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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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Recently, the Delaware Supreme Court held in In re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 177 A.3d 1208 (Del. 2017) that stockholder approval of director self-compensation plans will shift the standard of review from entire fairness to business judgment only where the stockholders approve a plan that does not involve future director discretion in setting the compensation amounts. In Stein, the Court of Chancery applies Investors Bancorp and declines to dismiss a disloyal compensation claim, notwithstanding that the terms of the challenged compensation plans sought to absolve the directors of self-dealing claims and even though the plaintiff attacked only the compensation amount, not the process by which it was determined. More ›
Delaware Supreme Court Revives Fiduciary Duty Claims in Derivative Lawsuit Concerning Blue Bell’s Listeria Outbreak
As this decision illustrates, while Delaware law imposes a high bar for pleading demand futility and fiduciary oversight claims under what is known as a Caremark theory, the standards are not insurmountable. After Blue Bell Creameries faced a deadly listeria outbreak, recall, and temporary shutdown a few years ago, a stockholder plaintiff sued in the Delaware Court of Chancery alleging breaches of fiduciary duties by two key executives and its board of directors. The stockholder’s derivative claims concerned management’s alleged failure to respond appropriately to food safety issues and the board’s alleged failure to implement any food safety reporting system or to inform itself about the company’s food safety compliance. More ›
Even when an indemnitee takes a circuitous path to victory, the indemnitee is entitled to indemnification under 8 Del. C. § 145(c) for litigation expenses if the indemnitee is ultimately successful “on the merits or otherwise.” Brown, an officer and director of Rite Aid, sought indemnification under § 145(c), as well as the corporate bylaws and charter, for litigation that spanned from 2002 to 2016 in Pennsylvania. Brown prevailed against Rite Aid in the Pennsylvania litigation on technical defenses. Despite this outcome, Rite Aid sought to limit the amounts to those attributable to Brown's successful technical defense and to exclude amounts attributable to several years of other unsuccessful defenses. But the Court continued its long-standing practice of "look[ing] strictly at the outcome of the underlying action" to determine whether an indemnitee is "successful on the merits or otherwise" under § 145(c). Under this "simple rubric for success," Brown avoided a "personally negative result," so he was entitled to indemnification.
Merger Agreement’s Preservation of Privilege for Pre-Merger Communications Found to be Adequate, Notwithstanding that the Surviving Company Took Possession of E-Mails
This decision confirms that, in a post-merger dispute between an acquirer and the selling stockholders, broad contractual language can prevent a waiver of the acquired company's privileged pre-merger communications, even if the surviving company takes physical possession of the communications. RSI Holdco, LLC acquired Radixx Systems International, Inc. in 2016, and the merger agreement designated Shareholder Representative Services LLC as representative of Radixx's selling shareholders. As part of the merger, RSI Holdco acquired Radixx’s computers and email servers, which contained 1200 pre-merger emails between Radixx and its counsel; Radixx had not excised or segregated the communications from other data. However, the merger agreement contained a detailed provision that (1) preserved Radixx’s privilege, (2) assigned it the representative of selling stockholders, (3) required the parties to take steps to ensure that the privilege remained in effect, and (4) prevented RSI Holdco from relying on the privileged communications in post-merger litigation. In Great Hill Equity Partners IV, LP v. SIG Growth Equity Fund I, LLLP, 80 A.3d 155 (Del. Ch. 2013), the Court had found that privilege transferred to the surviving company in a merger as a matter of law pursuant to section 259 of the DGCL because (i) the parties did not address privilege in the merger agreement, and (ii) because the at-issue communications were turned over. Great Hill cautioned future parties to "use their contractual freedom" to exclude privileged communications from the transferred assets. Here, the Court rejected RSI Holdco's argument that the failure to excise the communications waived privilege in this circumstance, and the Court noted that even if the privilege had been waived, the merger agreement still prevented RSI Holdco from relying on the communications in the litigation. Thus, the Court concluded that the sellers "heeded the Great Hill court's advice" and found the detailed provision in the merger agreement preserved the privilege attached to the pre-merger communications.
Delaware courts construe advance notice by-laws against the drafter in favor of stockholder electoral rights. In this case, the defendants had advance notice by-laws that permitted the company to request additional information for certain purposes after receiving notice of a dissident slate of directors, and required a response within 5 days. Pursuant to that by-law, defendants had sent a questionnaire with over 90 questions to the dissident slate. When the dissidents did not supply the requested information within 5 days, defendants advised that their failure to comply resulted in their nominations being defective. The stockholder supporting the dissident slate sued and asked the Court of Chancery to find the nominations complied with the advance notice by-law and to require that the dissidents be freely presented and votes for them counted. Construing the by-law at issue, the Court held that the plaintiff had established that a portion of questions asked exceeded the permissible scope of information requests under the by-laws. Thus, the failure to answer them was not a basis for finding the nominations invalid. The Court therefore ordered that the nominations be presented and that defendants count votes cast for the dissident slate.
Addressing an issue for which there is a split in authority, the Delaware Superior Court held that a Civil Investigative Demand (“CID”) initiated by government authorities will trigger an insurer’s duty to defend and indemnify an insured. After plaintiff Conduent State Healthcare came under investigation for Medicaid fraud, defendant AIG declined to advance defense costs, arguing that the investigation, by itself, did not constitute an insurable claim under plaintiff’s policy. The Superior Court held that the policy language providing coverage for a “Claim alleging a Wrongful Act” extended to the CID. The Court rejected the argument that “investigating an unlawful act by the insured, is different from alleging an unlawful act,” finding that to be a distinction without a difference. The Court relied upon insurance contract interpretation principles and construed the policy against its drafter, holding that the duty to defend and indemnify should be interpreted broadly in favor of coverage.