Oklahoma Takes a Stand a Stand in the Battle Over Derivative Fee-Shifting

Back in May we discussed ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund a seminal Delaware Supreme Court case that upheld a non-stock corporation’s “loser pays” fee-shifting bylaw.  ATP Tour held that where a Delaware corporation adopts a fee-shifting bylaw, it can recover its fees and costs from any shareholder that brings a derivative lawsuit and loses.  Many commentators have suggested the case would effectively kill derivative actions in Delaware and indeed, since the time of that decision, the Delaware Corporation Law Council has proposed amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law that would limit its applicability to only non-stock corporations.

Last week the Oklahoma State Legislature went a step further than ATP Tour and amended the Oklahoma General Corporation Act to specifically require fee-shifting for all derivative lawsuits brought in the state, whether against an Oklahoma corporation or not.  Unlike the fee provision in ATP Tour, however, the law also affords derivative plaintiffs the right to recover their fees and costs should they win final judgment.

The difference is likely substantial.  For while the law will potentially chill unmeritorious derivative actions, also known as “strike suits,” it could also provide an incentive for derivative plaintiffs with strong claims.  Where shareholders use the “tools at hand”—including books and records inspection requests—to carefully vet their claims before filing, the promise of a fee recovery could encourage shareholder plaintiffs to bring claims they otherwise might not.

Consider:  in the typical derivative lawsuit, the shareholder plaintiff stands to gain nothing tangible if he or she wins.  Because he or she is suing on behalf of the corporation, any recovery will inure to the corporation itself.   Thus, under the old regime, even if a derivative lawsuit was successful, the plaintiff would receive, at most, any resulting increase in the value of his or her company stock.  Under the new statute, that same plaintiff could stand to receive the not-insubstantial costs of his or her efforts.

Delaware Supreme Court Tells Controlling Shareholders “If You Look Out For Your Minority, We’ll Look Out For You”

On March 14, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously affirmed an important Delaware Court of Chancery decision issued in 2013 that offered a roadmap to companies and their directors on how to obtain the protections of the deferential business judgment rule when entering into a change-in-control transaction with a controlling stockholder.  As we discussed previously, in In re MFW Shareholders Litigation, then-Chancellor (now Chief Justice) Strine held as a matter of first impression that the deferential business judgment rule – as opposed to the more onerous “entire fairness” – standard of review should apply to a merger with a controlling stockholder where (i) the controller conditions the transaction on the approval of both a Special Committee and a majority of the minority stockholders; (ii) the Special Committee is independent; (iii) the Special Committee is empowered to freely select its own advisors and to say no definitively; (iv) the Special Committee acts with care; (v) the minority vote is informed; and (vi) there is no coercion of the minority.
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You Better Forum-Shop Around . . . While You Still Can

On January 31, 2014, Chevron Corporation moved to certify to the Delaware Supreme Court the question of whether exclusive forum bylaws are valid under Delaware law.  Chevron filed its motion before the Honorable Jon S. Tigar of the Northern District of California.  If Judge Tigar certifies the question, it seems likely that the Delaware Supreme Court will affirm a recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision finding such bylaws to be valid under statutory and contractual law, given that the author of that decision, then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine, is now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.

In 2013, plaintiffs filed suit in both the Delaware Court of Chancery and the Northern District of California challenging Chevron’s board-adopted forum exclusivity bylaw.  The case in the Northern District was stayed pending the outcome of the Delaware case, since both involved questions of Delaware state law.  The Delaware plaintiffs argued that the forum exclusivity bylaw was statutorily invalid under Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), and contractually invalid because it was adopted unilaterally without shareholder consent.  In June 2013, the Delaware Court of Chancery – in a decision by then-Chancellor Strine – found that the bylaw was enforceable, and that the Delaware Court of Chancery should be the sole and exclusive forum for (1)any derivative action brought on behalf of the Corporation, (2) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty, (3) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the DGCL, or (4) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine. 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

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

“We’re Considering Selling the Company – How Can a Special Committee Help?”

In any change-of-control business transaction, the decision by the target company’s board of directors to approve the deal is subject to heightened scrutiny by the courts. These days, virtually every M&A deal is sure to attract at least one strike suit challenging the board’s decision, so it is essential that the board’s decision-making process be robust and untainted by any conflicts of interest.

One way in which a board can insulate its decision-making process is to employ a special committee of independent, outside directors to evaluate and negotiate any potential sale. Although boards are not required by law to use special committees when brokering change of control transactions, Delaware courts have repeatedly held that the use of a special committee can be powerful evidence of a fair and adequate process. That is especially true where (i) the contemplated transaction is with a controlling stockholder or (ii) a majority of the directors are conflicted, two situations where courts will employ the even-more exacting “entire fairness” standard of review. As the Delaware Supreme Court recently noted, “the effective use of a properly functioning special committee of independent directors” is an “integral” part “of the best practices that are used to establish a fair dealing process.” 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