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Chancery Finds Challenge to Stockholders Agreement Both Timely and Ripe

Posted In Chancery, DGCL, Justiciability

West Palm Beach Firefighters' Pension Fund v. Moelis & Company, C.A. No. 2023-0309-JTL (Del. Ch. Feb. 12, 2024)
Here, the Court of Chancery declined to apply equitable defenses to bar a challenge to a stockholders' agreement three years after it was disclosed and before any claims for breach of fiduciary duties arising from the agreement were asserted. The underlying dispute involved the plaintiff's challenge to governance terms of a stockholders' agreement under Section 141(a) of the Delaware General Corporation Law. The defendant company claimed that the plaintiff brought the suit both too late and too early. The defendant argued that the action was untimely because the plaintiff waited three years after the agreement was disclosed to sue. The Court explained that when analyzing timeliness, it must assume that the plaintiff’s claim is valid. If the plaintiff were proven correct and the challenged agreement held void, then equitable defenses, like laches, would not apply, as equitable defenses cannot validate a void act. Regardless, the Court found no unreasonable delay and no prejudice to the defendant, considering the facts of this case. The Court also analyzed the challenged acts as an ongoing violation, reviewed through either the continuing wrong method or the separate accrual method to determine when the violation occurred. Under both methods, the suit was timely. Further, the Court found no extraordinary circumstances that would justify applying laches. The defendant also claimed that the plaintiff should have to wait for a breach of fiduciary duty to occur before bringing the suit. The Court disagreed, reasoning that even though the plaintiff could bring a fiduciary duty claim in the future based on the conduct associated with the agreement’s challenged provisions, a facial challenge to the agreement’s legality presented a separate and ripe question of law.

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