DODGE v. FORD MOTOR CO.
204 Mich. 459, 170 N.W. 668 (1919)
OSTRANDER, C. J.
[The case for plaintiffs must rest upon the claim, and the proof in support of it, that the proposed expansion of the business of the corporation, involving the further use of profits as capital, ought to be enjoined because inimical to the best interests of the company and its shareholders, and upon the further claim that in any event the withholding of the special dividend asked for by plaintiffs is arbitrary action of the directors requiring judicial interference.,
The rule which will govern courts in deciding these questions is not in dispute. It is, of course, differently phrased by judges and by authors, and, as the phrasing in a particular instance may seem to lean for or against the exercise of the right of judicial interference with the actions of corporate directors, the context, or the facts before the court, must be considered.
In Morawetz on Corporations (2nd Ed.) 5 447, it is stated:
Profits earned by a corporation may be divided among its shareholders, but is not a violation of the charter if they are allowed to accumulate and remain invested in the business. The managing agents of a corporation remain invested with a discretionary power with regard to the time and manner of distributing profits. They may apply profits in payment of floating or funded debts) or in development of the company’s business; and so long as they do not abuse their discretionary powers, or violate the company's charter, the courts cannot interfere.
But it is clear that the agents of a corporation and even the majority, can not arbitrarily withhold profits earned by the company, or apply them to any use which is not authorized by the company's charter.
Mr. Henry Ford is the dominant force in the business of the Ford Motor Company. No plan of operations could be adopted unless he consented, and no board of directors can be elected whom he does not favor. One of the directors of the company has no stock. One share was assigned to him to qualify him for the position, but it is not claimed that he owns it. A business, one of the largest in the world, and one of the most profitable, has been built up. It employs many men, at good pay.
"My ambition," said Mr. Ford, "is to employ still more men, to spread the benefits of this industrial system to the greatest possible number, to help them build up their lives and their homes. To do this we are putting the greatest share of our profits back in the business."
"With regard to dividends, the company paid sixty percent on its capitalization of two million dollars, or
$1,200,000, leaving $58,000,000 to reinvest for the growth of the company. This is Mr. Ford's policy at present, and it is understood that the other stockholders cheerfully accede to this plan."
He had made up his mind in the summer of 1916 that no dividends other than the regular dividends should be paid "for the present.”
"Q. For how long? Had you fixed in your mind any time in the future) when you were going to pay-A. No.
Q. That was indefinite in the future-., A. That was indefinite; Yes, sir."
The record, and especially the testimony of Mr. Ford, convinces that he has to some extent the attitude towards shareholders of one who has dispensed and
distributed to them large gains and that they should be content to take what he chooses to give. His testimony creates the impression also, that he thinks the Ford Motor Company has made too much money, has had too large profits, and that, although large profits might be still earned, a sharing of them with the public, by reducing the price of the output of the company, ought to be undertaken. We have no doubt that certain sentiments, philanthropic and altruistic, creditable to Mr. Ford, had large influence in determining the policy to be pursued by the Ford Motor Company - the policy which has been herein referred to.
The difference between an incidental humanitarian expenditure of corporate funds for the benefit of the employees, like the building of a hospital for their use and the employment of agencies for the betterment of their condition, and a general purpose and plan to benefit mankind at the expense of others, is obvious. There should be no confusion (of which there is evidence) of the duties which Mr. Ford conceives that he and the stockholders owe to the general public and the duties which in law he and his co directors owe to protesting, minority stockholders. A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders. The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end. The discretion of directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to a change in the end itself, to the reduction of profits, or to the nondistribution of profits among shareholders in order to devote them to other purposes.
We are not, however, persuaded that we should interfere with the proposed expansion of the business of the Ford Motor Company. In view of the fact that the selling price of products may be increased at any time, the ultimate results of the larger business cannot be certainly estimated. The judges are not business experts. It is recognized that plans must often be made for a long future, for expected competition, for a continuing as well as an immediately profitable venture. The experience of the Ford Motor Company is evidence of capable management of its affairs. It may be noticed, incidentally, that it took from the public the money required for the execution of its plan, and that the very considerable salaries paid to Mr. Ford and to certain executive officers and employees were not diminished. We are not satisfied that the alleged motives of the directors, in so far as they are reflected in the conduct of the business, menace the interests of shareholders. It is enough to say, perhaps, that the court of equity is at all times open to complaining shareholders having a just grievance.
[The court affirmed the lower court's order that the company declare a dividend and reversed the lower court's injunction that halted company expansion.]