Corporate directors and officers owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation and its shareholders to act in the corporation’s best interest. This is commonly known as the “duty of loyalty.” A breach of this duty may expose both the individual officer or director and the corporation itself to liability to the shareholders. Allegations against the former chairman and chief executive officer of a large New York City media company have led to a discussion of whether this individual might have breached the duty of loyalty in connection with an ongoing scandal. While it is important to note that these are only allegations, the ongoing story provides a useful demonstration of the duty of loyalty, as well as a possible defense to a claim of breach.
Under New York law, corporate officers, directors, and majority shareholders are considered “guardians of the corporate welfare.” Alpert v. 28 Williams Street Corp., 63 N.Y.2d 557, 568 (1984), quoting Leibert v. Clapp, 13 N.Y.2d 313, 317 (1963). Even if a particular action does not violate any specific law, it might violate the duty of loyalty if its purpose is “the aggrandizement or undue advantage of the fiduciary to the exclusion or detriment of the stockholders.” Alpert, 63 N.Y.2d at 569.
“Self-dealing” is a common example of a breach, such as when an officer or director has a significant financial interest in a corporate transaction and prioritizes their own interests over those of the corporation. An officer or director can avoid legal liability if they disclose the conflict of interest to the corporation ahead of time and receive approval from a majority of disinterested directors or shareholders. See N.Y. Bus. Corp. L. § 713.