This decision affirms the standing of someone not yet elected to the board to seek relief under Section 225.
When may most of a Board of Directors deny another director access to the advice of counsel the majority received? This decision answers that interesting question and concludes "not very often." There are exceptions to that general rule, such as when there is a board committee involved whose counsel has not also been counsel to the excluded director, when the excluded director wants the information for a proven improper purpose, etc.
A Section 225 action is supposed to be limited to the narrow question of the composition of a corporation's board of directors. Subsidiary questions, such as who owns what stock, may be resolved as well but are generally not binding on persons who are not parties to the litigation. However, as this decision points out, if you are a party and consent to the Court deciding stock ownership in a Section 225 action, you are stuck with the judgment.
Everyone agrees that a director should speak up even if he disagrees with the rest of the board of directors. But when does a director go too far in his opposition to policies he wants to change? In this decision, the Court wrestled with this question and decided that leaking confidential corporate information to pressure the company went too far. Significantly, the information was not about any wrongdoing. Hence, the finding of a breach of the duty of loyalty only goes so far as a precedent.
A year or so ago, the DGCL was amended to permit the removal of a director by the Court of Chancery. While the grounds to do are broadly stated (including "breach of the duty of loyalty"), the statute requires that the director first have been convicted of a felony or been found in a prior case to have breached his duty of loyalty. There thus remains the question of whether director removal may be done without a prior action that establishes the grounds to do so.
This decision suggests that such a direct action for removal will be very hard to win, for the Court expressed serious concerns over whether it has that authority absent the statutory prerequisites. The question is still open to be squarely decided in another case.
This article was original published in The Delaware Business Court Insider | 2011-07-06
On May 31, Vice Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr. issued an opinion denying a motion for preliminary injunction to halt a merger between Massey Energy Company and an affiliate of Alpha Natural Resources Inc. One of the critical issues in the opinion was the value of the derivative claims Massey had against certain current and former directors and officers arising out of Massey's compliance with federal mining safety regulations.
Massey's attitude toward federal mining safety regulations arguably manifested itself in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which resulted in the loss of 29 lives. In his opinion, Strine found that the plaintiffs had probably stated a Caremark claim against the directors of Massey and criticized the board of Massey for failing to assess the value of the derivative claims but ultimately refused to enjoin the merger, concluding that the derivative claims did not have the value plaintiffs believed.
While this result has received some negative commentary, is it really a surprise? In fact, the court's analysis is consistent with prior analyses addressing the value of derivative claims in the context of a merger. The fact that the party here is more infamous than many others did not change the analysis under Delaware law.
The plaintiffs valued the derivative claims based on the "aggregate negative financial effect on Massey that the Upper Big Branch Disaster and its Fall-Out has caused." According to the plaintiffs' expert, these damages range from at least $900 million to $1.4 billion. The court, however, rejected this theory, in large part because the computation of the value of the derivative claims was far more complicated than the plaintiffs' theory.
First, even though the plaintiffs had stated a viable Caremark claim against the directors, because of the business judgment rule and the exculpatory provisions in Massey's certificate of incorporation, in order to obtain a monetary judgment against the directors, they would have to prove that the directors acted with scienter — a difficult standard to meet, particularly with independent directors.
Second, the court also found that even as to the autocratic former leader of Massey, Don Blankenship, who was arguably responsible for Massey's approach to mining safety, meeting this standard would be difficult. The court noted that there is a large gap between pushing the limits of federal regulations while accepting minimal loss of life and knowingly endangering the mine itself by putting its very operations at risk. Moreover, Blankenship was not directly in charge of any specific mine, and tying his policies directly to any disaster would be challenging.
Third, proving that the directors acted with scienter may entitle the corporation to a monetary judgment from the directors, but it would simultaneously expose the company to third-party civil liability and potential criminal liability, and potentially deprive the directors of the ability to rely on insurance coverage, all of which would harm the company.
Fourth, after the merger, Alpha will continue to have to address direct claims against Massey from its lost and injured miners, regulatory consequences of the company's mining safety approach, and other elements of the "Disaster Fall-Out." To the extent possible, Alpha will have every incentive to shift that liability to the former directors.
Fifth, it is impossible to determine the potential derivative liability of the directors until Massey's direct liability is determined. Indeed, it is not even in the interest of Massey's stockholders to press their claims of derivative liability now, before third-party civil and criminal adjudication, lest the plaintiffs expose the company to additional liability.
Sixth, the plaintiffs' expert put no value on the ability of the company or its stockholders to collect on a potential $1 billion judgment. The company's insurance policy, even assuming it is available to cover claims against the former directors, is only $95 million. While this is no small amount, it is, as the court put it, "not material in the context of an $8.5 billion merger."
While the vice chancellor was quick to note that the Massey board's approach to valuation of the derivative claims was less than ideal, because of the factors noted above, he found that the plaintiffs had not persuaded him that the merger was unfairly priced because of the failure to value separately the derivative claims. Was this conclusion so unprecedented, however, to justify criticism of the valuation?
Delaware courts previously have been asked to consider the value of unliquidated, contingent claims belonging to the company in the valuation context. These courts have never valued derivative claims at the full value of all potential damages, but instead have considered many of the factors Strine addressed in Massey.
For instance, in Onti Inc. v. Integra Bank Inc., petitioners in an appraisal action argued that their derivative claims should have been valued as an asset of the company in the appraisal proceeding. The stockholders' expert valued the claims at more than $19 million, while the company's expert valued the claims at negative $2.5 million. The court determined that the claims had no value. In reaching that conclusion, the court adopted the theory advanced by the company's expert, that all litigation factors should be considered, including the likelihood of success on the merits, the attorney fees necessary to obtain that result and any indemnification that the company would owe to its directors. Citing to prior precedent, the court noted that "there would be strong logic in including the net settlement value of such claims as an asset of the corporation for appraisal purposes."
Later that same year, the court took a similar approach in Bomarko Inc. v. International Telecharge Inc. The court valued the claim in that case by multiplying the probability of success by the likely amount of recovery while subtracting costs incurred to obtain that result.
More recently, in Arkansas Teacher Retirement System v. Caiafa, the Court of Chancery overruled an objection to a settlement that released claims that the board failed to ascribe any value to federal derivative claims in a merger. After noting that there is no case law supporting the proposition that the board was required to undertake a separate and discrete valuation of the derivative claims pending at the time of the challenged merger, the court reached the same result as Strine did in Massey, albeit with less analysis. That is, the court noted that the claims asserted in the federal action were difficult to win, and even those that had a higher probability of success could not have the $2 billion value the objectors claimed they did. On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery's decision to overrule the objection for the reasons set forth in the Court of Chancery's opinion.
Given these precedents, is the result in Massey all that surprising? While some contingent claims have been given value, it is the exception, and not the rule, to assign material value to contingent derivative claims. Moreover, in the context of a merger worth billions of dollars, the likelihood is low that derivative claims have material value, particularly when reasonable defenses can be interposed.
But does this decision mean that boards can just eschew any analysis of the value of a derivative claim in the context of a merger? Probably not. The Court of Chancery certainly did not condone the practice, and had the court not been persuaded that the board otherwise acted properly, the failure to do so could have had more importance.
Further, because the exception to the derivative standing rule that entering into a merger for the purpose of extinguishing derivative claims remains viable, particularly in light of the Supreme Court's opinion in Caiafa, failure to value the claims could support the conclusion that a merger was negotiated simply to avoid liability. Finally, not all derivative claims are equal in this context. As Strine noted in Massey, if Massey had a liquidated claim against a former fiduciary reduced to a judgment but failed to get any value for this claim, he could see the substantial unfairness in failing to obtain value for that claim in a merger. Alternatively, if recovery on any derivative claim after a cash-out merger would inure solely to the benefit of the acquirer, then perhaps there would be value to the buyer in obtaining that claim.
Put simply, as with many issues of fiduciary law, the context of the situation is important. What is fairly clear, however, is that unliquidated contingent derivative claims are not ascribed much value, if any, in a merger context, unless a party can demonstrate a reasonable likelihood that the net value of the claim to the company is material.
Peter B. Ladig (email@example.com) is a partner at Morris James in Wilmington and a member of its corporate and fiduciary litigation group. He represents both stockholders and directors in corporate litigation. The majority of his practice is in the Delaware Court of Chancery, although he has extensive experience in the other state and federal courts in Delaware and has been involved in over 50 published decisions. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the firm or any of the firm's clients.
Lewis H. Lazarus
This article was originally published in the Delaware Business Court Insider | June 15, 2011
A plaintiff who pleads successfully that a transaction under attack is governed by the entire fairness standard of review instead of business judgment generally stands a good chance of defeating the defendant's motion to dismiss. That is because when a transaction is reviewed for entire fairness, defendants bear the burden in the first instance of proving at trial the fairness of the process and price.
In two recent cases - Ravenswood Investment Co. v. Winmill and Monroe County Employees' Retirement System v. Carlson - the Court of Chancery clarifies that a plaintiff must still make well-pleaded allegations that a transaction is unfair as to process and price if its complaint is to survive dismissal at the pleadings stage.
Ravenswood involved claims that defendant directors' adoption of a performance equity plan violated fiduciary duties by seeking to dilute the minority stockholders' percentage interest in non-voting Class A shares (only Class B shares had voting rights). The court noted that the entire fairness standard applied because "where the individuals comprising the board and the company's management are the same, the board bears the burden of proving that the salary and bonuses they pay themselves as officers are entirely fair to the company unless the board employs an independent compensation committee or submits the compensation plan to shareholders for approval."
Because the directors employed no such protective measures, the court held that the entire fairness standard of review applied. Still, citing Monroe County, the court held that the plaintiff "bears the burden of alleging facts that suggest the absence of fairness."
The court dismissed the plaintiff's complaint because it found he had failed to make well-pleaded allegations that the defendant directors' adoption of the performance equity plan was unfair. Critical to the court's reasoning was that dilution occurs upon the adoption of any options plan; the question is whether the manner in which the options were issued unfairly diluted the stockholders.
As the defendants in their motion to dismiss did not challenge the plaintiff's claim for unfair issuance of the options, the court found that the plaintiff's allegation of dilution did not suffice to state a claim for unfairness in the adoption of the performance equity plan.
This was so because the plaintiff alleged that "(1) the Performance Equity Plan only authorizes the Board to grant stock options with an exercise price not lower than the market value as of that event, (2) the Defendants already control all of the Company's voting rights through their ownership of its Class B shares, and (3) even if all options authorized under the plan were to be granted to the Defendants they would not obtain a majority interest in the Class A shares... ."
The court noted that although it was true that the Class A shares could vote to approve a merger, the plaintiff made no allegation in his complaint that the adoption of the performance equity plan impaired those voting rights. The court declined to comment on whether such an allegation may have sufficed to sustain this claim.
The Ravenswood court relied upon the court's holding in Monroe County. That case involved a challenge to an intercompany agreement that required the plaintiff's company to purchase services and equipment from its controlling shareholder on terms in conformity with (for services) or the same as (for equipment) what the controlling shareholder charged its other affiliates. The parties agreed that the arrangement the plaintiff attacked was governed by the entire fairness standard of review.
They disagreed as to whether the plaintiff's pleading sufficed to survive a motion to dismiss.
As summarized by the court: "Delaware law is clear that even where a transaction between the controlling shareholder and the company is involved such that entire fairness review is in play, plaintiff must make factual allegations about the transaction in the complaint that demonstrate the absence of fairness. (citations omitted). Simply put, a plaintiff who fails to do this has not stated a claim. Transactions between a controlling shareholder and the company are not per se invalid under Delaware law. (citation omitted). Such transactions are perfectly acceptable if they are entirely fair, and so plaintiff must allege facts that demonstrate a lack of fairness."
In reviewing the complaint, the court found no allegations that the price at which the controlling stockholder provided the services and equipment was unfair. Instead, the court found that plaintiff's allegations addressed only alleged unfair dealing.
In the absence of an allegation that the company could have obtained the services or equipment on better terms from a third party or any specific allegation of the worth of the services or equipment relative to what the company paid, the court found that the complaint did not make sufficient factual allegations that the intercompany agreement transactions were unfair. Because the plaintiff chose to stand on its complaint in response to the defendants' motions to dismiss rather than to amend, the court dismissed plaintiff's complaint with prejudice under Court of Chancery Rule 15(aaa).
Together, these two cases clarify that a plaintiff cannot survive a motion to dismiss simply by alleging that a transaction involving a controlling stockholder is unfair. A plaintiff instead must make particular factual allegations suggesting why the transaction was unfair. A plaintiff who cannot make such allegations and who stands on a conclusory complaint, as in Ravenswood, may find that its claims are dismissed with prejudice.
Lewis H. Lazarus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner at Morris James in Wilmington and a member of its corporate and fiduciary litigation group. His practice is primarily in the Delaware Court of Chancery in disputes, often expedited, involving managers and stakeholders of Delaware business organizations. The views expressed herein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the firm or any of the firm's clients.
The Delaware Supreme Court has held that when there are staggered terms for the members of a board of directors that the annual stockholders meetings must be about 1 year apart. In this case, the next board meeting was set for June, 2011 or 6 months after the last meeting. The Court held that was acceptable because the directors whose terms would expire at the new board meeting were elected 3 years ago. Of course that left open whether continuing the new meeting date in 2012 might cut short the tems of other directors. The Court declined to resolve that issue until the next meeting date was actually set.
Chancery Decisions Highlight Importance of Independent and Disinterested Directors in Company Sale Transactions
Lewis H. Lazarus
This article was originally published in the Delaware Business Court Insider | May 25, 2011
Two recent decisions from the Court of Chancery — In re Orchid Cellmark Inc. Shareholders Litigation and In re Answers Corp. Shareholders Litigation — illustrate how parties may reduce deal risk by ensuring that the directors responsible for managing a sale process are disinterested and independent. At the same time, while the court in both cases rejected challenges to the transactions based on allegedly excessive deal protection terms, the court also signaled that providing much more than the parties did in Orchid may break the court’s proverbial back.
Independence and Disinterest
The court decided each of these cases following an expedited preliminary injunction hearing at which the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the transactions based in part on an allegedly inadequate sales process. In this Revlon Inc. v. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc. context, the court is called upon "to assess carefully the adequacy of the sales process employed by a board of directors." A primary inquiry in assessing a transaction is whether the directors responsible for the negotiations are independent and disinterested.
In Orchid, the court noted that five out of the six directors were independent. Its board formed a special committee to negotiate the transaction. That committee included two independent directors and a third newly elected director who had been nominated by the company’s largest shareholder. In addition to the independence of the special committee, the court also found no reason to doubt the independence or credentials of the special committee’s financial adviser.
Likewise, in Answers, although the plaintiffs raised questions about the independence of two of the directors, the court found that those directors did not lead the negotiations. Moreover, four out of the seven directors who approved the transaction were disinterested and independent. Finally, the court held that the company’s financial adviser’s independence and qualifications were not seriously challenged. The independence of the directors and their advisers were significant factors in the court’s decision in both cases to uphold the reasonableness of the boards’ decision making.
Deal Protection Terms
The court noted that deal protection terms such as termination fees, expense reimbursements, and no-talk and no solicitation clauses are standard. The issue is whether cumulatively they are impermissibly coercive or preclusive of alternative transactions. In Answers, the court observed that the break-up fee of 4.4 percent of equity value was at the upper end of the "conventionally accepted" range.
However, the court stated that this is not atypical in a smaller transaction. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ challenge that the court should measure the break-up fee in reference to enterprise value on the ground that "Our law has evolved by relating the break-up fee to equity value."
In Orchid, the parties' deal protection included not only standard no-shop and termination provisions, but also a top-up option, matching rights and an agreement to pull the company’s poison pill, but only as to the buyer. The court held that top-up options are standard in two-step tender offer deals. As to the termination fee, the court found it appropriate in reference to the equity value of the target and again rejected the plaintiffs' effort to measure the termination fee in reference to enterprise value. The court also recognized that the matching and informational rights might have a deterrent effect on a hypothetical bidder, but it found those provided in the merger documents would not preclude a serious bidder from stepping forward.
The court also found that the selective pulling of the pill was not impermissibly preclusive of alternative bids. The court reasoned that the merger agreement enables the board to redeem the pill if it terminates the merger agreement. Termination is permitted if the board receives a superior offer and withdraws its recommendation that the stockholders tender their shares. The court observed that the termination fee that would be owed if the board terminates the merger agreement for a bidder who makes a superior offer and then pulls the pill would be no greater than if the company accepts a superior offer or terminates the merger agreement for some other reason.
Finally, because "a sophisticated and serious bidder would understand that the board would likely eventually be required by Delaware law to pull the pill in response to a Superior Offer," the court ruled that the deterrent effect of these provisions likely was minimal.
In so holding, the court stated that deal protection measures evolve and cautioned that at some point incremental protection may prove too much:
"Deal protection measures evolve. Not surprisingly, we do not have a bright line test to help us all understand when too much is recognized as too much. Moreover, it is not merely a matter of measuring one deal protection device; one must address the sum of all devices. Because of that, one of these days some judge is going to say 'no more' and when the drafting lawyer looks back, she will be challenged to figure out how or why the incremental change mattered. It will be yet another instance of the straw and the poor camel's back. At some point, aggressive deal protection devices — amalgamated as they are — run the risk of being deemed so burdensome and costly as to render the 'fiduciary out' illusory."
Together, these two cases demonstrate the value of a disinterested and independent decision-making body running a sale process. Also, while the court rejected claims that the deal protection at issue was preclusive or coercive, the court also cautioned that counsel must be careful not to make an alternative transaction too burdensome or costly, lest any fiduciary out be deemed illusory. Counsel should carefully evaluate the context of each transaction in determining appropriate deal protection, lest an added straw of protection is found to be the one that breaks the court’s proverbial back.
Lewis H. Lazarus (email@example.com) is a partner at Morris James in Wilmington and a member of its corporate and fiduciary litigation group. His practice is primarily in the Delaware Court of Chancery in disputes, often expedited, involving managers and stakeholders of Delaware business organizations. The views expressed herein are his alone and not those of his firm or any of the firm's clients.
Directors Designated By Investors Owe Fiduciary Duties to the Company as a Whole and Not to the Designating Investor
This article was originally published in The Delaware Business Court Insider | 2011-03-23
Investors who make substantial investments often demand a seat on their company’s board of directors. That is a reasonable request as it permits the investor to have a representative on the board of directors with a voice in management of the company. It is well-settled that directors elected by stockholders of a Delaware corporation owe fiduciary duties to the company and all its stockholders once they serve on the board. Thus, they may make decisions in the exercise of their fiduciary duty that are different than what is in the best interest of designating investor. The Court of Chancery’s recent decision in Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. v. Airgas, Inc., 2011 WL 519735 (Del. Ch. Feb. 15, 2011) reflects this issue.
Air Products had sought to acquire control of Airgas since October, 2009. When Airgas rebuffed its inquiries, Air Products launched a hostile tender offer. One of the conditions of its tender offer was that Airgas lift its poison pill. The poison pill made it prohibitively expensive for Air Products to proceed. Airgas refused to lift the pill on the ground that the Air Products offer was inadequate.
Frustrated by its inability to proceed with a tender offer, Air Products nominated three directors to the Airgas board. It stated that its nominees would be impartial in their evaluation of the Air Products tender offer, although they would be replacing Airgas directors who had voted to maintain the Airgas poison pill. Air Products succeeded and its three nominees were elected by the Airgas stockholders to the Airgas board. Once they were on the board of Airgas, the Air Products designees obtained their own legal and financial advisors. Based in part on the advice of their advisors and on their own assessment of the business plans of Airgas, these Air Products nominated directors determined that the Air Products offer was inadequate and voted with their colleagues to maintain the Airgas poison pill.
In so acting, these directors acted consistently with Delaware law. As stated in Phillips v. Insituform of N. Am., Inc., 1987 WL 16285, at *10 (Del. Ch. Aug. 27, 1987) the “law demands of directors … fidelity to the corporation and all of its shareholders and does not recognize a special duty on the part of directors elected by a special class to the class electing them.”
While the Airgas directors’ conflict arose in a highly-publicized battle for control of a public company, issues also arise in privately held companies where investors often condition their investment on the receipt of preferred stock and board representation.
For example, in In re Trados Incorporated Shareholder Litigation, 2009 WL 2225958 (Del. Ch. July 24, 2009), the Court of Chancery sustained a complaint on behalf of a class of stockholders who complained that directors designated by preferred stockholders, constituting a majority of the board, had interests that diverged from the interests of the common stockholders in approving a sale transaction. This divergence arose because the preferred stockholders received a substantial portion of their liquidation preference from the sale, while common stockholders received nothing. The preferred stockholder designated directors also held interests in entities which held preferred stock of the selling company. Those relationships bore on the court’s decision to treat the preferred stock designees as having interests potentially different from, and in conflict with, the interests of the common stockholders. As a result of this finding, the court denied a motion to dismiss because the plaintiffs’ allegations were sufficient to rebut the presumption of the business judgment rule.
These cases teach that directors designated by particular stockholders or investors owe duties generally to the company and all of its stockholders. Where the interests of the investor and the company and its common stockholders potentially diverge, the directors cannot favor the interests of the investor over those of the company and its common stockholders.
Conflicts also are likely to arise over the use of confidential information supplied to the designated directors. Designating directors who owe their livelihood or materially benefit from relationships with the designating investor sharpens the likelihood of conflicts of interest. Companies, investors and directors and their counsel should consider carefully the implications of directors designated by particular stockholders serving on boards of Delaware corporations.
Determining if a claim is direct or derivative is often difficult. Here the Court explains that a claim asserting the directors are acting outside their authority in violation of the relationship set out in Section 141 of the Corporation Code is direct. The facts of this case are unusual as it involves a stockholder agreement whose apparent violation is at the center of the decision.
This decision holds that the Unifrom Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act applies to claims against directors. While at least 1 other court agreed with this point, this is the first Delaware decision on this issue.
This is important becaue it has serious implications to settlements with some but not all directors in derivative and class claims and as it may give leverage to former directors who are now on the outs.
This significant decision holds that you cannot eliminate a director by amending the bylaws to reduce the number of seats on the board of directors. Of course, this only came up in the odd context of a stockholder who could not vote for directors and hence could not vote to eliminate them as well. Nonetheless, it is interesting as a limit on the power to amend bylaws
Perhaps more importantly, the decision explains the complicated and often misunderstood ways in which proxies are obtained to vote the shares of public companies. Those shares are mostly held in the name of Cede & Co., a depository for brokers and banks. Getting the proxy from Cede, and then to the brokers and then to the actual beneficial owners has proved cumbersome in fast proxy battles. This decision helps that process by letting the records of Cede act as a list of owners.
This is the first Delaware decision to deal with the so-called Pfizer policy on when directors may be retained despite a shareholder vote on dissatisfaction. Axcelis had a bylaw that any director up for re-election who did not get a majority of the votes cast must tender her resignation to a committee of the whole Board, and that committee had the discretion to accept or reject the resignation. When three directors did not get the majority vote and tendered their resignations, the committee rejected the resignations and the directors stayed on the Board. The plaintiff then filed a books and records case to discover why.
The Court held that under the company policy the committee had the discretion to reject the resignations. In the absence of even a minimal showing that the exercise of discretion was wrongful, the Court denied inspection into the committee's reasoning. That seems consistent with existing Delaware law. Otherwise, any stockholder who disliked a board decision might demand inspection of corporate records to fish for a basis to sue.
The implications of this opinion are that any committee who rejects a director resignation under a policy giving it broad discretion will have its decision upheld. Indeed, the decision is virtually unreviewable.
This is possibly the best decision to read to understand how to interpret the often confusing advancement and indemnification rights contained in limited partnership agreements. The discussion of the history of those rights under Delaware law is very useful as well.
There are three basic holdings that should be noted: (1) ambiguous agreements are to be construed against the entity, be it partnership or corporation, (2) acquittal of criminal charges puts the burden on the entity to show why any conditions to indemnification have not been meet (such as the lack of good faith, etc.) by the claimant, and (3) there is no need to wait until all proceedings against a director are concluded before he is entitled to indemnification for the proceedings that he won.
This decision is a good outline of the effect of Section 144 of the Delaware General Corporation Law ("DGCL") that permits transactions to be judged on their merits, even if they are with interested directors. After explaining that law, the Court went on to hold that a certificate of incorporation provision that permitted interested directors' votes to be used to invoke the business judgment rule would be in violation of the DGCL and, thus, invalid.
This is important, because it means that, at least in a Delaware corporation, there are limits on what exculpation can be provided to directors in a certificate of incorporation. The law may well be different in an LLC or LP, of course.
After the recent decision in the AIG case denying a motion to dismiss a complaint, there was some concern that perhaps the Court of Chancery was loosening the pleading requirements to state a claim under the Caremark line of case law. Caremark, of course, suggested that directors might be liable for failing to properly supervise management even when the directors did not receive any personal benefit as a result.
In this latest decision, the Chancellor has put those fears to rest. He distinguished the AIG decision and strongly affirmed that the business judgment rule protects directors when they make business decisions, even those that involve risk to the entity.
Thus, it is important to read the AIG decision and this decision together to get a full picture of how the Court is reacting to the calls to assign blame in the current financial crisis.
The Court of Chancery is often faced with the difficult task of deciding when a complaint has enough factual allegations to survive a motion to dismiss, particularly when there is no self dealing by directors and the business judgment rule is raised as a defense. This detailed 102-page decision illustrates the thought process that the Court uses.
The basic question presented was whether the plaintiff, could at the pleading stage, state sufficient facts to show that the case should go forward. As is typical, the defendants argued that all the complaint really alleged is that they made some bad decisions or that others below them in the corporate entity were the parties at fault. The Court denied the motion to dismiss because there was enough in the complaint to warrant an inference that the defendants must have known of the corporate wrongdoing. The keys to this result were: (1) the defendants were in position to know of the wrongs that had been committed; (2) they had practiced tight control over the entity so that they generally were aware of all that was going on; and (3) the bad acts were massive in scale and unusual in nature so as to have been unlikely to have been done without the defendants' knowledge.Continue Reading...
Determining when a derivative complaint should be dismissed becomes complicated when the composition of the board of directors changes. What board do you look to to determine if a demand must be made on the board before suit may proceed? You start by looking at the board that existed at the time the complaint was filed. If demand on that board was excused, then the case was "validly in litigation" and may proceed even if the board composition later changes to include a majority of disinterested directors.
This is an important decision because it limits when stockholder approval of a transaction has the effect of ratifying director action. Moreover, it limits the effect of stockholder ratification by holding that the business judgment level of review still applies to the directors' action, rather than holding that ratification extinguishes any claim.
The ratification holding is that stockholder ratification only occurs when the stockholders approve a transaction that the directors are empowered to take without the approval of the stockholders. For example, because directors are able to issue stock without stockholder approval, the added approval of the stockholders would ratify their decision to sell stock. In contrast, because a merger already requires stockholder approval, the approval of the stockholders does not constitute "ratification" of the directors' decision to recommend the merger. They approve it but do not "ratify" it. How is that for a distinction?
The rationale for this tightly reasoned result lies in the difference under Delaware law between complying with a controlling statute's requirements to carry out a transaction and having a good reason for doing the transaction in the first place. In other words, in Delaware just because you have the power to act (the stockholders voted for it) does not mean you should act (a decision that is measured by Delaware's law of fiduciary duty).
In this decision the Court approves the settlement of a stock option back dating case. The opinion carefully goes through all the analysis of when to approve a settlement, particularly when the recovery is adequate under the circumstances.
The attorney fee award of $9,000,000 or about $1,100 per hour shows that contrary to some beliefs, the Court is prepared to award significant fees for hard, excellent work that achieves a good result.
A recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision has generated much discussion over whether disinterested directors may be held liable for approving a transaction that appeared reasonable to them and their advisors. Indeed, by holding that the directors may have acted in “bad faith,” the decision seemed to some to be a threat to the core principles embodied in the business judgment rule. That rule protects directors from being second guessed by courts long after the business decision has been made. These concerns are overstated. This article will: (1) outline the background to the current controversy over “bad faith” in Delaware, (2) predict how the Delaware Supreme Court will clarify the Delaware law of “bad faith” and (3) suggest a possible solution to address lingering concerns over director liability for disinterested business decisions.
For many years Delaware limited director liability for disinterested business decisions to those decisions properly held to be grossly negligent. This high standard seemed adequate to protect directors from inappropriate judicial second guessing. Then in 1985, Smith v. Van Gorkom held a board was grossly negligent. Many commentators felt Van Gorkom demonstrated the inability of courts to understand what should constitute gross negligence. The Delaware Legislature promptly responded to Van Gorkom by adopting Section 102(b)(7) of the Delaware General Corporation law. That new statute permitted Delaware corporations to include a provision in their certificate of incorporation that immunized directors for even grossly negligent decisions. Section 102(b)(7) has its exceptions, however. One of those is that actions “not in good faith” lose the statutory protection from liability.
As might be expected, if directors could not be successfully sued for actions “in good faith,” it was only a matter of time before plaintiffs filed claims alleging directors had acted in “bad faith”.
Bad faith remained largely undefined until 2005. After much debate regarding whether good faith was an independent fiduciary duty and what exactly constitutes good (and bad) faith, Chancellor Chandler defined bad faith as an “intentional dereliction of duty, a conscious disregard for one’s responsibilities” and a “[d]eliberate indifference and inaction in the face of a duty to act.” The Delaware Supreme Court then set out three different categories of fiduciary behavior that might deserve the “bad faith pejorative label.” The first, fiduciary conduct motivated by an intent to do harm, was aptly labeled “subjective bad faith” The second category involves “fiduciary action taken solely by reason of gross negligence and without any malevolent intent,” a lack of due care. The court decided, however, that gross negligence without more does not constitute bad faith, and thus does not breach the duty of loyalty. The third category is the Chancellor’s definition of bad faith, as intentional dereliction of duty, a conscious disregard for one’s responsibilities. In Stone v. Ritter, the court further stated bad faith is a “fail[ure] to act in the face of a known duty to act, thereby demonstrating a conscious disregard for [one’s] responsibilities,” and thus not exculpated under § 102(b)(7).
In this decision the court dismissed claims against directors whose decision to approve a merger was rejected by the stockholders and the company then had to pay a termination fee. The Court carefully explains why directors may sometimes be wrong, but without incurring any liability for that decision.
This decision again affirms that bad faith is not the same a gross negligence and explains the difference. That distinction is important because usually directors are immunized from decisions made in good faith, even if negligent.
The recent decision in this case denying summary judgment has set off a storm of protest that the Court of Chancery is ignoring the business judgment rule and the director exculpation statute. The critics argue that when directors are disinterested in a merger, have independent advice and secure a market premium, their decision cannot be reviewed. This more recent decision in the same case denying an application to take an appeal effectively answers those critics.
This opinion makes it clear that the Court knows very well that even gross negligence is not the same thing as bad faith. Thus, a board that is negligent cannot be held liable for a bad decision when its company has a director exculpation provision in its charter. The opinion carefully reviews the key precedents that discuss the limited circumstances where bad faith will exist, particularly when there is an "intentional dereliction of duty or a conscious disregard of one's responsibilities."
The key to the prior opinion, as the court’s opinion points out many times, is that it was based on a limited summary judgment record that required the court to accept all the allegations of the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences against the directors. Indeed, two even more recent decisions make it clear the Court of Chancery is upholding the business judgment rule and the statutory protection of directors who act in good faith. See McPaddin v. Sidhu, C.A. 3310-CC (Del. Ch. Aug. 29, 2008) and In re Lear Corporation Shareholders Litigation, C.A. 2728-VCS (Del. Ch. Sept. 2, 2008).
The Delaware Supreme Court has upheld a claim for fee advancement in litigation instituted by a former director, even though advancement has usually been thought of as a right to defense fees. This decision shows how limited that right may be when the advancement provision relied upon does not clearly provide for fees when the director starts the fight. For in such a case, the court held that there is no right to have fees advanced.
The decision has some unusual facts and may not cover another case were the director is clearly threatened with ligitaion and wins the race to the couthouse.
The District Court recently allowed claims for breach of the duties of care and loyalty against former directors and officers of Tectonic Network, Inc. (the “Company”) to go forward, rejecting Defendants’ jurisdiction, standing and insufficient claim arguments. Plaintiff, an Ad Hoc Committee of Equity Holders in the Company, sued Defendants for purportedly improper conduct in connection with the acquisition of three businesses and the resulting sale of one of the Company’s subsidiaries. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant Officers (Officer #1 and Officer #2) committed fraud related to the Company’s actions, and all Defendants breached their fiduciary duties. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that the Defendants breached their fiduciary duties in recommending and/or approving the acquisition of the three businesses, all of which Officer #1 had a majority interest in. Plaintiff also alleged that the Defendant Officers committed fraud in making material misrepresentations to the board regarding the profitability of the acquired businesses and the prospective profitability of a future business plan that resulted in the sale of the Company’s subsidiary. Subsequent to acquisitions and sales, the Company’s financial picture worsened, and it filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy Court lifted the stay to allow Plaintiff to press its claims outside of the bankruptcy proceedings.Continue Reading...
District Court Finds That Participation in Delaware Merger Confers Jurisdiction, Denies Motion to Dismiss
In this opinion declining to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, the District Court found that it had personal jurisdiction over both the directors/officers of a Delaware corporation and over a foreign corporation that invested in a Delaware corporation. Plaintiff was a Virginia limited liability company that loaned $2.5 million to a Utah corporation. Plaintiff was granted a security interest in the Utah corporation’s assets, and perfected that interest by filing the required financing statements in Utah. However, the Utah corporation subsequently was merged with and into a Delaware corporation. Plaintiff asserted that this was done at the insistence of various defendants that were seeking to invest in the Utah corporation after Plaintiff informed them that it would not agree to subordinate its security interest to theirs. Plaintiff posited that the investor defendants thereafter controlled the Utah corporation and the Delaware corporation it was merged into, and fraudulently concealed the merger to prevent Plaintiff from perfecting its security interest upon the merger, while at the same time perfecting their own in Delaware. Plaintiff pointed to numerous instances where the Utah corporation, the Delaware corporation, their counsel, the directors/officers of the Delaware corporation (who were appointed by the investor defendants), and the investor defendants failed to notify Plaintiff of the merger and/or made misrepresentations regarding the continuing status of the corporation as a Utah corporation. Taking the allegations as true, the Court found that the actions of the investor defendants and the directors they appointed was sufficient to confer specific jurisdiction over them.Continue Reading...
Fogel v. U.S. Energy Systems, Inc., C.A. No. 3271-CC (December 13, 2007).
Directors often think that if they get together that is a real board of directors' meeting. Not so. As this decision holds, a board meeting is a formal event that must be preceded by the appropriate notice, be conducted by voting on the issues and otherwise be properly called and conducted. Gatherings of even all the directors that do not meet these tests are void.
Moreover, the consequence of holding a meeting void is that actions taken cannot be ratified later. Thus, even when all but one of the company's directors wanted to fire the CEO, their attempt to do so at a haste gathering of all the directors was ineffective.
District Court Applies Delaware Statute of Limitations Carve Out For Fiduciary Claims, Denies Summary Judgment
In this action the District Court evaluated the application of the statute of limitations to claims that a corporate fiduciary engaged in self-dealing at the corporation’s expense. Plaintiff was a 25% shareholder in a closely-held Delaware corporation with Pennsylvania headquarters, formed to participate in the wireless communications industry. Defendant #1 owned the remaining shares of the corporation, and also served as its President and sole director. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant #1 breached his duties to the corporation when he personally obtained newly-issued communications licenses from the FCC, then sold them along with the corporation’s pre-existing licenses to a third party, keeping the proceeds of the sale himself. Plaintiff further alleged that Defendant #1 took the action without notifying Plaintiff in his capacity as a shareholder, without holding an annual meeting, and without making any disclosure of the sale. Plaintiff sued Defendant #1, along with his wholly owned corporation and another corporate officer, in the Delaware Court of Chancery for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, declaratory relief, and breach of various fiduciary duties. Defendants removed the action to District Court based on diverse citizenship and moved for summary judgment, arguing that all claims were time-barred.Continue Reading...
Thompson v. The Williams Companies, Inc., C.A. No. 2716-VCS (July 31, 2007).
Companies often find that they are required to provide advancement of attorney fees to former directors or others when the company really does not want to do so because of the conduct involved. Here, in a case involving an employee with an advancement right, the Court held that requiring security for the amounts advanced is appropriate to insure repayment.
Note, however, that this discretion to require security was based on the terms of the provisions providing for advancement. Without that language in a mandatory advancement provision, it is doubtful that a company might require more than the usual and customary undertaking to repay.
District Court Declines to Exercise Supplemental Jurisdiction Over Fiduciary Duty Claims, Grants Motion to Dismiss
In this shareholder derivative action for breach of fiduciary duties against various corporate defendants, the Court held that the state law claims asserted so predominated the lone federal claim that exercise of supplemental jurisdiction was inappropriate. Plaintiffs, former shareholders of MBNA Corporation, asserted various claims against the defendants based on breach of fiduciary duties in connection with earnings reports and the merger of MBNA with Bank of America. Defendants moved to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the Plaintiffs’ sole claim that rested on federal jurisdiction was so predominated by the state law claims as to make the exercise of the Court’s supplemental jurisdiction inappropriate. The Court concurred with the defendants, concluding that Plaintiffs’ federal law claim bore only a tangential relationship to the rest of the claims. The Court therefore granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.Continue Reading...
Corporate bylaws sometimes require that the company be given advance notice of the intent to nominate anyone for election to the board. When those provisions are not clear, they will be interpreted in the way that expands stockholder rights. However, when the provisions are clear enough to give notice of their minimum requirements, then they will be enforced. That is what occurred here where the winning candidate was disqualified for his failure to comply with a reasonably clear advanced-notice bylaw.
In this shareholder derivative action, the plaintiff shareholder sued two defendants, both of whom occupied board positions with the corporation, for allegedly purchasing stock in the corporation and then selling it at a profit within six months, in violation of Section 16(b) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934. After each side filed cross-motions for summary judgment, the SEC adopted Amendments to SEC Rules 16b-3 and 16b-7, which exempt certain transactions from the prohibitions of Section 16(b). Defendants argued that the transaction that formed the basis of Plaintiff’s complaint, whereby Defendant’s preferred stock in the corporation was “automatically” converted to common stock upon completion of an IPO, was an exempt “reclassification” transaction under the SEC Rules. Conversely, Plaintiff argued that the exemption did not apply. The Court found that the SEC had acted within its power in exempting reclassification transactions from Section 16(b), and that as a result of that exemption, Defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law.Continue Reading...
Valeant Pharmaceuticals International v. Jerney, C.A. No. 19947 (Del. Ch. March 1, 2007).
Payment of bonuses to officers and directors often seems so routine that extra care is not required to be sure they are fair. This case shows what can go wrong when fair process and fair amounts are not properly considered.
Because each member of the board was to receive a bonus under the plan in issue, the bonuses were subject to the rigorous entire fairness review by the Court. That involves testing to see if the process used to approve the bonuses was fair in the sense of using appropriate safeguards to protect the corporation's interests and fair in the sense that the amounts involved were within a range of reasonableness. These bonuses failed on both counts.
To begin with, the committee to whom the bonus plan was referred consisted of persons who would receive a bonus and a majority of the committee were closely allied with the CEO who was targeted for a $30 Million bonus under the plan. The consultant they hired came in after the plan was set up and was really only asked to justify the amounts involved.
Second, the amounts were extremely high compared to other bonuses and were for work that had not just been done already before the plan was announced but that had in a sense already been the subject of prior bonuses. All in all, this was just too much and the Court voided the bonuses.Continue Reading...
Commentators sometimes wonder when director inattention will ever be so bad so as to warrant finding directors liable in the absence of self-dealing. This was just such a case. Briefly, the board consisted of a majority owner who picked a relative and an employee to constitute the other members of the board of directors. The Court concluded that the two non-controlling directors basically did nothing to carry out their duties to the entity and just accepted at face value everything they were told by the controlling stockholder. As a result, the Court found all the directors liable when the controlling stockholder looted the entity.
The decision is particularly interesting in that it may be an extension of the Delaware Caremark decision to no longer require a "red flag' to hold directors liable for failure to oversee the corporate entity's operations. That extension would apply when there was especially bad conduct and an utter failure by the board to meet or in any way supervise the management of the entity.Continue Reading...
When seeking to inspect corporate records, the stockholder needs to have a reasonable purpose for doing so. If the stated purpose is to investigate wrongdoing, there must be a real basis to suspect wrongdoing or the demand will be denied. Here the demand was at least partially deficient because allegations of improper conduct seemed to be little more than that the company had not met its predicted financial results. The plaintiff escaped dismissal of its suit on narrow grounds that there were also allegations of a failure to carry out a plan that was more definite than just a prediction, something closer to a promise that was broken.
Delaware law requires an annual stockholder meeting. The SEC rules prohibit calling a stockholder meeting when the company is delinquent in its SEC filings. In this case and in its decision in Newcastle Partners LP v. Vesta Insurance Group, Inc., 887 A.2d 975 (Del. Ch. 2005), aff'd., 906 A.2d 807 (Del. Ch. 2005) the Delaware Court of Chancery has resolved this apparent conflict. Here, the Court held that a stockholder meeting should go forward with adequate disclosures to the stockholders entitled to vote on the proposed sale of substantially all of the company's assets. The Court ordered the company to apply to the SEC for an exemption from the rules prohibiting the calling of a meeting.Continue Reading...
Weisler v. Barrows, C.A. No. 06-362 GMS, 2006 WL 3201882 (D. Del. Nov. 6, 2006).
Plaintiff, a shareholder of Sycamore Networks, Inc. (“Sycamore”), a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Massachusetts, brought this derivative action against several of its directors and officers, including its chairman, CEO and CFO. The complaint alleged six counts: (1) a count against each director for section 14(a) violations of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”); (2) one count of disgorgement against four directors under section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“Oxley Act”); (3) one count of breach of fiduciary duty against all directors; (4) one count of unjust enrichment against five directors; (5) one count of gross mismanagement against all defendants; and (6) one count of waste of corporate assets against all defendants.
The defendants moved to transfer the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a) and the Court granted the motion because it would convenience the parties and witnesses and serve the interests of justice.
The plaintiff alleged that the defendants had jointly and severally breached their fiduciary duties of care, loyalty, good faith, and candor by failing to: (1) discover or prevent the intentional manipulation of stock option grants between 1999 and 2004; (2) prevent the misreporting of earnings that was caused by the manipulation of the option grants; (3) oversee the administration of Sycamore’s stock-based compensation plans; (4) ensure Sycamore operated in compliance with applicable state and federal laws pertaining to dissemination of financial statements; (5) ensure the company did not engage in any improper or illegal practices; and (6) ensure that the company’s financial statements were compliant with GAAP. The conduct is alleged to have violated section 14(a) of the Exchange Act and section 304 of the Oxley Act.
The Court permitted the transfer of the matter on its individualized consideration of the motion under section 1404(a) and on whether it would convenience the parties and witnesses and serve the interests of justice. The Court also held that it was the defendants’ burden to establish the need for transfer. The Court observed that the standard for transfer did not demand a demonstration of compelling circumstances; rather, the defendants only needed to show that the case would be better off if transferred to the other jurisdiction. That inquiry required a “multi-factor balancing test” that consisted of not only the convenience of the parties and the witnesses but also the examination of certain public and private interests. The Court listed the private interests as: (1) a plaintiff’s choice of forum; (2) the defendant’s preference; (3) where the claim arose; (4) the convenience of the parties and witnesses; and (5) the location of the books and records. The Court listed the public interests as: (1) the judgment’s enforceability; (2) practical trial considerations making it easy, expeditious or inexpensive; (3) the administrative difficulty presented in the two fora; (4) local interest in deciding the controversy at home; and (5) the public policies of the fora under consideration. The Court found that the private and public factors weighed in favor of transfer and therefore permitted the defendants’ motion.
This case dealt with when directors would be considered interested in a deal so as to preclude the application of the business judgment rule and permit the suit to proceed. Many of the directors were affiliated with the controlling stockholder who had purchased the corporation's preferred stock at a deep discount just before the board voted to redeem that stock at its face value. That decision was justified, it was argued, because the coupon rate on the stock was higher than market rate. The Court held that might well be so, but at the pleading stage it was too soon to accept that as a justification for the purchase that gave the controlling stockholder a big gain. The decision is particularly interesting for its discussion of when directors are considered sufficiently connected to a controlling stockholder so as to preclude application of the business judgment rule.Continue Reading...
Stone v. Ritter, C.A. No. 93, 2006 (Del. Supr. November 6, 2006).
The Supreme Court has issued the latest Delaware decision to interpret the duty to act in good faith. Indeed, it is possible to read Stone as holding there is no separate duty of directors to act in good faith. While that would be a mistake, the implications of this decision may be far reaching. At the very least, Stone upholds the conventional wisdom in Delaware that under Caremark the directors' duty to act is most easily triggered when there are red flags indicating something is wrong with the way the entity is being operated. A complaint that fails to plead those red flags has a good chance of being dismissed.Continue Reading...
Delaware corporations frequently ask the Court of Chancery to decide if a proposed course of action is appropriate, particularly when the board of directors' fiduciary duties are implicated. In this decision the Court focused primarily on when the Court may provide that guidance and when the matter is not ripe for judicial action. The Court has rejected becoming involved in hypothetical issues not framed by a real world transaction, but more of a "what if" set of questions. Here, the Court accepted one question for its review and rejected others, thereby illustrating how it will deal with those situations.Continue Reading...
Superior Court Grants Defendant Insurers' Motion to Dismiss Because Employees who Served as Directors and Officers Suffered No Loss to which D&O Insurance Coverage Applies
This case is part of a larger insurance coverage dispute involving Directors and Officers and Company Liability ("D&O") coverage purchased from certain of the defendants by plaintiff AT&T Corp. ("AT&T") and the company of which AT&T was the majority stockholder, the now-bankrupt At Home Corporation ("At Home"). AT&T sought D&O coverage in connection with several underlying shareholder suits brought against it and certain directors and officers of AT & T and At Home. The court previously decided the potential coverage liability under the AT&T D&O policies but not the At Home policies. See AT & T Corp. v. Clarendon America Ins. Co., C.A. No. 04C-11-167 (JRJ), 2006 WL 1382268 (Del. Super. Ct. Apr. 13, 2006, amended Apr. 25, 2006). At issue in this case are the D&O policies issued by the five defendant insurers to At Home, including the primary insurer and the four excess insurers (collectively, the "At Home Insurers"). The At Home Insurers moved to dismiss AT&T's complaint.Continue Reading...
The Delaware Supreme Court has clarifed the rules as to when a plaintiff in a derivative suit must make a demand upon filing an amended complaint. The Court holds that if the derivative litigation has been properly instituted an amendment to the complaint does not need to be the subject of a demand on the board of directors as to those claims already "validly in litigation". Thus, even if the majority of the board has changed and is now independent under Rule 23.1 standards, no demand need be made in those circumstances.Continue Reading...
This is another in a series of Court of Chancery decisions that limit the claims that creditors may make based on the theory the directors owe the creditors a duty when their corporation is insolvent or in the vicinity of insolvency. Ever since the famous footnote in Credit Lyonnais Bank Nederland, N.V. v. Pathe Communications Corp., 1991 WL 277613 (Del. Ch. Dec. 30, 1991), creditors have argued that directors should owe them a fiduciary duty to take their interests into account when the creditors are the residual interest holders in a corporation that is insolvent or nearly so. A series of recent decisions have limited those creditor arguments. See e.g. Production Resources Group, L.L.C. v. NCT Group, Inc., 863 A.2d 772 (Del. Ch. 2004) [holding most creditor claims must be brought as derivative claims]. This new decision further limits creditor claims by holding that creditors may not bring a direct claim for breach of fiduciary duty based on the theory the entity is in the vicinity of insolvency. Further, the decision holds that for clearly insolvent companies, only creditors whose claims are beyond fair dispute may claim the directors owe them a duty.Continue Reading...
As it has several times in recent years, the Court of Chancery has decided a case combining appraisal rights and a class claim for inequitable treatment in a merger. The Court held that when directors get together to freeze out the other stockholders the entire fairness test applies even when they do not own a majority of the stock. This follows because the interests of those directors in remaining shareholders differs from the other shareholders who will be frozen out. Absent some insulating procedure such a majority of the minority vote, the directors then have the burden of proving the merger was entirely fair.Continue Reading...
The Delaware courts have struggled for the last fifteen years over the scope of the duties of directors to creditors when their company is in the vicinity of insolvency. In two landmark decisions, the first in 2004, and just recently, the Court of Chancery sought to define the limits of that duty. Indeed, in this decision the Court rejected the very idea that there is a duty to avoid taking risks that may have the effect of deepening the insolvency of a Delaware corporation, at least in most circumstances.Continue Reading...
The Court of Chancery has upheld the use of a press release to announce a stockholder meeting date and to trigger the provisions of a ten day advance notice bylaw. The plaintiff's employees read the press release, which mostly focused on financial results, but they neglected to notice it also announced the annual meeting date. Thus, the plaintiff failed to get the names of its nominees to the company in the time required by a bylaw provision triggered by the notice of meeting.Continue Reading...
Business relationships between directors may sometimes make them unqualified to pass upon demands their company sue their fellow directors. This is such a case where the board members derived substantial benefits from their relationships with the potential target of litigation the plaintiff demanded be brought. Under those circumstances, the futility of making a demand under Rule 23.1 was easily established.
In this decision the Court of Chancery extensively discusses the legal theories under which the plainitff may seek a recovery from two of the entities alleged to have helped the AIG Chairman profit at the expense of AIG. In effect, the Court held that if as alleged these entities were set up to profit by doing what AIG might have done for itself, then their profits are subject to recovery under several theories such as the imposition of a constructive trust. The opinion is a good source of legal theory for recovery in such cases.
In another rejection of artificial limits on the right to advancement, the Court of Chancery has rejected the argument that there is no right to advancement of legal fees to defend a suit that seeks recovery for post termination conduct.Continue Reading...
In this case, the Court of Chancery was required to interpret complex agreements between the members of a Delaware limited liability company. The Court held that the defendant holding company had the right to "drag along" holders of a minority interest in an operating subsidiary of the holding company in connection with the sale of the holding company.Continue Reading...
Plaintiff filed a class action, claiming a merger was the subject of unfair dealing and produced an unfair price. Another plaintiff filed a statutory appraisal claim based on the same merger.Continue Reading...
On April 25, 2006, the Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of multiple defendants. The plaintiff, AT&T, moved to certify an appeal pursuant to Rule 42, and the Superior Court granted AT&T leave to file and interlocutory appeal. On May 31, 2006, the Delaware Supreme Court accepted the interlocutory appeal as well.Continue Reading...
Defendants moved to dismiss class and derivative complaint under Court of Chancery Rules 23.1 and 12(b)(6). Defendants also moved to disqualify the plaintiffs, to strike portions of the complaint and for continued sealing of the complaint.Continue Reading...
This case was described by Vice Chancellor Strine as "another progeny of one of our law's hybrid varietals: the combined appraisal and entire fairness action." The court was tasked with determining whether the share price in a squeeze-out merger was fair, and, if not, what the extent of the underpayment to the minority shareholders was. The court found that the merger price was unfair, and finding no difference between the award the petitioners/plaintiffs would receive in appraisal or in equity, the court awarded an amount equivalent to petitioners' pro rata share of the company's appraisal value on the date of the merger.Continue Reading...
Superior Court Grants Summary Judgment to Insurers, Finding that Certain of AT & T's D & O Policies Do Not Cover Claims in Underlying Litigation
This was an insurance coverage case involving Directors and Officers and Company ("D & O") liability policies purchased by plaintiff AT & T Corp. ("AT & T") and At Home Corp. ("At Home") from various primary and excess insurers. AT & T sought coverage, including indemnity, payment of defense fees, costs, and settlements or judgments, relating to several underlying shareholders suits brought against AT & T and certain officers and directors of AT & T and At Home. The defendants brought motions for partial summary judgment, alleging that AT & T's clams fell outside the scope of coverage under the D & O policies. Ultimately, the court granted the defendants' motions.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Awards $4.8 Million, Plus Interest, to Minority Shareholders for Damages Suffered from Director Defendants' Breach of the Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty
Defendant Boston University ("BU") was the controlling shareholder of Seragen, a financially troubled biotechnology company. Plaintiffs, a group of former minority stockholders of Seragen's common stock, challenged certain transactions before Seragen was merged and the process by which the merger proceeds were divvied up. The plaintiffs contended that the BU defendants breached their fiduciary duties to Seragen's common shareholders by approving various financial transactions, which were not fair to the common shareholder as a matter of price and process. The Court of Chancery awarded damages in excess of $4.8 million plus interest for breaches of the fiduciary duty of loyalty.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Interprets Indemnification Provisions as Not Permitting Indemnification by Re-Organized Company While Permitting Indemnification by Pre-Organized Company
The plaintiffs in this case sought indemnification for a settlement of claims against them for $27.5 million, paying $7.2 million out of their own pockets. The plaintiffs were former outside directors of a public company engaged in the automobile supply trade who were sued by both stockholders and bondholders of that company for various statutory violations and breaches of fiduciary duty when the company was forced to reveal that some of its financial statements contained materially misleading information. The corporation that the plaintiffs served ("Old Hayes") entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy and emerged as the operating subsidiary of a new entity ("New Hayes"). When the plaintiffs sought indemnification for the settlement under the old corporation's bylaws, their individual indemnification plans, and the bankruptcy reorganization plan, both Old Hayes and New Hayes refused. The Court of Chancery dismissed the plaintiffs' claims as to New Hayes, which the court found as a matter of law had no obligation to indemnify its predecessors' former directors and officers; however, the court denied the motion to dismiss as to the old company because the directors had a right to proceed with their claim for indemnification against Old Hayes.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Permits Derivative Action to Proceed Because Alleged Facts Created Reasonable Doubt that Directors were Disinterested and Independent
This action involved a series of transactions in which the Telx defendant directors allegedly granted themselves a significant equity stake in the company for little or no consideration. Plaintiff alleged that these transactions significantly diluted his equity position. This action also involved a self tender-offer by the company for $5 million worth of its securities. Defendant argued that plaintiff did not make a demand on the Telx board before proceeding with the derivative action and that the complaint did not plead with particularity facts that created a reasonable doubt as to the ability of the Telx board to independently consider such a demand. The Court of Chancery denied the defendants' motion to dismiss and permitted the plaintiff to proceed with his derivative suit.Continue Reading...
District Court Denies Defendants' Motions to Dismiss Derivative Action for Failure to Comply with Demand Requirement and Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction and Denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.
Seinfeld v. Barrett, C.A. No. 05-298-JJF, 2006 WL 890909 (D. Del. Mar. 31, 2006).
Plaintiff filed a derivative action against defendants, alleging that they violated Section 14(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the "Exchange Act") and Rule 14a-8 and breached their fiduciary duties under Delaware law by making false and misleading statements in connection with a proxy statement issued by the defendants in March 2005. Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, and defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to comply with Rule 23.1.Continue Reading...
After the voluntary dismissal of a class action, plaintiffs petitioned the Court of Chancery for attorneys' fees and expenses. The court found that plaintiffs' counsel was entitled to fees for the preparation of the amended complaint and litigation efforts undertaken before the action that caused the voluntary dismissal. Plaintiffs' counsel was not entitled to fees for their work in connection with the original complaint nor for their work performed after the claims in the amended complaint were mooted.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Dismisses Complaint Because a Creditor Erroneously Asserted Derivative Claims as Direct in the Hope of Escaping Bankruptcy Court Jurisdiction
In 2000, in a sponsored management buyout, a corporation sold a subsidiary business that operated a chain of toy stores (KB Toys) in exchange for $257.1 million in cash and a $45 million note due in 2010. In 2002, the new owners refinanced the business and distributed approximately $120 million to the buyout sponsor, affiliates, two officers and directors of the subsidiary that invested in the buyout, and others. In 2004, the KB Toys filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Plaintiff Big Lots, Inc, an unsecured creditor and holder of the $45 million note, brought this action asserting direct claims of breach of fiduciary duties, fraud, and civil conspiracy. The plaintiff sought recovery for the amount due on the note and restitution for alleged unjust enrichment. The Court of Chancery dismissed the complaint namely because the claims were derivative in nature, not direct, and thus belong to the bankruptcy estate.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Finds Breach of Oral Contract Regarding Executive Compensation and Breach of Fiduciary Duty for Failure of Such Compensation to Satisfy Entire Fairness Test
This case involved a direct and derivative action arising out of a dispute between two men engaged in the business of making short term, unsecured loans. Plaintiffs asserted direct claims for breach of contract and derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duties. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that defendant Hallinan breached an oral contract with plaintiffs by paying himself and another defendant executive compensation. Plaintiffs also asserted that the defendants breached fiduciary duties they owed nominal defendant CR Services Corp. by paying themselves an excessive amount of executive compensation. The Court of Chancery found, among other things, that Hallinan breached the oral contract with plaintiffs and defendants committed multiple breaches of their fiduciary duties to CR because they failed to meet the entire fairness standard regarding their compensation.Continue Reading...
A large shareholder brought a derivative action alleging that the directors committed corporate waste by approving exorbitant fees to unqualified financial advisers. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1 for failure to allege with particularity facts establishing demand futility. The court's review of the complaint revealed that plaintiff did not allege with particularity facts from which the court could reasonably conclude that the majority of the directors were disabled from impartially considering a demand. The court therefore granted defendants' motion to dismiss under Rule 23.1.Continue Reading...
District Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Declaratory Judgment Action for Lack of Jurisdiction and Failure to Allege a Controversy of Sufficient Immediacy
Plaintiff Shamrock Holdings of Ca., Inc. ("Shamrock") was a Class A member of ALH Holdings, Inc. ("ALH"), a Delaware limited liability company, and the other plaintiffs were employees and/or members of ALH's Supervisory Board (the "Board"). In connection with the failure of ALH's business, and its investors' subsequent loss of their investments, plaintiffs filed an action in the Court of Chancery seeking a declaration that (i) they did not breach ALH's operating agreement; (ii) they did not breach their fiduciary duties as ALH employees, members or Board members; (iii) they had relied in good faith on the advice of experts and professionals in making their decisions; (iv) they were not liable to the defendants under the terms of a consulting agreement; and (v) they were entitled to advanContinue Reading...
Court of Chancery Dismisses De Facto Dividend Claim Because Disguised as Improperly Pled Claim of Self-Dealing
Plaintiffs, founders of a Health Management Organization, alleged that their co-investors abused their positions by siphoning off tens of millions of dollars from the HMO in the form of disguised salaries and corporate perquisites; plaintiffs call these "de facto dividends." The Court of Chancery granted defendants' motion to dismiss because plaintiffs did not adequately allege self-dealing, the center of a de facto dividend claim.Continue Reading...
In this derivative action brought against four former directors and officers of Case Financial, Inc., the nominal defendant, the two remaining defendants moved to dismiss after two others settled. Plaintiff alleged breach of loyalty, breach of the Caremark duty of oversight, corporate waste and common law fraud. The Court of Chancery partly granted the motions.Continue Reading...
This is a motion for expedited proceedings for a preliminary injunction pertaining to certain disclosure claims not made public in SEC-filed proxy statements soliciting shareholder vote for an agreement for sale of the corporation at $24 per share. Class actions were earlier filed in the Delaware Court of Chancery and California's Superior Court challenging the sale transaction as a director-interested one.Continue Reading...
Superior Court Finds "Volunteer" Director of LLC Immune from Suit and Requires Plaintiff to File a More Definite Statement As to Whether Board's Actions Were Void
After the board of directors of an LLC terminated the plaintiff, the plaintiff filed suit, alleging, among other things, that the board's actions were void. The defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff's suit. The court found that one of the directors was immune from suit pursuant to 10 Del. C. § 8133, which grants immunity to an organization's volunteers. Another defendant, the LLC from which plaintiff had been terminated, argued that the claim against it should be dismissed because the board's actions were voidable rather than void. However, there was no indication that the Board had ever ratified the voidable acts. The Court directed the Plaintiff to file a more definite statement as to what it was claiming against that defendant.Continue Reading...
Court Of Chancery Dismisses Complaint For R. 23.1 Failure Despite Corporation's Inadequate "Internal Controls" Attracting $50 million Fine
This matter involved an attempt to institute a derivative proceeding against fifteen current and former director defendants of AmSouth Bancorporation for alleged failures of fiduciary duties through insufficient internal control systems to guard against statutory violations under the Bank Secrecy Act and the Anti-Money Laundering Regulations. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss and it was granted by the court for insufficiency of pleading under Chancery Court Rule 23.1.
On November 6, 2006, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed this decision.Continue Reading...
Court Of Chancery Awards Litigation Fees Advancement Under LLC Agreement And Fees On Fees For Present Suit
This case was decided on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff sought to obtain advancement of attorney fees allegedly contractually agreed, to defend a New York action and fees on fees for initiating and prosecuting this action. The plaintiff was sued in the New York action by affiliates-entities of her then employer.Continue Reading...
This is a summary judgment motion for advancement of legal fees made by defendant-officers. Their corporation alleged fraud, fiduciary violations and usurpation of corporate opportunity against defendants as a bar to advancement. Defendants replied with counterclaims under their respective employment contracts. The motion was granted and denied in part.Continue Reading...
Opinion and order granting interlocutory appeal on two contract issues, after court dismissed corporate allegations of fraud, negligent misrepresentation and fiduciary duty breach.Continue Reading...
In re Tele-Communications Inc. Shareholders Litig., C.A. No. 16470, 2005 WL 3547674 (Del. Ch. Dec. 21, 2005), opinion revised and superceded by No. CIV. A. 16470, 2005 WL 3642727 (Del. Ch. Dec. 21, 2005), (revised Jan. 10, 2006)(Westlaw citation not available).
This summary judgment action originates from a Consolidated Amended Complaint that alleged nondisclosure of material information
In the context of converting from an Australian corporation to a Delaware corporation, News Corp.'s board adopted a policy that if a shareholder rights plan was adopted following reincorporation, the plan would have a one-year sunset clause unless shareholder approval was obtained for an extension. The policy also provided that if shareholder approval was not obtained, the company would not adopt a successor shareholder rights plan having substantially the same terms and conditions. Several weeks later, News Corp.'s board adopted a poison pill in response to a specific third-party takeover threat. One year later, the board extended the poison pill without a shareholder vote, in contravention of its prior policy.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Partially Grants Motion For Summary Judgment Based Upon Plaintiffs' Lack Of Standing To Bring Derivative Claims As Result Of Merger
Plaintiffs, former shareholders of SinglePoint Financial, Inc. which merged into a subsidiary of Cofiniti, Inc., alleged that two former directors of SinglePoint breached their fiduciary duties in connection with the issuance of a large number of shares to one of the defendants and the merger. Defendants moved for summary judgment.Continue Reading...
Entire Fairness Applied to Third-party Merger Transaction Where Controlling Shareholder Acquired Minority Stake in Resulting Company
Former shareholders filed fiduciary class action in connection with a cash-out merger, naming corporation and former directors as defendants. The complaint alleged that the corporation's controlling shareholder negotiated to sell the company to a third-party investment firm in all-cash deal. The complaint further alleged that, as part of the transaction, the controlling shareholder and other members of company management agreed to invest approximately $184 million to acquire a 25% equity stake in the surviving entity. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Grants Summary Judgment In Favor Of Defendants Alleged To Have Breached Their Fiduciary Duties By Approving Asset Sale Likely To Result In Zero Value To Equity Owners
Plaintiff Blackmore Partners L.P. instituted cause of action against Defendant Link Energy LLC and its directors, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty in connection with the sale of Link's assets for a price likely to leave zero value to Link's equity investors. Defendants moved for summary judgment.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Grants Plaintiff's Motion To Amend Derivative Complaint Against Director-Defendants For Insider Trading
Plaintiff, a shareholder of priceline.com, Inc., moved for leave to amend his derivative complaint against directors of Priceline based upon three defendants' alleged insider trading and misappropriation of confidential information. Defendants argued amendment would be futile.Continue Reading...
Plaintiff FGC Holdings Limited, owner of Series B Preferred Convertible Stock in Defendant Teltronics, Inc. sought declaratory judgment that its Series B Director designee had an immediate right to sit on Teltronics' board of directors.Continue Reading...
The Plaintiff filed a notice of partial dismissal in an attempt to dismiss certain defendants. The defendants who were purportedly dismissed moved to quash the notice of dismissal. The court found that one defendant insurer could be dismissed because the entire action was being voluntarily dismissed. However, the court granted the motion to quash as to the other defendant because the dismissal only eliminated certain claims as opposed to the entire action. Plaintiff also sought leave of the court to dismiss a second group of defendants pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2). The court denied this motion.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Denies Motion to Dismiss Complaint Where Board Materially Misled Shareholders About Search For New CEO
Plaintiff dissident shareholders seek to void the result of a corporate election of directors, to compel the company to make full and fair disclosure of the CEO selection process, and (following such disclosure) compel another election of directors. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint. The Court of Chancery denied the Motion.Continue Reading...
Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment where Plaintiff alleged proposed internal recapitalization favored director shareholders. Plaintiff challenged the adequacy of the fairness opinion, the disclosures to shareholders and the sufficiency of the Proxy Statement because it failed to disclose separate valuations of New Valley's various assets and lines of business
The Court of Chancery granted the Defendants' motion for summary
This was an action under 8 Del. C. § 225 to determine the proper directors and members of the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education in Rural America ("CADERA" or the "Corporation").
The court found that the appointment of the Director Defendants was proper and adequate.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Dismisses Stockholders' Claims Because Claims were Derivative and Demand was Not Excused
J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. ("JPMC") and Bank One agreed to a business combination that was expected to create the second largest financial institution in the country. JMPC paid a premium over the market share price for Bank One, effectively making JPMC the acquirer and the Bank One the target. After the merger was completed, the stockholders of the acquirer sued its directors, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty with regard to the acquisition. Their claims stemmed from the allegation that the directors paid too much for the acquired bank. The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that the claims were derivative, not direct, and that demand was not excused. The court granted defendants motion to dismiss.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Finds Change of Control Payments are Reasonable if a Majority of a Board of Directors Ceased to be "Existing Directors"
Defendant Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, Inc. agreed to make change of control payments to certain employees if a majority of its board of directors ceased to be "Existing Directors." "Existing Directors" were those directors in office at the time of the change of control agreements and those new directors who were approved by Existing Directors. The views of new directors who were not approved as Existing Directors would not be considered in determining whether subsequent new directors would be considered Existing Directors. The question is whether such a provision contravenes the teachings of Carmody v. Toll Brothers, Inc., 723 A.2d 1180 (Del. Ch.1998), which concluded that directors may not be granted distinctive voting powers unless they are authorized by the certificate of incorporation, something Lone Star's certificate of incorporation does not do.Continue Reading...
Superior Court Grants Corporation's Commercial Liability Insurer's Motion for Summary Judgment Based on Automobile Exclusion
A corporation's commercial liablility insurer petitioned the court for a determination as to whether the policies automobile exclusion prevented coverage for damages arising from an accident involving one of the corporation's officers. The insurer moved for summary judgment, and the Superior Court found that the automobile exclusion did apply.Continue Reading...
Court of Chancery Dismisses Claims Against Third-Party Defendants for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction Despite Officer and Agent Status
Amaysing Technologies Corp. ("ATC") brought an action for breach of a loan agreement against CyberAir Communications, Inc. ("CyberAir"). CyberAir filed a third-party complaint alleging various misrepresentations and frauds against Robert Mays, Jr., and Raymond Atilano, both of whom were officers and shareholders of ATC, and Med Fadel, an agent of ATC (together referred to as "Third-Party Defendants"). Third-party Defendants filed a motion to dismiss under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(2) for lack of personal jurisdiction, which the court granted.Continue Reading...
This case deals with several motions to dismiss on several grounds, the upholding of personal jurisdiction under a conspiracy or aiding/abetting theory and plaintiff's request for a declaratory judgment.Continue Reading...
This is an action for plaintiff's attorney fees following settlement of fiduciary duty-based shareholder class actions.Continue Reading...
Corporation Seeking Injunction, Declaratory Judgment, Specific Enforcement And Contract Damages Prevails In Court of Chancery On Dismissal Motions
Plaintiff-corporation, its president and major stockholder sought to enjoin defendant, a purported stockholder and former officer from acting as an officer or pursuing any claim against any officer, shareholder or contractor of the plaintiff company. Plaintiff also pursued a declaratory judgment that defendant was not an officer or director of the plaintiff under 8 Del. C. §225 and further sought to specifically enforce a stock-transfer agreement with defendant. Defendant sought to dismiss for lack of personal and subject matter jurisdictions and for forum non conveniens.Continue Reading...