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Pertuis v. Front Roe Restaurants, Inc.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

July 5, 2018

Kyle Pertuis, Respondent,
v.
Front Roe Restaurants, Inc., Beachfront Foods, Inc., Lake Point Restaurants, Inc., Mark Hammond and Larkin Hammond, Petitioners. Appellate Case No. 2016-000749

          Heard November 14, 2017

          Appeal from Greenville County Edward W. Miller, Circuit Court Judge

          Blake A. Hewitt, of Bluestein Thompson Sullivan, LLC, of Columbia and Curtis Stodghill, of Stodghill Law Firm, of Greenville, for Petitioners.

          Robert C. Wilson, Jr., of Greenville, for Respondent.

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

          KITTREDGE ACTING CHIEF JUSTICE

         Petitioners Mark and Larkin Hammond built and operated several successful restaurants in Lake Lure, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina. The Hammonds hired Respondent Kyle Pertuis to manage the restaurants, and as part of his compensation, Pertuis acquired minority ownership interests in the three restaurants. Pertuis eventually decided to leave the business, and this dispute primarily concerns the percentage and valuation of Pertuis's ownership interests in the three restaurants. Following a bench trial, the trial court found the three corporate entities should be amalgamated into a "de facto partnership" operating out of Greenville, South Carolina. The trial court further awarded Pertuis a 10% ownership interest in the two North Carolina restaurants, a 7.2% ownership interest in the South Carolina restaurant, and a total of $99, 117 in corporate distributions from the restaurants. The trial court further concluded Pertuis was an oppressed minority shareholder, valued each of the three corporations, and ordered a buyout of Pertuis's shares. The court of appeals affirmed. Pertuis v. Front Roe Restaurants, Inc., Op. No. 2016-UP-091 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Feb. 24, 2016). For the reasons explained below, we reverse in part, vacate in part, and affirm as modified in part.

         I.

         The Hammonds, who are residents of Lake Lure, North Carolina, formed Lake Point Restaurants, Inc. (Lake Point), a North Carolina S-corporation, in 1998 and purchased a restaurant on the water at Lake Lure, North Carolina. The Hammonds were the sole shareholders with equal ownership in the corporation. The restaurant purchase was financed through personal contributions by the Hammonds, owner-financing, and third-party loans personally guaranteed by the Hammonds. The business operated as Larkin's on the Lake and remains a viable business today.

         In 2000, the Hammonds hired Pertuis as a manager of the restaurant. As part of Pertuis's compensation package, the parties agreed Pertuis would earn a base salary plus bonuses based on profitability benchmarks, along with a 10% share in the business over the course of a five-year period at an agreed vesting schedule. The vesting schedule was time-based to incentivize Pertuis to remain with the company for a period of time. In accordance with the vesting schedule, by 2007, Pertuis owned a 10% share in Lake Point.

         In 2001, the Hammonds formed Beachfront Foods, Inc. (Beachfront), which was also a North Carolina S-corporation, for the purpose of purchasing another restaurant on Lake Lure. As with Lake Point, the Hammonds were the sole shareholders with equal ownership interests; the restaurant purchase was financed through personal contributions by the Hammonds, owner-financing, and third-party loans personally guaranteed by the Hammonds; and the parties agreed upon a five-year vesting schedule for Pertuis to attain a 10% ownership interest. The second restaurant was renovated and re-branded as MaLarKie's, which represented a combination of the parties' first names-Mark Hammond, Larkin Hammond, and Kyle Pertuis. When Beachfront was formed, Pertuis's job title became "Managing Partner," as his duties included oversight of both restaurants. Along with the increase in job duties, Pertuis's compensation expanded. Also as with Lake Point, by 2007, Pertuis owned a 10% share in Beachfront. For various reasons, MaLarKie's was not as successful as Larkin's on the Lake, and eventually Beachfront sold MaLarkie's and began operating a casual dining restaurant in nearby Columbus, North Carolina. This restaurant, Larkin's Carolina Grill, was the least profitable of the three restaurants at the time of trial, with a negative net income reported on its income tax returns each year from 2008-2012.

         In 2005, the Hammonds formed Front Roe Restaurants, Inc. (Front Roe), a South Carolina S-Corporation and purchased Rene's Steakhouse in Greenville, South Carolina. As with the other two corporations at the time of their formation, the Hammonds were the sole shareholders of Front Roe with equal ownership interests, and the restaurant purchase was financed through personal contributions by the Hammonds and third-party loans personally guaranteed by the Hammonds. The business currently operates as Larkin's on the River and, at the time of trial, was the most profitable of the three corporations.

         Several months after Front Roe was formed, Pertuis moved to Greenville and traveled to each of the restaurants weekly as part of his managerial duties. Although the parties agreed upon a vesting schedule for Pertuis to acquire up to a 10% interest in Front Roe, by all accounts this agreement, unlike the others, was based upon the restaurant's profitability benchmarks rather than length of service. Although none of the parties could produce a written vesting schedule, Mark Hammond testified the agreement was for Pertuis to receive a 1% interest the year Front Roe first became profitable and an additional 9% once the company achieved a net operating profit of $500, 000.

         By 2007, Pertuis owned a 1% share of Front Roe; however, both Hammond and Pertuis agreed that, at the time of trial, Front Roe had never reached the $500, 000 profit benchmark. This fact is confirmed by Front Roe's tax returns. Pertuis has never made any capital contributions or personal loans to the companies, either during or after his employment.

         By late 2008 to early 2009, the parties began discussing different compensation packages to allow Pertuis to reach a 10% ownership interest in Front Roe. Despite multiple conversations back and forth between Pertuis and Hammond, and the involvement of attorneys and tax professionals, Pertuis eventually became frustrated with the perceived delay in the process of formalizing what he hoped would be a new agreement. In early October 2009, Pertuis took some time off from the business to consider his options. In a lengthy email to the Hammonds, Pertuis cited the sources of his discontent as, among other things, feeling like his investment of time and energy into the business was not paying off financially, industry burnout, and trouble achieving work-life balance. Ultimately, the parties split ways, although it is unclear from the record whether the decision was Pertuis's, the Hammonds', or a mutual one.

         After the parties' unsuccessful attempts to negotiate the Hammonds' purchase of Pertuis's shares of the businesses, which was exacerbated by disagreements over the value of Pertuis's shares and the extent to which Pertuis was entitled to certain business records, suit was filed.[1] Essentially, Pertuis argued he was an oppressed minority shareholder who had been "squeezed out" of the business in bad faith and that he was therefore entitled to a forced buyout of his shares, including a 10% ownership share in Front Roe.

         Following a bench trial, the trial court found the three corporate entities-Lake Point (NC), Beachfront (NC), and Front Roe (SC)-should be amalgamated into a single business enterprise located in and operating out of Greenville, South Carolina. The trial court further found Pertuis was an oppressed minority shareholder and awarded Pertuis a 7.2% ownership interest in Front Roe, as well as $99, 117 in unpaid corporate distributions from Lake Point and Front Roe. The trial court valued each of the three corporations and ordered a buyout of Pertuis's shares by Petitioners.[2] The court of appeals affirmed. Pertuis v. Front Roe Restaurants, Inc., Op. No. 2016-UP-091 (S.C. Ct. App. filed Feb. 24, 2016). This Court issued a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.

         Petitioners now argue the court of appeals erred in affirming the trial court's finding that the three corporations operated as a single business enterprise with its locus in Greenville and that the court of appeals erred in finding this argument to be unpreserved. Petitioners also contend the court of appeals erred in affirming the trial court's decision to award a 7.2% ownership interest in Front Roe and $99, 117 in shareholder distributions to Petitioner; in valuing Beachfront at $0 rather than assigning it a negative value; and in finding Pertuis was an oppressed minority shareholder.

         II.

         An action for stockholder oppression is one in equity. Ballard v. Roberson, 399 S.C. 588, 593, 733 S.E.2d 107, 109 (2012) (citation omitted). Therefore, this Court may find facts according to its own view of the evidence. Id. (citing S.C. Dept. of Transp. v. Horry Cty., 391 S.C. 76, 81, 705 S.E.2d 21, 24 (2011)).

         A. Amalgamation or Single Business Enterprise

         Petitioners claim the court of appeals erred in affirming the trial court's finding that amalgamation of the three corporate entities was warranted. We agree.[3] However, before we reach the merits of this claim, we must first sort through the complicated issue of whether South Carolina or North Carolina law governs our evaluation of this veil-piercing theory.

         1. ...


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