Delaware Corporate Law Update

Updates on Delaware Corporate Law by Evan O. Williford, Esq., Delaware Corporate Litigation Attorney.

Chancery Zaps Controlling Stockholder For $1.2B In Damages

On Friday, now-Chancellor Leo E. Strine Jr. issued a lengthy post-trial opinion, In re Southern Peru Copper Corp. Shareholder Derivative Litigation, available here, in which he required a controlling stockholder to return $1.2B in stock in connection with a transaction between it and a corporation it controlled.  The case has a number of details of interest to those who advise as to or litigate such transactions or otherwise have an interest on Delaware corporate law.

Controlling stockholder Grupo Mexico ultimately owned about 54% of the stock of Southern Peru Copper Corp. stock and almost all of Minera Mexico’s.  Each of Cerro Trading Company, Inc. (owned in turn by the Pritzker family) and Phelps Dodge Corporation owned about 14% of Southern Peru, although such shares were unregistered and could not easily be sold under federal securities laws.

Grupo Mexico proposed to Southern Peru’s board of directors that the latter buy the former’s shares in Minera Mexico in exchange for approximately $3 billion in Southern Peru stock.  While Southern Peru’s stock was publicly traded, allowing a ready calculation of its value, Minera Mexico’s was not.

Southern Peru formed a special committee of four directors to evaluate the proposal.  The Special Committee hired Latham & Watkins as legal, and Goldman Sachs as financial, advisor (among others).  The Special Committee did not lack for credentials and included a Columbia Law grad who had worked at Wachtell Lipton, a Ph.D. in finance from the Wharton School, and another individual with both an MBA and a JD who had managed multi-billion dollar companies.  The most active member, Harold Handelsman, was an attorney for the Pritzker family.

After several months of due diligence Goldman Sachs concluded in an “Illustrative Give/Get Analysis” presented to the Special Committee that Southern Peru was being asked to “give” stock with a market price of $3.1B to “get” an asset worth no more than $1.7B.  The Special Committee was not specifically given the mandate to negotiate the deal but did so anyway.  It made a counterproposal (not reported in the proxy statement) to issue about $2B of Southern Peru stock.  Grupo Mexico eventually proposed to acquire $2.76B in shares.  Ultimately Goldman Sachs issued a fairness analysis and opinion and the Special Committee agreed to recommend the revised proposal to the board.

The Court criticized the Special Committee for operating “in the confined mindset of directors of a controlled company” and not proposing other alternative transactions to Grupo.  The Court acknowledged that Grupo Mexico could always veto such transactions but suggested that it would have been a positive factor in the legal analysis.

According to the Court, after Grupo Mexico stood pat on its demands, the Special Committee and Goldman Sachs adopted a number of arguments to get to the desired result that the transaction was fair, each of which the Court rejected (including an early argument, later abandoned, that Southern Peru’s stock price did not represent that stock’s real value).

In side-deals, Southern Peru stockholders Cerro and Phelps Dodge, who wanted to monetize their holdings, agreed to support the deal if Southern Peru would register their shares.  While the Special Committee chose not to take part in the negotiations on this, Handelsman was very much involved.  Handelsman was also heavily involved with the Special Committee but decided not to participate in its final vote on the advice of Goldman Sachs’ counsel.

Because the deal was conditioned on a two-thirds vote of all stockholders, not a majority-of-the-minority vote, Grupo Mexico only needed the additional vote of either Cerra or Phelps Dodge.  While the Cerro agreement was conditioned on the approval of the underlying deal by the Special Committee the Phelps Dodge agreement was not, leaving the Special Committee without veto power.

By the time of the stockholder vote five months later Southern Peru had significantly exceeded the projections upon which Goldman’s fairness opinion had been based and its stock price had risen substantially.  The Court criticized the Special Committee for not seeking to renegotiate the deal or ask Goldman to update its analysis.

In a post-trial opinion the Court held that entire fairness was the appropriate standard of review and the transaction was not entirely fair to Southern Peru.  The Court then awarded damages in the amount of Southern Peru stock in excess of that which Grupo Mexico should have received.  The Court refused to award rescissory damages (which would have been larger given Southern Peru’s subsequent performance) because of plaintiff’s six-year delay in proceeding to trial.

Notable points other than those already mentioned:

  • Once again the opinion demonstrates the skill with which Chancery judicial personnel will evaluate economic arguments on valuation.
  • The Court held that, with respect to a controlling stockholder transaction, even a special committee with independent and disinterested members must show that it functioned well and the Court will examine its conclusion substantively.
  • The Court held a disclosure materially incomplete for not reporting the Special Committee’s counteroffer, which was materially higher than the eventual price and made after due diligence and a presentation by the financial advisor.
  • Even a lengthy special committee negotiating process, including well-credentialed members and financial and legal advisors, will not immunize a large controlling stockholder deal if it fundamentally does not make economic sense.
  • Interestingly, the Court noted derivative plaintiff’s failure to attend trial, although it rejected a motion to disqualify him as inadequate.
  • The Court noted its earlier dismissal of the Special Committee members themselves including Handelsman and reaffirmed its holding that neither bad faith nor self-dealing had been shown.  Nevertheless, it held that the interest of Handelsman in obtaining liquidity for Cerro had compromised his effectiveness on behalf of the Special Committee.
  • The Court criticized current Delaware law allowing an effective special committee process as to a controlling stockholder transaction to shift the burden of proof at most (as opposed to restoring business judgment rule).  The Court noted that while measures such as special committees are seen as beneficial to Delaware corporations and to be encouraged, burden shifting may not be much of an encouragement as it is almost never outcome-determinative because the Court is rarely in equipoise.
  • The Court again proposed that a combination of sufficient protective procedural devices (use of a special committee with negotiation, approval, and veto authority; and a fully informed majority-of-the-minority vote by stockholders) cause the business judgment rule to be restored.  But the Court also suggested that the Delaware Supreme Court would have to modify its precedent (e.g. the venerable Kahn v. Lynch) to do so.
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Filed under: Controlling Stockholder, Court of Chancery, Derivative Actions, Fiduciary Duties

Chancery Validates Opt-In Method To Avoid Appraisal Remedy

The Court published a decision yesterday, Krieger v. Wesco Financial Corp. (available here), involving a matter of first impression under the Delaware appraisal statute.  The Court held that a judicial appraisal may not be available to stockholders even when receiving cash as a default matter if the stockholders are given an election to receive stock if they wish.  The short (10-page) decision bears reading by those who draft proxy statements and those who represent stockholders considering whether to assert appraisal rights.

Wesco underwent a merger with its parent Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. and a Berkshire subsidiary.  Under Delaware’s appraisal statute, Section 262, appraisal rights may be available in such mergers even when (as here) Wesco’s shares were listed on a national securities exchange.  Under Section 262 such rights are available if (to simplify a bit) the shareholders are “required” by the terms of the merger agreement to receive anything other than shares of stock in the surviving entity or a nationally traded company.  Wesco shareholders received cash as a default, but could elect to receive shares  in another Berkshire entity.

The Court ruled that under the language of 262 the shareholders were not “required” to accept cash and therefore an appraisal remedy was not available.  In doing so it rejected the argument that appraisal rights were available, on a stockholder-by-stockholder basis, to those stockholders who did not elect.

Wesco had informed stockholders that it believed appraisal rights were not available but that there were no authorities one way or the other.  The Court noted that this had been an accurate statement.

The Wesco proxy statement also stated that Wesco reserved the right to “take the position that appraisal . . . may not be exercised with respect to any shares as to which cash was elected or stock was received.”  The Court noted that such a position would have been incorrect as the appraisal statute does not depend on an individual stockholder’s election; and that a quasi-appraisal remedy could be available if such a disclosure was material.  The Court, however, held the statement to be immaterial here because appraisal was not available in any event.

Two points of interest here.  First, the Court did not make a distinction between Wesco stating that it might take such a position later as opposed to purporting to state the law. Thus, if a disclosure is otherwise innacurate, phrasing it as a potential position may not help avoid a quasi-appraisal remedy.

Second, the Court did not discuss any argument that the disclosure might have discouraged stockholders from electing to receive stock if they concluded (i) from the disclosures of the absence of specific decisional law on point that an appraisal remedy might be available and (ii) that not making an the election to receive stock (consideration the availability of which makes the appraisal remedy unavailable) gave them a better chance of receiving an appraisal.  The Court either did not hear this argument or, if it did, was not swayed by it.

Filed under: Appraisal, Court of Chancery

Chancery Dismisses Derivative Case Against Goldman

Today the Court issued a decision in derivative litigation regarding Goldman Sachs and its trading strategies and compensation leading up to mortgage and housing crisis of a few years ago.  Vice Chancellor Glasscock, recently appointed to the bench, issued the decision granting defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The decision reaffirms, from the newest member of the Court, the old principle that the Court of Chancery will not accept breach of fiduciary duty suits bottomed on questions of whether a particular business or compensation strategy was wise.

It also reaffirms the principle that donations by a company to a director’s charities do not in and of themselves prevent that director from being independent.

Filed under: Court of Chancery, Derivative Actions, Fiduciary Duties

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Disclaimer

Delaware Corporate Law Update solely reflect the views of Evan Williford of The Williford Firm, LLP. Its purpose is to provide general information concerning Delaware law; no representation is made about the accuracy of any information contained herein, and it may or may not be updated to reflect subsequent relevant events. This website is not intended to provide legal advice. It does not form any attorney-client relationship and it is not a substitute for one.