Minority Shareholder Oppression Rights In British Columbia
In the recent case of Canex Investment Corporation v. 0799701 B.C. Ltd., 2020 BCCA 231, the British Columbia Court of Appeal showed its flexibility in offering oppression remedies for wronged minority shareholders. The case involved exceptionally high-handed conduct by the two directors of Canex Investment Corporation (“Canex”), leading to their personal financial gain at the expense of the minority shareholder Plaintiffs. Neither Canex nor its minority shareholders benefited from the $500,000 loan taken out and secured by Canex’s properties, rather, the loan was used to finance a related company (Flame Engineering & Construction) controlled by the Defendants. Further, the Defendants falsified financial records related to the Flame Engineering loan, manipulated Canex’s records to reduce the Plaintiffs’ investment through charging excessively high interest and management fees, and advanced arguments which Justice Harris termed as “bogus”.
Section 227 of the Business Corporations Act allows shareholders to apply for remedies when they’ve suffered harm that is typically, but not necessarily, separate from the harm suffered by the corporation as a whole. The remedy granted in this case was the return of the minority shareholders’ initial investment plus interest. In addition, the Court of Appeal found that punitive damages of $100,000 were appropriate, considering the egregious conduct of the Defendants. While the Defendants tried to assert that a derivative rather than an oppression action ought to have been brought by the shareholders, meaning that the Plaintiffs would have additional hurdles in order to obtain financial relief, the Court held that the oppression action was supported. Typically, if harm has been done to the company itself, a derivative action is appropriate. Oppression actions are brought when harm has been done to individual shareholders. But the Court held that the remedy of oppression will not be limited by mere corporate structure, and that the substantive reality of how a company is operated, instead of the legal from, is what matters.
On appeal, the Defendants argued that the trial judge had failed to recognize the formalities of corporate governance when imposing personal liability on the Defendants as directors. But based on the Defendants’ wrongful conduct and taking financial advantage, personal liability had to be imposed despite the separate legal personality of Canex as a corporation. Further, one of the Defendant’s personal liability survived beyond her declaration of bankruptcy because the fraud was committed while acting in a fiduciary capacity. While directors typically only owe fiduciary duties to a company itself rather than individual shareholders, the Court recognized the reality of this closely held corporation. Here, the two shareholders were in a special relationship of trust and dependency with the directors; the directors were expected to manage the company’s financial records honestly and in good faith, yet breached those duties. The Court brought home its disapproval of the Defendant’s oppressive conduct by imposing punitive damages. These types of damages are appropriate when conduct is so high-handed or malicious that it offends the Court’s sense of dignity. Particularly relevant for closely held corporations such as Canex, this case highlights the Court’s willingness to offer expanded remedies to minority shareholders based on the substantive conduct that occurred, and to turn down arguments based on technical corporate structure.