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An Introduction to the Law of Corporations: Cases and Materials

Stock and Dividends

The following provisions of the corporate law are enabling provisions related the corporation's stock. In general terms, a corporation may issue shares with a variety of rights and powers. Unless the certificate reserves to the board of directors the right designate stock rights, such rights must be stipulated in the corporation's certificate of incorporation.

Where the certificate has reserved to the board the power to designate rights, when a board issues shares it may designate special rights, including voting power and dividend rights, for the stock it issues.  Boards have used this power to create high vote shares and other types of stock with preferences and rights. This power to tailor the rights of stock is central to the board's ability to adopt “poison pills”, also known as shareholder rights plans.

A common right built in a share of stock is the “liquidation preference”. In firms funded by venture capital, venture capitalists will often demand that the shares they are issued come with liquidation preferences. A liquidation preference is a right that grants certain preferential payments to stockholder in the event the corporation undertakes any one of a series of different liquidation events (e.g. a merger, sale of the corporation, or a dissolution). Below is an example of a liquidation preference that might appear in a certificate of incorporation of venture backed start up firm:

  • Upon the occurence of a Liquidation, the holders of the Preferred Stock shall be entitled to receive, prior and in preference to any distribution of any of the assets or surplus funds of the Corporation to the holders of the Common Stock by reason of their ownership thereof, the amount of $5 per share (as adjusted for any stock divdends, combinations or splits with respect to such shares) plus all declared or accumulated but unpaid dividends on such share for each share of Preferred Stock then held by them.
  • This preference ensures that in the event of a liquidation event like a sale of the corporation, the venture investor receives $5 per share of the transaction consideration before any other stockholder is paid. Once the preference is paid, then stockholders share the balance of the transaction proceeds ratably.

    When a board issues shares, this chapter of the code also permits boards to restrict the ability of stockholders to buy and sell shares of the corporation – making such shares subject to redemption rights, rights of first offer, and also prohibiting in some circumstances interested stockholder transactions. 

    With respect to dividends, the provisions in this chapter makes it clear that decisions with respect to the declaration of dividends are ones that lie wholly within the discretion of the board of directors and are not the realm of stockholder action.