On June 30, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court extended the Supreme Court’s holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), to two-step mergers under DGCL § 251(h). The Chancery Court concluded that acceptance of a first-step tender offer by a fully informed and uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders insulates a two-step merger from challenge except on the ground of waste, even if a majority of directors were not disinterested and independent. See In re Volcano Corp. S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10485-VCMR. In this situation, the business judgment rule is “irrebutable” and dismissal is typically appropriate given the high bar for proving “waste” and the unlikelihood that a majority of informed stockholders would approve such a transaction. In re Volcano is the latest decision underscoring the critical importance of securing an uncoerced and fully informed majority vote of disinterested stockholders if boards wish to benefit from this extremely deferential standard of review.
On June 6, 2016, the Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed a decision of the Chancery Court finding that corporate directors and officers involved in a sales transaction breached a contract with option holders to fairly value their options (see here for a thorough explanation of the Chancery Court decision, and in particular, the Court’s criticism of the retained financial advisers that provided a valuation analysis). The Supreme Court decision also included a disproportionately lengthy dissent condemning both the Chancery Court’s findings and its reliance on “social science studies” to reach them.
On May 31, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court rejected shareholders’ allegations of corporate wrongdoing in a derivative suit against a national healthcare company, Bioscrip, holding that Plaintiff failed to adequately allege demand futility with respect to Bioscrip’s board of directors. For the first time, the Delaware Court found that Plaintiff was required to demonstrate demand futility with respect to the board of directors that was in place after shareholders filed their derivative complaint. Park Emps.’ & Ret. Bd. Emps.’ Annuity & Ben. Fund v. Smith, No. 11000-VCG (Ch. May 31, 2016).
On May 19, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court preliminarily enjoined the directors of Cogentix Medical from reducing the size of the company’s board because, under the facts presented, there was a reasonable probability that the board reduction plan was implemented to defeat insurgent candidates in a contested director election. Pell v. Kill, C.A. No. 12251-VCL (Del. Ch. May 19, 2016). The decision is a reminder that board actions that affect the shareholder vote—particularly decisions that make it more difficult for stockholders to elect directors not supported by management—will be subject to enhanced judicial scrutiny by Delaware courts on the lookout with a “gimlet eye” for conduct having a preclusive or coercive effect on the stockholder vote.
On May 6, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Delaware Chancery Court’s ruling that Zale Corporation’s sale to Signet Jewelers withstood scrutiny under the business judgment rule because the transaction was approved by a fully-informed, uncoerced vote of the disinterested stockholders, and that an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim against Zale’s financial advisor failed as a matter of law where the plaintiff failed to establish that the Zale board had acted with gross negligence. In so holding, the Court reaffirmed its holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), that in cases in which Revlon would otherwise apply, approval of the transaction by a fully-informed, uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders invokes the deferential business judgment rule standard of review. While the Court also affirmed the Chancery Court’s dismissal of the aiding and abetting claim against Zale’s financial advisor, it called the Chancery Court’s reasoning for the dismissal into doubt and sounded a cautionary note to gatekeepers that they are not insulated from liability merely because they are alleged to have aided and abetted a non-exculpated breach of fiduciary duty by their director clients.
On February 29, 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss fiduciary duty claims against certain current and former directors of Halt Medical and a 26% stockholder, American Capital, arising out of a transaction that was allegedly designed to “squeeze out” minority stockholders. See Calesa Associates, L.P. v. American Capital, Ltd., C.A. No. 10557-VCG. Vice Chancellor Glasscock found that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that American, despite owning only 26% of the company’s shares, exercised sufficient influence over the Halt Medical board such that it and certain affiliates could be deemed “controlling stockholders” owing fiduciary duties to other stockholders. Among other things, the decision in Calesa reaffirmed that majority stock ownership is not the sole criterion for determining “control.” The decision also sounded a cautionary note, however, by suggesting that, where plaintiffs remain minority stockholders in the company after the allegedly dilutive transaction at issue, they must plead demand futility even where, as here, only direct claims are asserted, or face dismissal at the pleading stage.
As previously discussed here, in 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a number of decisions calling for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to a shareholder class. For example, the recent decision in In re Riverbed Technology, Inc. Stockholders Litigation expressly eliminated the “reasonable expectation” that a merger case can be settled by exchanging insignificant supplemental disclosures (and nothing more) for a broad release of claims. In In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, the Chancery Court demonstrated that its “increase[ed] vigilance” in this area is genuine, rejecting a disclosure-only M&A settlement and finding that the supplemental disclosures did not warrant the broad release of claims.
On December 10, 2015, the Oregon Supreme Court held that an exclusive forum bylaw provision adopted unilaterally by a Delaware company’s board was a valid and enforceable contractual forum selection clause. Importantly, the Oregon decision is the only reported non-Delaware appellate court decision to date addressing the validity of exclusive forum bylaws on the merits.
The decision, Roberts v. TriQuint Semiconductor, Inc., comes on the heels of the Delaware Court of Chancery’s forum bylaw ruling in Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund v. Chevron Corporation. As previously noted on this blog, in Chevron, then-Chancellor Strine of the Delaware Court of Chancery held that an exclusive forum bylaw provision adopted unilaterally by a board was both facially valid under the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”) and an enforceable contractual forum selection clause. Citing Chevron, the Oregon Supreme Court similarly concluded that an exclusive forum bylaw adopted only two days prior to the announcement of a merger was permissible and did not render the bylaw unenforceable in the shareholder merger litigation that followed.
Ruling from the bench on dueling motions for summary judgment just days before a special meeting of shareholders was to be held, on December 21, 2015, Delaware Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster invalidated certain provisions in VAALCO Energy, Inc.’s (“VAALCO”) certificate of incorporation and bylaws (the “Charter and Bylaws Provisions”). The litigation and ruling stem from investor attempts to remove a majority of VAALCO’s Board. VAALCO argued that the Charter and Bylaws Provisions prevented investors from removing board members without cause. Vice Chancellor Laster disagreed, holding that these provisions, in purporting to restrict stockholders’ ability to remove directors without cause in the absence of a classified board or cumulative voting provision, violated Delaware corporate law. The ruling is a cautionary note for a small percentage of Delaware corporations that apparently still have similar provisions on their books.
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.”