Delaware Supreme Court Tells Controlling Shareholders “If You Look Out For Your Minority, We’ll Look Out For You”

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.
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You Were Wrong, But Did You Know You Were Wrong? The Supreme Court to Resolve the Circuit Split On the Pleading Standard for Opinion-Based Allegations Under Section 11

Can a securities plaintiff satisfy Section 11 of the Securities Act simply by alleging that a statement of opinion was objectively false, or must the plaintiff also allege that the speaker subjectively knew the statement was false when it was made?  That is the question taken up by the Supreme Court earlier this month when it granted certiorari in Omnicare, Inc. v. The Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund and the Cement Masons Local 526 Combined Funds.  As we previously discussed, the Sixth Circuit decision on appeal runs contrary to decisions in the Second and Ninth Circuits, so all eyes are on the Court to settle the debate. Read More

The Volcker Rule: Great Expectations for Regulating Risk

On Tuesday, December 10, five federal regulatory agencies, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, jointly released the long awaited and hotly contested “Final Rules Implementing the Volcker Rule.”   The Rules and supplement, together more than 900 pages long, are already generating comment and controversy for their complexity and severity—or lack thereof, depending on who you ask.  The Rules become effective on April 1, 2014 with final conformance expected by July 21, 2015.

A Product of Hard Times

Paul Volcker, an economist, former Federal Reserve Chairman and former chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, initially proposed a (seemingly) simple rule restricting certain risk-taking activity by American banks in a 3-page letter to President Obama in 2009.  Speculative activity, for example, proprietary trading, was believed to have contributed to the “too big to fail” position that the nation’s largest banks found themselves in at the height of the Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009.  The Volcker rule thus proposed prohibiting banks from engaging in short-term proprietary trading on their own account.  It also proposed limiting the relationships that banks could have with hedge funds and other private equity entities.  Not long after its proposal, the rule was made into law in Section 619 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, to take effect upon the issuance of implementing regulations.   Read More

Looking Past the Labels: Bank’s Disgorgement Payment to SEC Not Necessarily Excluded from D&O Coverage

In 2006, Bear Stearns agreed to a $250 million “neither admit nor deny” settlement with the SEC to settle charges that it facilitated late trading and deceptive market timing by its hedge fund customers. $160 million of that settlement payment was characterized in the SEC’s Order as disgorgement of profits, even though Bear Stearns contended its own profits from the trades were less than $17 million. J.P. Morgan (the successor to Bear Stearns) sought D&O insurance coverage for the portion of the disgorgement payment that was attributable to the profits of its hedge fund customers, rather than revenue it received. The insurers denied the Bank’s claim on the ground that New York public policy prohibits insurance coverage for disgorgement payments. Disgorgement, the reasoning goes, is the return of ill-gotten gains and therefore payment for intentionally caused harm. The insurers also argued that disgorgement does not qualify as a “loss” or “damage” under terms of the insurance policies. The trial court agreed and dismissed Bear Stearns coverage suit against its D&O insurers.

On June 11 the New York Court of Appeal reinstated Bear Stearns’s coverage action. J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., et al. v. Vigilant Ins. Co., et al., 2013 N.Y. LEXIS 1465 (June 11, 2013). The Court of Appeal held that the Court must look beyond the labels of the SEC Order and even beyond its findings that the Bank’s securities law violations were willful. Those findings, the Court held, were not sufficient to conclusively establish that Bear Stearns intentionally caused harm. In short, the Court of Appeal allows the possibility of coverage for disgorgement if the insured can demonstrate that the payment, although labeled “disgorgement”, is actually payment for something else that might otherwise qualify for insurance coverage.

The June 11 ruling is notable for another reason – it came the week before SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White announced that the SEC would depart in some cases from its long-established practice of “neither admit nor deny” settlements. It is an open question whether the Court of Appeal would have allowed J.P. Morgan/Bear Stearns’ coverage action to proceed if its settlement with the SEC had not included a neither admit nor deny provision. The Court’s willingness to look beyond the disgorgement label further highlights the importance of avoiding binding admissions wherever possible, so as to leave open every possible coverage avenue.

 

How Corporate Charters Can Protect Directors from Money Damages for Acts of Negligence

Several weeks ago we asked whether directors of public companies face potential liability for not preventing cyber attacks. But what about liability for other acts of oversight? Can directors be held personally liable for money damages when they have done nothing affirmatively wrong?

Generally, the answer is no. Many states, like Delaware, allow corporate charters to include provisions that protect directors (and sometimes officers) from money damages for certain breaches of fiduciary duty. Acts that are not protected include breaches of the duty of loyalty, intentional misconduct, knowing violations of the law or receiving an improper personal benefit. But where plaintiffs seek money damages for breaches of the duty of care, exculpatory provisions in corporate charters typically provide directors a defense to the claims.

Practically speaking, these provisions protect directors against claims of negligence, and some courts have held the provisions even go so far as to protect against “reckless indifference.” The protection stops, however, when a director consciously disregards his or her duties. For example, and with reference to the earlier discussion on cyber attacks, an exculpatory provision might not shield a director from money damages where (i) a damaging cyber attack occurred, and (ii) it could be proven that the director exhibited a “sustained or systematic failure to exercise reasonable oversight” over the company’s cybersecurity, such that it evidenced the director’s conscious disregard of cybersecurity. Read More

Second Circuit Blunts Impact of American Pipe Tolling; Plaintiffs Must Bring ’33 Act Claims Before the Three Year Statute of Repose Expires

The Second Circuit last week ruled on a key aspect of the timing of securities suits. Under the Supreme Court’s decision in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), plaintiffs are often able to revive claims by relying on earlier-filed class actions to toll the statute of limitations. RMBS plaintiffs have recently turned to American Pipe when their putative class actions are dismissed for lack of standing. 

In In re IndyMac Mortgage-Backed Securities Litigation, lead plaintiffs lacked standing to bring certain claims, which were dismissed by the district court. Other members of the asserted class—who had not been named as plaintiffs—sought to intervene in the action in order to bring those dismissed claims. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York denied the investors’ motions to intervene. Read More

Do A Deal and You’re Sure to Get Sued; Now, at Least, You Can Get Sued in Just One Place

These days almost every public company that announces an agreement to sell itself can expect to be the subject of multiple shareholder class actions challenging the transaction – even if shareholders will be receiving a blowout price for their shares under the terms of the agreement. Many of these cases are baseless, and are brought by plaintiffs hoping to leverage a quick settlement. Their strategy, in blunt terms, is to force a speedy payment by threatening to disrupt or stall the deal. Unfortunately, even if the litigation presents only a small risk of disrupting or delaying the deal, many companies feel obligated to settle rather than risk upsetting the deal.

It’s bad enough that target companies and their boards are forced to deal with these “worthless” “sue-on-every-deal cases,” as Delaware Vice Chancellor Travis Laster once described them, but they often have to deal with them in multiple jurisdictions. Indeed, rarely are shareholder class actions challenging a merger brought in a single forum. Instead, companies and their boards are forced to expend time and money defending against duplicative lawsuits in multiple fora around the country. Read More

Do Directors Face Potential Liability for Not Preventing Cyber Attacks?

In the past weeks, we’ve reported that while most companies are properly disclosing their exposure to cybersecurity threats, the increasing occurrence and severity of cyber attacks has the SEC considering even more stringent cybersecurity disclosure requirements. Now, another study reports that while 38% of Fortune 500 companies have disclosed that a potential cyber event would “adversely” impact their business, only six percent of those companies purchase cyber security insurance.

What of the other 94%? Should they be doing more to protect themselves against the growing cyber threat? Do their directors have a fiduciary obligation to do more?

In re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation, a Delaware decision from 1996, sets forth a director’s obligations to monitor against threats such as cyber attacks. In short, as long as a director acts in good faith, as long as she exercises proper due care and does not exhibit gross negligence, she cannot be held liable for failing to anticipate or prevent a cyber attack. However, if a plaintiff can show that a director “failed to act in the face of a known duty to act, thereby demonstrating a conscious disregard for [her] responsibilities,” it could give rise to a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. Read More

Fannie and Freddie Shareholders to US: 2008 Government Takeover of Mortgage Giants Good For the Country; Not So Much For Us

Can shareholders of a government-sponsored enterprise successfully challenge the constitutionality of a government takeover of the entity?  Shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will try to do so in a $41 billion class action filed against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims on June 10, 2013. Plaintiffs allege that even though the Federal Housing Finance Authority’s 2008 takeover of the mortgage giants benefited the nation as a whole, it harmed the companies’ shareholders and violated their constitutionally protected private ownership rights.

Congress established Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to expand the nation’s secondary mortgage market by increasing the availability of funds to finance mortgages and home ownership. The government operated Fannie and Freddie until 1968 and 1989, respectively, when the companies were reorganized as “government-sponsored enterprises,” or federally chartered private corporations. Since then, both companies have operated as shareholder-owned, publicly traded corporations. But in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, both companies were placed under the conservatorship of FHFA, pursuant to the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA).

Plaintiffs allege that prior to the 2008 takeover, the government adjusted the companies’ lending standards and capital restraints to encourage the companies to purchase a greater number of risky subprime securities. While this ultimately led to significant weaknesses in the companies’ portfolios, Plaintiffs contend that the companies nonetheless remained adequately capitalized and financially sound, and did not need the conservatorships. According to Plaintiffs, the government improperly bullied the companies’ boards into acquiescing in the takeover. Read More

What Makes a Director “Independent”?

What makes a director “independent”? That question is important, not only to investors who want to ensure that boards of directors exercise objective judgment on corporate affairs, but also to companies, who need assurance that their boards will not run afoul of exchange listing requirements, and to directors themselves, for protection against shareholder lawsuits challenging board decisions.

Listing requirements for both the New York Stock Exchange  and NASDAQ provide basic checklists for directors independence, and state generally that directors cannot be employed by the company, cannot have family members who are employed by the company and cannot have a controlling interest in the company’s substantial business partners. But the exchanges’ listing requirements also contemplate that the question of independence is far broader than any checklist. The NYSE’s listing requirements further note that directors should have “no material relationship” with the Company; NASDAQ’S requirements state directors should have no relationship which “would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment in carrying out the responsibilities of a director.” Read More