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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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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.
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.
Seeking to inspect an entity’s books and records to value an investment typically is a proper purpose. But a plaintiff must have standing to demand inspection. More ›
Chancery Addresses the Direct and Derivative Claim Distinction and Demand Futility in the LLC Context
Plaintiff sued Defendants, who were supposed to manage the parties’ limited liability company, directly and derivatively for breaching the LLC agreement, and derivatively for breaching their fiduciary duties. In this decision, the Court of Chancery denies Defendants’ motion to dismiss and addresses, among other things, the direct versus derivative claim distinction under the Tooley test and demand futility under the Aronson v. Lewis test in the LLC context. Here, the LLC managers were deemed interested because they stood on both sides of the challenged transactions—i.e., the allegations that they stole millions from the LLC for themselves, for their other companies, for one of their spouses, and for one of their spouses’ companies. Thus, demand was futile as to the derivative claims, which also adequately stated viable causes of action under less stringent Rule 12(b)(6) standards.
Prior to this ruling, no Delaware opinion had addressed the question of whether decisions granting entitlement to advancement rights are immediately appealable even though disputes remain as to the reasonableness of the fees. This ruling finds the answer normally should be “no.” More ›
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 ›