Ruling from the bench on dueling motions for summary judgment just days before a special meeting of shareholders was to be held, on December 21, 2015, Delaware Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster invalidated certain provisions in VAALCO Energy, Inc.’s (“VAALCO”) certificate of incorporation and bylaws (the “Charter and Bylaws Provisions”). The litigation and ruling stem from investor attempts to remove a majority of VAALCO’s Board. VAALCO argued that the Charter and Bylaws Provisions prevented investors from removing board members without cause. Vice Chancellor Laster disagreed, holding that these provisions, in purporting to restrict stockholders’ ability to remove directors without cause in the absence of a classified board or cumulative voting provision, violated Delaware corporate law. The ruling is a cautionary note for a small percentage of Delaware corporations that apparently still have similar provisions on their books.
Alex Talarides, a senior associate in the San Francisco office, is a member of the Securities Litigation, Investigations and Enforcement Group.
Mr. Talarides’ practice focuses on disputes involving mergers and acquisitions, proxy contests, directors and officers liability, indemnification and advancement, and stockholder access to books and records; counseling directors, officers, special committees and stockholders on issues of corporation and alternative entity law; and disputes involving complex agreements such as merger agreements, asset purchase agreements, limited liability company and partnership agreements.
Mr. Talarides has handled a broad array of securities, financial, accounting and other business disputes in federal and state courts throughout the country. He has also assisted boards of directors in connection with stockholder derivative actions and has assisted boards, officers and others in SEC investigations.
Mr. Talarides has represented Chesapeake Energy, Nordstrom, PayPal, 23andMe, Deckers Outdoor, Oracle, Microsoft, LinkedIn, ASUS, NVIDIA, SemiLEDs, Electronic Arts, Emerson Electric, Barclays, Charles Schwab, UBS, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Viasystems Group, ZipRealty, Synopsys, SureWest Communications, Recurrent Energy, Pre-Paid Legal Services, Merix, Par Pharmaceutical Companies, among others.
On August 5, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved its final rule subjecting most public companies to the so-called “Pay Ratio Disclosure” mandated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The SEC voted 3-2 to approve the measure, with the panel’s two Republican members opposing it. In the split vote, the SEC finally put into place one of the most controversial rules mandated by Dodd-Frank. In the years since the SEC began working on the rule, it has attracted an intense measure of both public scrutiny and advocacy, drawing more than 286,000 public comments.
It is well-established that a shareholder-plaintiff may not assert derivative claims against a corporation’s officers or directors unless he or she makes a pre-suit demand on the corporation’s board of directors and alleges particularized facts showing that the demand was wrongfully refused, or alleges particularized facts showing that a demand on the board would have been futile. One question that frequently arises is whether the shareholder-plaintiff may obtain discovery from the corporation and its officers and directors in order to assist his or her compliance with this threshold pleading obligation.
Back in May we discussed ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund a seminal Delaware Supreme Court case that upheld a non-stock corporation’s “loser pays” fee-shifting bylaw. ATP Tour held that where a Delaware corporation adopts a fee-shifting bylaw, it can recover its fees and costs from any shareholder that brings a derivative lawsuit and loses. Many commentators have suggested the case would effectively kill derivative actions in Delaware and indeed, since the time of that decision, the Delaware Corporation Law Council has proposed amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law that would limit its applicability to only non-stock corporations.
Last week the Oklahoma State Legislature went a step further than ATP Tour and amended the Oklahoma General Corporation Act to specifically require fee-shifting for all derivative lawsuits brought in the state, whether against an Oklahoma corporation or not. Unlike the fee provision in ATP Tour, however, the law also affords derivative plaintiffs the right to recover their fees and costs should they win final judgment.
The difference is likely substantial. For while the law will potentially chill unmeritorious derivative actions, also known as “strike suits,” it could also provide an incentive for derivative plaintiffs with strong claims. Where shareholders use the “tools at hand”—including books and records inspection requests—to carefully vet their claims before filing, the promise of a fee recovery could encourage shareholder plaintiffs to bring claims they otherwise might not.
Consider: in the typical derivative lawsuit, the shareholder plaintiff stands to gain nothing tangible if he or she wins. Because he or she is suing on behalf of the corporation, any recovery will inure to the corporation itself. Thus, under the old regime, even if a derivative lawsuit was successful, the plaintiff would receive, at most, any resulting increase in the value of his or her company stock. Under the new statute, that same plaintiff could stand to receive the not-insubstantial costs of his or her efforts.
Earlier this month, Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York issued his opinion certifying a class of buyers of the common stock of a company created by a Chinese reverse merger. McIntire v. China MediaExpress Holdings, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113446 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2014). In doing so, he rejected defendants’ Daubert motion challenging the qualifications and methodology of plaintiffs’ expert witness on market efficiency, Cynthia Jones, and concluded that the market was efficient enough to support the Basic presumption of reliance and to permit class certification. Read More
On March 14, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously affirmed an important Delaware Court of Chancery decision issued in 2013 that offered a roadmap to companies and their directors on how to obtain the protections of the deferential business judgment rule when entering into a change-in-control transaction with a controlling stockholder. As we discussed previously, in In re MFW Shareholders Litigation, then-Chancellor (now Chief Justice) Strine held as a matter of first impression that the deferential business judgment rule – as opposed to the more onerous “entire fairness” – standard of review should apply to a merger with a controlling stockholder where (i) the controller conditions the transaction on the approval of both a Special Committee and a majority of the minority stockholders; (ii) the Special Committee is independent; (iii) the Special Committee is empowered to freely select its own advisors and to say no definitively; (iv) the Special Committee acts with care; (v) the minority vote is informed; and (vi) there is no coercion of the minority.
On January 31, 2014, Chevron Corporation moved to certify to the Delaware Supreme Court the question of whether exclusive forum bylaws are valid under Delaware law. Chevron filed its motion before the Honorable Jon S. Tigar of the Northern District of California. If Judge Tigar certifies the question, it seems likely that the Delaware Supreme Court will affirm a recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision finding such bylaws to be valid under statutory and contractual law, given that the author of that decision, then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine, is now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.
In 2013, plaintiffs filed suit in both the Delaware Court of Chancery and the Northern District of California challenging Chevron’s board-adopted forum exclusivity bylaw. The case in the Northern District was stayed pending the outcome of the Delaware case, since both involved questions of Delaware state law. The Delaware plaintiffs argued that the forum exclusivity bylaw was statutorily invalid under Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), and contractually invalid because it was adopted unilaterally without shareholder consent. In June 2013, the Delaware Court of Chancery – in a decision by then-Chancellor Strine – found that the bylaw was enforceable, and that the Delaware Court of Chancery should be the sole and exclusive forum for (1)any derivative action brought on behalf of the Corporation, (2) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty, (3) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the DGCL, or (4) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine. Read More
Executive compensation decisions are core functions of a board of directors and, absent unusual circumstances, are protected by the business judgment rule. As Delaware courts have repeatedly recognized, the size and structure of executive compensation are inherently matters of business judgment, and so, appropriately, directors have broad discretion in their executive compensation decisions. In light of the broad deference given to directors’ executive compensation decisions, courts rarely second-guess those decisions. That is particularly so when the board or committee setting executive compensation retains and relies on the advice of an independent compensation consultant.
Nevertheless, despite the high hurdle to challenging compensation packages, shareholder plaintiffs continue to aggressively challenge executive compensation decisions, in particular at companies that have performed poorly and received negative or low say-on-pay advisory votes. Read More
Recently we discussed whether directors of public companies face potential liability for not preventing cyber attacks. As we discussed, the answer is generally no, because absent allegations to show a director had a “conscious disregard” for her responsibilities, directors do not breach their fiduciary duties by failing to properly manage and oversee the company.
That well-established rule was again affirmed last week by the Delaware Court of Chancery in In re China Automotive Systems Inc. Derivative Litigation, a case that concerned an accounting restatement by a Chinese automotive parts company. Plaintiffs there alleged that the company’s directors breached their fiduciary duties by failing to manage and oversee the company’s accounting practices and the company’s auditors, who improperly accounted for certain convertible notes from 2009 to 2012. When the error was uncovered, the company restated its financials for two years and its stock price dropped by 15%. Read More
Corporations contemplating going private should take note of recent rulings from the Delaware Court of Chancery, which provide clear guidance on how to structure their transactions to reduce the risk of being subjected to the “entire fairness” standard of review.
Several months ago, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued an important MFW decision, in which Chancellor Strine set forth the procedural mechanisms a company can employ so that a going-private transaction with its controlling stockholder can be reviewed under the deferential business judgment rule, as opposed to the more stringent entire fairness standard. In that decision, Chancellor Strine held that the business judgment rule would apply if: (1) the controlling stockholder at the outset conditions the transaction on the approval of both a special committee and a non-waivable vote of a majority of the minority investors; (2) the special committee was independent, (3) fully empowered to negotiate the transaction, or to say no definitively, and to select its own advisors, and (4) satisfied its requisite duty of care; and (5) the stockholders were fully informed and uncoerced.
More recently, in SEPTA v. Volgenau, C.A. No. 6354-VCN (Del. Ch. Aug. 5, 2013), Vice Chancellor Noble provided further clarity on when a sale of a company with a controlling stockholder will be entitled to business judgment rule review. In SEPTA, Vice Chancellor Noble applied the business judgment rule and granted summary judgment to the defendants in case that challenged the acquisition of SRA International by Providence Equity Partners. Like the change-in-control transaction in MFW, the change-in-control transaction in SEPTA was negotiated by a disinterested and independent special committee and approved by a majority of the minority stockholders. Unlike MFW, however, where the controlling stockholder was the buyer in the transaction, SEPTA involved a transaction in which a third party was the buyer, and in which the controlling stockholder agreed to roll over a portion of his shares into the merged entity. Read More