In companies both large and small, relationships between shareholders and directors can and do run into difficulty occasionally. When that happens, you have several remedies to choose from in the Companies Act. One of them, “relief from oppressive or prejudicial conduct” is particularly versatile, with courts empowered to order a wide range of remedial action ranging from share transfers to removal of directors, liquidation or business rescue of the company, and much more.
Indeed, a court may make any order “it deems fit” – but before you get there, you must first prove one of three specified categories of oppressive/prejudicial conduct. To illustrate, we discuss a Supreme Court of Appeal case involving a bitter dispute between a majority shareholder and a dismissed director.
What happens when a company’s directors and shareholders fall out and cannot reconcile their differences?
“Relief from oppressive or prejudicial conduct”
If you should find yourself in such an unfortunate situation, our Companies Act offers you several possible remedies.
Professional advice specific to your case is essential here but be aware of a particularly versatile remedy in the form of a court application for relief from “oppressive or prejudicial conduct”. This relief is available where –
- “any act or omission of the company, or a related person, has had a result that is oppressive or unfairly prejudicial to, or that unfairly disregards the interests of, the applicant”,
- “the business of the company, or a related person, is being or has been carried on or conducted in a manner that is oppressive or unfairly prejudicial to, or that unfairly disregards the interests of, the applicant”, or
- “the powers of a director or prescribed officer of the company, or a person related to the company, are being or have been exercised in a manner that is oppressive or unfairly prejudicial to, or that unfairly disregards the interests of, the applicant.”
If you can prove any of the above, the court has a wide discretion to make any order “it deems fit”, including (a long but not exhaustive list) an interdict against the improper conduct, liquidation if the company is insolvent, business rescue if appropriate, amendment of the Memorandum of Incorporation, “to create or amend a unanimous shareholder agreement”, issue or exchange of shares, appointing additional or replacement directors, declaring persons “delinquent or under probation”, refund of consideration paid for shares, varying or setting aside transactions and agreements, requiring production of financial statements or an accounting/reconciliation, compensation orders, rectification of company registers or records, or trial of any issue.
The critical part, as a recent SCA (Supreme Court of Appeal) judgment shows, is to be able to prove one of those three categories of wrongful conduct. Without that, and no matter how bitter the dispute between you and your nemesis may be, the court has no discretion to grant any of the above relief.
The facts and outcome of the SCA matter of Gent and Another v Du Plessis (1029/2019)  ZASCA 184 are a case in point –
Majority shareholder v fired director
In a long-established and closely-held fencing manufacturer with only two shareholders but substantial value (the total value of the shares seems to be in the region of between R46m and R74m), the two fell out over a range of issues.
The fallout culminated in the minority (46.67%) shareholder being removed from his directorship by the majority (53.33%) shareholder. After his removal as director he was also dismissed from his employment as a general manager after being found guilty at a disciplinary hearing of four counts of gross misconduct (one of which involved dishonesty). The misconduct complained of included abuse of trust, conflict of interest, and abortive attempts to have the company placed under business rescue and liquidation.
Long story short, the dispute ended up first in the High Court and ultimately before the SCA, the minority shareholder alleging that he had been excluded from the management of the company, denied management and financial information, excluded from decision making, removed as director to be replaced by the majority shareholder’s husband and brother-in-law, and unlawfully and unfairly dismissed from employment.
The Court however found on the facts that he had failed to prove that the majority shareholder’s conduct towards him was oppressive or unfairly prejudicial, or that his interests had been unfairly disregarded. He had been validly removed as a director of the company at a properly constituted shareholders’ meeting (as the Court put it “…the mere exercise of majority shareholding voting rights does not amount to oppression…), and his dismissal as general manager did not amount to oppressive or prejudicial conduct.
That finding, held the Court, meant that none of the avenues of relief listed above were available to the minority shareholder despite findings that the shareholders’ relationship had broken down irretrievably and was not capable of being resolved.
As a result, the High Court’s order that the majority shareholder sell her shares to him – an attempt by the High Court “to design or craft a mechanism which would result in a ‘clean break’ between the parties” because “it was not in their best interests to remain ‘in the same bed’” could not stand. Equally the minority shareholder’s new request that the majority shareholder be ordered to buy his shares from him could not succeed.