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Delaware Supreme Court Overturns Nominal Damages Award and Explains the “Efficient Breach” Theory

Leaf Invenergy Co. v. Invenergy Renewables LLC, No. 308, 2018 (Del. May 2, 2019).

Limited Delaware case law exists on the “efficient breach” theory.  A new Delaware Supreme Court ruling examines that theory and confirms it is not a bar to recovery or an avenue for modifying damages calculations.  Rather, efficient breach is the legal concept that a party might find an intentional breach to be economically advantageous if the breach’s benefits exceed the damages it might owe.  Efficient breach aside, the task of Delaware courts is to interpret contracts to fulfill parties’ shared expectations at time of contracting.  That is a concept the Supreme Court emphasized when reversing the Court of Chancery’s nominal damages award in this case.

Plaintiff Leaf Invenergy Company invested $30 million in Invenergy Wind LLC.  As part of the investment, Leaf secured a Consent Provision that prohibited Invenergy from conducting a “Material Partial Sale” without Leaf’s consent, unless Invenergy acquired Leaf’s interest at a premium, referred to as the “Target Multiple.”  Several years into the investment, Invenergy closed a $1.8 billion asset sale without first obtaining Leaf’s consent and without redeeming Leaf’s interest at the Target Multiple.  Leaf sued in Delaware.

The Court of Chancery determined Invenergy had breached the Consent Provision but that Leaf was not entitled to the Target Multiple.  The Court reasoned that the Consent Provision was not an either-or provision, even though, until late in the litigation, both parties had understood a failure to obtain Leaf’s consent would require redemption at the Target Multiple.  Instead, the Court reasoned that Leaf was entitled only to nominal damages, given the Court’s view that Invenergy likely would not have made the Material Partial Sale if it had to pay the Target Multiple and that, in any event, Leaf was no worse off with the transaction.  Applying the “efficient breach” theory, the Court of Chancery imagined a hypothetical negotiation exercise in which Leaf would have to show that it would have secured additional consideration if given the opportunity to negotiate for its consent.  Ultimately, the Court of Chancery ordered the parties to complete a buyout of Leaf’s interests pursuant to a put-call provision in the operative agreement, which Invenergy exercised during the suit.  

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, explaining that the Consent Provision was an either-or structure requiring Leaf’s consent or payment, as evidenced by the parties’ own longstanding shared interpretation.  The Supreme Court also explained the trial court’s misapplication of the efficient breach theory.  Centrally, damages are an issue of contractual expectations.  Here, the parties’ expectations were that, for a Material Partial Sale to close, Leaf either would give consent or be redeemed at the Target Multiple.  Since Leaf did not give its consent, the appropriate expectation damages were receiving the Target Multiple.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the nominal damages award, substituting an award of the Target Multiple, conditioned on Leaf surrendering its membership interests.