Corporate Deadlocks: Judicial Remedies

It is amazing how many corporations are set up “50-50,” which is to say two equal partners with equal ownership, and equal say on the board of directors. What happens when, over time, these shareholders come to violent disagreement?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in a September ruling (Indus Systems), applied the Massachusetts Corporate Statute to a tense shareholder dispute, declared the existence of a deadlock under the Statute, and sent the case back down to the Superior (Trial) Court to remedy the situation. The Massachusetts Statute provides that in the case of deadlock, the Courts have the power to dissolve a corporation.

Of course, in this case (a profitable going enterprise) it doesn’t make much sense to break up the company, wind down its contracts and lay off the workers. No problem for the Supreme Judicial Court: the Court declared that implicit in the power to dissolve is the power of the Court to take other action, including forcing a sale of the business to a third party or forcing a sale between the parties so that one shareholder remains standing.

Lawyers typically counsel at the formation of a company that some sort of an unwind procedure be built into the corporate documentation to meet the future contingency of deadlock. This is of course a negative message for a lawyer to deliver to two individuals who are anxious to get going with their business, and find it intrusive and unsettling to contemplate what might happen, years hence, when they violently disagree. Additionally, aside from this distraction, there is a cost to discussing and documenting an unwind procedure which sometimes can be as expensive as all the positive work of forming the company, issuing bylaws and issuing shares of stock. Along with addressing what happens in the event that one of the shareholders dies or becomes disabled, drafting provisions whereby, in the event of a deadlock, one shareholder might be forced to sell out to the other presents legal and interpersonal problems that are difficult to parse, particularly at the initial stages of forming a business.

But shareholders should not be relying wholly on statutory remedies because it is quite difficult to prove a “deadlock” within the meaning of the Massachusetts Corporate law. Suffice it to say that in the Indus case there were not only disagreements with respect to corporate policy, but also unilateral actions by one or the other of the shareholders, including the writing of a $690,000 personal check by one of the shareholders to his own order, against company funds.

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