On December 13, 2017, in Re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation (“Bancorp”), the Supreme Court of Delaware held that when stockholders have approved an equity incentive plan that gives the directors discretion to grant themselves awards within a shareholder approved plan limit, and a stockholder properly alleges that the directors improperly exercised that discretion, then the stockholder ratification defense is unavailable to dismiss the suit, and the directors will be required to prove the entire fairness of the awards to the corporation. The Bancorp case involved a generous shareholder approved plan limit and upholds the adage that bad facts make bad law.
In Bancorp, the company’s stockholders approved an equity plan for employees and directors that gave Bancorp Inc.’s board of directors discretion to allocate up to 30% of all option or restricted stock shares available under the plan as awards to themselves. After stockholders approved the equity plan, the board approved grants to themselves of just under half of the stock options available to the directors and nearly thirty percent of the shares available to the directors as restricted stock awards.
Each director’s grant far surpassed the median pay at similarly sized companies and the median pay at much larger companies. The awards were also over twenty-three times more than the median award granted to other companies’ non-employee directors after mutual-to-stock conversions. The court determined that the plaintiffs alleged facts that the directors breached their fiduciary duties by awarding excessive equity awards to themselves under the equity plan and that a stockholder ratification defense was not available for a motion to dismiss. READ MORE
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 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 November 30, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court issued a 107-page opinion affirming the Court of Chancery’s post-trial decisions in In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation (previously discussed here). In the lower court, Vice Chancellor Laster found a seller’s financial advisor (the “Financial Advisor”) liable in the amount of $76 million for aiding and abetting the Rural/Metro Corporation board’s breaches of fiduciary duty in connection with the company’s sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus LLC. See RBC Capital Mkts., LLC v. Jervis, No. 140, 2015, slip op. (Del. Nov. 30, 2015). The Court’s decision reaffirms the importance of financial advisor independence and the courts’ exacting scrutiny of M&A advisors’ conflicts of interest. Significantly, however, the Court disagreed with Vice Chancellor Laster’s characterization of financial advisors as “gatekeepers” whose role is virtually on par with the board’s to appropriately determine the company’s value and chart an effective sales process. Instead, the Court found that the relationship between an advisor and the company or board primarily is contractual in nature and the contract, not a theoretical gatekeeping function, defines the scope of the advisor’s duties in the absence of undisclosed conflicts on the part of the advisor. In that regard, the Court stated: “Our holding is a narrow one that should not be read expansively to suggest that any failure on the part of a financial advisor to prevent directors from breaching their duty of care gives rise to” an aiding and abetting claim. In that (albeit limited) sense, the decision offers something of a silver lining to financial advisors in M&A transactions. Equally important, the decision underscores the limited value of employing a second financial advisor unless that advisor is paid on a non-contingent basis, does not seek to provide staple financing, and performs its own independent financial analysis.
The past decade has seen an incredible rise in M&A litigation. According to Cornerstone, in 2014, a whopping 93% of announced mergers valued over $100 million were subject to litigation, up from 44% in 2007. As Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine explained several years ago, “the reality is that every merger involving Delaware public companies draws shareholder litigation within days of its announcement.” These lawyer-driven class action suits, which typically allege breaches of fiduciary duty by directors and insufficient disclosures, overwhelmingly end in settlement, with corporate defendants agreeing to provide additional disclosures in exchange for a broad release, and plaintiffs’ counsel walking away with attorneys’ fees for the theoretical “benefit” they conferred upon the class.
On May 14, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court clarified that, even in conflict-of-interest transactions subject to “entire fairness” review, breach of fiduciary duty claims against independent, disinterested directors should be dismissed at the pleading stage where a complaint fails to allege a non-exculpated breach. See In re Cornerstone Therapeutics, Inc. S’holder Litig., Case No. 564, 2014; Leal, et al. v. Meeks, et al., Case No. 706, 2014 (Del. May 14, 2015). The Court’s decision resolves two separate consolidated appeals by outside directors of Cornerstone Therapeutics, Inc. and Zhongpin, Inc. (For a discussion of the Chancery Court’s Zhongpin decision, see Jason M. Halper, et al., Delaware Court Determines That 17.5% Stockholder Seeking to Take Company Private Could Be Deemed a Controller, The M&A Lawyer, Jan. 2015, Vol. 19, Issue 1.) In each case, the Chancery Court denied the independent directors’ motions to dismiss, even though there were no allegations that those directors committed a breach of loyalty or acted in bad faith such that the companies’ Section 102(b)(7) charter provisions would not apply. Instead, those courts held that “entire fairness” review effectively precludes dismissal of breach of fiduciary duty claims at the pleading stage based on a Section 102(b)(7) charter provision. The Supreme Court’s rejection of these decisions potentially offers significant protections to independent directors tasked with deciding whether to approve transactions involving interested directors.
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.
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.
Back in May we discussed ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund a seminal Delaware Supreme Court case that upheld a non-stock corporation’s “loser pays” fee-shifting bylaw. ATP Tour held that where a Delaware corporation adopts a fee-shifting bylaw, it can recover its fees and costs from any shareholder that brings a derivative lawsuit and loses. Many commentators have suggested the case would effectively kill derivative actions in Delaware and indeed, since the time of that decision, the Delaware Corporation Law Council has proposed amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law that would limit its applicability to only non-stock corporations.
Last week the Oklahoma State Legislature went a step further than ATP Tour and amended the Oklahoma General Corporation Act to specifically require fee-shifting for all derivative lawsuits brought in the state, whether against an Oklahoma corporation or not. Unlike the fee provision in ATP Tour, however, the law also affords derivative plaintiffs the right to recover their fees and costs should they win final judgment.
The difference is likely substantial. For while the law will potentially chill unmeritorious derivative actions, also known as “strike suits,” it could also provide an incentive for derivative plaintiffs with strong claims. Where shareholders use the “tools at hand”—including books and records inspection requests—to carefully vet their claims before filing, the promise of a fee recovery could encourage shareholder plaintiffs to bring claims they otherwise might not.
Consider: in the typical derivative lawsuit, the shareholder plaintiff stands to gain nothing tangible if he or she wins. Because he or she is suing on behalf of the corporation, any recovery will inure to the corporation itself. Thus, under the old regime, even if a derivative lawsuit was successful, the plaintiff would receive, at most, any resulting increase in the value of his or her company stock. Under the new statute, that same plaintiff could stand to receive the not-insubstantial costs of his or her efforts.
On March 14, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously affirmed an important Delaware Court of Chancery decision issued in 2013 that offered a roadmap to companies and their directors on how to obtain the protections of the deferential business judgment rule when entering into a change-in-control transaction with a controlling stockholder. As we discussed previously, in In re MFW Shareholders Litigation, then-Chancellor (now Chief Justice) Strine held as a matter of first impression that the deferential business judgment rule – as opposed to the more onerous “entire fairness” – standard of review should apply to a merger with a controlling stockholder where (i) the controller conditions the transaction on the approval of both a Special Committee and a majority of the minority stockholders; (ii) the Special Committee is independent; (iii) the Special Committee is empowered to freely select its own advisors and to say no definitively; (iv) the Special Committee acts with care; (v) the minority vote is informed; and (vi) there is no coercion of the minority.