On November 26, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss a complaint challenging a going-private transaction where the company’s CEO, Chairman and 17.5% stockholder was leading the buyout group. In his decision in the case, In Re Zhongpin Inc. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Noble concluded that the complaint pled sufficient facts to raise an inference that the CEO, Xianfu Zhu, was a controlling stockholder, and as a result, the deferential business judgment rule standard of review did not apply. Instead, the far more exacting entire fairness standard governed, which in turn led the Court to deny the motion.
This is the fourth recent decision to address when a less-than 50% stockholder can be considered a controller, an issue that determines whether the alleged controller owes fiduciary duties to other stockholders and the standard of review the Court will apply in evaluating the challenged transaction. The decision therefore provides important guidance for directors and their advisors in structuring transactions involving large stockholders.
Ordinarily, when a communication between an attorney and her client is disclosed to a third party, that communication loses its privileged status. The common interest privilege operates as an exception to that rule that allows the privilege to extend to communications with certain third parties. For the common interest doctrine to apply, the communication must be in furtherance of a legal interest that is shared by the client and the third party. Historically, New York courts additionally required that the communication relate to legal advice regarding pending or prospective litigation. On December 4, 2014, in a landmark decision, a New York appellate court did away with this additional requirement.
On November 25, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision in In Re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation, which: (1) dismissed claims that the Comverge board of directors conducted a flawed sales process and approved an inadequate merger price in connection with the directors’ approval of a sale of the company to H.I.G. Capital LLC; (2) permitted fiduciary duty claims against the directors to proceed based on allegations related to the deal protection mechanisms in the merger agreement, including termination fees potentially payable to HIG of up to 13% of the equity value of the transaction; and (3) dismissed a claim against HIG for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty.
The case provides important guidance to directors and their advisors in discharging fiduciary duties in a situation where Revlon applies and in negotiating acceptable deal protection mechanisms. The decision also is the latest in a series of recent opinions addressing and defining the scope of third party aiding and abetting liability.
On November 24, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery preliminarily enjoined for thirty days a vote by C&J Energy Services stockholders on a merger with Nabors Red Lion Limited, to allow time for C&J’s board of directors to explore alternative transactions. In a bench ruling in the case, City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. C&J Energy Services, Inc., Vice Chancellor Noble concluded that “it is not so clear that the [C&J] board approached this transaction as a sale,” with the attendant “engagement that one would expect from a board in the sales process.” Interestingly, the Court called the issue a “very close call,” and indicated it would certify the question to the Delaware Supreme Court at the request of either of the parties (at this time it does not appear either party has made a request). The decision provides guidance regarding appropriate board decision-making in merger transactions, particularly where one merger party is assuming minority status in the combined entity yet also acquiring management and board control.
On October 10, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding nearly $76 million in damages against a seller’s financial advisor. In an earlier March 7, 2014 opinion in the case, In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Laster found RBC Capital Markets, LLC liable for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty in connection with Rural’s 2011 sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus for $17.25 a share, a premium of 37% over the pre-announcement market price. The recent decision reinforces lessons from the March 7 decision and provides new guidance for directors and their advisors in M&A transactions and related litigation.
In a virtual course on how to bring—or not bring—an M&A strike suit, on June 30, a Delaware Chancery Court dismissed all shareholder claims against a merger target and its acquirer, ending nearly two years of litigation. Though the allegations are familiar in the strike-suit context, the 45-page opinion which this ~$100 million merger yielded is notable for its methodical tour of Delaware fiduciary-duty law, 102(b)(7) exculpatory provisions, and so-called Revlon duties. The roadmap opinion should be required reading for directors considering a merger.
Defendants Ramtron International and Cypress Semiconductor both work in the technology industry and the two began their courtship in 2011. Though shareholder-plaintiff Paul Dent couldn’t prevent the 2012 Ramtron-Cypress marriage, he continued to hold out for a better dowry, naming Ramtron’s board and Cypress in a suit alleging that Cypress aided and abetted Ramtron’s board in breaching its duty to shareholders, and seeking quasi-appraisal of his shares. Vice Chancellor Parsons disposed of these claims, taking the time to explain in unusual detail why the allegations utterly failed. READ MORE
In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.
The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors. In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell. To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. 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.