Delaware Corporate Law Update

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

Close Board Ties And A Shared Airplane Eliminate Independence

Earlier this month Chief Justice Strine authored an opinion (Sandys v. Pincus) holding that close ties among certain board members, including co-owning an airplane, caused key directors to be non-independent.  Therefore, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed Chancery’s grant of a motion to dismiss derivative claims for plaintiff not having demanded that the board bring them.

Plaintiff alleged that top managers and directors of Zynga Inc. breached their fiduciary duties by selling stock while in possession of non-public information which, when it became public later, caused Zynga’s stock price to drop some 74%.  After quickly concluding three of Zynga’s nine directors were interested or non-independent, Sandys primarily concerns three additional directors:  Ellen Siminoff, William Gordon, and John Doerr.

Plaintiff alleged that Siminoff and her husband co-owned an airplane with interested director Pincus (Zynga’s Chairman, controlling stockholder, and former CEO) and that she was a “close family friend” of that director.  The Court criticized plaintiff for not getting more information about the relationship, either in a books and records lawsuit plaintiff had previously filed against Zynga or simply from a search engine such as “the tool provided by the company whose name has become a verb”.  Nevertheless, the Court held Siminoff lacked independence because joint plane ownership was “suggestive of the type of very close personal relationship that, like family ties, one would expect to heavily influence a human’s ability to exercise impartial judgment.”

Plaintiff alleged a number of facts about Gordon and Doerr including that (1) both are partners in Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm that controls 9.2% of Zynga’s stock; (2) Kleiner Perkins invested in a company co-founded by Pincus’ wife; and (3) Kleiner Perkins had invested in and obtained board seats at another company with another interested director.  Moreover, the board had determined Gordon and Doerr non-independent for purposes of rules promulgated by the NASDAQ stock exchange.  The Court again criticized plaintiffs for not seeking additional information including the reasons for the NASDAQ determination.  Nevertheless, it ruled Gordon and Doerr non-independent where alleged facts suggest directors belong to “networks [that] arise of repeat players who cut each other into beneficial roles in various situations” and where the board itself has determined them non-independent.  Conversely, it held that plaintiffs need not plead a “detailed calendar of social interactions”.

Justice Valihura authored a (uncommon though certainly not unheard of) dissent.  As to Gordon and Doerr, Valihura cited the lack of pled facts on the size or materiality of the ties or the relevant reasons for the NASDAQ determination.  As to Siminoff, Valihura pointed to plaintiff’s own description of the shared airplane as evidencing a “business” relationship as insufficient to result in non-independence.

Key take-aways:

  • The Court did not announce a new standard on when close business or personal ties result in non-independence. Nevertheless, Sandys could lead to Delaware courts being more willing to hold directors non-independent in close cases involving specific pleaded facts that reasonably suggest possible bias.
  • It behooves all lawyers to use search engines in light of the massive amount of information available online, including before filing complaints. The Court cautions lawyers to use them to find information of a “reliable” nature such as “articles in reputable newspapers and journals, postings on official company websites, and information on university websites”.
  • The appeal concerned a motion to dismiss ruling using a somewhat plaintiff-friendly standard. Delaware courts will be more skeptical as to whether – after trial – a plaintiff has proven a director non-independent for purposes of invoking the stringent entire fairness standard.
  • Plaintiffs seeking pre-lawsuit books and records should consider asking for information about director independence if that issue is potentially relevant.

Filed under: Delaware Supreme Court, Demand Futility, Derivative Actions, Director Independence, Fiduciary Duties, Section 220 Books and Records

Chancery Court Dismisses Caremark Claim

In Melbourne Municipal Firefighters’ Pension Trust Fund v. Jacobs (opinion available here), Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves dismissed a fiduciary duty claim for failure of oversight (a so-called “Caremark claim”).  Caremark claims are well-known for being difficult to succeed on, and Melbourne further defines the limited circumstances where one is colorable.

Qualcomm, Inc. has paid more than one billion dollars for antitrust violations, including:  1) a $891M settlement for a 2005 claim by competitor Broadcom; 2) a $208M fine in 2009 by South Korea; 3) a 2010 claim by Japan still pending; and 4) a $975M fine in 2015 by China.  While these cases involved different allegations of wrongdoing, many involved Qualcomm’s market dominance in certain products used in wireless communications coupled with the same alleged failure to license its products on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (“FRAND”) terms.  Plaintiff alleged the first three cases were red flags that should have prompted Qualcomm’s board of directors to prevent the fourth.

Plaintiff filed its complaint after succeeding via a books-and-records case at getting some 14,000 pages of documents including board materials.  Plaintiff’s complaint pointed to board materials showing that Qualcomm’s board knew it expected to continue to face regulatory complaints and investigations in the future.   Rather than modifying its policies or prices to reduce or eliminate risk, however, Qualcomm’s board’s strategy on this issue was to educate “industry participants and government officials as to why its practices were legal” and to “pursu[e] appeals.”  Under Delaware law, “a fiduciary may not choose to manage an entity in an illegal fashion, even if the fiduciary believes that the illegal activity will result in profits for the entity.”

The Court held that plaintiffs did not state a claim.  In doing so it compared plaintiff’s claims to two cases in which Caremark claims survived.

In Massey Energy Co., a coal mining company had failed to change safety practices that later lead to the company pleading guilty to criminal charges including one count for violating safety standards resulting in death and a $4.5M fine.  The Court noted that in Massey the company’s CEO “publicly stated that the idea that governmental safety regulators knew more about mine safety than he did was silly.”  The Court distinguished Massey on the grounds that the red flags alleged there were far more egregious and indisputable; and that in that case the company had challenged the law itself, whereas in this case Qualcomm had not contested the antitrust laws themselves but taken the position that its conduct did not violate them.

In Pyott, the Board and CEO of a drug company knowingly approved a business plan that violated a ban on marketing drugs for off-label use.  It did so despite general counsel’s advice that the company “likely had engaged in such illegal conduct”.  Pyott criticized the Board’s view of the distinction between off-label selling and marketing “as a source of legal risk to be managed, rather than a boundary to be avoided.”  The Court emphasized that Pyott was based on the board’s alleged decision to cause the company to engage in illegal conduct, whereas here the allegation was that Qualcomm’s board did not put a halt to it.  Moreover, again, Qualcomm’s board had taken the position that its conduct did not violate the relevant rules.

Caremark claims are difficult in part because they strain against the boundaries of a basic principle of Delaware law, the business judgment rule.  As the Court observed in a quotation taken from another case, “In any business decision that turns out poorly there will likely be signs that one could point to and argue are evidence that the decision was wrong. . . . This temptation, however, is one of the reasons for the presumption against an objective review of business decisions by judges, a presumption that is no less applicable when the losses to the Company are large.”

Melbourne reinforces the view that Caremark claims are difficult to prevail on and that even decisions on whether one is colorable may well be fact-specific.  Other lessons of Melbourne are as follows:

  • Board or management statements of their well-informed belief that the activities in question are legal are helpful in defending such a claim.
  • On the other hand, statements that express or imply knowledge that such activities are illegal or show disrespect for regulatory authorities are unhelpful.
  • Legal rules protecting employee or customer well-being or safety, or those that involve or result in criminal prosecution, may be more dangerous to transgress than economic rules such as antitrust.
  • Creating a policy is more vulnerable than failing to discontinue an already-created one.
  • Board documents reaffirming the legality of a particular policy, and addressing and creating a strategy for continuing to support it, may support a later defense of failure to eliminate the policy. That being said, plaintiffs may also point to such documents as proof of red flags.

Filed under: Caremark, Court of Chancery

Chancery: Stockholder Ratifications Must Be Formal To Be Effective

On October 28, Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard held in Espinoza v. Zuckerberg (available here) that a disinterested controlling stockholder cannot informally ratify a transaction approved by an interested board of directors and thereby shift the standard of review from entire fairness to the business judgment presumption. Thus, stockholder ratification must occur via a stockholder vote or written consent.

The board of directors of Facebook, Inc., a Delaware corporation, awarded itself a compensation package in 2013. Plaintiff sued alleging the package was a self-interested transaction unfair to Facebook. After the filing of the lawsuit, Facebook’s controlling (61%) stockholder, Mark Zuckerberg, expressed his approval of the compensation package in an affidavit and a deposition. Defendants argued that Zuckerberg had thereby “ratified” the compensation package and, therefore, the business judgment presumption should apply and summary judgment should be granted in their favor.

The Court noted that ratification of the compensation packages could have been accomplished by voting at a stockholder meeting or, less intrusively, by a written consent in compliance with 8 Del. C. § 228. It is unclear to the reader (and quite possibly to the Chancellor) why Zuckerberg did not take the latter step. As the court observed, “the burden and expense of this litigation undoubtedly dwarf the burden of Zuckerberg signing an appropriate form of consent in this case.”

The Court stated it was “far from clear” that Zuckerberg intended his deposition statement to be a “definitive ratification of a specific corporate act” – Zuckerberg only testified (relevantly) that “‘the compensation plan that we have is doing its job of attracting and retaining them over the long term’”. The Court noted that even written consent required prompt notice to the other stockholders, while defendants’ informal ratification methods did not involve notice to other stockholders at all.

The Court disagreed with defendants, holding that “stockholder ratification of a self-dealing transaction must be accomplished formally by a vote at a meeting of stockholders or by written consent”. The Court expressed concern that allowing affidavits or deposition testimony to constitute ratification would become a slippery slope to “press releases, conversations with directors, or even ‘Liking’ a Facebook post of a proposed corporate action” being argued to be ratification, where it may not be clear exactly what actions are being ratified.

Filed under: Controlling Stockholder, Court of Chancery, Fiduciary Duties

Court of Chancery Rejects Summary Judgment As To Loyalty Claims Against VC Investors

Today the Court of Chancery released a memorandum opinion (available here) rejecting much of defendants’ summary judgment motion in a case brought by a unitholder in a Delaware LLC against two venture capital firms and/or their affiliates that had collectively acquired control of the LLC.  By way of disclosure, this firm represents plaintiffs in the litigation.

Plaintiff is a unitholder and former CEO of Adhezion Biomedical LLC, who challenged a series of issuances of preferred units and other rights to defendants including two venture capital firms/affiliates of those firms, Originate Ventures, LLC and Liberty Advisors, Inc.  Plaintiff claimed that the issuances breached defendants’ duties of care and loyalty and obligation of good faith, and violated provisions in the LLC Agreement requiring a class vote by common unitholders.  The Court granted summary judgment as to the duty of care and obligation of good faith claims, but denied it as to plaintiffs’ claims for breach of the duty of loyalty and based upon the class vote requirement.

Noteworthy sections of the Court’s ruling included the following:

  • The Court found a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the two VC firms and their affiliates should be treated as a group for purposes of imposing controlling stockholder duties upon them.  The two VC firms and their affiliates collectively owned more than 66% of the voting units, controlled two of five directors, and had parallel economic interests, and plaintiff identified multiple communications supporting an inference that they exerted actual control of capital raising activities.
  • The Court rejected defendants’ argument that director approval immunized the transactions based upon a provision in the LLC Agreement similar, but not identical, to Section 144 of the Delaware General Corporation Law.  In addition to noting other material factual disputes, the Court ruled that, as a matter of law, in any event it would not operate as a safe harbor against review of the challenged transactions for breach of the duty of loyalty under the entire fairness standard of review.

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

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.

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

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

Brophy Claim Does Not Require Harm To Company

The Delaware Supreme Court recently reversed the Court of Chancery to rule that a claim for insider trading based upon Delaware state fiduciary duty law, a so-called “Brophy” claim after the leading (Court of Chancery) case in that line, does not require proof of harm to the company.  Rather, the defendant can be required to disgorge profits previously received even where the company arguably was not harmed monetarily.  The Court in doing so also reaffirmed the vitality of the Brophy claim alongside federal law also dealing with insider trading claims.

In Kahn v. KKR & Co., LP, plaintiffs made a claim against KKR under Brophy v. Cities Service Co. for trading on the stock of nominal defendant Primedia, Inc. while in possession of nonpublic information (Primedia’s earnings would be better than previously forecasted).  The Court of Chancery granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.  The Court reasoned, among other things, that a disgorgement remedy would not be available to plaintiffs because there was no direct harm to Primedia, distinguishing the case from Brophy.

In Brophy, the defendant had acquired inside information that the corporation was about to purchase its own shares.  The defendant then bought a large number of shares and resold them after the corporation’s purchases had caused the stock price to rise.  The Court of Chancery in Kahn characterized Brophy itself as a case in which an insider “used confidential corporate information to compete directly with the corporation.”  It held that disgorgement was also theoretically available in Brophy cases involving actual fraud.

As those whose memories still stretch back to their Corporations and/or Securities Law classes in law school will recall, one of the controversies originally surrounding the federal laws concerning insider trading is that some argued that such conduct should not be an addressed because it did not harm the corporation.  While that view did not generally prevail with respect to federal securities laws, the Court of Chancery’s holding would have significantly limited the Brophy cause of action and a remedy for insider trading under Delaware state law.

The Supreme Court en Banc reversed, calling the Chancery decision “thoughtful but unduly narrow.”  The Court noted that Brophy itself had stated broadly, “In equity, when the breach of confidential relation by an employee is relied on and an accounting for any resulting profit is sought, loss to the corporation need not be charged in the complaint . . . Public policy will not permit an employee occupying a position of trust and confidence toward his employer to abuse that relation to his own profit, regardless of whether his employer suffers a loss.”

The Court cited the well-known principle that “Delaware law dictates that the scope of recovery for a breach of the duty of loyalty is not to be determined narrowly.”  It also cited the venerable Guth v. Loft case for its statement that the rule that a fiduciary must return profits gained in breach of his or her duty does not rest upon narrow grounds of injury to the corporation “but upon a broader foundation of a wise public policy that, for the purpose of removing all temptation, extinguishes all possibility of profit flowing from a breach of the confidence imposed by the fiduciary relation.”

Filed under: Brophy (Insider Trading) Claim, Fiduciary Duties

Pages

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.