In a 2-1 decision, the Seventh Circuit has joined the Delaware Court of Chancery’s call for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to shareholders. As previously discussed here, M&A litigation, typically alleging breach of fiduciary duty by directors and insufficient disclosures, often ends in settlement, with defendants agreeing to provide supplemental disclosures in exchange for broad releases of claims, while plaintiffs’ counsel “earns” large attorneys’ fees for providing the class with the “benefit” of the agreed-upon disclosures. In In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation (“In re Walgreen Co.”), the Seventh Circuit rejected such a settlement, endorsing the standard for approval of disclosure-only settlements articulated by the Delaware Court of Chancery in In re Trulia, Inc. Shareholder Litigation (“In re Trulia”). In In re Trulia, the Court of Chancery held that disclosure-only settlements in M&A litigation will meet with disfavor unless they involve supplemental disclosures that address a “plainly material misrepresentation or omission” and any proposed release of claims accompanying the settlement encompasses only disclosure claims and/or fiduciary duty claims regarding the sale process.
On July 28, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court allowed claims of unfair dealing against the Board of property management company Riverstone National Inc. to survive where the directors facilitated a merger that forestalled a derivative suit against them. The court held that by orchestrating a merger that extinguished a possible derivative action, the director defendants obtained a special benefit for themselves. As a result, the directors were interested in the transaction, thereby rebutting the presumption of the business judgment rule, and triggering application of the “entire fairness” doctrine.
Disclosure-only settlements have been popular in the past – last year, about 80% of settlements in M&A-related lawsuits were for disclosures only, according to Cornerstone Research – but lately they have come under scrutiny. The Delaware Court of Chancery has issued opinions refusing disclosure-only settlement agreements before, noting that at times in these cases “there is simply little to commend the process of weighing the merits of a ‘settlement’ of litigation where the only continuing interest is that of the plaintiffs’ counsel in recovering a fee.” The incentives of attorneys on both sides can be such that “the potential claims belonging to the class [are not] adequately or diligently investigated or pursued.”
Internal investigations are an ever-present challenge for companies. They can involve virtually any topic and arise in myriad ways. Embezzlement, accounting improprieties, bribery, and financial statement adjustments can all lead to a closely scrutinized investigation, with likely triggers of whistleblower reports, news articles, litigation demands, or regulatory inquiries. The common denominator is that they present high pressure and/or high stakes. Consequently, it is imperative that matters not be made worse through a flawed internal investigation. In today’s post, we cover some of the essential topics to keep in mind when managing an internal investigation to ensure that the investigation itself does not cause or exacerbate harm to the company.
On March 5, 2014, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., Case No. 13-317, and we are certain our blog readers are eagerly awaiting the Court’s ruling. The case has potentially far-ranging implications for the survival of the Court’s landmark ruling in Basic, Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988), which relied on the efficient market hypothesis to create the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance on misrepresentations. This post provides background on the history of the Halliburton litigation and is the first in a series of posts that will analyze the arguments by the parties and amici, the Court’s ruling, and the potential implications for future litigation.
Plaintiff-Respondent Erica P. John Fund, Inc. is a not-for-profit group that supports the outreach work of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The Fund purchased stock in Halliburton Company and lost money when Halliburton’s stock price dropped following negative news regarding Halliburton’s (1) potential liability in asbestos litigation, (2) revenue accounting on fixed-price construction contracts, and (3) merger with Dresser Industries. The Fund sued Halliburton and its CEO David Lesar alleging that they had previously made fraudulent misrepresentations concerning those topics in violation of §§ 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rule 10b-5. READ MORE
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
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