We previously discussed how important a special negotiating committee of independent directors can be when defending against stockholder challenges to change-of-control transactions – particularly for going private transactions with controlling stockholders, which usually require boards to be able to prove the “entire fairness” of the transaction. This week, in an important decision that may reach the Delaware Supreme Court, In re MFW Shareholders Litigation, the Delaware Court of Chancery again affirmed the importance of special committees in those circumstances, and offered a road map to companies and controlling stockholders on how to structure going private transactions.
Nearly two decades ago, in Kahn v. Lynch, the Delaware Supreme Court held that where (1) a special committee of independent directors or (2) a majority of the non-controlling stockholders approves a merger with a controlling stockholder, it shifts the burden of proving the entire fairness of the transaction from the defendants to the stockholder challenging the transaction. Last year, in Americas Mining Corp. v. Theriault, the Delaware Supreme Court reiterated that the use of a properly functioning special committee of independent directors is an integral part of the best practices that are used to establish the entire fairness of a merger with a controlling stockholder. Read More
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
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
On August 17, 2012, a shareholder filed a derivative suit in Delaware federal court against Viacom Inc.’s board of directors, alleging they wasted corporate assets by awarding lavish corporate bonuses. In a novel approach that hardly mentions the “say-on-pay” provisions of Dodd-Frank, the plaintiff argued that the company violated §162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code. Section 162(m) limits corporate tax deductions that can be taken by a company for any senior executive compensation over $1 million to that which is determined by objective, performance-based criteria such that a “third party having knowledge of the relevant facts could determine whether the goal is met.” 26 CFR § 1.162-27(e)(2)(ii).
The complaint alleges that Viacom’s tax deductions for the compensation in excess of $1 million paid to executive chairman Sumner Redstone and two other senior executives were based on subjective criteria like “leadership and vision” and therefore violated Section 162(m). The complaint seeks to force repayment to Viacom of $36 million in past compensation. The complaint also seeks broader voting rights on executive compensation issues. Specifically, the plaintiff wants Class B shareholders to have voting rights on executive compensation (currently, only Class A shareholders have them).
The complaint further alleges that Viacom’s Compensation Committee awarded these annual bonuses to its senior executives in a manner that violated its own shareholder-approved 2007 compensation plan, which required the Committee meet the requirements of §162(m). Read More