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
Several weeks ago we asked whether directors of public companies face potential liability for not preventing cyber attacks. But what about liability for other acts of oversight? Can directors be held personally liable for money damages when they have done nothing affirmatively wrong?
Generally, the answer is no. Many states, like Delaware, allow corporate charters to include provisions that protect directors (and sometimes officers) from money damages for certain breaches of fiduciary duty. Acts that are not protected include breaches of the duty of loyalty, intentional misconduct, knowing violations of the law or receiving an improper personal benefit. But where plaintiffs seek money damages for breaches of the duty of care, exculpatory provisions in corporate charters typically provide directors a defense to the claims.
Practically speaking, these provisions protect directors against claims of negligence, and some courts have held the provisions even go so far as to protect against “reckless indifference.” The protection stops, however, when a director consciously disregards his or her duties. For example, and with reference to the earlier discussion on cyber attacks, an exculpatory provision might not shield a director from money damages where (i) a damaging cyber attack occurred, and (ii) it could be proven that the director exhibited a “sustained or systematic failure to exercise reasonable oversight” over the company’s cybersecurity, such that it evidenced the director’s conscious disregard of cybersecurity. Read More
Some of the SEC’s enforcement targets are no longer in denial, or at least they won’t be if a recent policy shift at the regulator takes hold. In a widely-reported letter on June 17, 2013 and then again in public remarks the next day, SEC Chairperson Mary Jo White indicated that the Commission would step up efforts to secure actual admissions of guilt in some cases rather than relying on the far more typical no-admit/no-deny settlements which have the advantage of avoiding litigation but which have also left some judges, politicians, and the public flat.
The purported change comes at a time when the SEC is facing criticism from a number of circles for settling high-profile cases. Among the loudest critics of the SEC’s settlement policy has been U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who in November 2011 would not approve a $285 million settlement between the SEC and Citigroup in which Citigroup did not admit liability. As Judge Rakoff explained: “Here, the S.E.C.’s long-standing policy—hallowed by history, but not by reason—of allowing defendants to enter into Consent Judgments without admitting or denying the underlying allegations, deprives the Court of even the most minimal assurance that the substantive injunctive relief it is being asked to impose has any basis in fact.”
Apparently, the SEC was listening to Judge Rakoff and others, but the consequences of this policy shift are unclear. For example, in her public remarks, Ms. White explained that “public accountability” cases were “quite important”—“and if you don’t get them, you litigate them.” Ms. White elaborated, adding that, “to some degree it turns on how much harm has been done to investors, [and] how egregious the fraud is.” As to any specific criteria the SEC would apply in seeking admissions of guilt, the regulator explained that such admissions might be appropriate in instances to safeguard against risks posed by the defendant to the investing public or where the defendant obstructed the SEC’s investigative process. In addition, two recent nominees to the SEC, Kara M. Stein and Michael Piwowar, stated during their confirmation hearings that they supported the policy shift. Read More
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
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
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
Last Friday, Judge Kleinberg of the California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, dismissed two shareholder class actions against the former directors of Actel Corporation and Applied Signal Technology, Inc. for breach of fiduciary duties arising out of the sales of Actel and Applied Signal to third-party buyers. In doing so, Judge Kleinberg stated that, under California law, damages claims brought by shareholders of California corporations against directors for breach of fiduciary duties in connection with the approval of a merger are derivative, not direct. Thus, because a plaintiff in a shareholder’s derivative suit must maintain continuous stock ownership throughout the pendency of the litigation, and the plaintiffs ceased to be stockholders of Actel and Applied Signal by reason of a merger, Judge Kleinberg held that they lacked standing to continue the litigation.
In holding that post-merger claims against directors of California acquired corporations are derivative, Judge Kleinberg relied on the pre-Tooley rationale (which is no longer controlling in Delaware and has been questioned in California) that a harm suffered equally by all shareholders in proportion to their pro rata ownership of the company is a derivative harm. Judge Kleinberg rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Delaware’s Tooley standard for determining whether a claim was direct or derivative was adopted by the California Court of Appeal in Bader v. Andersen, 179 Cal. App. 4th 775 (2009). According to Judge Kleinberg, in stating that California and Delaware law were “not inconsistent,” the Bader court was merely observing that the results of applying California versus Delaware law in that case were not inconsistent; it was not saying that California and Delaware law are the same on the direct versus derivative issue.
Judge Kleinberg’s holding is a victory for the defense bar, as it means that merger litigation involving California incorporated targets will be susceptible to dismissal by demurrer or summary judgment following the preliminary injunction stage.
On April 25, 2012, Cornerstone Research released an interesting report entitled “Recent Developments in Shareholder Litigation Involving Mergers and Acquisitions—March 2012 Update.” The report notes that the incidence of litigation in connection with mergers valued at $500 million or greater rose from 57% in 2007 to 96% in 2011. This observation has already caught the attention of the Delaware Chancery Court where Vice Chancellor Laster commented in a teleconferenced ruling, “I don’t think for a moment that 90%—or based on recent numbers—95% of deals are the result of a breach of fiduciary duty. I think there are market imbalances here and externalities that are being exploited. What this means is that the Court needs to think carefully about balancing.”
The report also shows that the number of lawsuits per litigated deal increased from an average of 2.8 in 2007 to 6.2 in 2011. The absolute count of lawsuits involving deals with values of $500 million or greater also nearly doubled from 289 in 2007 to 502 in 2011. The report also noted that as of March 2012, 67 lawsuits have already been reported for 13 out of 17 deals announced during January and February.
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