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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.

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Chancery Dismisses Stockholder Claims that a Minority Owner was a Controlling Stockholder or that a Majority of the Board was Beholden to the Minority Owner in Approving a Merger Transaction with the Minority Owner

In re: Essendant, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, C.A. No. 2018-0789-JRS (Del. Ch. Dec. 30, 2019).

When as here a Delaware corporation’s charter contains an exculpation provision under Section 102(b)(7) of the Delaware General Corporation Law, stockholders who bring suit against directors who approve a merger transaction must allege violations of the duty of loyalty to state a non-exculpated claim. They may state such a claim if they adequately plead that a controlling stockholder breached duties for self-interested reasons, or that a majority of the board was self-interested or beholden to the buyer. They may also attempt to state a non-exculpated claim by claiming that a majority of the board acted in bad faith. To meet this bad faith standard, a plaintiff must plead facts showing that the decision to approve the transaction lacked any rationally conceivable basis associated with maximizing stockholder value. As the Court explained, allegations of mis- or non-disclosure will not suffice unless plaintiffs plead intentional misstatements or omissions based on a “factual narrative that would allow any inferential explanation of why these fiduciaries would so abandon their duties as to engage in bad faith." (emphasis in original). More ›

Chancery Sustains Claims Against Board Chairman who Rolled Over Equity in Going-Private Transaction and Officers Who Crafted Misleading Disclosures

Posted In Fiduciary Duty, M&A

Morrison v. Berry, C.A. No. 12808-VCG (Del. Ch. Dec. 31, 2019).

Plaintiff, a former stockholder of The Fresh Market, Inc. (the “Company”), brought claims arising out Apollo’s 2016 acquisition of the Company.

Because the directors benefited from exculpation under 8 Del. C. §102(b)(7), the plaintiff was required to sufficiently plead a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty. The Court rejected the novel argument that activist shareholders were exerting so much pressure on the board that the directors were motivated to protect their own reputations by approving a near-term sale. The Court reasoned that the directors’ reputations would be at far greater risk if they breached their duty of loyalty by orchestrating a sham auction, and that it would be irrational for them to harm their own pecuniary interests as shareholders. The Court also reasoned that, while they could have chosen other potentially value-enhancing paths, the decision to hold an auction and solicit bids from a wide field did not suggest “bad faith.”  More ›

Delaware Superior Court CCLD Disqualifies Counsel to Ensure Fairness of Litigation Process

Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada v. Wilmington Savings Fund Society, FSB, C.A. No. N18C-08-074 PRW CCLD (Del. Super. Dec. 19, 2019).

Motions to disqualify counsel rarely succeed in the Delaware courts. This decision illustrates the type of conflict that can justify disqualification based on prior representations. Plaintiff issued a life insurance policy of $6 million to an individual named Bartelstein. The policy was assigned to a trust whose beneficiary is an entity, with the moniker Ocean Gate, making Ocean Gate the policy’s ultimate beneficiary. Plaintiff filed this suit alleging the policy is void as a stranger-oriented life insurance wager on Bartelstein’s life procured for investors. The litigation gave rise to alleged conflict issues for involved counsel. More ›

Chancery Balances the Obligation to Defend an Arbitral Award from Collateral Attack with the Obligation to Defer to a Broad Agreement to Arbitrate

Gulf LNC Energy, LLC v. Eni USA Gas Marketing LLC, C.A. No. 2019-0460-AGB (Del. Ch. Dec. 30, 2019). 

Plaintiff (“Gulf”) invested over $1 billion to construct a facility designed to unload imported liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Defendant (“Eni”) entered a “Terminal Use Agreement” (“TUA”) with Gulf to use the facility over a twenty-year period. When domestic production of LNG through shale boomed, importation became economically unfeasible and Eni did not use the facility other than one initial shipment. The TUA contained a provision requiring that any types of disputes under the agreement be arbitrated. In an initial arbitration, the panel determined that the purposes of the twenty-year TUA were “substantially frustrated,” terminated the agreement as of 2016, and awarded Gulf nearly $500 million in compensation for the benefits conferred upon Eni by Gulf’s partial performance. The arbitrators explicitly did not address Eni’s claims that Gulf had breached the TUA, finding the claim “academic” and deserving of no further consideration in light of the agreement’s termination. More ›

Chancery Modifies Advancement Award, Finds Amended Claim Challenging Only Post-Separation Conduct No Longer Triggered Advancement Obligations

Posted In Advancement

Carr v. Global Payment Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0565-SG (Del. Ch. Dec. 11, 2019).

Under Delaware law, an order requiring a company to advance attorneys’ fees and expenses may be modified if the claims that triggered the advancement obligation are amended to no longer do so. In this case, a company successfully amended its claims against a former director and officer to eliminate certain advancement obligations.  More ›

Delaware Superior Court CCLD Clarifies When a Plaintiff is on Inquiry Notice to Bring a Claim for Limitations Period Purposes

Ocimum Biosolutions (India) Ltd. v. AstraZeneca UK Ltd., C.A. No. N15C-08-168 AML CCLD (Del. Super. Dec. 10, 2019).

Even in circumstances where a statutory limitations period can be tolled, tolling typically will cease once a plaintiff may be charged with inquiry notice of its potential claims. In this dispute brought against the biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca arising out of database subscription arrangement, the Complex Commercial Litigation Division of the Delaware Superior Court held that defendant AstraZeneca was entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiff Ocimum Biosolutions had inquiry notice of its claims for breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets more than three years before commencing suit.  More ›

Chancery Provides Further Clarity Regarding Material Adverse Effect Clauses in Merger Agreements

Posted In M&A, MAEs

Channel Medsystems, Inc. v. Boston Scientific Corp., C.A. No. 2018-0673-AGB (Del. Ch. Dec. 18, 2019).

Material adverse effect clauses provide a form of buy-side protection in merger agreements. These often are complex provisions permitting the buyer to avoid closing under the right circumstances, usually involving an actual or reasonably expected serious business deterioration. Channel Medsystems represents the latest decision from the Delaware courts interpreting and applying a material adverse effect clause. Here, the Court of Chancery held that a buyer’s termination of a merger agreement was invalid because the fraudulent conduct of an officer of the seller, which rendered certain contractual representations materially false, did not have, nor was reasonably expected at the time of termination to have, a material adverse effect on the seller. More ›

Chancery Addresses Discovery and Privilege Implications of Oracle Special Litigation Committee’s Decision to Defer to Stockholder-Plaintiff’s Prosecution of Derivative Claims

In re Oracle Corp. Deriv. Litig., C.A. No. 2017-0337-SG (Del. Ch. Dec. 4, 2019). 

In this decision, the Delaware Court of Chancery considered the implications of a decision by a special litigation committee of Oracle Corporation to cede control of derivative claims to a stockholder-plaintiff – including whether that decision required the production of Oracle’s privileged documents that were provided to the committee and its counsel. More ›

Chancery Holds Plaintiffs’ Emails with Counsel on Defendants’ Server Are Privileged Due to Application of Argentine Law

Posted In Discovery, Privilege

Lynch v. Gonzalez, C.A. No. 2019-0356-MTZ (Del. Ch. Nov. 18, 2019).

The plaintiff brought suit seeking confirmation that it validly acquired from defendants a majority ownership interest and the concomitant right to manage Grupo Belleville Holdings, LLC (the “Company”), a Delaware limited liability company. The discovery motion at-issue addresses the confidentiality of emails between Plaintiff and his counsel – complicated by the fact that they are stored by a server owned and operated by the defendants. To explain, the defendants had provided the Argentina-based Company and its employees, including the plaintiff, with email addresses for the purpose of executing their job duties. The email addresses and the server on which the emails were stored were not owned by the Company, however; rather, it was known to all involved that they belonged to a separate company of the Defendants. The emails at issue were between plaintiff Lynch and two in-house Company attorneys who also provided legal advice to him on personal matters, distinct from advice they provided him in his capacity as the Company’s manager. In discovery, Lynch sought to vindicate the privilege. He moved to compel the defendants to turn over the emails, but the defendants refused. More ›

Chancery Enforces Delaware Forum Selection Clause and Examines the Limited Circumstances Where a Foreign Nation May Divest Delaware Courts of Jurisdiction

AlixPartners, LLP v. Mori, C.A. No. 2019-0392- KSJM (Del. Ch. Nov. 26, 2019).

In AlixPartners, the Court of Chancery confirmed its jurisdiction to adjudicate disputes relating to the internal affairs of a Delaware limited liability partnership and explained the limited circumstances in which foreign law may divest the Court of subject matter jurisdiction. The suit arose when an employer, the global business advisory firm AlixPartners, which operated as a limited liability partnership, sued an employee, who also held partnership interests, for breaches of the relevant LLP Agreement, Equity Agreement, and Employment Agreement. Pursuant to the LLP and Equity Agreements, the employee had received equity in two partnerships formed under Delaware law by AlixPartners. More ›

Venture Capital Firms Did Not Constitute a Control Group Barring Stockholder Direct Claims for Dilution

Light bulbTo avoid demand futility and standing requirements for a derivative claim, the plaintiff stockholders in Sheldon v. Pinto Technology Ventures, No. 81, 2019 (Del. Oct. 4, 2019) attempted to plead a direct claim for dilution of their voting and economic interests by alleging that several venture capital firms constituted a “control group” of stockholders under Gentile.

Dilution claims are “classically derivative” under Delaware corporate law. In Gentile v. Rossette, 906 A.2d 91 (Del. 2006), the Delaware Supreme Court recognized an exception that dilution claims can be both derivative and direct in character when: “a stockholder having majority or effective control causes the corporation to issue ‘excessive’ shares of its stock in exchange for assets of the controlling stockholder that have a lesser value; and the exchange causes an increase in the percentage of the outstanding shares owned by the controlling stockholder, and a corresponding decrease in the share percentage owned by the public (minority) shareholders.” More ›

Chancery Examines Computer Misuse Claims Against Former Employee and Awards Defamation Damages Against Former Employer

Laser Tone Business Systems LLC v. Delaware Micro-Computer LLC, C.A. No. 2017-0439-TMR (Del. Ch. Nov. 27, 2019).

In one of her final opinions before joining the Delaware Supreme Court, Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves addressed various statutory computer misuse claims against a former employee and awarded $100,000 in compensatory damages for the former employer’s libel and slander. In Laser Tone v. Delaware Micro-Computer, plaintiff, a photocopier company, terminated the defendant employee after he refused to sign a non-compete agreement. In its subsequent lawsuit, plaintiff claimed that the defendant stole company information and deleted certain data from his company computer and cell phone devices before departing. Certain of plaintiff’s executives then communicated to third parties that the defendant was “a thief and a drug user.” Plaintiff brought a cause of action against the defendant for violating the Delaware Misuse of Computer System Information Act (“DMCSIA”) by allegedly stealing data and deleting certain other information from company systems. The defendant counterclaimed for libel and slander, arguing that plaintiff’s communications were false and had caused him significant mental and reputational harm.

After a two-day trial on the merits, the Court of Chancery found insufficient evidence to support a majority of the plaintiff’s theories of liability, but did find that the defendant had deleted certain data from his company laptop in violation of the DMCSIA. Finding no non-speculative evidence of harm, however, the Court awarded only nominal damages. The Court also found that plaintiff failed to prove that the defendant had stolen any data. Having determined that plaintiff failed to prove the defendant was a “thief,” the Court denied plaintiff’s affirmative defense of truth and entered judgment for the defendant on his defamation counterclaims. The Court, in its discretion, awarded $100,000 in damages, basing the award on evidence that the defendant had “lost two jobs, customers, and friends; and, [because] he fear[ed] his business [was] in jeopardy.”

Chancery Finds Proper Purpose in Books and Records Demand to Investigate Potential Wrongdoing in CBS-Viacom Merger, Orders Narrowed Inspection that Includes Electronic Documents

Bucks Cty. Employees Ret. Fund v. CBS Corp., C.A. No. 2019-0820-JRS (Del. Ch. Nov. 25, 2019).

A stockholder seeking books and records in Delaware states a proper purpose for inspection by demonstrating a credible basis to suspect that fiduciaries engaged in wrongdoing. So long as the documents sought are necessary and essential to that purpose, the Court of Chancery will order inspection. The Court generally will not, however, require a broad production of electronic documents akin to plenary discovery. More ›

Chancery Declines to Establish New Rule Concerning Books and Records Inspections Related to Proxy Contests

High River Limited Partnership v. Occidental Petroleum Corp., C.A. No. 2019-0403-JRS (Del. Ch. Nov. 14, 2019).

Section 220 of the DGCL grants stockholders a qualified right to inspect corporate books and records “necessary and essential” to a “proper purpose.”  One recognized proper purpose is investigating potential corporate wrongdoing or mismanagement.  In such cases, the stockholder must establish a “credible basis” for the suspicion before the Court of Chancery will order inspection.  When a stockholder makes that showing, the Court has permitted use of the produced books and records to mount a proxy contest.  However, as the Court of Chancery observes in this decision, no Delaware court has compelled inspection “when the stockholder’s only stated purpose for inspection is a desire to communicate with other stockholders in furtherance of a potential proxy contest.”  And under the facts and circumstances of this case, the Court declines to be first.   More ›

Chancery Construes Sellers’ APA Contractual Representations Concerning Customer Relationships and Changes in the Business, Finds No Breach

Julius v. Accurus Aerospace Corp., C.A. No. 2017-0632-MTZ (Del. Ch. Oct. 31, 2019).

This case serves as a cautionary tale when sellers’ representations in a purchase agreement fail to fully protect against the business risks in question.  According to the Court, this approach encourages contracting parties to allocate risks and draft agreements with precision.  This principle also aligns with Delaware’s pro-contractarian policy to enforce strictly the terms of parties’ agreements, especially when sophisticated parties at arm’s-length negotiate those agreements. More ›