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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
Morris James Blogs
Delaware Court of Chancery Orders Full Public Access to Confidential Filings Months After Settlement
Universal public access to court filings is the default and confidentiality is the exception. Rule 5.1 of the Court of Chancery provides for the filing of confidential information by litigants. In this decision, the Court makes clear that a violation of Rule 5.1 may result in the loss of confidential treatment. More ›
As Reith explains, directors may lose the protections of the business judgment rule and expose themselves to liability if they knowingly or deliberately fail to adhere to the terms of a stock incentive plan, such as by violating a clear and unambiguous provision. And, as Reith illustrates, Delaware courts may consider a company’s prior public disclosures about a plan’s terms in addressing that issue. More ›
An “allegation that a transaction involves a controlling stockholder who stands on both sides is a serious one because it imposes fiduciary duties on the controlling stockholder and potentially strips directors of the deferential business judgment rule,” see Reith v. Lichtenstein, C.A. No. 2018-0277-MTZ (Del. Ch. 6/28/19). In her recent opinion in Reith, Vice Chancellor Morgan Zurn allowed a derivative complaint to proceed against a minority 35.6% stockholder because the complaint alleged with sufficient particularity that the stockholder exercised actual control in the challenged transactions, subjecting it to entire fairness review. Here the court found that the 35.6% stockholder wielded such formidable voting and managerial power in connection with a preferred stock offering and related equity grants that it was no differently situated than if it had majority control. In so ruling, the court adds Reith to a number of Delaware Court of Chancery decisions that have ruled that a minority stockholder’s exercise of actual control subjects the challenged transaction to entire fairness review. More ›
Chancery Holds Tension Between “Bespoke” Provision Governing Post-Closing Conduct and a Boilerplate Survival Clause Requires Consideration of Parol Evidence
The founders of Cablevision Systems Corp., the Dolan family, in connection with a $17.7 billion acquisition of that entity by Altice Europe N.V. and Altice USA Inc., obtained a commitment in the Merger Agreement affirming that Altice would operate a particular group of regional cable news channels (News12 Networks LLC) “substantially in accordance with the existing News12 business plan … through at least the end of plan year 2020[.]” When Altice proceeded to lay off News12 employees after the merger, the Dolan family filed an action in the Court of Chancery for specific performance. More ›
Delaware courts typically apply the McWane first-filed doctrine to stay a later-filed Delaware case in favor of a case already pending in another jurisdiction involving substantially the same parties and issues. In this instance, Alphabet, Inc., a Delaware corporation, and the director defendants, relying on McWane and forum non conveniens, sought to stay or dismiss a second-filed Delaware stockholder derivative action in favor of a first-filed action in California raising similar breach of fiduciary duty and failure of oversight claims. Both litigations arose from alleged workplace harassment at Google by officers and similar allegations against executives and directors of its parent, Alphabet. At oral argument, Vice Chancellor Glasscock, from the bench, rejected the forum non conveniens argument, and explained in this opinion “it is difficult to imagine a derivative litigation involving a Delaware corporation, and alleging breaches of fiduciary duty by corporate directors or officers of that Delaware corporation, that is nonetheless subject to dismissal on forum non conveniens grounds; if such an animal exists, it is absent from the menagerie before me here.” The Court also exercised its discretion to deny the stay motion because (i) the McWane first-filed rationale carries less weight in the context of derivative actions, where Delaware’s interest in promoting well-crafted derivative complaints is more important than filing speed; (ii) the proceedings to date in California were limited to disputes over consolidating related actions and appointing lead counsel; and (iii) Delaware has a higher interest than California in applying Delaware’s common law of corporations and fiduciary duty to the novel issues of corporate law involved in the litigation.
Since the Delaware Supreme Court’s 2015 Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings decision, practitioners in merger transactions have been able to advise clients that a transaction otherwise subject to enhanced scrutiny could be subject to business judgment review if the transaction is approved by a majority of fully informed, noncoerced shareholders. A plaintiff nonetheless can avoid dismissal under this standard if it is able to allege a material misrepresentation or omission in the proxy statement and hence that any shareholder vote was not fully informed. Where the disclosures are adequate defendants can obtain dismissal at the motion to dismiss stage even if the narrative actually disclosed might be troubling. The idea is that where the disinterested shareholders approve the transaction on full information, there is no reason to subject the transaction to further scrutiny. This puts a premium on the quality of the disclosure. The recent case of Chester County Employees’ Retirement Fund v. KCG Holdings, C. A. No. 2017-0421-KSJM (June 21, 2019), illustrates that a failure to provide full disclosure can be fatal to defendants’ motions to dismiss asking the court to dismiss a challenge to a merger transaction at the pleadings stage More ›
Court of Chancery Addresses Stockholder Standing to Enforce Corporate Contracts, Declines to Dismiss Claim for Breach of Anti-Takeover Protections Akin to Section 203 of the DGCL
Section 203 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, an anti-takeover statute, prohibits a target from entering into a business combination with an acquirer for three years from the date that the acquirer first obtains 15% or more of the target’s stock, unless the target’s board pre-approves the transaction crossing the 15% threshold. Here, to avoid Section 203’s three-year anti-takeover period, an acquirer sought pre-approval of its acquisition of a 48% block of shares. The target’s board agreed, but on the condition that the acquirer enter into an agreement that retained Section 203’s three-year standstill period for one year. A stockholder-plaintiff later brought suit arguing the acquirer failed to comply with the one-year standstill, and thus breached the agreement. It also argued the acquirer’s breach of the agreement to shorten Section 203’s three-year standstill period to one year in effect revived the longer period, such that the merger was void ab initio under the DGCL. When the defendants moved to dismiss claiming the stockholder-plaintiff lacked standing to enforce the target corporation’s agreement with the acquirer, the Court held that the stockholder sufficiently alleged it had standing as an intended third-party beneficiary. The Court reasoned that provisions of the Delaware General Corporation Law have been likened to a contract that stockholders may enforce by suing directly. Section 203 in particular was enacted to benefit stockholders by limiting hostile takeovers and encouraging fair, non-coercive acquisition offers. Here, the target’s agreement with the acquirer adopted those protections for the same apparent purpose of directly benefitting stockholders. More ›
Citing Trulia and Walgreens Decisions, Federal District Court Orders Plaintiffs’ Counsel to Return Agreed-Upon Mootness Fee
Disclosure-only settlements of stockholder class actions have received increased scrutiny following the Delaware Court of Chancery’s Trulia decision in 2016 and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ Walgreens decision later that year. Those decisions observed the problem of M&A strike suits, expressed disfavor of disclosure-only settlements in M&A class actions, and significantly raised the bar for getting the required court approval of such settlements. One consequence has been many M&A suits migrating from the Delaware Court of Chancery to federal courts around the country. Another has been defendants more frequently acting to voluntarily moot the claimed disclosure violations through supplemental disclosures. In that instance, the parties then face the choice of either litigating the appropriate mootness fee award to plaintiffs’ counsel for the supplemental disclosures prompted by their claims or, alternatively, privately negotiating the mootness fee award and thus avoiding the judicial process, provided no other stockholders object to the negotiated award. More ›
Plaintiff was assigned a membership interest in the defendant, a Delaware limited liability company, and sought to exercise books and records inspection rights. But the LLC’s operating agreement circumscribed its members’ ability to transfer their interests, stating that any disposition without prior written consent of all members was “null and void,” and otherwise authorized only members to inspect books and records. According to the Court of Chancery, because the transferor never received prior written consent for the transfer to plaintiff, the transfer was void under the LLC agreement, plaintiff was not a member of the LLC, and plaintiff had no right to inspect the LLC’s books and records. In addition, the Court relied on the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in CompoSecure, L.L.C. v. CardUX, LLC to find that the plaintiff could not rely on equitable theories to validate the transfer. According to the Court, equity can only validate voidable acts, not void acts. And the LLC agreement’s plain language in this case rendered the attempted transfer void, even if it would have been only voidable under common law.
Advancement Available for Post-Separation Misuse of Confidential Information Obtained “By Reason of the Fact” of Corporate Service
Former directors and officers may be entitled to advancement for post-separation conduct if that conduct is "by reason of the fact" of the directors' and officers' corporate service. In response to claims brought by former directors and officers for payments due under the parties' separation agreement, the company counterclaimed that the petitioners had breached non-compete obligations under the agreement and had improperly used the company's confidential information. The petitioners then sought advancement under the company's charter (which incorporated DGCL Section 145’s “by reason of the fact” standard), but the company contended no advancement was necessary because the complained-of conduct followed petitioners' separation from the company. The Court of Chancery reviewed its past decisions on this issue, beginning with Brown v. LiveOps, Inc., 903 A.2d 324 (Del. Ch. 2006). The Court ultimately concluded that the case upon which the company relied – Lieberman v. Electrolytic Ozone, Inc., 2015 WL 5135460 (Del. Ch. Aug. 31, 2015) – was "difficult to harmonize" with the others. Those other cases stand for the principle that allegations of misusing confidential information obtained “by reason of the fact” of former directors’ and officers’ service to the company may trigger advancement rights – even if the alleged misuse occurs after separation and in violation of the directors' and officers' personal agreements with the company. Consequently, the Court held that the petitioners were entitled to advancement for any counterclaims "where the underlying acts depended on or utilized confidential information [the petitioners] obtained by reason of their service at [the company.]" By contrast, they were not entitled to advancement to defend against post-separation violations of their personal contractual obligations that had no alleged "nexus or causal connection to [the petitioners'] service” – such as by engaging in an allegedly competing business, soliciting employees and unlawfully accessing the company’s computer systems – all of which allegedly occurred without any use of confidential information obtained while in service at the company.
Delaware Supreme Court Reminds Counsel of Obligation to Prevent Clients’ Abusive Deposition Misconduct
“Depositions are court proceedings, and counsel defending the deposition have an obligation to prevent their deponent from impeding or frustrating a fair examination.” After reversing and remanding a contractual dispute involving popular Broadway shows back to the Court of Chancery on unrelated grounds, the Delaware Supreme Court included an Addendum to its opinion reprimanding an out-of-state attorney for permitting his client to engage in abusive deposition misconduct. During the deposition, Carole Shorenstein Hays, a prominent theater producer, repeatedly provided answers characterized by the Supreme Court as ridiculous, problematic, flagrantly evasive, nonresponsive, and flippant. Among other things, Hays claimed not to know whether she earned a university degree, claimed not to measure time in hours, refused to answer myriad straightforward questions, and made unprompted speeches in which she likened herself to Judy Garland and the deposition to a “piece of theatre that’s being recorded.” While no Delaware attorney for Hays attended the deposition, the two attorneys representing her were both admitted pro hac vice and made no attempt to stop her misconduct. The Court of Chancery had previously awarded attorneys’ fees and costs for this bad faith misconduct, and that ruling was not challenged on appeal. The Supreme Court felt compelled, however, to address the situation. The Supreme Court reasoned that, faced with such conduct, the deponent’s counsel “cannot simply be a spectator and do nothing.” In addition, “Delaware counsel moving the admission of out of state counsel pro hac vice also bear responsibility in such a situation. They must ensure that the attorney being admitted reviews the Principles of Professionalism for Delaware Lawyers, but they must also ensure that the out-of-state counsel understands what is expected of them in managing deposition proceedings outside the courthouse so that the litigation process is not abused.” In light of restrictions Delaware court rules and precedent impose on conferring with a client-deponent during the deposition, the Supreme Court advised that these points “should be addressed beforehand in the deposition preparation.”
Unlike most U.S. states and the federal legal system, Delaware retains the historic distinction between courts of law and courts of equity. In the absence of a statute granting it jurisdiction over specific claims, the Delaware Court of Chancery has subject matter jurisdiction only where a complaint (i) states an equitable claim, or (ii) seeks an equitable remedy in circumstances where there is no adequate remedy at law. Here, the Court of Chancery held that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate defamation claims. Specifically, entrepreneur and inventor Stephen G. Perlman and his companies asserted claims of defamation against Vox Media, Inc., and requested relief that included a mandatory injunction requiring the removal of the offending articles from Vox’s websites, a public retraction, and compensatory damages. In response to Vox’s motion for summary judgment, the Court followed its recent decision in Organovo Hlds., Inc. v. Dimitrov, 162 A.3d 102 (Del. Ch. 2017) (Laster, V.C.) and concluded that “in connection with a claim for defamation, the Court of Chancery, in all instances, lacks subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the questions of whether a defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff and whether it did so with actual malice.” (emphasis added). Organovo explained that these factual questions have historically been reserved for juries rather than judges, and these determinations are best suited for adjudication by a court of law. Plaintiffs’ effort to couple their defamation claims with requests for equitable relief in the form of an injunction directed at past defamatory statements did not confer equitable jurisdiction, because declaratory relief and money damages generally are adequate remedies at law for defamation claims. The Court explained that equity will intervene to provide injunctive relief only in situations where the defamation claim has been adjudicated in a court of law and legal relief has failed to preclude ongoing publication or is otherwise inadequate. Accordingly, because it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, the Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, but gave the plaintiffs the option to transfer the case to Delaware’s Superior Court, a court of law.
A recent Delaware Supreme Court Order emphasizes the risks associated with the presumptions of public access to court filings and the requirements of Court of Chancery Rule 5.1, which governs the sealing of documents filed with the Court. Rule 5.1 requires a public version of any document filed under seal, with asserted confidential information redacted, to be filed within a certain number of days. At the trial court level, after ruling that the complaint must be unsealed because the parties’ initial completely-redacted public version failed to comply with Rule 5.1, the Vice Chancellor invited the parties to file a motion for reargument with a revised redacted version of the complaint for his consideration. Instead of moving for reargument, defendants filed an application for certification of an interlocutory appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court on the ground that the complaint was subject to confidential arbitration. In accord with the Court of Chancery, the Delaware Supreme Court denied the interlocutory appeal request, ruling that the issue did not meet the standards for certification because the sole issue on appeal was the parties’ compliance with Rule 5.1, and not whether the complaint was subject to confidential arbitration. The Supreme Court noted that the parties potentially could have avoided the claimed irreparable harm caused by unsealing the complaint if they had moved for reargument with a revised redacted version of the complaint that complied with Rule 5.1.
Chancery Denies Corwin Defense Based on Proxy Omissions and Sustains Claims Against Financial Advisor
Under Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), Delaware courts generally will dismiss post-closing fiduciary duty claims arising out of M&A deals when the challenged transaction was approved by a fully-informed and uncoerced majority of the company’s disinterested stockholders. Several decisions since Corwin, including this one, have denied motions to dismiss under Corwin, finding the doctrine’s prerequisites were not satisfied. This decision also is notable for sustaining a bad faith claim against directors and claims against the investment bank Jefferies. More ›
Recently, the Delaware Supreme Court held in In re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 177 A.3d 1208 (Del. 2017) that stockholder approval of director self-compensation plans will shift the standard of review from entire fairness to business judgment only where the stockholders approve a plan that does not involve future director discretion in setting the compensation amounts. In Stein, the Court of Chancery applies Investors Bancorp and declines to dismiss a disloyal compensation claim, notwithstanding that the terms of the challenged compensation plans sought to absolve the directors of self-dealing claims and even though the plaintiff attacked only the compensation amount, not the process by which it was determined. More ›