New Zealand: Timely reminder of the duties of a director

Last Updated: 21 October 2014
Article by Clare O'Neill

In the recent case of Morgenstern v Jeffreys [2014] NZCA 449, the Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal against a High Court ruling that Morgenstern had breached his duties as a director under sections 131, 135 and 137 of the Companies Act 1993, by selling all of the shares in Morning Star (St Lukes Garden Apartments) Limited (MS St Lukes) to Morning Star Enterprises Limited (in liquidation) (MSE) for $3.5 million.

Background

The purpose of the sale was to enable Morgenstern, who was the sole shareholder and director of MSE, to repay his overdrawn current account with MSE. It was held that the consideration for the shares in MS St Lukes was excessive. MSE, which was already in serious financial difficulties at the time of the transaction, failed within a year of the transaction, owing several million dollars to creditors.

Summary of Law

The Court of Appeal summarised the law relating to directors' duties, saying:

"There is no dispute that the duties imposed on directors by ss 131, 135 and 137 are owed to the company and require directors to act in the best interests of the company. A director must not put his or her personal interests ahead of those of the company. The duties arise regardless of the size of a director's shareholding and role in the company. They apply even if the shareholding is 100 per cent. It is also well established that, at least when a company is in financial difficulties, the duties extend to a requirement to take into account the interests of the company's creditors."

The Court went on to say:

"The existence of these duties means that where there is a transaction between a director and the company there is likely to be a conflict of interest between the director's personal interests and the separate interests of the company. Unless the transaction is for "fair value", the company may avoid it within three months. If a director seeks to uphold the transaction, the onus of establishing fair value is on the director. Similarly, a director involved in such a transaction who wishes to avoid breaching the director's duties to the company will need to be able to satisfy a court that the transaction was for fair value."

Morgenstern had an obligation to ensure that MSE paid a fair value for his shares in MS St Lukes. Morgenstern had not obtained an independent valuation for the shares and, as a result, he was held to have failed to discharge his onus of proving that the shares were purchased for fair value.

Section 131: Duty to act in good faith and in the best interests of the company

The Court held that Morgenstern had clearly failed to act in good faith and in what he believed to be the best interests of MSE. The Court was satisfied that the evidence supported the findings that Morgenstern did not honestly believe the sale of shares to be in the best interests of MSE and that his dominant purpose was to avoid exposure to a claim for recovery of his current account. The following factors were taken into account by the Court:

  1. The sale of shares was a related-party transaction in which Morgenstern was under a conflict of interest;
  2. The transaction was solely for his own personal benefit;
  3. No consideration had been given to the interests of MSE; and
  4. No independent share valuation had been obtained.

Section 135: Duty not to allow reckless trading

The Court held that Morgenstern clearly engaged in reckless trading. In the circumstances that existed at the time of the transaction, the purchase of the shares by MSE was likely to create a substantial risk of serious loss to the company's creditors. Further, the transaction amounted to reckless trading because it had the potential to cause the demise of MSE. The fact that MSE failed within a year of the transaction served to confirm how reckless the transaction was.

Section 137: Directors' duty of care

The Court held that Morgenstern had clearly breached the duties of care, diligence and skill that a reasonable director would have observed in the circumstances. In the Court's view, no reasonable director would have proceeded with this transaction, which was clearly only in the interests of Morgenstern himself.

Relief

The power of the Court to order relief for a breach of directors' duties under sections 131, 135 and 137 is contained in section 301(1) of the Companies Act 1993. Section 301(1) allows the Court wide discretionary powers, including that it may order the person to:

"repay or restore the money or property or any part of it with interest at a rate the court thinks just; or

contribute such sum to the assets of the company by way of compensation as the court thinks just".

The Court held that the "restitutionary" approach to relief under section 301(1)(b) was suitable. The appropriate amount of compensation was the company's actual loss; that is the amount required to put the company back into the position it would have been in but for the transaction.

MSE was balance sheet insolvent at the date of the transaction and it incurred a "but for" loss of $3.5 million due to the share transfer. The Court found no reason why Morgenstern should not be ordered to repay the full $3,499,999 (being the purchase price of $3.5 million less the sum of $1.00, for which the shares were subsequently sold to another party).

Conclusion

While the decision is not especially surprising or controversial, it serves as a useful reminder to all directors of companies to be mindful of their duties as directors, especially when there is or may be a conflict of interest involved. In particular, where any director is considering a related-party transaction involving the company, such transaction must be for "fair value" and it would be prudent to obtain an independent and expert valuation of the relevant property, prior to entering into the transaction.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions