In business litigation, it’s often necessary to determine whether the litigants are shareholders in a corporation. To bring a lawsuit against an officer or director of a corporation for breaching a fiduciary duty owed to the corporation, for example, the plaintiff must be a shareholder and bring the suit derivatively on behalf of the corporation. (See Va. Code. § 13.1-672.1). In small, closely held corporations, it can be unclear who the shareholders actually are. If an entire corporation is owned and managed by only two or three people, those people may not run the corporation with the same level of formality as a larger company. Board “meetings” may happen in line at Starbucks or not at all. Stock ledgers acquired during the formation of the business may not actually get used. Small corporations often aren’t good about documentation and record-keeping, so when the time comes to issue shares to their stockholders, they may not get around to actually issuing formal stock certificates. Sometimes the only evidence of stock ownership is in the form of a text message or email. This can be a problem when litigation arises because the parties may not agree on how many shares each shareholder owns or who the shareholders even are.
What’s important to note here is that while it’s always preferable to follow corporate formalities and maintain accurate records, shareholders don’t actually need to produce paper stock certificates to prove their status as the owner of corporate stock. Stock is intangible property: it represents ownership in a corporation but does not have a physical form. Stock certificates have physical form but stock certificates are not stock; they are merely evidence of stock ownership. In many cases, stock ownership can be proven without the existence of a stock certificate. Courts look to the totality of the circumstances.