The Appellate Court of Maryland Clarifies State Corporate Law in Mekhaya v. Eastland Food Corporation
The Appellate Court of Maryland, in its recent decision in Mekhaya v. Eastland Food Corporation, brought Maryland law in line with the corporate laws of other states, expanding shareholders’ rights. This case changed Maryland business law in several respects. Corporate shareholders now may assert some types of claims directly on their own behalf, even without a written agreement. The court in this decision also limited the “business judgment rule,” and addressed “de facto” dividends.
Clarification of Shareholders’ Rights
The Mekhaya decision is significant because it broadens shareholders’ rights to assert claims against a corporation. Prior to this decision, when addressing a dispute among shareholders, Maryland courts looked to the shareholders’ written agreement or their employment agreements to determine what rights are provided to the shareholder under the agreement. A shareholder was then able to assert a “shareholder derivative claim” on behalf of the corporation. If successful, such a suit would result in the corporation recovering monetary damages if the suit is successful (with the shareholder indirectly receiving benefit, in the role as a shareholder). In the Mekhaya case, however, the shareholders did not have a written shareholder agreement, so the court instead considered what it believed to be the reasonable expectations of the shareholders to determine if the particular shareholder asserting the claim had direct standing to sue the corporation, and to recover damages personally. As a result of this decision, shareholders in Maryland corporations can bring direct claims against a corporation in some situations, and potentially recover damages in their personal capacity. In the Mekhaya case, the shareholder was permitted to assert direct claims of shareholder oppression, breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment.
Limiting the Business Judgment Rule
The court’s opinion also held the business judgment rule inapplicable to direct claims of shareholders, if the shareholder can show a breach of fiduciary duty owed to the shareholder, and that the shareholder was personally harmed, even without showing an injury to the corporation. The court remanded the case for a determination as to whether the shareholder’s expectations were objectively reasonable.
“De Facto” Dividends
The court also acknowledged ambiguity in the states Corporations and Associations Code, and concluded that some distributions to shareholders may be considered “de facto” dividends, even if the payments are disguised as a large bonus, and not labeled as dividends. The Mekhaya court concluded that a payment to a shareholder might constitute a dividend, even when included as part of a shareholder’s salary as a corporate employee or director.
Lewicky, O’Connor, Hunt & Meiser can answer questions and provide legal guidance to businesses about their legal rights and obligations. We help companies prepare shareholder agreements to avoid future issues of legal interpretation. Please contact us at email@example.com or (410) 489-1996.