Shareholders are the individuals or groups that invest in the corporations. Each portion of ownership of a corporation is known as a share of stock. An individual may own one share of stock or several shares. Shareholders have certain rights when it comes to the corporation. The most important one is the right to vote, for example, to elect the corporation’s board of directors or change the corporation’s bylaws. Shareholders vote on only a very limited number of corporate issues, but they nevertheless have the right to exert some control over the corporation’s dealings. Shareholder voting typically takes place at an annual meeting, which states usually require of corporations. Corporations or shareholders may also request special meetings when a shareholder voting issue arises. It is not always practical for shareholders, who may live in various parts of the country or the world, to attend corporate meetings. For this reason, states permit shareholders to vote by authorizing, in writing, that another person may vote on behalf of the shareholder. This manner of voting is known as proxy.
Shareholders also have the right to investigate the corporation’s books. So long as the shareholder seeking to investigate the corporation’s records is doing so for a proper purpose or a purpose that reasonably relates to the shareholder’s financial inter-ests, the corporation must allow the inspection. In some cases, a corporation may require that the shareholder hold a minimum number of shares or that the shares be held for a certain period of time before allowing a shareholder to inspect the corporation’s books and records.
A corporation is governed by a board of individuals known as directors who are elected by the shareholders. Directors may directly manage the corporation’s affairs when the corporation is small, but when the corporation is large, directors primarily oversee the corporation’s affairs and delegate the management activities to corporate officers. Directors usually receive a salary for their work on the corporate board, and directors have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the corporation. These fiduciary duties require the directors to act with care toward the corporation, to act with loyalty toward the corporation, and to act within the confines of the law. A director who breaches this fiduciary duty may be sued by the shareholders and held personally liable for damages to the corporation.
The articles of incorporation or the corporate bylaws determine how many directors will serve on the board of directors and how long the directors’ terms will be. Directors hold meetings at regular intervals as defined in the corporate bylaws and, in addition, may also call special board meetings when needed. At board meetings, directors discuss issues affecting the corporation and make decisions about the corporation. Before the board can make a decision affecting the corporation, however, there must be a quorum, or certain minimum number of directors, present at the meeting. The precise number constituting a quorum may be determined by the bylaws or by statute.
The fiduciary duty held by directors requires them to act with due care, which means that the director must act reasonably to protect the corporation’s best interests. Courts will find a breach of the fiduciary duty when a director engages in self-dealing or negligence. Self-dealing occurs when the director makes a decision on behalf of the corporation that simultaneously benefits the director’s personal interests. For example, assume a director for a wholesale foods corporation also owns separately a grocery store. At a corporate board meeting, the director votes to reduce by fifty percent the cost of wholesale apples sold by the corporation to independent grocery stores. Such an act would likely benefit the director’s grocery store and could hurt the corporation’s profitability. A court would likely determine such an act to be a breach of the director’s fiduciary duty toward the corporation.
Directors are not in breach of their fiduciary duty merely because a decision they make on behalf of the corporation results in trouble for the corporation. Directors who base their decisions on reasonable information and who act rationally in making their decisions may not be held personally liable even if those decisions turn out to be poor ones. This legal emphasis on protecting a director’s decision-making process is known as the business judgment rule.
The roles of corporate officers—typically the corporation’s president, vice presidents, treasurer, and secretary—are defined by the corporate by-laws, articles of incorporation, and statutes. The president acts as the primary officer and sometimes is called the chief executive officer or CEO. The vice president is second in command and makes decisions in the president’s absence. The secretary keeps track of the corporate records and takes minutes at corporate meetings. The treasurer keeps track of corporate finances. Corporate officers act as agents of the corporation and have the responsibility of negotiating contracts to which the corporation is a party. When a corporate officer signs a contract on behalf of the corporation, the corporation is legally bound to the terms of the contract. Officers, like directors, also have a fiduciary duty toward the corporation and may be held personally liable for acts taken on behalf of the corporation.
When a corporation engages in wrongdoing, such as fraud, fails to pay taxes correctly, or fails to pay debts, the people behind the corporation generally are protected from liability. This protection results from the fact that the corporation takes on a legal identity of its own and becomes liable for its acts. However, courts will in some cases ignore this separate corporate identity and render the shareholders, officers, or directors personally liable for acts they have taken on the corporation’s behalf. This assignment of liability is known as piercing the corporate veil. Courts will pierce the corporate veil if a shareholder, officer, or director has engaged in fraud, illegality, or misrepresentation. Courts also will pierce the corporate veil when the corporation has not followed the statutory requirements for incorporation or when corporate funds are commingled with the personal property of an individual or when a corporation is undercapitalized or lacks sufficient funding to operate.