By: Maria L. Panichelli
The federal government offers a multitude of programs designed to assist small businesses. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is certainly at the forefront of such programs, but it is not the only agency. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (VA) has created a very popular program of its own for Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned and Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSB/ VOSB). Many contractors generally know about the benefits of participating in these programs. Some may even know about the applicable eligibility requirements. But what many contractors don’t know is that provisions in their corporate governance documents could destroy their eligibility for such programs. This article seeks to educate contractors about the three most common provisions affecting small business program eligibility.
The federal government’s Small Business Programs – the SBA’s 8(a), HUBZone, VOSB/SDVOSB and WOSB/EDWOSB Programs, as well as the VA’s VOSB/SDVOSB Program – share certain eligibility requirements. Specifically, in addition to the threshold requirement of being a “small” business, each program requires at least 51% “unconditional ownership,” as well as “unconditional control,” of that business by particular individuals. For example, a veteran or service-disabled veteran has to unconditionally own at least 51% of a company and unconditionally control that company in order for that company to be considered a VOSB or SDVOSB, respectively. Similarly, a woman or an economically disadvantaged woman needs to unconditionally own and control a business if that business wishes to be considered an eligible WOSB or EDWOSB.
Figuring out who must have ownership and control of the concern is the easy part: Definition sections of the applicable regulations are found here: 13 C.F.R. §§§ 124.01, 124.03 and 124.04 for 8(a) businesses; 13 C.F.R. § 126.200 for HUBZone concerns; 13 C.F.R. Part 125 for the SBA VOSB/SDVOSB program; 38 C.F.R. § 74.2 for the VA VOSB/SDVOSB program; and 13 C.F.R. §§ 127.102 and 127.200 for the WOSB/EDWOSB program. The difficult part is figuring out how the definitions are defined: How must these individuals own and control the company? The regulations tell us that ownership and control must be unconditional. But what does unconditional really mean? Said a different way, under what circumstances do these agencies consider ownership or control to be conditional? That is where trouble often lurks. Many times, a finding of conditional ownership or control is based on a provision or requirement found in a company’s operating agreement, shareholder’s agreement or by-laws. Several of the most problematic provisions are discussed below.
1) Definitional Clauses or Clauses Dealing with Authority
Corporate governance documents almost always contain a provision outlining who the members or owners are, or defining who will manage the entity. While these provisions are not problematic per se, they can cause issues when roles are not clearly defined or authority appears to be shared.
The powers of the Company shall be exercised by or under the authority of, and the business and affairs of the Company shall be managed under the direction of, one or more managers. The Manager(s) shall be: Jane Doe, John Doe and Yogi Berra.
The problem with this clause is that it gives the impression that all three of these individuals have equal decision-making authority. What if Mr. Berra is the majority owner, and the service-disabled veteran upon whom the company’s SDVOSB eligibility depends? This provision, as written, would seem to indicate that he does not have ultimate authority over the company but, rather, shares control with the other two managers. Even if the corporate governance document otherwise demonstrates that Yogi is the 66% owner, or specifies that no decision can be made by the company without Yogi’s approval, the SBA and VA could very well question whether unconditional control exists based upon this clause. For that reason, it often makes more sense to name only the majority owner(s), upon whom eligibility depends, as managers or managing members. The remaining individuals can be given other titles.
2) Supermajority Provisions
As the name indicates, supermajority provisions are provisions that require an ownership vote of more than a simple majority to effectuate material change.
Removal of Members: Members may be removed from the LLC by an affirmative vote of more the 66% of the LLC members.
The problem with these types of provisions is that they can divest a majority owner of his or her power to unconditionally control the company. Consider the following example: Bob, a service disabled veteran, owns 51% of Bob’s Electric Company, LLC and has applied for SDVOSB verification through the VA. The operating agreement contains a supermajority provision which requires at least a 2/3 vote to remove a member. Because Bob owns only 51%, he cannot, without the consent of other members, effectuate this change. In other words, Bob does not have unfettered authority to remove another member on his own. Therefore, in the eyes of the VA, Bob does not unconditionally control his company and Bob’s Electric is not a legitimate SDVOSB. For this reason, supermajority provisions should be avoided if a business wishes to participate in the Small Business Programs. The sole exception is if the majority owner owns more than is required under the supermajority provision (using the example above, this would mean Bob owned 67% or more) and therefore, could effectuate change without the consent of the minority owners.
3) Involuntary Transfer Provisions and Limitations on Transfer Provisions
Involuntary transfer provisions encompass an array of provisions, each of which operates to divest an owner of his or her ownership interest without consent. Common examples include a transfer upon insolvency or bankruptcy, a transfer upon criminal conviction or a transfer upon incapacity or death.
Transfer Upon Insolvency: Upon the insolvency of any member, that member must transfer his or her shares to the other member at a price determined by [document pricing provisions].
Similarly, limitations on transfer provisions prevent a member or shareholder from freely transferring his or her ownership interest. Some examples include provisions that provide for a right of first refusal (i.e., a requirement that the selling or transferring member/shareholder must offer to sell his or her interests to other members/shareholders before any other individual or entity) or provisions that require consent of other members before a sale of ownership interest can be made.
Restrictions on Transfer: No Member shall sell, assign, pledge, give or otherwise transfer or encumber in any manner or by any means whatsoever, any interest in a Membership Interest whether now owned or hereafter acquired without having obtained the prior written consent of all of the members of the Company.
The SBA and VA commonly view provisions like this as placing “conditions” on ownership. In the agencies’ view, if an owner can be divested of its ownership without his or her consent, or if an owner does not have unfettered freedom to sell his or her ownership interest, that owner does unconditionally own the company. That said, in a 2013 case litigated by our firm, the Court of Federal Claims ruled that in certain cases, rights of first refusal are permissible, and do not render an owner’s control as conditional. However, it is important to keep in mind that the COFC’s decision in that case addressed VA regulations that pertain to SDVOSBs under that program only. It is not entirely clear if the SBA’s similarly-worded regulations would be interpreted in the same way. For this reason, and just to be safe, it is probably a better idea to exclude these types of provisions altogether.
The provisions identified here are not the only provisions that can cause eligibility issues — but contractors who learn to avoid these three common pitfalls will be way ahead of the game! Of course, the advice in this article represents general guidelines only and each company must assess for itself how best to draft its corporate governance documents. Drafting an operating agreement, shareholders agreement or by-laws that simultaneously address all of the company’s needs, balance the interests of the various owners, and comply with all relevant SBA and VA regulations can be a daunting task. If contractors have any questions about how to draft the best corporate governance documents for their company, the best course of action is to contact a legal professional to assist.