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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
Morris James Blogs
Showing 9 posts from November 2019.
Delaware Supreme Court Provides Additional Guidance on Pleading Direct Claims Against Controllers and Control Groups
The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery’s dismissal of an alleged direct claim for dilution of the voting and economic interests of plaintiff stockholders because they failed to adequately plead that several venture capital firms constituted a “control group.” The Court began its analysis with a review of the standard for a controller or control group under Delaware law. In Gentile v. Rossette, 906 A.2d 91 (Del. 2006), the Court ruled that multiple stockholders can constitute a control group if they are connected in some legally significant way, such as by contract or other agreement, or working together towards a shared goal. The Court noted the guideposts that define a “control group” established by In re Hansen Medical, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, 2018 WL 3025525 (Del. Ch. June 18, 2018) and van der Fluit v. Yates, 2017 WL 5953514 (Del. Ch. Nov. 30, 2017). More ›
Superior Court Affirms Jury Verdict of Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Concerning a Patent Dispute Settlement Agreement
This decision demonstrates the rare case where a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing survived a legal challenge and resulted in a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The case arose from a patent license and settlement agreement resolving a patent ownership dispute over the use of antibodies to treat Lupus. The 2008 settlement agreement gave ownership of the inventions to the defendants and obligated them to pay royalties to the plaintiff DRIT and its predecessor in interest. After paying the royalties for several years, in 2015, the defendants filed a request for a statutory disclaimer of the patent in question and notified the plaintiff that the disclaimer had the effect of eliminating any ongoing claim for royalties. This event was not addressed in the parties’ agreement, and the court in post-trial motions upheld the jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff on its implied covenant claim because the evidence supported findings that the defendants’ exercise of the disclaimer in these circumstances was an unusual event that the parties would not have reasonably anticipated, and the disclaimer was not a normal rational action and was taken solely for the purpose of discharging defendants’ royalty obligations. The Superior Court found that the defendants simply had not presented sufficient evidence to convince the jury that the defendants had a credible business justification for filing the disclaimer. The Superior Court also rejected a challenge to the testimony of plaintiff’s industry expert that the defendants’ rationale for use of the disclaimer fell outside normative, rational behavior in the circumstances. The court thus found that the jury reasonably could have found the defendants’ proffered justification to be pretextual and not credible.
Finally, the court granted damages in the form of royalties to DRIT from the time of the defendants’ breach to the date of the jury’s verdict, with a declaration of ongoing royalty obligations through the expiration of the patent. Going forward, the future royalty would be determined by the sales of the licensed drug. The court held that its ruling would uphold the expectation of the parties at the time of contracting, which was that DRIT would continue to receive royalties until the patent expired.
Chancery Denies Motion for Reargument, Finding No Change to Delaware Legal Principles for Existence of “Control Group” of Stockholders
Delaware courts recognize that a group of stockholders can constitute a “control group” when those stockholders “are connected in some legally significant way—such as by contract, common ownership, agreement, or other arrangement…” and work together toward a shared goal. Sheldon v. Pinto Tech. Ventures, L.P., 2019 WL 4892348, at *4 (Del. Oct. 4, 2019) (citing Dubroff v. Wren Hldgs., LLC, 2009 WL 1478697, at *3 (Del. Ch. May 22, 2009)). Under such circumstances, the control group stockholders may owe fiduciary duties to the corporation’s minority stockholders. Where a minority stockholder adequately pleads (1) the existence of a control group; and (2) a self-dealing breach of fiduciary duties by that control group, the minority stockholder’s claims may be both direct and derivative. Gentile v. Rossette, 906 A.2d 91, 99-100 (Del. 2006). In Silverberg v. Padda, Plaintiffs argued that they had alleged a direct claim by pleading that a control group of stockholders had breached fiduciary duties by approving alleged dilutive preferred stock issuances. After the Court dismissed this claim based on Plaintiffs’ failure adequately to allege a control group, as opposed to mere parallel action, Plaintiffs asserted in a motion for reargument that the Delaware Supreme Court’s recent Sheldon opinion had established a new legal principle to assess the existence of a control group. The Court disagreed, ruling that Sheldon had reaffirmed the Dubroff standard that the Court had applied in dismissing Plaintiffs’ claims. See Morris James blog post of October 14, 2019 (discussing the Court’s earlier decision). The Court re-affirmed its holding that Plaintiffs’ allegations did not suffice to allege a control group because the agreement between the allegedly controlling stockholders (1) did not relate to the challenged transaction; (2) included persons other than the purported control group members; and (3) did not bind the signatories with respect to their votes on the challenged transaction. Because the Court determined that Sheldon did not affect the Court’s holding that such allegations do not suffice to establish a control group, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for reargument.
Shareholders of a Delaware corporation have a qualified right to access corporate books and records for a “proper purpose.” One such proper purpose is to investigate potential mismanagement or fiduciary wrongdoing. Indeed, Delaware law encourages shareholders to use this “tool at hand” prior to bringing a derivative action. But this type of inspection has an important precondition: the shareholder must advance some evidence to suggest a “credible basis” from which the Court can infer actionable wrongdoing. As this decision involving Facebook illustrates, the credible basis standard is lenient but not meaningless, and may turn on, among other things, the potential for monetary damages arising out of the alleged wrongdoing. After a trial on a paper record, the Court of Chancery denied an attempt by two stockholders of defendant Facebook, Inc. to obtain additional documents related to the company’s executive compensation practices. More ›
Delaware Supreme Court Finds an Insurance Policy Covering “Securities Claims” Did Not Apply to Claims for Violations of Common Law or Statutes Not Specific to the Regulation of Securities
The Delaware Supreme Court, applying principles of contract interpretation under Delaware law, held that claims of breach of fiduciary duty, unlawful dividends and fraudulent transfer were not Securities Claims reflecting a violation of any “regulation, rule or statute regulating securities” and hence the defendant’s director and officer insurance policy that covered such claims did not apply. The Supreme Court thus reversed a holding of the Delaware Superior Court that the insurance coverage applied because the claims “pertain[ed] to laws one must follow when engaging in securities transactions.” The Supreme Court held that the unambiguous plain meaning of the policy language was that the parties intended coverage only for claims arising under regulations, rules or statutes that “regulate securities.” Using that definition, the Supreme Court held that claims of breach of fiduciary duty, aiding and abetting fiduciary duty breaches, and promoter liability were not Securities Claims because they do not involve regulations, rules and statutes regulating securities. Likewise, the claim for unlawful dividends arose under statutes that regulated dividends, not securities, and the fraudulent transfer claims arose under statutes that were not “specific to transfers involving securities.” The Supreme Court rejected as overly broad Verizon’s interpretation that the phrase “regulating securities” included any “laws one must follow when engaging in securities transactions,” holding that that interpretation would encompass claims unrelated to securities and would render meaningless the limitation that coverage applied only to violations of rules or statutes “regulating securities.” The Supreme Court thus remanded the case to the Superior Court to enter judgment for the insurer-defendants.
Chancery Enters Sanctions in TransPerfect Litigation for Violating Exclusive Jurisdiction Provision in Court Order
This decision arose out of the dispute between once deadlocked co-owners of TransPerfect Global that played out in the Delaware courts over several years. That heavily-litigated controversy resulted in the appointment of a Custodian by the Court of Chancery and a forced sale of the company as part of a Final Order, with one of the co-owners, Phil Shawe, prevailing as the buyer. More ›
Chancery Finds Safe Harbor Conflicts Committee Not Validly Constituted in Master Limited Partnership Dispute
The Dieckman v. Regency GP LP matter has been in the Delaware courts for several years. The Court of Chancery originally dismissed the complaint attacking a conflicted merger transaction primarily on the ground that plaintiff had failed to plead that a unitholder approval safe harbor provision contained in the limited partnership agreement was inapplicable. The Delaware Supreme Court reversed, holding that plaintiff had adequately pleaded that unitholder approval was secured by false and misleading information and, further, that approval by a Conflicts Committee was tainted by conflicts involving its members. Plaintiff amended his complaint and, following briefing on a motion to dismiss, the Court of Chancery sustained plaintiff’s claim that the General Partner had approved the transaction even though members of its board did not believe that the transaction was in the best interests of the limited partnership. More ›
Chancery Denies Former Derivative Plaintiff Standing to Challenge Merger That Extinguished Derivative Claims
When a stockholder derivative claim is extinguished in a merger, the former derivative plaintiff may have standing to contest the merger directly on the ground that the entity’s fiduciaries permitted a material litigation asset to be extinguished in the merger process without value to the stockholders. In the well-known precedent In re Primedia Stockholders Litigation, 67 A. 3d 455 (Del. Ch. 2013), the Court of Chancery established a three part standing test: 1) Was the underlying claim viable? 2) Was its value material in light of the merger consideration? 3) Did the company fail to receive value for the claim in the merger because the buyer would not be willing to pursue it? Applying this test, here the Court ruled that the former unitholder and derivative plaintiff lacked standing to attack the merger and dismissed the claim. More ›
This case again illustrates the contractual nature of Delaware alternative entities and the important interpretive role the courts perform construing alternative entity agreements when internal governance disputes arise. The case arose out of the parties’ competing requests for declaratory judgment regarding Caiman Energy II, LLC’s (“Caiman”) limited liability agreement (“LLC Agreement”). The Defendants, including Caiman and EnCap Capital Management (“EnCap”), argued that the provisions of the LLC Agreement grant EnCap plenary power with respect to a Qualified IPO, including the ability to change the definition of a Qualified IPO and to modify the procedures the contracting parties would otherwise have to take relating to a Qualified IPO. EnCap asserted that it could implement an Up-C IPO using its authority to effect a Qualified IPO. An Up-C IPO refers to a transaction whereby a limited liability company (“LLC”), which is taxed as a pass-through entity, performs an IPO through a holding company that has an interest in the LLC. Plaintiff Williams Field Services Group, LLC (“Williams”) contended that the Encap proposed Up-C IPO was inconsistent with the terms of the LLC Agreement. More ›