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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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Superior Court Complex Commercial Litigation Division Holds Settlements Arising out of Dole Stockholder Litigations Constitute “Loss” Under Insurance Policies
After trial and an adverse judgment in the amount for $148 million for breach of the duty of loyalty in a going private merger In re Dole Food Co., Inc. S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 8703-VCL (Del. Ch.), the liable defendants David Murdock, Dole Food Company, Inc. and DFC Holdings, LLC settled the claims by having Murdock pay the full award plus interest. The defendants then were sued by six of their excess insurance carriers, seeking a declaratory judgment that they did not have to fund the settlement. Among other reasons, the insurers asserted that the settlement payment representing the actual fair value of the merger consideration did not constitute a “Loss” under the policy. Defendants counterclaimed seeking declaratory judgment that the insurers breached the policies by refusing to pay for the Court of Chancery settlement as well as the settlement in San Antonio Fire & Police Pension Fund v. Dole Food Co., Inc., No. 1:15-CV-01140 (D. Del.). This decision grants in part and denies in part the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. Applying the rules of interpretation applicable to insurance policies, a unique and complex type of contract, the Court determined the settlement payments constituted a “Loss” covered within the policies but genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether the insureds breached a written consent provision and a cooperation clause in the policies.
In a closely-followed appeal from the Court of Chancery’s appraisal decision in the Aruba Networks case, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s fair value award of $17.13 per share and directed that the court-below enter judgment at the deal-price-less-synergies value of $19.10 per share. The Supreme Court found that the lower court abused its discretion when, because of the difficulty of estimating the amount of the buyer’s synergy value in the $24.67 deal price, it determined that Aruba’s pre-announcement, “unaffected” stock price was the best evidence of fair value. In so ruling, the Supreme Court provides important guidance about how to account for synergies arising from the expectation of the merger when determining the “fair value” of a going concern under Delaware’s appraisal statute in Section 262 of the DGCL. More ›
Delaware Rejects Adequate Alternative Forum as an Independent Threshold Consideration for Forum Non Conveniens Applications
The Delaware Supreme Court recently issued an important decision clarifying Delaware’s forum non conveniens FNC law in Hupan v. Philip Morris USA, Consol. No. 526, 2016 (Del. 3/22/2018). Delaware FNC law has long permitted defendants otherwise subject to jurisdiction to seek dismissal of an action if defending it in Delaware would result in an “overwhelming hardship.” In Hupan, the court declined the plaintiffs invitation to adopt the rule followed by the federal courts and a majority of state courts, which requires the court to determine first, as a threshold consideration, that an available alternative forum exists. Instead, the court ruled that the availability of an alternative forum should be considered as part of the FNC analysis, but not as outcome determinative if such a forum is lacking. Although the court’s ruling allows for the possibility of an FNC dismissal even when the plaintiff lacks an alternative forum, the decision affords Delaware control over the use of its limited judicial resources and protection of its citizens from overwhelming hardship when the disputes and litigants have no meaningful contact with Delaware. More ›
Dismissal of Shareholder Derivative Action on Rule 23.1 Grounds Precludes Relitigation of Different Del. Plaintiffs
The Delaware Supreme Court recently issued an important corporate law decision addressing issue preclusion in the context of multiple shareholder derivative actions. The court ruled in California State Teachers’ Retirement System v. Alvarez, No. 295, 2016 (Del. Jan. 25), that an Arkansas federal court’s dismissal of a shareholder derivative suit for failure to plead adequately demand futility precluded Walmart stockholders from attempting to prosecute derivative claims in Delaware arising from the same misconduct. The court rejected the argument that the failure of the Arkansas plaintiffs to have used books-and-records discovery under Section 220 to assemble their complaint rendered their representation inadequate, or that applying issue preclusion in this context violated the stockholders’ due process rights. Although Delaware strongly encourages plaintiffs to use books-and-records requests to prepare a shareholder derivative complaint, the court concluded that Delaware’s substantial interest in governing the internal affairs of Delaware corporations must yield to the stronger national interests that all state and federal courts have in respecting each other’s judgments. More ›
Persuaded by the arguments of the appellant noteholders, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that two fee-shifting provisions in the promissory notes entitled them to recover attorney fees the noteholders incurred filing suit to secure warrants issuable under the notes. Relying on an exception to the American rule permitting fee-shifting where a contract so provides, the Supreme Court in Washington v. Preferred Communications Systems, No. 436, 2016 (Del. Supr. Feb. 27), ruled that the amended notes unambiguously provided fee-shifting in this case. It rejected the company's argument that under the relevant contractual provisions the warrants did not constitute "any indebtedness" and that the noteholders action to recover them did not amount to a collection action after default. Having found a clear basis in the contract to support its fee award, the Supreme Court declined the opportunity to broaden its ruling and have Delaware address an emerging trend in other states to treat a one-sided fee provision as a mutual fee-shifting provision. More ›
The derivative complaint alleged that Zynga's CEO, Chairman and controlling stockholder Mark Pincus, along with certain other top managers and directors were given an exception from the company's standing rule preventing insider sales until three days after an earnings announcement. The exception permitted the insiders to sell 20.3 million shares of stock for $236 million as part of a secondary offering. The insiders sold their shares for $12/share. Following the earnings announcement the market price dropped to $8.52 and following more negative news three months later dropped to $3.18, a 75 percent decrease from the offering price. The complaint alleged wrongdoing by the directors who approved the exception and those who participated in the sales. Of the company's nine directors, the Court of Chancery found that only the two directors who participated in the sale, Pincus & Hoffman, were interested and therefore could not impartially consider a demand. The Chancery Court rejected the argument that the facts alleged in the complaint were sufficient to create a reasonable doubt about the independence of director Siminoff because of an allegation that she was a "close family friend" of Pincus and had a business relationship with Pincus as co-owners of a private plane. The Chancery Court also rejected the argument that directors Doerr and Gordon lacked independence because of investment relationships they had with Zynga and Hoffman and Pincus. More ›
Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slights III's decision In re OM Group Stockholders Litigation, Consol. C.A. No. 11216-VCS (Oct. 12, 2016), represents the latest Delaware Court of Chancery decision to apply Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings, 125 A.3d 312-314 (Del. 2015), and rely on the business judgment standard of review to dismiss a Revlon challenge to a cash-out merger. More ›
Corporations sued in Delaware and subject to jurisdiction here sometimes employ the doctrine of forum non conveniens (FNC) to seek dismissal of the litigation if defending here would create an overwhelming hardship. In a recent decision from Delaware's Superior Court, Judge Vivian L. Medinilla provided important guidance about the doctrine and affirmed that in the final analysis it remains a defendant-centric test, as in Hupan v. Alliance One International, Del. Super. C.A. No. N12C-02-171 VLM (Aug. 25). The FNC doctrine recognizes the substantial weight given to a plaintiff's choice of forum by permitting a defendant to displace the Delaware forum only upon demonstrating "overwhelming hardship" if forced to litigate here. When a defendant can demonstrate such hardship, however, Hupan makes clear that dismissal is appropriate even if the plaintiff is not assured of an alternative forum to bring its claims. AsHupan illustrates, the doctrine has particular relevance to suits brought by foreign plaintiffs seeking recovery for harm incurred in foreign lands, governed by foreign law and requiring extensive use of foreign language More ›
With the rise of appraisal arbitrage, an increasing number of appraisal petitions and an increase in the size of appraisal classes, corporate practitioners have closely followed recent appraisal decisions in the Delaware Court of Chancery. In cases involving third-party arm's-length transactions and robust bidding, several more recent decisions established a level of predictability to the valuation analysis, looking to the negotiated merger price as the best evidence of the fair value that appraisal claimants are entitled to receive. In those cases the court rejected expert valuations of higher or lower amounts based on discounted cash flow and other expert financial analyses. The Court of Chancery's recent decision in In re Appraisal of DFC Global, C.A. No. 10107-CB (July 8), will likely create new uncertainty about the reliability of the market to establish fair value in an appraisal. More ›
Delaware law has long made clear that the price established for a company in a market transaction, while a relevant factor, does not necessarily equate to the fair value that shareholder claimants are entitled to receive in an appraisal proceeding. But a series of more recent decisions in the Delaware Court of Chancery reinforced the view that the market value for a company set in an arm's-length transaction, achieved by a thorough sale process, usually represents the best evidence of fair value. Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster's May 31 decision, In re Appraisal of Dell, C.A. No. 9522-VCL (Del.Ch. May 31, 2016), provides a sharp reminder of the limits of market price as an indicator of fair value when the transaction involves a leveraged management buyout (MBO), even one resulting from a careful sales effort free of any fiduciary breach.
As Dell makes clear, appraisal claimants in transactions involving inherent conflicts of interest (including an MBO) or an unreliable sales process, or both, will have an excellent opportunity to persuade the court that fair value exceeds the transaction price. The Dell decision affirms the primacy of the court's role in making such determinations in MBO and other conflict transactions. Left unresolved is what effect this will have on the structuring of such transactions and the criteria to which deal participants and their fiduciaries may turn to be confident they have captured fair value. More ›
The Delaware Supreme Court, in a recent order affirming the opinion of the Delaware Court of Chancery, provided clear guidance about when third-party corporate advisers may raise the in pari delicto defense as a shield to claims brought by or on behalf of the corporation, in Stewart v. Johnson Lambert & Co., Del. Supr. No. 204, 2015, Order (Nov. 2, 2015). Specifically, when the corporation's fiduciaries have themselves engaged in the wrongdoing for which the third-party advisers have been joined, the adviser will face liability for knowing participation in a breach of fiduciary duty; the adviser, however, will not risk liability to the wrongdoing corporation for professional liability claims based on contract or negligence. At a time when auditors and financial advisers are increasingly targeted in corporate litigation, the Delaware Supreme Court's rejection of a professional adviser exception to the in pari delicto doctrine provides important guidance for corporations and their professional advisers to manage their respective risks. More ›
The Court of Chancery Reaffirms the Vitality of Claims Asserting Insider Trading as a Breach of the Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty
Vice Chancellor Laster recently affirmed the continuing vitality of state law “Brophy” claims for Delaware corporations injured by their fiduciaries’ insider trading. In so ruling, the Court clarified the elements of a Brophy claim, explained why the claim is firmly grounded in the duty of loyalty applicable to Delaware fiduciaries and discussed why such claims complement and do not conflict with the federal securities law regime. Less clear and undecided by the decision are the elements of damage the corporation might recover.
The Toll Brothers decision arose in the context of a motion to dismiss a shareholder derivative complaint brought for the benefit of Toll Brothers Inc. against eight of the eleven directors of the corporation. The complaint alleged they sold significant amounts of their Toll Brothers stock during the period from December 2004 through September 2005. The complaint further alleged that they did so while in possession of material nonpublic information about Toll Brothers’ future prospects that contradicted the Company’s upbeat disclosures about its business prospects and expected growth and earnings. When the Company in December 2005 suddenly revised its public growth forecast for 2006 net income downward from 20% to 0.5%, its stock price precipitously dropped.
A federal securities lawsuit followed joining the individual defendants and alleging they made material misrepresentations and omissions of material fact in connection with projections for 2006 and 2007 that were “knowingly unreasonable” when made. The federal action also alleged insider trading in violations of Section 10(b)(5). The federal court upheld the securities claims against a motion to dismiss under the rigorous standards for pleading securities fraud and the case moved to merits discovery.
The Delaware derivative action followed in November 2008. The Delaware complaint had two counts. The first alleged breach of fiduciary duty under Brophy v. Cities Service, 70 A.2d 5 (Del. Ch. 1949) for harm caused by insider trading. The second count was a generalized claim for indemnification and contribution for harm to the Company resulting from the federal securities fraud action. The director defendants moved to dismiss both counts on various grounds including that Brophy is an outdated precedent that should be rejected.
The Court rejected all of the defendants’ arguments challenging the Brophy claim. The Court first stated the elements of claim: “1) the corporate fiduciary possessed material, nonpublic company information; and 2) the corporate fiduciary used that information improperly by making trades because he was motivated, in whole or in part, by the substance of that information.”
The Court found that the complaint sufficiently pled a reasonable basis from which the fiduciaries’ knowledge could be inferred. The inference was based on specific allegations of the defendants’ knowledge and reliance on core metrics the Company used to measure and forecast growth and earnings, the contrast between the defendants’ public statements and the underlying trends indicated by the Company’s metrics, and the defendants’ contemporaneous massive sale of securities. The Court ruled the allegations supported a pleading stage inference that the Sellers took advantage of confidential corporate information not yet available to the public to unload significant blocks of shares before the market’s views of Toll Brother’s prospects dramatically changed. The Court contrasted this case from those cases dismissed at the pleading stage where evidence of accounting improprieties were disclosed in a subsequent restatement and senior officers and directors sold stock during the period covered by the restatement. Those cases the Court noted lacked allegations supporting an inference that the fiduciaries would have known of the particular accounting problems, in contrast to the core operational information involved in the Toll Brothers case.
The Court also addressed and rejected the assertion that Brophy was an anachronism that predated the current federal insider trading regime and should no longer be followed. Brophy involved a corporate secretary who knew of Cities Service’s planned open market purchases that would likely boost its stock price. The fiduciary bought for his personal account in advance of the corporate purchase and later sold the shares at a profit after the market price rose. Rejecting the argument that the corporation suffered no harm, the Brophy Court said “Public policy will not permit an employee occupying a position of trust and confidence toward his employer to abuse that relation to his own profit, regardless of whether his employer suffers a loss.”
Vice Chancellor Laster in the Toll case explains why the Brophy claim does not duplicate the federal securities laws and does provide a meaningful remedy for corporate harm. First, a Brophy claim does not exist to recover losses by contemporaneous traders, nor does it automatically require disgorgement of reciprocal insider trading gains; rather it is to remedy harm to the corporation. Pointing to Delaware Supreme Court precedent rejecting claims of breach of fiduciary duty or fraud as a basis for the class-wide recovery of trading losses, the Court agreed with Vice Chancellor Strine in his recent AIG opinion upholding a Brophy claim that it is harm to the corporation that is of primary concern. Vice Chancellor Laster wrote that harm in the case of insider trading might include the costs and expense the corporation incurred for regulatory proceedings involving the insider trading, internal investigations, fees paid to counsel and other professionals, fines paid to regulators and judgments in litigation. In this case and the recent AIG case, both of which involved companion securities law litigation naming the corporation a defendant, the Court noted that the defendants’ breaches of the duty of loyalty, involving trading on confidential information and material misrepresentations and omissions, may subject the corporation to a substantial judgment or settlement in the federal securities action.
The Court left to another day the precise type of damages or remedy that would be available if plaintiff proved its case. It noted, however, that Delaware remedies to protect the corporation and non-duplicative of the federal remedies that might be granted, were necessary and available to remedy breaches of the fiduciary duty of loyalty based on insider trading. Avoiding damages duplicative of the federal securities laws and satisfying public policy concerns regarding indemnification for securities fraud violations remain significant issues in fashioning a damage award for successful derivative plaintiffs. See e.g., Richard A. Booth, The Missing Link Between Insider Trading and Securities Fraud, 2 J. Bus. & Tech. L. 185-206 (2007).
The Court’s opinion also dealt quickly with defendants’ arguments that the derivative complaint failed to plead demand futility adequately under Rule 23.1 and was barred by the statute of limitations. Using the Rales standard, the Court concluded that demand was excused because a majority of the Board could not consider the merits of a demand without being influenced by improper considerations. Because of the potential personal liability a majority of the directors faced in the federal securities action, they faced a sufficiently substantial threat of personal liability to compromise their ability to act impartially on a demand.
As to the statute of limitations, the Court acknowledged that the complaint was filed more than 3 years after the alleged insider trading, but it found the pleading supported a basis for equitable tolling. Because the complaint alleged wrongful self-dealing and shareholders’ reasonable reliance on the competence and good faith of the director fiduciaries until December 2005 when management officially abandoned its previous growth projections, the Court ruled the running of the limitations period was equitably tolled until then.
Finally, the Court acknowledged the tension between allowing the concurrent prosecution of the shareholder derivative action for the benefit of the corporation at the same time the corporation seeks to defend itself from liability in the federal securities action. Not wanting to have the derivative action burden the corporation’s ability to defend itself in the securities action, the Court urged the parties to coordinate the actions and acknowledged the possibility of a stay of the derivative action pending the outcome of the securities action as was done in the AIG case.