buy-out clause, non-competition obligations, information rights of shareholders, and limitations on authority of the Board of Directors and dispute mechanisms.

2.  Why the Shareholder Agreement is Essential.

The Shareholder Agreement is essential as it clarifies the rights and obligations of the Shareholders between each other as well as certain obligations of the corporation to the shareholders that are not otherwise included in the By-laws.  Too often entrepreneurs, to their peril, are willing to rely on the relationship with their friend (now business partner) or believe they lack the negotiating position to ask for certain rights as a condition of an investment or becoming a minority partner in a business.  A well-drafted Shareholders Agreement not only helps delineate the rights of the business partners, but it will in most cases resolve any disputes before they arise because the issue will have been addressed in the Agreement.

Below are some typical disputes that will be alleviated with a Shareholders Agreement:

  • Deadlock in a 50/50 corporation
  • The sale of shares by your business partner to his undesirable friend
  • The transfer of shares to the free-loading son of your deceased business partner
  • The transfer of shares to your business partner's spouse in a divorce
  • A decision by the Board to hire an employee at a ridiculously high salary         
If the business partners have a Shareholders Agreement, all of the above can be dealt with before they become issues.
3.  What are some of the Key Provisions to Include in a Shareholders Agreement?

Important provisions in a Shareholder Agreement will, at a minimum, include:

    A.  Restrictions on voluntary and involuntary transfers of a shareholder's stock;

            (i) Right of First Refusal
            (ii) Co-Sale (Tag Along) Rights
    B.   Resolution mechanism/buy-out clause in case of a deadlock;
    C.   Voting rights and obligations among shareholders;
    D.   Limitations on Board of Directors powers; and
    E.   Several Miscellaneous Rights

           (i) Restrictive Covenants
           (ii) Drag-Along Obligations in the event of sale of the company
           (iii) Information Rights

The next several posts will discuss the above typical clauses of a Shareholders Agreement, including important drafting tips.

Disclaimer:  The discussions in this Blog do not constitute legal advice nor create an attorney-client relationship.  You are urged to seek the advise of an experienced lawyer who can provide counsel with respect to your corporate/business law matters.