When a shareholder makes a demand on a company to pursue litigation, the company’s board can look to generally well-developed law to determine how to evaluate the demand. Though there is no one particular procedure a board must employ, there are numerous cases that explain how the board must inform itself about the demand in order to reach a good faith, “rational business decision” about whether to accept or refuse.
The rules for considering a shareholder demand are pragmatic, and afford corporate boards a dependable road map for responding to shareholder requests.
One open question (at least in Delaware, where it matters most) has been whether a board’s informed, good faith decision to defer action on a demand constitutes a “rational business decision” that is protected by the business judgment rule. Delaware courts have long held that while an informed board can refuse a demand, the one thing a board cannot do is nothing. At the same time, however, corporations often face the circumstance where there are follow-on shareholder litigation demands entirely duplicative of existing litigations or investigations. In those circumstances, a board could have any number of business justifications for wanting to defer action on the demand until the ongoing proceedings are resolved, but that would seem to violate the rule against doing nothing.
Genius rock lyricist Geddy Lee of RUSH once wrote “If you choose not to decide, you have still made a choice.”
Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit and certain federal district courts have recognized that a board’s informed, good faith decision to defer action on a demand during pending litigation or investigations is itself a decision that can be shielded by the business judgment rule. For example, in 2009, the Ninth Circuit found there was a “compelling” business justification for deferring action on a demand where the company’s pursuit of the demand’s allegations could be cast as an admission of wrongdoing in ongoing litigation.
Last month the Second Circuit agreed. In a summary order issued in Lambrecht v. O’Neal (Dec. 4, 2012), the Second Circuit acknowledged that where board action on a demand could “compromise . . . pending litigation and ongoing government inquiries,” choosing to defer action on the demand is a rational business decision afforded the protections of the business judgment rule.
Together with the other federal decisions (and at least until Delaware itself renders a decision on point), the Second Circuit’s order contributes to a growing consensus that where a board makes the informed, good faith decision to defer action on a demand in order to avoid complicating or undermining related, ongoing proceedings, the decision to not act will be protected under the business judgment rule.