Removing an Accountant / Shareholder from a Practice
By Matt Dickstein
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Here is the flow of issues when an accountant / shareholder is removed from a practice:
Termination of employment → Buy-back of shares → Non-competition → Claims for unfair oppression.
Let’s start at the beginning, which is the end of employment.
Termination of Employment
The controlling accountants of the practice usually can fire accountant / shareholders who lack control, and remove them from the board of directors. If there’s an Employment Agreement with the departing shareholder, the controlling shareholders must comply with that contract in firing the departing shareholder. If there’s no Employment Agreement, the controlling shareholders will rely on the at-will status of all employees in California to terminate employment.
Getting fired hurts, because most accountant / partners who are active in a practice depend on their salary from the practice. This is why, notwithstanding an Employment Agreement or CA’s at-will policy, the controlling partners need a good reason to fire the departing partner. Courts generally recognize a partner’s reasonable expectation of continued employment by his or her practice. Courts will protect an accountant from being unfairly terminated and losing his or her salary (see below re “oppression”).
Buy-Back of Shares
After termination of employment, the next issue for the controlling shareholders is whether to buy-back the departing accountant’s shares. If the departing accountant keeps his shares, then he’s still around — he can vote the shares at any meeting of shareholders, including to elect directors, and he can receive his share of dividends and distributions.
The controlling shareholders only have a right to buy-back the departing shareholder’s shares if a contract gives them this right. The law does not grant this right to the controlling shareholders. Usually you find a buy-back right in a Shareholders Agreement or a Buy-Sell Agreement. The contract might trigger the buy-back right at termination of a shareholder’s employment, or perhaps upon mere dispute between shareholders. I talk about Shareholders / Buy-Sell Agreements at length in the articles in the right sidebar. These contracts are very important because they structure the buy-back process. Absent these contracts, the process devolves into an expensive free-for-all.
Now think about the buy-out price. A high buy-out price gives the exiting shareholder a windfall. A low buy-out price is unfair and leads to litigation. The trick is, in the Shareholders / Buy-Sell Agreement, to use a procedure that ensures a fair price – for example, a neutral appraisal process, or an accounting formula. Payment terms are important too, because payment up-front in one lump sum is better than payment by promissory note over a long period of time.
Non-competition clauses follow on the buy-back of shares. The controlling accountants may only impose a non-competition covenant: (1) if a contract provides for it, and (2) only after the bona-fide buy-back of shares pursuant to that contract. Once again, the Shareholders / Buy-Sell Agreement is the contract that creates the non-competition right pursuant to the buy-back of shares.
If a practice does not demand a non-competition clause, it should at least regulate the process by which the departing accountant leaves. The practice should control how the departing accountant communicates with referral sources, employees and clients. The practice needs an orderly and professional process for removing the accountant. You don’t want either side (whether the departing accountant or the controlling group) to poison the other’s well. Again, I talk about this a lot in the articles in the right sidebar.
Oppression not Permitted
In CA, controlling partners must treat minority partners fairly, and they may not use their corporate power to benefit themselves alone or otherwise unfairly hurt the minority. The legal term of art is the oppression of minority shareholders. For example, for a founder / shareholder who earns her living through the practice, a court might consider it oppressive if the controlling shareholders fired the shareholder for no good reason thereby depriving her of salary. Courts also don’t like the unfair dilution of a minority shareholder’s equity (called a squeeze-out). Controlling shareholders need legitimate business reasons for their actions against minority owners.
When oppressed by the majority, the minority shareholders have two legal remedies: (1) a tort cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty, and (2) involuntary dissolution. As to the latter, shareholders owning 1/3 or more of the stock can sue for involuntary dissolution. Minority shareholders will allege that a majority, controlling group of shareholders is committing unfair acts that cause financial loss to the minority. In most cases, a court will resolve an involuntary dissolution case by having the controlling group buy-out the minority, or by dissolving the practice.