On May 19, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court preliminarily enjoined the directors of Cogentix Medical from reducing the size of the company’s board because, under the facts presented, there was a reasonable probability that the board reduction plan was implemented to defeat insurgent candidates in a contested director election. Pell v. Kill, C.A. No. 12251-VCL (Del. Ch. May 19, 2016). The decision is a reminder that board actions that affect the shareholder vote—particularly decisions that make it more difficult for stockholders to elect directors not supported by management—will be subject to enhanced judicial scrutiny by Delaware courts on the lookout with a “gimlet eye” for conduct having a preclusive or coercive effect on the stockholder vote.
On May 6, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Delaware Chancery Court’s ruling that Zale Corporation’s sale to Signet Jewelers withstood scrutiny under the business judgment rule because the transaction was approved by a fully-informed, uncoerced vote of the disinterested stockholders, and that an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim against Zale’s financial advisor failed as a matter of law where the plaintiff failed to establish that the Zale board had acted with gross negligence. In so holding, the Court reaffirmed its holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), that in cases in which Revlon would otherwise apply, approval of the transaction by a fully-informed, uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders invokes the deferential business judgment rule standard of review. While the Court also affirmed the Chancery Court’s dismissal of the aiding and abetting claim against Zale’s financial advisor, it called the Chancery Court’s reasoning for the dismissal into doubt and sounded a cautionary note to gatekeepers that they are not insulated from liability merely because they are alleged to have aided and abetted a non-exculpated breach of fiduciary duty by their director clients.
On February 29, 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss fiduciary duty claims against certain current and former directors of Halt Medical and a 26% stockholder, American Capital, arising out of a transaction that was allegedly designed to “squeeze out” minority stockholders. See Calesa Associates, L.P. v. American Capital, Ltd., C.A. No. 10557-VCG. Vice Chancellor Glasscock found that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that American, despite owning only 26% of the company’s shares, exercised sufficient influence over the Halt Medical board such that it and certain affiliates could be deemed “controlling stockholders” owing fiduciary duties to other stockholders. Among other things, the decision in Calesa reaffirmed that majority stock ownership is not the sole criterion for determining “control.” The decision also sounded a cautionary note, however, by suggesting that, where plaintiffs remain minority stockholders in the company after the allegedly dilutive transaction at issue, they must plead demand futility even where, as here, only direct claims are asserted, or face dismissal at the pleading stage.
As previously discussed here, in 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a number of decisions calling for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to a shareholder class. For example, the recent decision in In re Riverbed Technology, Inc. Stockholders Litigation expressly eliminated the “reasonable expectation” that a merger case can be settled by exchanging insignificant supplemental disclosures (and nothing more) for a broad release of claims. In In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, the Chancery Court demonstrated that its “increase[ed] vigilance” in this area is genuine, rejecting a disclosure-only M&A settlement and finding that the supplemental disclosures did not warrant the broad release of claims.
On December 10, 2015, the Oregon Supreme Court held that an exclusive forum bylaw provision adopted unilaterally by a Delaware company’s board was a valid and enforceable contractual forum selection clause. Importantly, the Oregon decision is the only reported non-Delaware appellate court decision to date addressing the validity of exclusive forum bylaws on the merits.
The decision, Roberts v. TriQuint Semiconductor, Inc., comes on the heels of the Delaware Court of Chancery’s forum bylaw ruling in Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund v. Chevron Corporation. As previously noted on this blog, in Chevron, then-Chancellor Strine of the Delaware Court of Chancery held that an exclusive forum bylaw provision adopted unilaterally by a board was both facially valid under the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”) and an enforceable contractual forum selection clause. Citing Chevron, the Oregon Supreme Court similarly concluded that an exclusive forum bylaw adopted only two days prior to the announcement of a merger was permissible and did not render the bylaw unenforceable in the shareholder merger litigation that followed.
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.
Disclosure-only settlements have been popular in the past – last year, about 80% of settlements in M&A-related lawsuits were for disclosures only, according to Cornerstone Research – but lately they have come under scrutiny. The Delaware Court of Chancery has issued opinions refusing disclosure-only settlement agreements before, noting that at times in these cases “there is simply little to commend the process of weighing the merits of a ‘settlement’ of litigation where the only continuing interest is that of the plaintiffs’ counsel in recovering a fee.” The incentives of attorneys on both sides can be such that “the potential claims belonging to the class [are not] adequately or diligently investigated or pursued.”
On October 21, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a post-trial opinion in an appraisal action in which it yet again found that the merger price was the most reliable indicator of fair value. Vice Chancellor Glasscock’s opinion in Merion Capital LP v. BMC Software, Inc., No. 8900-VCG (Del. Ch. Oct. 21, 2015), underscores, yet again, the critical importance of merger price and process in Delaware appraisal actions. In fact, as we have previously discussed, Merion is just the latest of several decisions by the Delaware Chancery Court over the past six months finding that merger price (following an arm’s length, thorough and informed sales process) represented the most reliable indicator of fair value in the context of an appraisal proceeding. See also LongPath Capital, LLC v. Ramtron Int’l Corp., No. 8094-VCP (Del. Ch. June 30, 2015); Merlin Partners LP v. AutoInfo, Inc., No. 8509-VCN (Del. Ch. Apr. 30, 2015).
The past decade has seen an incredible rise in M&A litigation. According to Cornerstone, in 2014, a whopping 93% of announced mergers valued over $100 million were subject to litigation, up from 44% in 2007. As Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine explained several years ago, “the reality is that every merger involving Delaware public companies draws shareholder litigation within days of its announcement.” These lawyer-driven class action suits, which typically allege breaches of fiduciary duty by directors and insufficient disclosures, overwhelmingly end in settlement, with corporate defendants agreeing to provide additional disclosures in exchange for a broad release, and plaintiffs’ counsel walking away with attorneys’ fees for the theoretical “benefit” they conferred upon the class.
In a lengthy ruling containing a detailed analysis of dueling economic expert reports, a federal court in Texas held on July 25, 2015 that defendant Halliburton Company demonstrated a lack of price impact at the class-certification stage on nearly all of the plaintiffs’ claims, thus rebutting the presumption of reliance. This action has twice been to the Supreme Court, most recently in Halliburton, Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (“Halliburton II”), which held that the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance may be rebutted by showing a lack of price impact from the alleged misrepresentation. The district court’s recent decision is significant because it is one of the first to consider the issue of price impact post-Halliburton II, and because the decision suggests that lower courts may be willing to wade deep into the complications of event studies and economic analysis in order to determine price impact at the class-certification stage.