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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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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.
This decision involves an increasingly rare occurrence in Delaware: an expedited pre-closing fiduciary duty challenge to a proposed merger. Specifically, stockholders challenged a proposed combination of a publicly traded asset management firm (Medley Management) with two corporations that it advises pursuant to management agreements: Medley Capital Corporation and Sierra Income Corporation. The proposed transaction involved Sierra acquiring Medley Management, which is majority owned by the Taube brothers, and Medley Capital, of which the Taube brothers owned less than 15%. Medley Management stockholders were to receive cash and stock representing a 100% premium to its trading price. By contrast, Medley Capital stockholders were to receive only shares of Sierra stock providing no premium against its net asset value. When a Medley Capital investor brought suit in early February, the parties agreed to an expedited trial four weeks after the filing of the case, prior to a March 11 stockholder vote on the merger. More ›
This is one of two recent Court of Chancery decisions explaining that the Corwin case really does mean that there is an “irrebuttable business judgment rule” that bars challenges to a merger approved by a majority of the fully-informed, disinterested and uncoerced stockholders, in the absence of the deal involving a controlling stockholder who suffers from a conflict in the merger. More ›
In this precedent setting decision, the Supreme Court holds that stockholders who are cashed out in a short-form merger may bring a class action for damages when there are violations of the duty of disclosure in the materials sent to them notifying them of the merger. In prior decisions, the Court of Chancery had reached somewhat inconsistent results in such cases, granting a quasi-appraisal remedy, but sometimes requiring stockholders to opt-in to be part of the stockholder group obtaining appraisal rights and also requiring an escrow of the merger consideration.
Here, the Supreme Court rejected both of those limits on the remedy. Instead, it held that all the minority stockholders had the right to be part of a class entitled to appraisal rights, subject to a right to opt-out of the class. In addition, stockholders do not have to escrow any of the merger consideration while the action is pending.
This result creates a "free rider" issue as there is little incentive for stockholders to opt-out. While it is possible the trial court will decide the fair value of their stock in the appraisal proceedings is less than the merger consideration, for smaller stockholders, the amounts in question may not justify the company enforcing any right to a refund.
Of course, the way out of this dilemma is to provide fair disclosure in the first place.