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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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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.
Court of Chancery Addresses Personal Jurisdiction and Negligent Misrepresentation Claims Involving Accounting Firm KPMG
This decision grants a motion to dismiss by accounting firm KPMG on jurisdictional and substantive grounds in litigation involving creditors and bondholders of a KPMG client. The plaintiffs claimed fraud by the company and its bank. They sued several KPMG entities, and sought over $1 billion in damages, claiming they relied to their detriment on KPMG’s audits. While the decision involved various interesting aspects, two are particularly noteworthy. More ›
This decision has two helpful analyses. First, it addresses the conspiracy theory of jurisdiction under the well-known Instituto Bancario decision, which permits a Delaware court to exercise jurisdiction over a defendant based on the Delaware acts of its co-conspirators. Notably, the plaintiff in this case was a Delaware entity with its principal place of business in the State, providing a jurisdictional hook for that theory. Second, it explains when a plaintiff is on inquiry notice so as to end any tolling period and start the statute of limitations clock.
This is an important decision that applies recent United States Supreme Court jurisdiction cases to a non-resident’s Delaware complaint. While the opinion carefully reviews a string of such cases ending with Bristol-Meyers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California that is worth reading, the bottom line is that it holds that a non-resident of Delaware cannot bring a tort claim against a non-Delaware entity unless she can show its actions in Delaware that directly lead to her injury. This may effectively end the past practice of filing mass tort litigation in the Delaware Superior Court on behalf of non-residents of Delaware, at least against non-Delaware entities.
This decision clarifies that negligent representation claims can only be brought in the Delaware Court of Chancery. The opinion is also a useful review of the law on when opinions and projections may be used as the basis for a fraud claim. The short answer is that mere opinions and projections disclosed as just that are not generally sufficient to show fraud.
In Hazout v. Tsang Mun Ting, 134 A.3d 274 (Del. 2016), the Delaware Supreme Court expanded the basis for personal jurisdiction over nonresident directors and officers of Delaware corporations under 10 Del. C. § 3114, the so-called director consent statute. Hazout overruled long-standing Court of Chancery precedent that narrowly construed Section 3114’s “necessary or proper party” clause to actions alleging the director or officer had breached a fiduciary duty owed to the corporation. This decision is notable because it explains and applies Section 3114’s expanded scope.
The facts underlying this summary judgment decision are rather remarkable. The case is long-pending, and involved years of jurisdictional discovery granted for the purpose of allowing the plaintiff to explore its pleading-stage theory of personal jurisdiction under the so-called conspiracy theory. The gist of that theory is that a Delaware court can exercise personal jurisdiction over all co-conspirators when one commits an act in the State that is central to carrying out the conspiracy. It is a theory oft-invoked but rarely satisfied. And, as this decision demonstrates, it is a theory that could be subject to some abuse by a clever litigant. In this case, the evidence ultimately showed that the plaintiff misled the Court by claiming to be the victim of a Delaware-based conspiracy, when, in fact, the plaintiff was the architect of the very wrongdoing used to advance his conspiracy theory. Thus, some ten years into the litigation, the non-resident defendant was dismissed from the case based on a lack of personal jurisdiction.
The conspiracy theory of jurisdiction developed in the Istituto Bancario decision is often misunderstood, for good reasons. This decision explains the theory in a careful and detailed way that is useful for those trying to obtain jurisdiction over non-residents of Delaware.
Under the Papendick v. Bosch decision, incorporating an entity in Delaware may give rise to long-arm jurisdiction over the entity’s parent, even a foreign one with no other contacts with the State of Delaware. The act of incorporating in Delaware, however, must be an “integral component” of the alleged wrongdoing. This decision explains how to meet that test, which is heightened slightly after the plaintiff conducts jurisdictional discovery. The test was satisfied in this case based on allegations that the defendant, desiring to enter the U.S. market, misappropriated the plaintiff’s trade secrets and incorporated a Delaware entity to profit from the misappropriation.
Court Of Chancery Addresses The Need For Legally-Distinct Co-Conspirators Under A Conspiracy Theory Of Jurisdiction
Merely incorporating a business in Delaware does not automatically subject you to personal jurisdiction in the Delaware courts. But, when the act of incorporation is part of the events forming the basis for a claim, it may be enough. This decision explains the parameters of jurisdiction based on incorporating in Delaware.
Court Of Chancery Declines To Exercise Personal Jurisdiction Based On A Choice Of Law Provision In A Stockholders’ Agreement
This decision holds that owning shares in a closely-held Delaware corporation and entering into a stockholders’ agreement containing a Delaware choice of law provision is not a sufficient basis, standing alone, for a Delaware court to exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident under Delaware’s long-arm statute. While these circumstances may be factors in the long-arm and due process analysis, more is required to purposefully avail oneself of Delaware law and be subject to personal jurisdiction in its courts.
As this decision explains, the Court of Chancery will not have jurisdiction based on the claim an injunction is needed to force a defendant to comply with the proper interpretation of a contract. Rather, the presumption is that once the Superior Court interprets the contract that the defendant will honor that judgment.
Delaware recently amended Section 111 of the DGCL to confer jurisdiction on the Court of Chancery over certain actions arising out of asset sales. The intent was not to divest Superior Court of jurisdiction when the dispute was not really over how to interpret a sale or merger agreement’s terms, an area of Chancery expertise, but more of a straightforward asset sale. This decision explains that distinction.
Under Delaware law, an entity doing any business in Delaware must register to do so and thereby appoint a registered agent to receive process. For years this was held to confer general jurisdiction over that entity, even for claims that did not arise out of the business it did in Delaware. This decision reverses that old law and confines jurisdiction over non-Delaware entities to claims that arise out of what they have done in Delaware. Of course, there are still exceptions to that general rule, such as when an entity expressly agrees to jurisdiction in Delaware.