Share This Post
A Classic Squeeze-Out: Minority Member Oppression in Wilson v Gandis
In the previous blog, we looked at one of the risks of being in an LLC, minority member oppression. This happens when a member or members of the LLC act to reduce a minority member’s involvement in the company against their will. The majority member(s) may try to “squeeze out” or “freeze out” the minority member from the company altogether. Or they may engage in conduct like withholding distributions and reducing the minority member’s involvement in the company while essentially trapping their investment in the LLC with no way for the minority member to get it back out.
This was the central issue in a case heard by the South Carolina Supreme Court in June 2019, Wilson v Gandis, in which the oppression was described as a “classic squeeze-out.” It’s rather convoluted, with multiple lawsuits and issues, but we’ll focus on the issue of minority oppression and exactly what constitutes it in the eyes of South Carolina courts.
In 2007, David Wilson and John Gandis formed Carolina Custom Converting (CCC), a company selling film, resin, and other materials. It was a manager-managed LLC, with each owning 50% membership interest. Importantly, Wilson and Gandis never executed a formal operating agreement and had no employee, noncompete, nondisclosure, or nonsolicitation agreements. Many of their oral conversations and agreements were memorialized through email, however.
CCC’s business was intricately linked to other businesses owned by Wilson and Gandis. When CCC was formed, Wilson owned Eastern Film Solutions (EFS) and Gandis owned DecoTex and M-Tech. Wilson agreed to wind down EFS and bring that business over to CCC, for which he was compensated $8,000 per month, later raised to $12,000 per month. Gandis agreed to extend a line of credit to CCC from DecoTex and M-Tech. Plus, CCC operated out of a building owned by M-Tech, so Gandis received the benefit of the rent money paid by CCC.
Gandis brought on Andrea Comeau-Shirley, a CPA, to help with accounting and advice. In 2009, Gandis and Wilson each transferred 5% of their interest to Shirley. She didn’t have a formal voting interest but was actively involved in managing CCC.
Not long after, things started to go south for Wilson. Shirley and Gandis grew closer and began excluding Wilson from discussions about the company’s operations. Over the course of years, they exchanged many emails, which later the trial court said “provide[d] evidence of their oppressive conduct against Wilson.”
The Lawsuits: Wilson v Gandis
After a long period of behavior unfavorable to Wilson, lawsuits followed. The main issue we’ll be looking at is Wilson’s claim against Gandis and Shirley for minority member oppression. (Other issues not relevant here include Gandis’s and Shirley’s counterclaim against Wilson for breach of fiduciary duty, which they lost, and CCC’s claim against Wilson and companies he worked with after CCC for misappropriation of trade secrets, which they also lost.)
In a 5-day bench trial in 2014, a trial court found Gandis and Shirley had engaged in oppressive conduct against Wilson, saying “This is a classic squeeze-out,” and that the body of emails between Gandis and Shirley “abounds with evidence of calculated oppression” and “could serve as a script” for minority member oppression. The court found in favor of Wilson and ordered Gandis and Shirley to buy out Wilson’s interest in CCC as individuals, rather than having CCC buy him out.
Gandis and Shirley appealed, and in an unpublished decision, the appeals court agreed with the trial court and adopted the order in its entirety. They appealed again, and the South Carolina Supreme Court heard the case in June 2019.
Examples of Oppressive Conduct
In its opinion, the supreme court states that it’s not necessary for the plaintiff to prove illegal or fraudulent conduct in order to prove minority oppression. The minority investor instead needs to show that their investment is “trapped” and that they’re facing exclusion from participation in business returns for an indefinite period of time. What constitutes oppressive behavior must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
In this case, the supreme court agrees with the trial court’s conclusions about oppressive conduct on the part of Gandis and Shirley. Here are many of the acts Gandis and Shirley engaged in that the courts found oppressive:
Conspiring together to “get Wilson out.” Many emails exchanged between Gandis and Shirley blatantly and boldly discussed their plans to get Wilson out by different means, including making him an employee with a 5-year noncompete agreement and firing him on the smallest of pretexts.
Withholding distributions. From 2007 to 2010, CCC set aside funds to cover members’ individual tax liabilities, which were proportional to their membership interests. In 2011, this changed. Shirley emailed Gandis and encouraged him to use the funds that would have gone to members to help pay their tax liabilities to instead pay back what was owed on CCC’s line of credit from Gandis’s other business, which would directly benefit Gandis and leave Wilson without money to pay his tax liability. Shirley let Wilson know that there would be no distributions that year to members to cover tax liabilities.
Secretly monitoring Wilson’s emails. Gandis and Shirley began reading Wilson’s emails and referenced them in their own email exchanges. In 2011, they read an email to Wilson from his wife in which she expressed frustration over how Shirley and Gandis were managing CCC. From then on, Gandis’s and Shirley’s efforts to exclude Wilson from the LLC increased.
Gandis and Shirley later said in court that they were simply archiving all of CCC’s incoming emails in order to keep customer quotes and so forth available, but the trial court said this testimony was not credible, and the supreme court agreed. They also said that the employee handbook makes it clear that company email should not have an expectation of privacy – but the handbook was never issued.
Withholding income from Wilson. Not long after reading the email to Wilson from his wife, Gandis and Shirley stopped paying Wilson the monthly $12,000 they had agreed upon to compensate him for bringing his previous company’s business over to CCC.
Plus, they began classifying Wilson’s distributions as loans. When the situation came to a head in October 2011, Gandis (on Shirley’s advice) gave Wilson two options. 1. Surrender his membership interest in order to satisfy his loan balance of $123,000, which began accruing once they recategorized his distributions as loans. Or 2. Become an at-will employee of CCC (with the aim of firing him for the smallest of reasons, according to an email from Shirley).
From there, Wilson and Gandis entered into back-and-forth negotiations. Wilson was trying to find a way to either stay involved fairly or leave with his rightful share of what he was owed, while Gandis was trying to find a way to get Wilson out paying as little as possible.
Revoking financial authority. Around this time, Shirley removed Wilson as signatory on CCC’s bank account, leaving Gandis as the only signatory on the account, and revoked Wilson’s authority to make wire transfers. Wilson’s ability to access CCC’s financial information was also limited.
Misrepresenting the company’s finances. Gandis and Shirley made it look as if CCC had less cash than it had and later manipulated the December 2011 pro forma balance sheet to make it look like Wilson’s interest in the company was less than it really was.
Locking Wilson out of the building. In January 2012, after Wilson and Gandis were unable to come to an agreement about what should happen, Wilson arrived at the office to find Gandis there with a police officer and a locksmith. Since Wilson was a co-owner, the officer didn’t make him leave, and Wilson was able to enter the building and take two laptops, a Blackberry, and a number of files with him before he left and the locks were changed.
Emails between Gandis and Shirley showed that this was their plan. They discussed the legality of it and what to use as a cover story – first that Wilson had resigned (which he protested he didn’t), then that they did it because Wilson was competing with CCC.
Terminating Wilson’s health insurance coverage and cell phone services. These benefits were cut off for Wilson – but not for other members of the LLC – after he was locked out. Plus, from here Gandis and Shirley increased CCC’s monthly rent, which, remember, directly benefited Gandis since CCC rented a building from Gandis’s company M-Tech. They also raised the rate on the line of credit, which again directly benefited Gandis.
Starting up a competing company. In July 2012, Gandis and Shirley started up another LLC, ZOi Films, without telling Wilson. They said they founded it in an attempt to rebrand CCC and it was to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of CCC, but the trial court characterized it as an attempt to “siphon off” business from CCC.
Minority oppression must be determined on a case-by-case basis, says the supreme court, and in this instance it was not ambiguous – the trial court, court of appeals, and supreme court all agreed that Gandis and Shirley engaged in oppressive acts that were “brazen” and “unconscionable” (in the words of the trial court).
A Point of Disagreement
There was one point on which the supreme court disagreed with the trial court, and that’s the issue of who should be responsible for buying Wilson out. Gandis and Shirley argued against the trial court’s order that they must buy out Wilson’s share with their own money, as they argue that the LLC should protect them. They cited subsection 33-44-303(c) of South Carolina Code which protects LLC members from personal liability when acting in the course of ordinary business. But engaging in acts of calculated oppression is not in the course of ordinary business, the court determined.
Still, the supreme court did reverse the trial court’s order for Gandis and Shirley to personally buy Wilson out and remanded the case back to the trial court. CCC is ordered to buy out Wilson’s share, and if it doesn’t do that in a timely manner, then Gandis and Shirley will have to do so personally in a way that’s proportional to their interest in the business.
Protect Your Interests with LLC Governing Documents
The supreme court’s opinion called out that Wilson and Gandis did not have an operating agreement, employee handbook, or other optional but important documents to help them run their business. While having governance documents can’t entirely prevent minority oppression, they can help protect minority members’ interests and give recourse should the issue go to court. Not all instances of minority oppression are as blatant (and numerous) as in the case above.
If you are planning to start up an LLC with other people, or even if you already run one but don’t have anything beyond Articles of Incorporation, get your governance documents drafted and done. Call business attorney Gem at the Gem McDowell Law Group in Mount Pleasant, SC. He and his associates can draft documents that are tailored to your business that are fair to members and will help as you run the business and run into questions. Call today to schedule a free consultation at 843-284-1021.