Delaware Court Rules that 17.5% Shareholder May Be Controlling Stockholder

On November 26, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss a complaint challenging a going-private transaction where the company’s CEO, Chairman and 17.5% stockholder was leading the buyout group.  In his decision in the case, In Re Zhongpin Inc. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Noble concluded that the complaint pled sufficient facts to raise an inference that the CEO, Xianfu Zhu, was a controlling stockholder, and as a result, the deferential business judgment rule standard of review did not apply.  Instead, the far more exacting entire fairness standard governed, which in turn led the Court to deny the motion. 

This is the fourth recent decision to address when a less-than 50% stockholder can be considered a controller, an issue that determines whether the alleged controller owes fiduciary duties to other stockholders and the standard of review the Court will apply in evaluating the challenged transaction.  The decision therefore provides important guidance for directors and their advisors in structuring transactions involving large stockholders.

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No Knowledge, No Jail: Second Circuit Clarifies Scope of Tippee Insider Trading Liability

On December 10, 2014, the Second Circuit issued an important decision (U.S. v. Newman, No. 13-1837, 2014 WL 6911278 (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014)) that will make it more difficult in that Circuit for prosecutors, and most likely the SEC, to prevail on a “tippee” theory of insider trading liability. Characterizing the government’s recent tippee insider trading prosecutions as “novel” in targeting “remote tippees many levels removed from corporate insiders,” the court reversed the convictions of two investment fund managers upon concluding that the lower court gave erroneous jury instructions and finding insufficient evidence to sustain the convictions. The court held, contrary to the government’s position, that tippee liability requires that the tippee trade on information he or she knows to have been disclosed by the tipper: (i) in violation of a fiduciary duty, and (ii) in exchange for a meaningful personal benefit. Absent such knowledge, the tippee is not liable for trading on the information.

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New York Extends Common Interest Privilege Protection to Non-Litigation Communications

Ordinarily, when a communication between an attorney and her client is disclosed to a third party, that communication loses its privileged status.  The common interest privilege operates as an exception to that rule that allows the privilege to extend to communications with certain third parties.  For the common interest doctrine to apply, the communication must be in furtherance of a legal interest that is shared by the client and the third party.  Historically, New York courts additionally required that the communication relate to legal advice regarding pending or prospective litigation.  On December 4, 2014, in a landmark decision, a New York appellate court did away with this additional requirement.

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SEC’s Administrative Proceedings: Where One Stands Appears to Depend on Where One Sits

As we have previously reported, practitioners and judges alike have recently been questioning the SEC’s increased use of administrative proceedings. Defense lawyers complain that administrative proceedings, which have historically been a rarely used enforcement tool, are stacked against respondents. Recently, Judge Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York publicly discussed the “dangers” that “lurk in the SEC’s apparent new policy.” Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney delivered a speech late last month responding to public criticism, in particular countering many points raised by Judge Rakoff.

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Delaware Court Provides Guidance on Acceptable Deal Protection Mechanisms and Scope of Third Party Aiding and Abetting Liability in a Sale-of-Control Situation

On November 25, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision in In Re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation, which: (1) dismissed claims that the Comverge board of directors conducted a flawed sales process and approved an inadequate merger price in connection with the directors’ approval of a sale of the company to H.I.G. Capital LLC; (2) permitted fiduciary duty claims against the directors to proceed based on allegations related to the deal protection mechanisms in the merger agreement, including termination fees potentially payable to HIG of up to 13% of the equity value of the transaction; and (3) dismissed a claim against HIG for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty.

The case provides important guidance to directors and their advisors in discharging fiduciary duties in a situation where Revlon applies and in negotiating acceptable deal protection mechanisms. The decision also is the latest in a series of recent opinions addressing and defining the scope of third party aiding and abetting liability.

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Delaware Court Preliminarily Enjoins Merger Due to Flawed Sales Process

On November 24, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery preliminarily enjoined for thirty days a vote by C&J Energy Services stockholders on a merger with Nabors Red Lion Limited, to allow time for C&J’s board of directors to explore alternative transactions. In a bench ruling in the case, City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. C&J Energy Services, Inc., Vice Chancellor Noble concluded that “it is not so clear that the [C&J] board approached this transaction as a sale,” with the attendant “engagement that one would expect from a board in the sales process.” Interestingly, the Court called the issue a “very close call,” and indicated it would certify the question to the Delaware Supreme Court at the request of either of the parties (at this time it does not appear either party has made a request). The decision provides guidance regarding appropriate board decision-making in merger transactions, particularly where one merger party is assuming minority status in the combined entity yet also acquiring management and board control.

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D.C. Circuit to Re-Consider Whether SEC Disclosure Rule Aimed at Curbing Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Violates the First Amendment

In an interesting and uncommon intersection between securities law, curbing human rights abuses and freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently agreed to re-consider whether the SEC can require companies to disclose whether their products contain “conflict minerals.” The term “Conflict Minerals” is defined in Section 1502(e)(4) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”) and refers to certain minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”), or an adjoining country, that have been used by armed groups to help finance violent conflicts and human rights abuses in those countries. These minerals currently include gold, tin, tatalum, tungsten, and may include any other mineral the Secretary of State determines is being used to finance conflict in the DRC or an adjoining country.

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Tweet, Tweet: The SEC Gets Social

The SEC recently issued an investor alert to warn investors about potential fraudulent investment schemes involving popular social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, turning its eye towards investor fraud perpetuated via social media. The alert, issued by the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, provides five tips to help consumers recognize and avoid investment fraud, easily made anonymous online, using social media websites and services: (1) be wary of unsolicited offers to invest; (2) look for “red flags,” e.g., offers that sound too good to be true or that “guarantee” returns; (3) look for “affinity frauds,” which are “investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly or professional groups;” (4) be thoughtful about privacy and security settings; and (5) ask questions and investigate investment opportunities thoroughly. The alert also describes common investment scams that have used social media and the internet to gain traction, including “Pump-and-dump” schemes, fraudulent “research opinions” or “investment newsletters,” high-yield investment programs, and offerings that just fail to comply with applicable registration provisions of the federal securities laws.

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Keep Your Unreasonable Opinions to Yourselves: The Supreme Court Hears Argument in Omnicare

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral argument in Omnicare v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund. As discussed in earlier posts, from March 18, 2014 and July 22, 2014, the Supreme Court in Omnicare has been asked to resolve a circuit split regarding the scope of liability under Section 11 of the Securities Act: does an issuer violate Section 11 if it makes a statement of opinion that is objectively false, or must the issuer also have known that the statement was false when made?

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