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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
Morris James Blogs
Showing 10 posts from October 2009.
Modern discovery is often subject to problems, particularly with electronic "documents." As a result, some courts have imposed harsh sanctions for a party's failures to follow all the requirements. While not in any way excusing those failures, this decision shows that the Court of Chancery is aware of the difficulties involved. The Court held that only deliberate failures to follow the rules will be sanctioned by a fee award.
The opinion is also noteworthy for the discussion of a party’s offer to help the Court do an in camera document review. That offer took a lot of nerve to make and, characteristically, the Court politely declined the offer to do its job for it.
When does the Uniform Trade Secrets Act preempt claims arising out of the misuse of documents based on other legal theories such as conversion? While not answering that question definitively, this decision does go a long way to clarifying how to decide that issue at the pleading stage.
Briefly, it holds that, if the alternative legal theory may be applied after trial because the documents in dispute are found not to be trade secrets under the Trade Secret Act definition, the case should go forward on alternative theories of recovery. This let the Court decide the case on the evidence and not some preliminary assessment based on the pleadings alone.
Collins & Aikman Corp. v. Stockman, C.A. No. 07-265-SLR/LPS (D. Del. Sept. 30, 2009).
Upon review of the Report and Recommendation issued by Magistrate Judge Leonard P. Stark, and the objections thereto, the district court rejected Judge Stark's recommendation that the complaint did not contain adequately specific allegations that the defendants knew or should have known that the company's financial statements were false in connection with a Rule 10b-5 claim. The complaint is a rare example of a pleading that sufficiently raised red flags which should have alerted the defendants to accounting irregularities from the fraudulent schemes asserted against the director and officer defendants.
Applying Delaware law, the district court concluded that a late fee provision was not a liquidated damages clause and dismissed the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for actual damages. The late fee provision did not bear the label liquidated damages and there was no explicit evidence in the contract indicating that the late fee was the plaintiff’s sole damages in the event of a breach.
Delaware courts frequently must decide if a case filed in Delaware should be stayed in favor of another action filed elsewhere. While we wonder why anyone would want to leave Delaware, it happens. This decision carefully reviews when even "summary" proceedings filed in Delaware may be stayed in favor of another litigation. When a "summary" proceeding seeks to determine who is in change of a Delaware entity, there is a policy against staying the action because of the need to promptly resolve that important issue.
This is a case where that policy did not overcome the rule that a first filed action should proceed even over a Delaware case. Of course, given that the plaintiff in Delaware had filed first in Maryland, that hurt its claim to proceed in Delaware. The use of a status quo order also mitigated against the need to move quickly in Delaware.
In a case of first impression, the Court of Chancery has upheld its jurisdiction over a nonresident partner in a Delaware partnership. The current version of the Delaware Uniform Partnership Act authorizes jurisdiction over nonresident partners for disputes arising out of the internal affairs of the partnership. Here the parties' joint venture agreement expressly created a partnership "under Delaware law," and that was enough to support the Court's jurisdiction over a partner who had no other contact with Delaware.
This decision is another example of why Delaware is more frequently chosen to litigate trade secret or unfair competition disputes. For, while the defendant had no ties to Delaware other than its incorporation here, the Court declined to dismiss the litigation on venue grounds. Instead, the Court promptly dealt with the dispute, entering a status quo order, and resolving the venue dispute to get on with the case.
Moreover, it is widely thought that Delaware law is more favorable to protecting trade secrets than other jurisdictions. Delaware, for example, recognizes that it is inevitable that a former employee will use a valuable trade secret in competition with her old employer even if the secret is held only in her head. Other states are not so favorable.
Here, the defendant was dismissed for want of jurisdiction over the non-resident individual. Whether that result would have been the same had her employment contract contained a forum selection and consent to jurisdiction clause for Delaware remains to be seen.
In this New York Times piece, http://dealbook.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/05/dealbook-dialogue-leo-strine/, Vice Chancellor Strine discusses the role of stockholders, particularly institutional investors, in recent corporate woes.
The Court has recently explained the criteria to determine who should be appointed lead counsel in a class action. In this decision it added a new twist, giving advantage to counsel that has shown it gets along best with co-counsel in the case. This just makes sense, if only to avoid the Court supervising the play in the sandbox.
Note, however, that on a motion for reargument, the Court stressed that not too much should be made of its re ference to coorperation among some counsel as a factor to be consided. Moreover, in that October 28, 2009 opinion the Court detailed how to assess the relative stockholder interest in deciding whose counsel should lead.
Recently, at least one fellow Delaware attorney has suggested that the way to win such favor from your co-counsel is to known as generous with the fee splitting that occurs when the case ends. Given that the division of the fee awarded by the Court among all the plainitff attorneys is not done publicly, that may be an insight into the world of plainitffs counsel that is worth remembering.
The application of the Lynch doctrine to a merger is an often discussed topic. This decision does a great job of summarizing and explaining the rationale for applying the entire fairness test to a merger that has the majority stockholder on both sides of the deal. Given that Lynch has been applied to other deals where a majority stockholder was not involved [such as when a controlling stockholder dictates a self-dealing transaction], the parameters of that doctrine need such an explanation.
This decision also settles two other points. To shift the burden of proving fairness from the defendants, the vote of the minority stockholders must be by a majority of all the minority stockholders eligible to vote, not just a majority of those who did vote. Second, the vote must be binding and not waivable by a special committee.