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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Accidents Happen: Innocent Mistakes By Board May Not Spoil Business Judgment Protection

Recently, the Delaware Court of Chancery in Pfeiffer v. Leedle declined to dismiss a shareholder derivative action against a board for breach of fiduciary duty, where the directors allegedly approved stock options exceeding the maximum number of options permissible under the corporation’s stock incentive plan. C.A. No. 7831-VCP (Del. Ch. Nov. 8, 2013).

The Stock Incentive Plan provided that no participant could receive options relating to more than 150,000 shares of stock in any calendar year. Nevertheless, the board of directors allegedly awarded the CEO nearly 450,000 stock options in 2011, and 285,000 stock options in 2012.

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to make a demand, and for failure to state a claim. The Court of Chancery rejected both arguments. Read More

How Much Latitude Do Directors Have In Setting Executive Compensation?

Executive compensation decisions are core functions of a board of directors and, absent unusual circumstances, are protected by the business judgment rule.  As Delaware courts have repeatedly recognized, the size and structure of executive compensation are inherently matters of business judgment, and so, appropriately, directors have broad discretion in their executive compensation decisions.  In light of the broad deference given to directors’ executive compensation decisions, courts rarely second-guess those decisions.  That is particularly so when the board or committee setting executive compensation retains and relies on the advice of an independent compensation consultant.

Nevertheless, despite the high hurdle to challenging compensation packages, shareholder plaintiffs continue to aggressively challenge executive compensation decisions, in particular at companies that have performed poorly and received negative or low say-on-pay advisory votes. Read More

When Are Directors Liable for Failing to Exercise Proper Oversight?

Recently we discussed whether directors of public companies face potential liability for not preventing cyber attacks.  As we discussed, the answer is generally no, because absent allegations to show a director had a “conscious disregard” for her responsibilities, directors do not breach their fiduciary duties by failing to properly manage and oversee the company.

That well-established rule was again affirmed last week by the Delaware Court of Chancery in In re China Automotive Systems Inc. Derivative Litigation,  a case that concerned an accounting restatement by a Chinese automotive parts company.  Plaintiffs there alleged that the company’s directors breached their fiduciary duties by failing to manage and oversee the company’s accounting practices and the company’s auditors, who improperly accounted for certain convertible notes from 2009 to 2012.  When the error was uncovered, the company restated its financials for two years and its stock price dropped by 15%. Read More

Delaware Chancery Court Rulings Provide Insights on Reducing the Risk of Successful Shareholder Challenges

Corporations contemplating going private should take note of recent rulings from the Delaware Court of Chancery, which provide clear guidance on how to structure their transactions to reduce the risk of being subjected to the “entire fairness” standard of review.

Several months ago, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued an important MFW decision, in which Chancellor Strine set forth the procedural mechanisms a company can employ so that a going-private transaction with its controlling stockholder can be reviewed under the deferential business judgment rule, as opposed to the more stringent entire fairness standard.  In that decision, Chancellor Strine held that the business judgment rule would apply if: (1) the controlling stockholder at the outset conditions the transaction on the approval of both a special committee and a non-waivable vote of a majority of the minority investors; (2) the special committee was independent, (3) fully empowered to negotiate the transaction, or to say no definitively, and to select its own advisors, and (4) satisfied its requisite duty of care; and (5) the stockholders were fully informed and uncoerced.

More recently, in SEPTA v. Volgenau, C.A. No. 6354-VCN (Del. Ch. Aug. 5, 2013), Vice Chancellor Noble provided further clarity on when a sale of a company with a controlling stockholder will be entitled to business judgment rule review.  In SEPTA, Vice Chancellor Noble applied the business judgment rule and granted summary judgment to the defendants in case that challenged the acquisition of SRA International by Providence Equity Partners.  Like the change-in-control transaction in MFW, the change-in-control transaction in SEPTA was negotiated by a disinterested and independent special committee and approved by a majority of the minority stockholders.  Unlike MFW, however, where the controlling stockholder was the buyer in the transaction, SEPTA involved a transaction in which a third party was the buyer, and in which the controlling stockholder agreed to roll over a portion of his shares into the merged entity. Read More

Shareholder Books and Records Requests to Become More Frequent, and More Potent

As we previously detailed, a shareholder’s request for corporate books and records can raise competing concerns for the company and its directors.  On the one hand, shareholders have a legal right under Section 220 to seek company records, and have been repeatedly encouraged by Delaware courts to exercise that right. On the other hand, because Section 220 requests are often a precursor to litigation – and because even innocuous documents can sometimes be used to bolster an otherwise baseless lawsuit – fiduciaries must ensure their response protects shareholder interests as a whole.

A string of recent Delaware decisions have added a new layer of complexity to these concerns.  Going forward, Section 220 requests will likely become more common, and will potentially carry a larger downside for companies that fail to properly respond.

First, Delaware courts are increasingly insistent that shareholders seek corporate records before filing suit.  In fact, the Delaware Court of Chancery recently went so far as to hold that if a shareholder fails to seek books and records before filing a derivative complaint, the court can assume that shareholder is unable to “provide adequate representation for the corporation.”  That decision was later overturned by the Delaware Supreme Court, but by acknowledging “the trial court’s concerns,” the Supreme Court yet again reiterated its expectation that shareholders should request company records as a matter of first course. Read More

Does A Board Need To Put A “For Sale” Sign On The Company When Considering A Change-of-Control Transaction?

When a board of directors decides to enter the company into a change-of-control transaction, the board is charged with the duty to act reasonably to secure the best value reasonably attainable for its shareholders. As the Delaware Supreme Court put it in its seminal decision in Revlon, Inc. v. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, in the change-of-control context, the directors’ role changes “from defenders of the corporate bastion to auctioneers charged with getting the best price for the stockholders at a sale of the company.”

But is an “auction” of the company always necessary to comply with this duty? No – there is no bright-line rule that directors must conduct a pre-agreement market check or shop the company. Delaware courts have repeatedly emphasized that there is no single “blueprint” that a board must follow to fulfill its duties in connection with a change-of-control transaction and, in fact, a board may pursue a single-bidder sales process so long as it has reliable evidence with which to evaluate the fairness of the transaction without an active survey of the market and retains flexibility to consider potential topping bids after the merger agreement is signed.

That is not say that a single-bidder approach will always pass judicial muster, as demonstrated in Koehler v. NetSpend Holdings, Inc., a recent case in which the Delaware Court of Chancery found that NetSpend’s directors acted unreasonably by not engaging in a market check before agreeing to sell the company. The court in NetSpend acknowledged that a single-bidder process is not unreasonable per se, and found that the board’s initial decision to adopt a “not-for-sale” strategy that sought to maximize value by inducing the sole bidder to bid against itself was reasonable. According to the court, however, the board’s approach to the transaction was not reasonable. In support of this finding, the court pointed to a “weak” fairness opinion, as well as acquiescence to potentially preclusive deal protection provisions, including a “No-Shop” clause and “Don’t Ask-Don’t Waive” provisions that precluded NetSpend from waiving any standstill agreement without the buyer’s consent. These factors precluded an effective post-agreement market check to assess the fairness of the deal price. 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