On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.
Approved for Publication November 19, 1997.
Before Judges Baime, Wefing and Braithwaite. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baime
The opinion of the court was delivered by
This appeal and cross-appeal concern the enforceability of an amendment to a shareholder redemption agreement delaying the valuation date of redeemed stock until the completion of criminal proceedings pending against the corporation and its principal officer. Plaintiff, a former employee and minority shareholder of defendant Schoor, DePalma and Canger Group, Inc. (Schoor), brought suit for breach of the original redemption agreement, claiming that the amendment violated public policy. The Law Division granted summary judgment, finding that the amendment was unenforceable because it was signed under duress. Schoor appeals from the summary judgment. Plaintiff cross-appeals from the denial of counsel fees. We hold that the amendment did not violate public policy.
Plaintiff commenced his employment with Schoor in 1984. In 1988, Schoor offered to make plaintiff a shareholder. Plaintiff accepted the promotion and executed the company's shareholder redemption agreement. In accordance with the terms of the agreement, plaintiff signed a promissory note in the principal amount of $30,256 in consideration for his purchase of 400 shares of company stock. The note required plaintiff to pay Schoor the principal on a yearly installment basis with payments subject to accumulating interest at the prime rate. Plaintiff ultimately reduced the principal amount due on the note to $22,692.
In 1989, Schoor reorganized its internal structure and adopted an employee stock ownership plan. The plan amended the shareholder redemption agreement by providing that stock held over five years would be valued at three times the adjusted book value, while stock held for a lesser period would be valued at the adjusted book value. It is undisputed that plaintiff voluntarily signed this amendment.
In April 1990, Schoor and its principal officer, Stephen P. DePalma, were indicted. The board of directors temporarily removed DePalma from participation in the company's operations. In addition, DePalma's stock was placed in a blind trust. Concerned that the indictment would have a depressing effect on the company's profitability, the board proposed to again amend the shareholder redemption agreement.
The articulated objective of the amendment was to dissuade shareholders from immediately exercising their redemption rights. The purpose was to assure unity among shareholders so that no one could "make a quick profit" while the remaining owners were left to deal with the financial perils generated by a depressed real estate market and the pending indictment. This objective was to be achieved by delaying the valuation date for redeemed stock until after Disposition of the criminal charges. Stripped to its essentials, the amendment provided that the redeemed stock would be valued at least twelve months after Disposition of the indictment by dismissal, plea or trial verdict.
According to plaintiff's certification, the proposed amendment was given to each shareholder with the direction that it be signed the same day. However, the record discloses that the proposed amendment was accompanied by an explanatory memorandum prepared by Schoor's general counsel summarizing the changes in the shareholders' redemption rights. As described in the memorandum, the amendment provided a "two prongged test" to determine the applicable valuation date. The memorandum explained that under the original redemption agreement, the date for determining the value of redeemed stock was "the last day of the first quarter immediately preceding the shareholder's departure[, i.e., February 28, 1990, if the shareholder left on June 1, 1990]." According to the memorandum, the amendment provided an alternate date for valuation - "between the 12th and 24th month after the day on which the criminal proceedings [were] resolved . . . ." As explained in the memorandum, "the valuation used to price the stock [would] be the one that [was] the lowest of the two dates." The memorandum is dated June 26, 1990. Plaintiff executed the amended shareholder redemption agreement on July 12, 1990.
On November 15, 1991, plaintiff's employment was terminated, thus triggering his right to have the company redeem his shares. Under the formula contained in the original redemption agreement, the last day of the most recently completed first quarter of Schoor's fiscal year which preceded the termination date was February 28, 1991. Following his termination, Schoor provided plaintiff with an accounting statement, calculating the value of his redeemed stock utilizing a promissory note in the principal amount of $22,171.29. This amount reflected the adjusted book value of plaintiff's shares, calculated as of February 28, 1991, with a set-off of the outstanding principal and interest Whalen owed from his original purchase of the stock. The note specified that it was subject to an adjustment and replacement pursuant to the alternate valuation formula provided in the amendment to the redemption agreement.
The charges against the corporation were dismissed following its enrollment in a pretrial intervention program. On October 9, 1991, a jury acquitted DePalma. Under the formula provided in the amendment to the redemption agreement, the alternate date for the valuation of plaintiff's redeemed stock was February 28, 1993. The aggregate adjusted book value of plaintiff's shares on that date ...