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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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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Rural/Metro II: Additional Lessons for Financial Advisors, Directors and Counsel in M&A Transactions And Related Litigation

On October 10, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding nearly $76 million in damages against a seller’s financial advisor. In an earlier March 7, 2014 opinion in the case, In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Laster found RBC Capital Markets, LLC liable for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty in connection with Rural’s 2011 sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus for $17.25 a share, a premium of 37% over the pre-announcement market price. The recent decision reinforces lessons from the March 7 decision and provides new guidance for directors and their advisors in M&A transactions and related litigation.

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Disclosing Merger Negotiations: The Eleventh Circuit Weighs In

Corporate merger negotiations are typically conducted under a veil of secrecy, with public disclosure withheld until the end when a definitive agreement has been signed. The fear is that premature disclosure of preliminary merger talks will negatively impact the deal. For example, early disclosure might encourage speculative investment in the target company’s stock, driving up the price and diminishing shareholders’ perception of the offered premium, or even cause potential bidders to be reluctant to make an offer in the first place. In light of these problematic scenarios, courts widely recognize that typically there is no duty to disclose merger negotiations prior to the execution of a definitive merger agreement. See, e.g., Thesling v. Bioenvision, Inc., 374 F. App’x 141, 143 (2d Cir. 2010) (there is “no express duty [that] requires the disclosure of merger negotiations, as opposed to a definitive merger agreement”); Williams v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 120 F.3d 1163, 1174 (11th Cir. 1997) (“In the context of sales of stock while negotiations for merger or acquisitions were pending, courts have found no duty to disclose the negotiations”). Read More

Purchase Timing a Wall to Facebook Derivative Litigation Despite Unenforceability of Forum Selection Clause

Four derivative lawsuits against Facebook’s directors relating to alleged disclosure issues surrounding the company’s initial public offering have a new status: Dismissed. Last month, Judge Robert Sweet of the Southern District of New York dismissed the suits on standing and ripeness grounds, finding that IPO purchasers have no standing to pursue claims related to alleged misconduct that took place before the IPO. The dismissed derivative suits were “tag-along” actions that largely parroted allegations made by investors in a parallel securities class action also pending before Judge Sweet, and had sought to hold Facebook’s directors liable for damages the company might incur as a result of the securities class action.

In dismissing the suits, Judge Sweet held that plaintiffs who buy stock in an IPO lack standing to pursue derivative claims based on alleged misstatements in an IPO registration statement. As Judge Sweet explained, in order to have standing to sue derivatively on behalf of a company, a plaintiff must have owned stock in the company at the time of the alleged misconduct. The registration statement that the plaintiffs allege to have been misleading, however, was finalized and filed with the SEC two days before the IPO. Judge Sweet rejected plaintiffs’ attempts to create standing by arguing that the wrong continued through the date of the IPO because the directors did not correct the allegedly misleading statements by that date. Read More

Shareholder Demands: Accepted, Refused or Deferred? Let’s ask RUSH.

When a shareholder makes a demand on a company to pursue litigation, the company’s board can look to generally well-developed law to determine how to evaluate the demand. Though there is no one particular procedure a board must employ, there are numerous cases that explain how the board must inform itself about the demand in order to reach a good faith, “rational business decision” about whether to accept or refuse.

The rules for considering a shareholder demand are pragmatic, and afford corporate boards a dependable road map for responding to shareholder requests.

One open question (at least in Delaware, where it matters most) has been whether a board’s informed, good faith decision to defer action on a demand constitutes a “rational business decision” that is protected by the business judgment rule. Delaware courts have long held that while an informed board can refuse a demand, the one thing a board cannot do is nothing. At the same time, however, corporations often face the circumstance where there are follow-on shareholder litigation demands entirely duplicative of existing litigations or investigations. In those circumstances, a board could have any number of business justifications for wanting to defer action on the demand until the ongoing proceedings are resolved, but that would seem to violate the rule against doing nothing.

Genius rock lyricist Geddy Lee of RUSH once wrote “If you choose not to decide, you have still made a choice.”

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit and certain federal district courts have recognized that a board’s informed, good faith decision to defer action on a demand during pending litigation or investigations is itself a decision that can be shielded by the business judgment rule. For example, in 2009, the Ninth Circuit found there was a “compelling” business justification for deferring action on a demand where the company’s pursuit of the demand’s allegations could be cast as an admission of wrongdoing in ongoing litigation. Read More