In the event of a management deadlock among owners of a closely held entity with a limited number of shareholders, partners, or members, the non-operating owners often pursue a resolution of the parties’ management disputes through state court litigation. The simplest example of corporate deadlock involves a company with two co-owners who are equal (50–50) shareholders or members and can no longer agree on how to run or capitalize their business leading to major animosity and a lack of goodwill between the parties. In cases such as this, when the breakdown of the interest holders’ relationship is irreparable, an aggrieved shareholder or member who wants themself or their business partner(s) to exit the company, or to even wind up the company as a whole, may seek to accomplish his goals through the appointment of a state court receiver.
In state court, receivers are generally appointed by filing an order to show cause along with a verified complaint. Because an action to appoint a receiver is an equitable remedy, and the receiver’s duties and powers are determined based on the specific facts of each case, such actions are generally heard by a chancery court sitting in equity. Notwithstanding the equitable nature of a receivership action, courts view the appointment of a receiver as an extraordinary remedy that requires imposing and persuasive proof. As such, it can take months or even years before a receiver is appointed and given a directive by the appointing court to run, liquidate certain assets, or even dissolve a deadlocked company. Accordingly, breaking a corporate deadlock by using a state court appointed receiver can be a time consuming, expensive, and arduous process, which, in the interim, can lead to the further deterioration of a company’s finances and ability to conduct business as a going concern.
In contrast to the drawn out nature of a receivership action, a non-operating owner can break a company’s management deadlock in a relatively short amount of time by electing to put his or her company in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding. Indeed, once a Chapter 7 proceeding is filed the day to day control and operations of the business immediately pass to a Chapter 7 trustee, an independent and objective third party, pursuant to § 541(a) of the Bankruptcy Code. The non-operating owner can then negotiate with the Chapter 7 trustee to sell the business entity as a going concern through a § 363 asset sale or even request that the company be liquidated outright. Both of these actions would result in the non-operating owner (and perhaps the operating owner if he or she does not elect to purchase the assets alone or through another entity) essentially selling his or her interest in the now-bankrupt company and cashing out, thereby breaking the management deadlock. This is the case because the funds derived from the sale of the business or its assets after paying the administrative expenses associated with the sale(s) and all outstanding pre-petition creditors will be distributed to the entity’s members or shareholders under Bankruptcy Code § 726(a)(6).
In regard to selling a business as a going concern, a non-operating owner can also request that a Chapter 7 trustee request authorization from the bankruptcy court to temporarily operate the business under Bankruptcy Code § 721 to preserve the debtor entity’s business relationships and by extension its going concern value while working toward completing the sale. Unlike the drawn out process of a party seeking a state court receiver, a bankruptcy court can grant a trustee the authority to run a debtor’s business temporarily within a week of the bankruptcy filing if the trustee deems it necessary to file an expedited motion during the first days of the case. What’s more, with the expressed interest of a motivated buyer, a going concern sale or full asset liquidation can be accomplished within weeks of a bankruptcy petition being filed if the trustee is aware of the potential purchaser of the company or its underlying assets. Such a purchaser may be one of the company’s owners who now seeks to operate the business or a successor entity without the constraints of his or her former business partner.