Rock-Scissors-Paper Won’t Cut It: Effective Mechanisms for Resolving Deadlocks Between Business Owners

By Lawrence H. Shapiro

In sports, no one likes games to end in a tie. They are anti-climactic and disappointing. But in business, ties can have much more significant consequences. When equal shareholders in a closely held corporation, partners in a partnership, or members of a limited liability company find themselves tied – deadlocked – when making significant business decisions, it can put both the ongoing viability of the enterprise and the relationships behind the business in existential peril. And in any company where voting power or equity interests are equally divided, deadlock is always possible, if not a probability.

Management and ownership deadlocks can quickly devolve from disagreements among friends to irreconcilable differences between two soon-to-be-former business partners. Often, such disputes wind up in a courtroom where the fate of the owners and the business they bult together is left in the hands of a judge. Sometimes, litigation is necessary to protect the rights of an owner or preserve the business and its assets. In such circumstances, it is imperative that each owner retain their own experienced business litigation attorney to advise them and work to obtain a favorable outcome that, ideally, protects the business and the owner’s interests.

But litigation between deadlocked business owners can also be costly, disruptive, and lead to results that neither side wants, such as judicial dissolution and liquidation of the business.  Given the foreseeability of deadlock – and the probable negative consequences of an extended stalemate among owners – it is critical that business owners have an effective mechanism in place to resolve these disputes when they arise.

For this reason, deadlock provisions should be included in a business’s foundational documents, such as an operating agreement, partnership agreement, or corporate bylaws. Even if the original versions of such documents do not contain deadlock provisions, amendments can be crafted to address a logjam should it arise. Resolving deadlocks that threaten the future of a business should not be left up to dumb luck.   In fact, coming to an agreement on how to resolve a disagreement is easier while the business owners are getting along than having a court decide after the relationship falls apart.

If you have questions about ownership deadlocks or would like assistance establishing a deadlock resolution for your business, please contact one of the business law attorneys at Ansell, Grimm & Aaron.