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
Putting an end to shareholder derivative litigation arising from News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal, the company’s directors agreed last week to a record-breaking $139 million cash settlement. According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the deal is the “largest cash derivative settlement on record.” The settlement will be funded by directors’ and officers’ insurance proceeds.
Plaintiffs initially filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery in March 2011, asserting claims based on the company’s proposed acquisition (since completed) of Shine Group Ltd., a television and movie production company owned by the daughter of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. According to plaintiffs, the News Corp. directors breached their fiduciary duties by permitting the purchase of Shine at an excessive price. The court later consolidated various related cases, and plaintiffs’ allegations expanded to include claims that the company’s directors failed to properly investigate the UK phone-hacking allegations that led to the demise of News Corp.’s News of the World. READ MORE
In a recent decision, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Court of Chancery in Pyott, et al. v. Louisiana Mun. Police Emp. Ret. Sys., et al., holding that a derivative suit against Botox-maker Allergan, Inc. should be dismissed because Allergan had already secured a judgment in its favor in a nearly identical suit in California. The decision will make it more difficult for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue duplicative derivative litigation in multiple jurisdictions.
Shortly after Allergan entered into a $600 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged off-labeling marketing of Botox, separate groups of shareholders brought suit in Delaware and California. Before motions to dismiss in the Delaware derivative litigation were heard, a California Federal Court dismissed the California derivative suit, finding that plaintiffs could not support the inference that the Allergan directors conspired to violate the law, which prevented plaintiffs from showing that making a demand on the Board to investigate the matter would be futile. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that the California Judgment did not bar the Delaware action and denied Allergan’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Chancery’s decision that it was not required to give preclusive effect to the California judgment was based on two principles: first, under Delaware law, the shareholder plaintiffs in two jurisdictions were not in privity with each other, and second, the California shareholders were not adequate representatives of the corporation. 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.