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

Going-Private Transaction With a Controlling Stockholder – What Standard of Review Applies?

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

News of the (Shareholder Derivative) World: Record-High $139 Million Settlement in News Corp. Phone Hacking Suit

Putting an end to shareholder derivative litigation arising from News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal, the company’s directors agreed last week to a record-breaking $139 million cash settlement. According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the deal is the “largest cash derivative settlement on record.” The settlement will be funded by directors’ and officers’ insurance proceeds.

Plaintiffs initially filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery in March 2011, asserting claims based on the company’s proposed acquisition (since completed) of Shine Group Ltd., a television and movie production company owned by the daughter of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. According to plaintiffs, the News Corp. directors breached their fiduciary duties by permitting the purchase of Shine at an excessive price. The court later consolidated various related cases, and plaintiffs’ allegations expanded to include claims that the company’s directors failed to properly investigate the UK phone-hacking allegations that led to the demise of News Corp.’s News of the World. Read More

Delaware Supreme Court Says No to Botox and No to Multi-Forum Litigation: Court Dismisses Derivative Suit Against Botox-Maker Allergan, Inc.

In a recent decision, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Court of Chancery in Pyott, et al. v. Louisiana Mun. Police Emp. Ret. Sys., et al., holding that a derivative suit against Botox-maker Allergan, Inc. should be dismissed because Allergan had already secured a judgment in its favor in a nearly identical suit in California. The decision will make it more difficult for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue duplicative derivative litigation in multiple jurisdictions.

Shortly after Allergan entered into a $600 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged off-labeling marketing of Botox, separate groups of shareholders brought suit in Delaware and California. Before motions to dismiss in the Delaware derivative litigation were heard, a California Federal Court dismissed the California derivative suit, finding that plaintiffs could not support the inference that the Allergan directors conspired to violate the law, which prevented plaintiffs from showing that making a demand on the Board to investigate the matter would be futile. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that the California Judgment did not bar the Delaware action and denied Allergan’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Chancery’s decision that it was not required to give preclusive effect to the California judgment was based on two principles: first, under Delaware law, the shareholder plaintiffs in two jurisdictions were not in privity with each other, and second, the California shareholders were not adequate representatives of the corporation. Read More