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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
Morris James Blogs
This is an important decision because it clarifies when a stockholder loses standing to bring a fiduciary duty case because he sold his stock. Briefly, breach of fiduciary duty claims may be direct (belonging to the individual stockholder), derivative (belonging to the corporation generally), or dual-natured (partially direct, partially derivative). Direct/individual claims for breach of fiduciary duty may also be personal (belonging to the individual) or non-personal (attaching to the stock). As explained by In re Activision Blizzard, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 124 A.3d 1025 (Del. Ch. 2015), a stockholder selling his stock gives up all but direct claims that are personal in nature—the non-personal rights otherwise travel with the shares to the new owner. More ›
The Delaware LLC Act provides for personal jurisdiction in Delaware over those who manage a Delaware LLC—i.e., those who are named as managers in the LLC agreement, and those who participate materially in the LLC’s management. This decision explains what it means to participate materially in the LLC’s management by a thorough analysis of the precedents. In effect, it means the person must have the management role usually undertaken by a corporate director—a control or decision-making role. Just acting as an officer is not enough when that person is subject to the control of others.
“Directors’ Decisions Must Be Reasonable, not Perfect” Home Depot’s Shareholder Derivative Litigation Arising from Data Breach Dismissed; Demand Was Not Excused Under Delaware Law
On November 30, 2016, a federal district court dismissed a shareholder derivative complaint against various current and former directors of Home Depot arising from the well-publicized data breach the company suffered between April and September 2014. In re The Home Depot, Inc. Shareholder Derivative Litigation, Civil Action No. 15-CV-2999-TWT (N.D. Ga. Nov. 30, 2016). The complaint asserted claims against the directors for breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty and corporate waste under state law, and a federal law securities claim under Section 14(a) of the Securities Exchange Act. The decision illustrates important principles of corporate law reflected in Rule 23.1 (under both state and federal law), governing when a plaintiff can bypass the board of directors to assert a derivative claim for injury to the company on the company’s behalf, rather than deferring to the board’s judgment about asserting such a claim, and how these principles may affect litigation arising out of data breaches and alleged failures of director oversight. More ›
In GAMCO Asset Management v. iHeartMedia, Delaware's Court of Chancery considered claims that a controlling stockholder's liquidity needs created conflicts in otherwise arm's-length transactions with third parties. As demonstrated in New Jersey Carpenters Pension Fund v. infoGROUP, a controlling stockholder that receives the same financial benefit as the minority stockholders must also receive a "unique benefit" for the challenged transaction to be subjected to the entire fairness standard of review. Circumstances like infoGROUP, however, represent extreme cases. As discussed below, the plaintiff in iHeartMedia was unable to persuade the court that infoGROUP-like circumstances existed in its case. More ›
Even after a board rejects a plaintiff-stockholder’s demand to bring a derivative litigation, the plaintiff may proceed to bring that derivative action if the plaintiff can show the refusal was “wrongful.” Having conceded that the directors were not “interested” in the subject of the demand by making the demand rather than suing and trying to allege demand futility, the plaintiff must show that the decision to refuse the demand was a bad faith breach of the duty of loyalty, or a grossly negligent breach of the duty of care. These two related decisions examine whether plaintiffs met the high bar of sufficiently alleging wrongful refusal. They illustrate, for instance, how it might not be enough that an investigation proved wrong, or that the company subsequently agreed to a large settlement arising out of the investigated events.
Many contracts for the sale of a company have a provision addressing how the parties should resolve disagreements concerning post-closing adjustments to the sale price. Exactly who is to resolve those disputes (be it an accountant, an arbitrator or the court), and the scope of their authority is sometimes unclear. This decision tracks some precedents and explains when the contract may be interpreted to permit an accountant to decide what adjustments are required by GAAP.
When a stockholder files a derivative suit she can avoid dismissal under Rule 23.1’s pre-suit demand-on-the-board requirement by showing that a majority of the directors were not independent enough to fairly consider her demand that the corporation itself file the suit. This decision clarifies how to decide if a board member is sufficiently independent to fairly consider such a demand. Briefly, at least two factors will be relevant: close social connections to the target of the suit, and disqualification under the NASDAQ tests for independence. There is no single test that controls, although either one of the aforementioned relationships may be disqualifying under the right circumstances, as the Court found them to be in this case.
Large commercial contracts frequently try to limit a buyer’s remedies for any extra-contractual misrepresentations by the seller. Many Delaware decisions deal with disclaimers of extra-contractual representations and this decision does a nice job of summarizing some of that existing law. For example, it notes that a statement from the seller that it has not made any extra-contractual representations may not suffice, while a statement of non-reliance from the buyer should do the trick.
Zebala v. Aminopterin LLC, C.A. No. 12186-VCS (September 28, 2016) (TRANSCRIPT)
An issue of some debate is whether a non-Delaware court has the power to dissolve a Delaware entity. Here, the Court of Chancery was asked to dismiss a later-filed dissolution action in Delaware based on a California forum selection clause in the parties’ LLC agreement, and in deference to a long-pending first-filed action in California where the court had already issued an injunction restricting the LLC’s assets that the Court of Chancery was being asked to wind up. The Court thus had the opportunity to address the important power to dissolve question, but under the circumstances found it appropriate to defer to the California court relying on principles of comity and a McWane analysis to dismiss the dissolution action. In other words, the Court of Chancery would not step on the California court’s toes under the circumstances, and the California court could decide for itself if it has the power to dissolve a Delaware entity should the parties present that issue there.
The Delaware courts encourage plaintiffs who bring derivative claims in Delaware without making demand on the board of directors to seek books and records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law so as to be able to plead facts sufficient to demonstrate that demand is excused. Many claims have been dismissed under Delaware Court of Chancery Rule 23.1 because a plaintiff failed to utilize the "tools at hand" to obtain relevant books and records. When a plaintiff grounds its claim on directors' alleged failure to exercise oversight, however, even receipt of books and records may not enable a plaintiff to plead facts sufficient to demonstrate that the directors knowingly ignored their duties so as to have acted in bad faith. That high standard as articulated by the Delaware Supreme Court in Stone v. Ritter makes a Caremark claim for breach of directors' oversight duties as among the most difficult in corporate law. The Court of Chancery's recent decision in Reiter v. Fairbank, C.A. No. 11693-CB (Del. Ch. Oct. 18), demonstrates that, regardless of the injury allegedly sustained by the subject company, a pleading based on books and records obtained from the company that at best reflects awareness of "yellow flags" is not sufficient to call into question the directors' good faith and hence to excuse demand, thus requiring dismissal of the plaintiff's derivative claim. More ›
Delaware strongly protects a party’s right to advancement of attorney’s fees. This decision holds that a claim of fraudulent inducement cannot be asserted as a defense in a contractual advancement case even when the fraud is alleged to have induced the advancing party into signing the contract. Rather than use the alleged fraud as a defense to providing advancement, the advancing party must satisfy its advancement obligations and then assert its plenary claim for fraud in a separate proceeding where it can recoup the allegedly wrongfully advanced funds.
This decision holds that a general obligation to indemnify another party to a contract applies only to claims filed by a third party and not to claims between the parties to the contract itself. Hence, if you want to cover inter-party claims, you need to say so explicitly.
This decision explains the difference between a defendant’s right of setoff and recoupment. The key difference is that the right of setoff arises out of an independent transaction, while recoupment must be based on the same facts that support the main claim. Another difference concerns the statute of limitations. Setoff is subject to a three-year statute of limitations, while time-barred claims can be considered for recoupment when they arise out of the same factually-related transaction as the plaintiff’s claim.
This is an interesting decision in a small case. The Court granted the request to dissolve a Delaware entity in deadlock, but conditioned that dissolution on an agreement not to use the fact of dissolution in another proceeding between the parties to defeat a party’s standing. What other conditions might be imposed in other cases remains to be seen.
D&O policies often attempt to exclude from coverage sums paid to disgorge unlawful profits. The underlying theory is that the company did not suffer a true loss when it has to give back something that it never should have had in the first place. This decision tackles the hard problem of applying that theory in specific circumstances. The Court held that when a company settles a claim without admitting it has made an unlawful profit then the insurer has to prove the sums paid were in fact a return of an illegal profit. Merely settling a claim for some amount does not establish disgorgement occurred, even when the claim itself may have made that allegation. In particular, when the actual settlement agreement does not refer to a return of an illegal gain, there is no tie to actual disgorgement and the exclusion may not apply. Hence, when settling a claim it is important to consider how the settlement agreement should read.