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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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Transactions between a Delaware company and its controlling stockholder usually are subject to rigorous entire fairness review. But, under the MFW decision, even a merger with a controller may gain the benefit of deferential business judgment review. The MFW requirements include that the controller must condition the procession of the transaction ab initio on approval by a special committee. More ›
This notable decision issued by the Court of Chancery holds an investment fund and its manager liable for over $20 million essentially for destroying a Delaware entity’s value. The litigation arises out of a once promising technology company’s downfall into liquidation. The facts involved an investor that leveraged a series of preferred investments into negative control and used that control to secure a self-dealing financing unfavorable to the company, while simultaneously turning away much needed financing opportunities threatening its control. The investor hoped to position the company for a prompt sale in which it would reap the benefits, but that did not pan out, and the company went under. More ›
Corwin holds that approval of a transaction by a fully-informed, uncoerced majority of the disinterested stockholders invokes the deferential business judgment standard of review for a post-closing damages action, making the transaction almost certainly immune from further judicial scrutiny. This is an important decision for its discussion of the “informed” approval prerequisite to a Corwin defense. This aspect of Corwin turns on thoroughly-developed standards under Delaware law regarding what is or is not material to the stockholders' decision-making. In that way, the decision is not novel. Yet, because a disclosure violation may prevent what would otherwise be an early dismissal of a breach of fiduciary duty action against directors for damages, the issue is of heightened importance post-Corwin. In the Court’s own words, this case “offers a cautionary reminder to directors and the attorneys who help them craft their disclosures: ‘partial and elliptical disclosures’ cannot facilitate the protection of the business judgment rule under the Corwin doctrine.” Here, the material undisclosed facts concerned a founder’s early dealings with the private equity buyer, pressure on the board, and the degree that this influence may have impacted the sale process structure. The stockholder plaintiffs’ arguments were aided substantially by documents obtained in connection with a pre-suit books and records demand. That is another area of increased importance post-Corwin, given the unavailability of a Corwin defense in that setting and the ability to obtain documents that might help one plead around a later Corwin defense.
When a merger closes, stockholders of the acquired company generally lose standing to pursue claims, other than direct claims attacking the validity or fairness of the merger itself. Derivative claims, as chose in actions, pass to the purchaser. This is an important decision because it reconciles prior case law regarding when a claim is direct and not derivative and thus survives a merger. More ›
Under 8 Del C. Section 122(17) a corporation may waive any claim that a corporate opportunity was wrongfully taken by a fiduciary. Private equity firms frequently invest in companies in the same line of business. When that investor also puts a director on the board of its investment, a potential conflict of interest may arises when that director obtains confidential information that may be useful to the other company the investor has invested in the same line of business. This decision holds that a trade secret claim under the Delaware Uniform Trade Secret Act is precluded by the type of waiver permitted by Section 122(17). Thus, investors may invest in competing companies if they get the protection provided by this section of the Delaware General Corporation Law.
This is another decision in a series of recent decisions where the Court of Chancery had to decide if a less-than-50% stockholder controlled the corporation. This is an important issue because a controller has fiduciary duties to the other stockholders and the intrinsic fairness test apples to the review of any transaction involving that controller. Here the longstanding close relationship of two stockholders who together owned more than 50% of the entity was enough for the complaint alleging they controlled the entity to survive a motion to dismiss. While all the facts alleged in the complaint on that issue are important to the analysis, perhaps the key fact was that the two stockholders in the past had acted together to get a benefit from the corporation that only they received compared to the other stockholders. That showed their strong influence over the corporation.
Court of Chancery Finds Breach of Fiduciary Duty By Director Selfishly Opposing Cure of Defective Corporate Acts
When a corporation accidentally issues defective stock or takes some other defective corporate act, Delaware law offers avenues to cure under the right set of circumstances. See 8 Del. C. §§ 204, 205. As this decision shows, a director who self-interestedly stands in the way of that cure by attempting to impose selfish conditions breaches his fiduciary duty of loyalty and may be liable for damages. Even if the director later comes around, extra costs incurred from his obstinacy may be charged to him.
Arising out of the highly-publicized dispute over the proposed transaction involving CBS and Viacom, each controlled by the Redstones, this decision is both front-page newsworthy and legally significant. CBS and Viacom used to be one entity but split. The Redstones retained voting control in each through a dual-class voting structure. Later, the Redstones began pushing to merge the entities once again and both entities formed special committees to consider the proposal. More ›
This decision involves the rare case where a waste claim is well plead. As a result, the directors who gave away company money are sufficiently exposed to liability that demand upon them to bring the suit is excused.
This is an interesting decision for two reasons. First, it distinguishes between classic self-dealing claims and tag-along challenges to business decisions. Just because a plaintiff successfully pleads that a controller is looting a company in some respects, does not mean all allegedly-related challenges will survive dismissal. Second, it explores when an alternative theory of secondary liability or a claim for unjust enrichment may accompany a sufficiently plead breach of fiduciary duty.
Under Delaware law, a controlling stockholder need not be a majority stockholder. Rather, a controlling stockholder might be a group of aligned stockholders who together hold a majority. Or, as in this case, it might be a minority but substantial stockholder who practically has and exercises board-level control with respect to the challenged transaction. The presence of a controller is an important factor in litigation, including because, as here, it might prevent defendants from achieving a prompt dismissal of a post-closing fiduciary duty action based on stockholder approval under the well-known Corwin decision. In this case, the factors relevant to finding control by the roughly 22% minority stockholder (i.e., Elon Musk) at the motion to dismiss stage included: (1) the individual’s history of eliminating opposition; (2) the board’s lack of safeguards to prevent his control over the company’s consideration and negotiation of the self-interested transaction; (3) a board packed with members interested in the transaction or beholden to him; and (4) public disclosures portraying him as in control.
This decision addresses a host of interesting topics. First, it declines to invoke the so-called step-transaction doctrine under which the Court treats the steps in a series of formally separate but substantially-linked transactions involving the transfer of property as a single transaction. Second, it declines to apply the mootness doctrine in a challenge to an unexercised warrant. Third, it wrestles with deciding whether challenges to a financing and a warrant issuance are direct or derivative claims. Fourth, it address the pre-suit demand on the board requirement. Fifth, it finds a sufficiently pled claim of aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty. Sixth, it decides that intermediate scrutiny (i.e., Revlon) may apply when a party is granted an option to acquire a company under a warrant. Finally, it applies Cornerstone to dismiss exculpated directors from a money damages action where the complaint failed to adequately plead a duty of loyalty claim against them.
The Ravenswood Investment Company LP v. The Estate Of Bassett S. Winmill, C.A. No. 3730-VCS (Del. Ch. Mar. 21, 2018)
It is easy to assume that some form of meaningful relief must be available when a fiduciary bears the burden of proving a self-dealing transaction is entirely fair, but fails to carry it. But that is not always true, as this decision shows. For instance, as happened here, if stock options were issued for inadequate consideration, the plaintiff still needs to prove actual damages or that rescission would be appropriate under the circumstances. A failure to do so could foreclose meaningful relief and result in only nominal damages. We can put it no better than the Court did: “[T]here is [an] important lesson to be learned from this case. While this court endeavors always to remedy breaches of fiduciary duty, especially breaches of the duty of loyalty, and has broad discretion in fashioning such remedies, it cannot create what does not exist in the evidentiary record, and cannot reach beyond that record when it finds the evidence lacking. Equity is not a license to make stuff up.”
This decision is particularly helpful in clarifying the effect of Section 141 of the DGCL. A transaction that is passed by the vote of even a single disinterested director is not void because of the language of Section 141. However, that does not mean that the transaction also is then subject to the business judgment standard of review. If the other directors are interested in the transaction, then the entire fairness standard will apply. More ›
It is often said that a mere prediction of some future event cannot be misleading because such predictions are speculations that cannot be relied upon. However, as this decision points out, stating something is “possible” when it is impossible is misleading and actionable as a disclosure violation.