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Shareholder Disputes: How to Obtain Company Documents, by Stuart F. Gartner

What can you do if you suspect that shareholders in your company are engaging in fraud or mismanaging the company, yet your requests for corporation records go unheeded? In Novikov v. Oceana Holdings Corp., a case handled by this Firm, the Kings County Supreme Court answered that question: so long as you have a legitimate purpose (such as investigating suspected mismanagement), you can force the company to turn over relevant corporation records.

Our client was a minority owner in a closely held corporation (the "Company") that owned a mixed commercial and residential building ("Building") in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn.  Our client had been kept out of the decision making loop by the other shareholders, and received virtually no information from them as to the Company.  Over time, he began to suspect that the other shareholders were engaging in self-dealing and mismanaging the Company.  Among other things, our client believed that one  of the shareholders had taken a substantial loan from the Company that had gone unpaid, and that the other shareholders were paying themselves unreasonable salaries, and had rented a commercial unit in the Building at a below market rent to another, separate company owned by them.  To investigate the suspected misconduct, our client demanded to see Company tax returns, financial statements, and property leases.

The Company refused to give over the documents voluntarily, so this Firm brought a Supreme Court petition on our client's behalf to compel the Company to do so.  The Company opposed the petition, saying that it had already given a redacted Company tax return, and that our client had bad motives for seeking the documents.

The Court granted the petition, ordering the Company to give over to our client unredacted State and Federal tax returns, profit and loss statements, leases, employment and commission agreements, shareholder meeting minutes and lists, and mortgage and loan documents.  (A copy of the decision is found at www.gbglaw.com under Decisions.)  The key to the Court's decision is a well-known point of law:  In addition to a statutory right for certain documents, "[a] shareholder has a common law right to inspect corporate books and records when the request is made in good faith and for a proper purpose....Investigating alleged misconduct by management and obtaining information that may aid legitimate litigation are in fact proper purposes ..." 

(Critically, our client with other counsel had tried previously to compel the Company to produce documents, but was turned away by the Court for failing to show a proper purpose for his request.  Our petition on his behalf included documentary evidence supporting his belief of Company mismanagement.)
 
The lesson offered by the Novikov decision is clear: the Business Corporations Law provides protections for minority shareholders; but whether you succeed in your request to obtain company documents depends on how well you can, prior to commencing a lawsuit, garner relevant facts and articulate a strong basis for your belief that the company is being mismanaged.   -SFG 11/3/2014

    




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