To Avoid Dismissal in the Court of Chancery, Plaintiffs Must Plead Facts Showing Unfairness
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.