Articles Posted in Small business

birdThe directors of a corporation owe a duty of loyalty to the corporation’s shareholders, which requires them to act only in the interest of the corporation and avoid self-dealing. Claims alleging a breach of this duty range from the relatively benign, such as a failure to disclose a conflict of interest, to overt acts of bad faith. A recent decision from the Delaware Court of Chancery addressed a claim of bad-faith breach, which the court noted is very difficult to prove. In re Chelsea Therapeutics Int’l Ltd. Stockholders Litig., No. 9640-VCG, mem. op. (Del. Ct. Chanc., May 20, 2016). A group of shareholders alleged that certain directors breached the duty of loyalty by disregarding higher financial projections before recommending the sale of the company. The court found that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the defendants acted egregiously enough to meet the legal standard for bad faith. It described a situation that would constitute bad faith under the duty of loyalty as a rara avis, a “rare bird.”

Directors and officers are obligated to direct their efforts toward the interests of the corporation and its shareholders. The mere existence of a conflict of interest, however, does not automatically breach the duty of loyalty. A director with a conflict of interest, such as a personal financial stake in a board decision, must make a full disclosure to the other directors and the shareholders. Any related transaction requires majority approval from the disinterested directors or shareholders. A breach of the duty of loyalty could result in civil liability to the corporation, or to some or all shareholders.

Typically, it is in the corporation’s interest, and the interests of its shareholders, to maximize profits and minimize expenses, but this is not always the case. If a corporation is currently the subject of negotiations incident to a proposed merger or acquisition, for example, obtaining the best possible price is generally considered the top priority for the directors. This was the situation in the Chelsea case.

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New York CityThe people in charge of a business entity, such as the directors of a corporation or the managers of a limited liability company (LLC), owe multiple fiduciary duties to the owners of the business. In a dispute between corporate shareholders and a corporation’s directors, the extent of scrutiny that a court will give to the directors’ decisions depends on the circumstances. A recent decision by the New York Court of Appeals considered whether to apply the “business judgment rule” (BJR) or the stricter “entire fairness standard” (EFS) in a shareholder lawsuit. The lawsuit involved a proposed “going-private merger,” in which a majority shareholder sought to buy all of its outstanding shares. The court chose the BJR, citing a Delaware Supreme Court decision that applied the BJR under similar circumstances. In re Kenneth Cole Prods., Inc., 2016 NY Slip Op 03545 (May 5, 2016); Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635 (Del. 2014). The court also noted, however, that the Delaware decision establishes multiple safeguards for minority shareholders that must be in place before the BJR may apply.

Under the BJR, courts defer to the judgment of a corporation’s directors, provided that the directors acted reasonably and rationally, and without conflicts of interest. The court’s decision in Kenneth Cole states that the directors must “exercise unbiased judgment in determining that certain actions will promote the corporation’s interests.” Kenneth Cole, slip op. at 6. The plaintiff has the burden of proving that one or more directors acted in bad faith, had an undisclosed conflict of interest, or otherwise behaved fraudulently or with gross negligence in order to overcome the deference afforded by the BJR.

The EFS sets a far stricter standard. It views a transaction in its entirety. Rather than requiring evidence of misconduct or negligence as a prerequisite for second-guessing directors’ decisions, the EFS essentially requires the directors to prove that they handled the subject of the dispute fairly. They must show that both the process of the transaction and the final price were fair, especially with regard “to independent directors and shareholders.” Id. at 8.

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Captain Albert E. Theberge, NOAA Corps (ret.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsMaritime commerce constitutes a major part of the economies of New York City and Northern New Jersey. Any type of business transaction involves a complex web of legal obligations and risks, and transactions involving interstate and international shipping can be the most complex of all. Legal claims arising from maritime disputes can be particularly difficult. The debtor/defendant might be based in a different jurisdiction—possibly a different country—from the creditor/plaintiff, and any assets might be located in yet another jurisdiction. The Supplemental Rules for Admiralty or Maritime Claims and Asset Forfeiture Action (the “Supplemental Rules”), part of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, provide methods for asserting claims over otherwise highly mobile assets in maritime disputes. This should be a last resort, of course, since carefully drafted contracts with dispute-resolution provisions often yield more satisfactory results in a shorter span of time.

Rule B of the Supplemental Rules enables plaintiffs to attach a defendant’s assets in an ex parte proceeding, provided they cannot locate the defendant in the same jurisdiction as the asset. The plaintiff files a quasi in rem lawsuit in the jurisdiction where the asset is located. Lawsuits typically proceed in personam, against a particular person, business, or organization; or in rem, against a particular item of property. A quasi in rem lawsuit combines elements of both types of suit, with a plaintiff asserting a claim over a piece of property in connection with a claim against its owner.

In maritime transactions, parties often do business using multiple corporate shells to protect assets and other interests. As a result, the record owner of an asset that could be subject to attachment under Rule B might not be the same as the business entity against which the plaintiff has a claim. Rule B allows a plaintiff to attach an asset owned by a different business entity if they can establish that the entity functions as an “alter ego” of the defendant. A New York court recently addressed this issue in a Rule B claim in D’Amico Dry Ltd. v. Primera Maritime (Hellas) Ltd., et al., No. 1:09-cv-07840, order (S.D.N.Y., Jul. 30, 2015).

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By Guest2625 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsMany small corporations elect subchapter “S” status because of the many tax benefits it offers. It can work well for corporations that make this election soon after their formation, but a corporation that begins its existence as a “C” corporation faces a distinct challenge, in the form of the “built-in gains tax.” 26 U.S.C. § 1374. This tax specifically applies to S corporations that used to be C corporations, and it taxes certain transactions at the highest possible corporate rate, which is currently 35 percent. Id. at §§ 11(b)(1)(D), 1374(b)(1). It only applies, however, for a specified period of time, known as the “recognition period,” after a corporation switches from C to S status. After several amendments shortening the recognition period, which was originally 10 years, Congress permanently shortened it to five years in the Protecting Americans From Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015, Pub. L. 114-113, Div. Q (Dec. 18, 2015).

The laws governing corporate taxation are found in Subtitle A, Chapter 1, Subchapter C of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), 26 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. In general, corporations pay income tax on profits, and shareholders pay taxes on dividends. Since this is essentially the same money subject to income tax twice, once in a corporate tax return and again in an individual shareholder’s return, it is often known as “double taxation.”

A corporation can avoid double taxation by electing S status, named for Subchapter S of the same chapter of the IRC, 26 U.S.C. § 1361 et seq. This subchapter uses “pass-thru” taxation, by which corporate profits are taxed directly to shareholders on a pro rata basis. Id. at § 1366. Not all corporations are eligible for S status, however. It is only available to “small business corporations” with only one class of stock, and with 100 or fewer shareholders, none of whom are nonresident aliens or business entities. Id. at § 1361(b)(1).

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By U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Division of Information and Marketing Services (http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2006/oct/wk1/art02.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsNew York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed several bills into law in late October 2015 that affect employers, including amendments to the state’s equal pay law. Senate Bill 1, the Achieve Pay Equity (APE) law, amends the New York Labor Law’s provisions on pay disparities based on sex. New York business owners—both those with employees and those who might have employees some day—should be aware of how these new laws could affect them.

Federal and state laws prohibit employers from paying different wages to employees based on sex, if the requirements, qualifications, and working conditions of the jobs are otherwise the same. Both laws provide defenses for employers against claims of unlawful wage disparity based on sex if they can demonstrate that the difference in wage is actually based on a system of seniority, merit, quality of work, quantity of production, or “any other factor other than sex.” 29 U.S.C. § 206(d)(1), N.Y. Lab. L. § 194. The same legal standard generally applies to claims brought under either law. Moccio v. Cornell University, 889 F.Supp.2d 539, 570 (S.D.N.Y. 2012). The APE expands employees’ rights beyond the protections offered by federal law.

Some employers prohibit employees from inquiring about or discussing co-workers’ wages or salaries. The current version of New York’s equal pay law is silent on this type of policy, although federal law already prevents some New York employers from prohibiting employees from discussing wages with one another. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 157, for example, protects employees’ rights to form unions for the purposes of collective bargaining. Discussion of wages is considered essential to such activity. Federal contractors are prohibited from enacting policies against discussing wages under Executive Order 13665.

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Simon Cunningham [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via FlickrCorporate directors and officers owe the corporation certain fiduciary duties, meaning they are legally obligated to act solely in the corporation’s interest. The duty of loyalty requires officers and directors to act on behalf of the corporation without economic conflict. A breach of the duty of loyalty might consist of a transaction that benefits an individual employee over the corporation, or a corporate opportunity that the employee withholds for their own benefit. Remedies for a breach of the duty of loyalty may include economic damages and an equitable remedy known as disgorgement, by which the employee must give up any personal gains obtained from their breach. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered whether a court could award disgorgement to a corporation that did not suffer economic loss. Kaye v. Rosefielde, No. A-93 Sept. Term 2013, 073353, slip op. (N.J., Sep. 22, 2015).

The plaintiff in Kaye hired the defendant in 2002 as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of several companies. Under a formal employment agreement, the defendant received an annual salary of $500,000, paid in equal parts by a corporation and a limited liability company (LLC) controlled by the defendant. The defendant served as COO and General Counsel of both companies, which managed and sold timeshares in properties owned by those two companies and several others.

According to the court’s ruling, the plaintiff alleged multiple acts by the defendant that breached the duty of loyalty to the companies that employed him. In one case, the defendant created a separate LLC in 2003 to manage certain timeshare interests, but he did not follow the plaintiff’s instructions regarding the allocation of ownership interests. The defendant drafted the new LLC’s operating agreement in a way that increased his own ownership interest and that of a corporation he owned and controlled. In 2005, the plaintiff learned of some of the defendant’s acts and terminated his employment.

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By Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsManaging employment-related matters can be one of the trickiest, most difficult aspects of owning and running a business. A vast array of laws at the local, state, and federal levels affect the employer-employee relationship, including wages, hours of work, workplace safety, family and medical leave, non-discrimination, and reasonable accommodations for certain needs and conditions. While the vast majority of employment statutes and regulations have the best of intentions, maintaining full compliance with all applicable laws can be difficult for businesses with entire staffs devoted to the task. Small businesses may inadvertently run afoul of an employment law and face substantial penalties as a result. Recent news from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) illustrates the magnitude of the issue for New Jersey businesses. The DOL is holding more than $7 million collected from New Jersey employers in wage and hour claims, which remains unclaimed by employees.

The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) enforces certain provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., the statute that sets the nationwide minimum wage. Since 2010, the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). The FLSA also establishes overtime pay of time-and-a-half for employees working over 40 hours in a week, with some exceptions. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a). The WHD can take legal action against employers for alleged violations of FLSA wage and hour provisions. The DOL maintains a website entitled “Workers Owed Wages,” or “WOW,” where people may search to see if their employer is listed, and then if they are included in any recovery of back wages.

New Jersey’s equivalent statute is the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a et seq. It has similar provisions for overtime but sets a higher statewide minimum wage. As of January 1, 2015, New Jersey’s minimum wage is $8.38 per hour. N.J.A.C. § 12:56-3.1(a). The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development enforces state wage and hour laws.

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PublicDomainPictures [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayThe word “license” comes up quite often in discussions of starting, owning, and running a small business, but it can be easy to get confused about what a business owner or entrepreneur must do to remain in compliance with the law. In a very general sense, “license” means the freedom to act. More specifically, it means official permission to engage in a particular activity, such as driving a car. In a business context, a license confers the right to engage in certain types of business or professional activities. A license may be held by an individual, as in the case of a professional or occupational license, or by a business organization. Operating without a required license can have serious consequences, ranging from substantial fines to criminal penalties. New Jersey and New York business owners should be aware of the various types of licenses in order to determine what they need for their own businesses.

Licensing Authorities

Most licenses needed to do business in New Jersey are issued and managed by local or state agencies. State agencies typically handle occupational and professional licenses based on qualifications and criteria that apply statewide. Licenses and permits that pertain to a specific location, such as construction or use permits, are often the responsibility of officials at the city or county level, who might have greater knowledge and understanding of local circumstances and issues. Businesses in certain industries might need licenses from one or more federal agencies.

Professional and Occupational Licenses

Licenses are reportedly required for more than 200 occupations in New Jersey, which is slightly below the national average. About 20 percent of New Jersey’s workforce need a license for their job.

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By Employeeperformance (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBuilding a team is a critical step in the process of growing a small business, but it brings unique issues and challenges. Employment laws at the federal, state, and local levels affect almost every aspect of the employer/employee relationship. Here is a brief overview of some laws that New Jersey small business owners should know, with a focus on laws at the state level.

Minimum Wage

The New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (WHL), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a et seq., governs wage rates throughout the state. As of January 1, 2015, the minimum wage for employers in the State of New Jersey is $8.38 per hour. The federal minimum wage has been $7.15 per hour since 2010. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C).

The minimum wage for employees, such as food servers, who receive gratuities or tips from customers is $2.13 per hour. This is the same as the federal rate. If an employee’s tip income is less than $6.25 per hour for a pay period, however, the employer must make up the difference to bring their wage up to $8.38 per hour.

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Identify the image source as Compliance and Safety LLC and include a working hyperlink to http://complianceandsafety.com on the same page that uses this image. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsCybersecurity, the process of protecting a company’s digital assets from theft and other harm, is an important issue for every business, regardless of size or complexity. Almost every business now relies on computers to some extent, and criminals are constantly developing ways to access business computer systems to steal customer information or company financial information, or even just to cause damage. Hackers may be able to penetrate a company’s computer security remotely, but many high-profile data breaches are accomplished by stealing laptop computers, hard drives, and other hardware. A company’s legal liability for a data breach is still a developing area of law, and few answers are certain in that area. Avoiding legal liability, however, is far from the only reason to take precautions against data breaches.

Recent data breaches have led to lawsuits against the affected companies by customers and shareholders, and a data breach could also result in administrative fines or penalties in some circumstances. Few statutes directly address a company’s liabilities with regard to cybersecurity, but numerous legal claims are possible:

– Negligence:  One or more customers whose personal information was compromised in a data breach could claim that the company breached a duty of care to safeguard that information, and that this caused them financial damage.

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