Delaware Corporate Law Update

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

What’s the Big Deal with Blockchain?

Over the past year or so there has been a good deal of discussion about using “blockchain” technology as a method to store corporate records, particularly about stockholders.  But what exactly is blockchain anyway, and is it coming soon to a Delaware corporation near you?

What is “blockchain”?  Blockchain technology was invented by the unidentified founder (alias “Satoshi Nakamoto”) of, and used in the establishment of, the currency “bitcoin”.  For those who have been living under a rock for the past ten years, bitcoin is a type of money that operates without a central authority and, as of January 11, 2018, had a market capitalization of approximately $240 billion.

Blockchain technology operates by replacing a single record-book with multiple identical record-books maintained by a network of participants.  For instance, with respect to bitcoin, it has enabled the creation of an entirely electronic currency (no actual coins or counterfeit-proof paper bills needed) without the necessity for a central authority to keep records of it (which central authority would need to be trusted and possibly paid by transaction fees).

There are several ways that technology has, both generally and with respect to bitcoin, to reduce the possibility of fraud.  For instance, it can apply decision rules to resolve disputes, such as when copies of the record-book disagree with others as to a transaction.

So what is the connection to Delaware corporate law?  One way in which blockchain technology shows promise is as a replacement for record-books of corporate stockholders.  As corporate lawyers know, but John Q. Stockholder might be surprised to learn, “stockholders” of large publicly held Delaware corporations frequently don’t hold their own shares.

Rather, they are what the law calls “beneficial owners”.  For historical reasons, the system that has evolved in the Unites States is that most such shares of stock are held by an organization called Depository Trust Company (“DTC”) and issued in the name of its nominee, Cede & Company (“Cede”).

So, if a “beneficial owner” wishes to vote their shares, they frequently must tell their broker to tell Cede to vote the way they want or use some other equivalent process.  This can give rise to costly unfair results.  For instance, in one phase of the Dell appraisal litigation, because the name of the stockholder of record changed, Delaware law requiring continuous ownership of shares was violated, resulting in a lost potential damages award.  In another, a mistaken instruction cost a stockholder a potential $200 million award.

One of the long-term promises of blockchain technology is to replace DTC, thereby reunifying beneficial and record ownership and hopefully eliminating some potentially unfair results under Delaware law.  A recently published article by Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster and Skadden Arps lawyer Marcel Rosner, Distributed Stock Ledgers and Delaware Law, 73 Bus. Law. 319 (Spring 2018), goes into detail regarding blockchain technology and the promise it holds for various facets of Delaware law, and is recommended reading for those looking for a deeper understanding.

Is blockchain technology coming to a Delaware corporation near me?  The answer is maybe, but slowly.  The Delaware General Corporation Law was amended in 2017 to permit, theoretically and under certain conditions, keeping corporate records like stock ownership in blockchain format.  That being said, law and corporate America can be conservative.  The path is open for enterprising Delaware corporations to use and show the success of blockchain recordkeeping, and perhaps others will follow.

In the meantime, as Vice Chancellor Laster recommended in the first Dell decision discussed above, Delaware courts (or the Delaware legislature, for that matter), could consider changing Delaware law to ameliorate these argued unfair results.

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Filed under: Appraisal, Court of Chancery

Back from the Dead: Inadequate Reserve Revives LLC

In a recent decision, Capone v. LDH Management Holdings LLC, the Delaware Court of Chancery nullified the certificate of cancellation of a Delaware LLC.  The Court did so because the LLC had established no reserve for legal claims previously known to it.  The decision highlights the requirement under Delaware law that, before an LLC is cancelled, it must make reasonable provision for known nonfrivolous claims:  zero is not enough.  If a reasonable reserve is not made, the entity may (as happened here) later be revived.

Plaintiffs were holders of units in a Delaware LLC (“Management Holdings”), which in turn was valued based on its holdings of units in another LLC (“LDH”).  Under the former LLC’s agreement, Management Holdings had the right to (and did) redeem plaintiffs’ units at a price set by a specified process.  Plaintiffs claimed that the valuation of LDH by which their units were valued was too low by some half a billion dollars, and they voiced those claims (vociferously in some cases) to management.

Nevertheless, Management Holdings’ certificate of formation was cancelled, with no reserve having been established for such claims.  Plaintiffs sued in New York on their claim that the valuation had been improper and thus a breach of contract.  When they discovered that Management Holdings had been cancelled, they filed a lawsuit in Delaware to nullify the certificate of cancellation.

On cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court granted judgment for plaintiffs.  After reviewing the applicable sections of the Delaware LLC Act and the nature of plaintiffs’ claims, the Court ruled that defendants were in fact aware of the claims due to plaintiffs’ complaints.

Next the Court discussed the establishment of a reasonable reserve under 6 Del. C. § 18-804.  In the Court’s view, that would involve factors including the potential amount of the claim as well as the likelihood of it becoming a liability.  The Court noted that a claim could in fact be “so obviously frivolous that a reserve of zero dollars would likely be sufficient”.  That being said, it concluded that plaintiffs’ reading of the LLC agreement was a “reasonable construction” and not “indisputably wrong,” and therefore a reserve of $0 was a violation of the Delaware LLC Act.  Accordingly, the Court nullified the LLC’s certificate of cancellation, thereby reviving the entity.

Key takeaways from the Court’s decision:

  • Establishing a $0 reserve for a nonfrivolous claim for a substantial amount of money may well result in an LLC’s certificate of cancellation being nullified.
  • Managers of an LLC must make reasonable provision for any known potential claims before filing a certificate of cancellation. In doing so, they may consider the likelihood that the claim will be successful, along with the potential liability if successful.
  • “[E]ven a relatively weak claim may justify a reserve,” particularly when the potential damages are large.

Filed under: Court of Chancery, LLC

Delaware Chancery Orders Defendant Directors Deposed on SLC’s Motion to Terminate Claims

Courts are restrictive in granting a plaintiff discovery in connection with the motion of a special litigation committee (an “SLC”) to terminate claims.  That is particularly true with regard to discovery directed toward defendant directors.  In a recent transcript decision, Judy v. Agar, the Court of Chancery denied motions of two defendant directors for protective orders against their depositions and certain document discovery.  The Court cited the lengthy past litigation history of the company (characterizing it as having a “black halo”), but also discussed the kinds of allegations that in its view justified such depositions.  This decision is useful because there is little caselaw discussing the scope of discovery in this context other than from an SLC.

In this case, plaintiffs sought and received discovery from the SLC.  The key question on defendants’ motions was what discovery plaintiffs would be permitted from certain defendant directors who benefited from the SLC’s motion to dismiss certain claims.

The Court denied the motions and began with the observation that this was not “a typical case”.  Rather, it continued, the case was one “that I’ve had for however many years now where people hide things, they lie, they engage in fraud.”  “No phase of this company’s multi-phase history has ever involved actions that are inspiring of confidence,” said the Court.  But for that background, the Court said it would have been “highly likely” to “limit the scope” of discovery.

The Court also observed that other circumstances “were probably sufficient to warrant a deposition regardless”.  One director had engaged in communications with the (single-member) SLC concerning its functioning such as whether an in-person meeting with plaintiffs’ counsel was appropriate, fees the SLC should pay, and changes in SLC composition upon the election of new directors.  The Court held that those communications “are probably sufficient to warrant a deposition regardless.”  Similarly, it held that another director’s relationships with certain parties, particularly the SLC, were sufficient to warrant his deposition.

Separately, the Court noted that no live testimony would be permitted in the hearing on the SLC’s motion to terminate certain claims (a “Zapata” hearing), reasoning that the applicable standard was akin to a summary judgment motion.

The Court did not lay down a new rule or standard for discovery from defendant directors as to an SLC’s motion to terminate litigation.  It is a given that such discovery may be difficult to obtain and may require a particularized showing from plaintiff.  The Court, however, may be influenced by extensive past bad conduct on the part of the company or those associated with it.   It may also grant discovery into (1) communications between the SLC and the defendant director about the functioning of the SLC; and (2) specific relationships between the defendant director and others, particularly the SLC, that could have a bearing on the SLC’s motion.

The Williford Firm LLC serves as counsel for plaintiffs in this action.

Filed under: Court of Chancery, Derivative Actions, Zapata

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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.