On May 14, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court clarified that, even in conflict-of-interest transactions subject to “entire fairness” review, breach of fiduciary duty claims against independent, disinterested directors should be dismissed at the pleading stage where a complaint fails to allege a non-exculpated breach. See In re Cornerstone Therapeutics, Inc. S’holder Litig., Case No. 564, 2014; Leal, et al. v. Meeks, et al., Case No. 706, 2014 (Del. May 14, 2015). The Court’s decision resolves two separate consolidated appeals by outside directors of Cornerstone Therapeutics, Inc. and Zhongpin, Inc. (For a discussion of the Chancery Court’s Zhongpin decision, see Jason M. Halper, et al., Delaware Court Determines That 17.5% Stockholder Seeking to Take Company Private Could Be Deemed a Controller, The M&A Lawyer, Jan. 2015, Vol. 19, Issue 1.) In each case, the Chancery Court denied the independent directors’ motions to dismiss, even though there were no allegations that those directors committed a breach of loyalty or acted in bad faith such that the companies’ Section 102(b)(7) charter provisions would not apply. Instead, those courts held that “entire fairness” review effectively precludes dismissal of breach of fiduciary duty claims at the pleading stage based on a Section 102(b)(7) charter provision. The Supreme Court’s rejection of these decisions potentially offers significant protections to independent directors tasked with deciding whether to approve transactions involving interested directors.
Last week, Vice Chancellor Glasscock released an important decision dismissing a case under Rule 23.1 that was brought by a DuPont shareholder who alleged that the board improperly refused a demand to sue DuPont’s officers and directors. The suing shareholder alleged that the individual defendants caused DuPont to incur sanctions in, and eventually lose, a patent-infringement case brought by Monsanto concerning DuPont’s unauthorized use of Monsanto’s patents.
The Delaware court held that the plaintiff had not adequately alleged that DuPont’s board of directors had been unreasonable or acted in bad faith in rejecting a demand to sue the directors and officers who were purportedly responsible for DuPont’s liability in the Monsanto patent litigation.
As noted previously in this blog, the SEC and other regulatory agencies continue to display an increased interest in the issue of internal and supervisory controls. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) has continued this trend, recently bringing charges against a number of member firms related to allegedly inadequate supervisory controls.
Even with the SEC’s home-court advantage in bringing enforcement actions in its administrative court rather than in federal court, the SEC will still criticize its own administrative law judges (“ALJ”) when an ALJ’s decision falls short of established legal standards. On April 23, 2015, the SEC found that an ALJ’s decision to bar Gary L. McDuff from associating with a broker, dealer, investment adviser, municipal securities dealer, municipal adviser, transfer agent or nationally recognized statistical rating organization was insufficient because it lacked enough evidence to establish a statutory requirement to support a sanctions analysis. The SEC then remanded the matter to the same ALJ – no doubt in an effort to encourage him to revise his initial opinion.
On April 30, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a post-trial opinion in which it rejected an attempt by dissenting shareholders to extract extra consideration for their shares above the merger price through appraisal rights. See Merlin Partners LP v. AutoInfo, Inc., Slip. Op. Apr. 30, 2015, Case No. 8509-VCN (Del. Ch. Apr. 30, 2015). Vice Chancellor Noble’s decision in AutoInfo offers important lessons for companies, directors and their counsel when considering strategic transactions and/or defending against claims that they agreed to sell the company at an inadequate price. AutoInfo reaffirms that a negotiated merger price can be the most reliable indicator of value when it is the product of a fair and adequate process.
Last week the SEC announced an award of between $1.4 to $1.6 million to a whistleblower who provided information that assisted the SEC in an enforcement action. The enforcement action against the whistleblower’s company resulting in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million. This marks the second award to a whistleblower with an internal audit or compliance function at a company. The first was back in August 2014, when the SEC awarded a whistleblower in internal auditing/compliance with over $300,000. Here, as with the prior award, the officer had a reasonable basis for believing that disclosure to the SEC was necessary to prevent imminent misconduct from causing substantial financial harm to the company or investors. In both cases, responsible management was made aware of the potential harm that could occur, yet failed to take steps to prevent it.
On April 20, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding $171 million in damages to the common unitholders of a limited partnership against its general partner in connection with a “dropdown” transaction. The decision is the latest in a series of decisions by the Chancery Court concerning the conduct of directors and advisers in conflict of interest and/or sale of the company transactions. See also In re Rural/Metro Corp. S’holders Litig., No. 6350-VCL (Del. Ch. Oct. 10, 2014); Chen v. Howard-Anderson, No. 5878-VCL (Del Ch. April 8, 2014); In re Orchard Enter., Inc. S’holder Litig., No. 7840-VCL (Del. Ch. Feb. 28, 2014). The decision yet again highlights areas that should be of concern to boards and their advisers in such transactions.
Internal investigations are an ever-present challenge for companies. They can involve virtually any topic and arise in myriad ways. Embezzlement, accounting improprieties, bribery, and financial statement adjustments can all lead to a closely scrutinized investigation, with likely triggers of whistleblower reports, news articles, litigation demands, or regulatory inquiries. The common denominator is that they present high pressure and/or high stakes. Consequently, it is imperative that matters not be made worse through a flawed internal investigation. In today’s post, we cover some of the essential topics to keep in mind when managing an internal investigation to ensure that the investigation itself does not cause or exacerbate harm to the company.
The fall-out from the Second Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Newman continued last week in SEC v. Payton, when Southern District of New York Judge Jed S. Rakoff denied a motion to dismiss an SEC civil enforcement action against two former brokers, Daryl Payton and Benjamin Durant, one of whom (Payton) had just had his criminal plea for the same conduct reversed in light of Newman. Although the United States may be unable to make criminal charges stick against some alleged insider traders under a standard of “willfulness,” Judge Rakoff found that the SEC had sufficiently alleged that related conduct of the two brokers at the end of the tip line was “reckless,” satisfying the SEC’s lower civil standard.
Over the past year, the SEC and other regulatory agencies have initiated an increasing number of investigations into companies based on allegations of inadequate internal controls and/or a system for reporting those controls. For more on internal controls and a discussion of recent regulatory activity in this area, see Jason M. Halper & Jonathan E. Lopez, et al., Assessing the Increased Regulatory Focus on Public Company Internal Control and Reporting, Bloomberg BNA: Securities Regulation & Law Report, Oct. 6, 2014.