UTB LLC v Sheffield United Ltd

CourtChancery Division
Docket NumberCase No: BL-2018-000281; CR-2018-003995
JudgeMr Justice Fancourt
Judgment Date16 Sep 2019
JurisdictionEngland & Wales
Neutral Citation[2019] EWHC 2322 (Ch)

[2019] EWHC 2322 (Ch)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

BUSINESS AND PROPERTY COURTS OF ENGLAND AND WALES (ChD)

BUSINESS LIST AND INSOLVENCY AND COMPANIES LIST

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London

WC2A 2LL

Before:

Mr Justice Fancourt

Case No: BL-2018-000281; CR-2018-003995

Between:
UTB LLC
Claimant
and
Sheffield United Limited
Defendant

and

HRH Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

and

Yusuf Giansiracusa

And in the Matter of Blades Leisure Limited

And in the Matter of S.994 of the Companies Act 2006

Shefffield United Limited
Petitioner
and
(1) UTB LLC
(2) UTB 2018 LLC
(3) HRH Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
(4) Yusuf Giansiracusa
(5) HRH Prince Musa'ad Bin Khalid M Bin Abdulrahman Al Saud
(6) Blades Leisure Limited
Respondents

Mr Andreas Gledhill QC and Mr Tom Mountford (instructed by Jones Day) for the Claimant, Third Party, Fourth Party and the First to Fourth Respondents

Mr Paul Downes QC and Miss Emily Saunderson and Mr Luka Krsljanin (instructed by Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP) for the Defendant/Petitioner

Hearing dates: 13–17 May, 20–24 May, 4, 5, 7, 10–13, 18, 19 June 2019

Approved Judgment

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.

THE HONOURABLE Mr Justice Fancourt

Mr Justice Fancourt Mr Justice Fancourt

This judgment comprises the following parts:

A. Introduction (paras 1–10);

B. Undisputed factual narrative (paras 11–133)

C. The ISA: quasi-partnership and implied terms (paras 134–229)

D. The contractual obligations arising from service of the Call Option Notice and Counternotice (paras 230–270).

E. Mistake (paras 271–286)

F. The disputed events in 2017 (paras 287–372).

G. The disputed events in 2018 (paras 373–377). H. Breaches of contract (paras 378–398).

I. Conspiracy to cause harm to SUL (paras 399–413).

J. Unfairly prejudicial conduct: the section 994 petition (paras 414–487).

K. Specific performance (paras 488–514)

L. Postscript: valuation evidence (paras 515–528)

M. Summary of conclusions (paras 529–538).

A. Introduction

1

The origin of this dispute is an investment and shareholders' agreement made on 30 August 2013 (“the ISA”). The ISA was made between Blades Leisure Ltd (“Blades”), Blades' wholly-owned subsidiary, The Sheffield United Football Club Ltd (“SUFC”), which operates the football club of that name, and the two shareholders of Blades and their guarantors. The shareholders are UTB LLC (“UTB”), a company incorporated in Nevis, and a company known at the time as Sheffield United plc and now known as Sheffield United Ltd (“SUL”). The principal individual behind SUL is Kevin McCabe, a Yorkshire businessman, and the beneficial owner of UTB is HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al Saud (“Prince Abdullah”), a grandson of the late King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia.

2

Under the terms of the ISA, UTB agreed to inject £10 million of capital over a period of about two years in return for a 50% shareholding in Blades. SUL was issued with the other 50% of the shares. Blades was expected to be a loss-making company for several years, until promotion to the Premier League of English football was secured. Despite the detailed and precise terms of the new articles of association and the ISA, the shareholders had different understandings about who would fund Blades after the initial two-year period of UTB's funding. SUL believed that UTB would continue to fund any deficit in future years. UTB believed that, until it achieved super-majority control of Blades, UTB and SUL would fund Blades equally.

3

Disagreement between UTB and SUL about the funding of Blades arose in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Disagreement about funding spawned disagreement about several other matters, all of which came to a head in November 2017. At that time, Prince Abdullah believed that he was being deceived and manipulated by Kevin McCabe, who (he thought) was seeking to control SUFC at the expense of proper corporate governance. Kevin McCabe believed that those acting on behalf of Prince Abdullah were unfairly seeking to marginalise SUL's involvement in Blades and SUFC and force SUL's exit. The disagreement became very personal and acrimonious between Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah's attorney, Yusuf Giansiracusa, in November and December 2017.

4

At that stage, both SUL and UTB were considering how they might be able to exercise contractual rights under the ISA to bring the joint ownership of Blades to an end. SUL acted first. In December 2017, without prior warning, it served a call option notice on UTB, offering to buy UTB's shareholding for £5 million. That offer entitled UTB instead to elect to buy SUL's shareholding at the same price. It did so on 26 January 2018, by serving a counternotice on SUL.

5

In these proceedings, UTB seeks to enforce the contract of sale and purchase of SUL's shares at the price of £5 million that arose from service of the counternotice. SUL seeks to have that contract declared void or set aside and seeks an order that UTB sell its shares to SUL at the current value of UTB's non-majority shareholding. SUL also seeks damages for breach of contract and for a conspiracy by UTB, Prince Abdullah and Mr Giansiracusa to harm SUL by unlawful means.

6

Following service of the counternotice, completion of the contract of sale and purchase of SUL's shares (if valid) was due at 2pm on 6 February 2018. Completion did not take place. By letter of the same day, SUL purported to terminate the ISA and the contract of sale and purchase on account of alleged repudiatory breaches of contract by UTB. UTB issued a claim form on 9 February 2018 seeking specific performance of the contract of sale and purchase and declaratory relief in relation to the status of contingent obligations of SUFC under the ISA to buy property assets used by or in association with the football club (“the Club”). By counterclaim dated 27 March 2018, SUL sought different declaratory relief in relation to those contingent obligations and served an additional claim for damages for breach of contract and unlawful conspiracy.

7

On 15 May 2018, SUL issued and served a petition under section 994 of the Companies Act 2006 (“the Petition”), claiming relief against UTB, Prince Abdullah, Mr Giansiracusa and others in respect of conduct unfairly prejudicing the interests of SUL as a shareholder of Blades.

8

After a substantial number of interim applications, all these claims were heard together at a trial in May and June 2019. Although the evidence and arguments at trial covered a very wide range of facts and issues, it is unnecessary to decide all the facts and issues in order to resolve the claims that have been brought. There is nevertheless a substantial number of issues of fact and law that need to be determined. The principal issues that will determine the outcome of the litigation are the following:

i) Is the contract of sale and purchase of SUL's shares for £5 million valid and enforceable?

ii) Did UTB act in breach of contract? The main breaches of contract alleged are breach of an implied term of good faith in the ISA and preventing SUFC from exercising the property call options in the ISA.

iii) Was any breach of contract repudiatory, and if so were the ISA or the contract of sale and purchase, or both, terminated by SUL on 6 February 2018?

iv) Did UTB, Prince Abdullah and Mr Giansiracusa conduct the affairs of Blades between August and December 2017 in a manner unfairly prejudicial to SUL, such that relief should be granted to SUL, either by setting aside the contract of sale and purchase or by ordering the buy-out of UTB's shares at market value, or both?

9

For the convenience of those who need only to know the outcome of the trial, reference can be made to Part M of this judgment (paras 529–538 below), where I set out a summary of my conclusions. Parts C to L below explain my conclusions and reasons on the many issues and sub-issues that the parties have raised.

10

Before addressing all such issues individually, it is convenient to set out in Part B the main aspects of the factual history, in so far as it is now uncontentious. In doing so, I will indicate where the factual disputes arise that are relevant to the issues in dispute and will return to those disputed matters later in the judgment.

B. Undisputed Factual Narrative

11

Kevin McCabe was born in Sheffield and has been a Sheffield United fan all his life. After school, he qualified as a quantity surveyor and was later appointed an associate member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He began working in the construction industry and, by his own skill and hard work during his lifetime, established a very substantial group of companies, operating worldwide and principally in relation to real estate and property development and management. The main holding company is Scarborough Group International Limited and I will refer to the group of companies as the “Scarborough Group”. SUL is a company in the Scarborough Group.

12

By the 1990s, Kevin McCabe was an influential local businessman and became an owner and director of the Club. By about 2003, he had become the majority shareholder of SUL, which was then the holding company of SUFC. By 2013, he owned all but about 12% of the shares in SUL. These 12% are held by about 9,000 individual supporters of the Club. Effectively, therefore, Kevin McCabe owned and controlled the Club through his or his companies' shareholding in SUL. Over many years, he has injected tens of millions of pounds into the club out of love and loyalty, not for financial return.

13

Before the early part of 2013, SUL (and certain other Scarborough Group companies) owned five properties associated with the football club: the stadium at Bramall Lane (“the...

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