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.
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.
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.
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.”
On July 28, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a post-trial opinion in which it criticized in particularly strong terms the analysis performed by a financial firm that was retained to value companies that were being sold to a third party or spun off to stockholders (the “valuation firm”). See Fox v. CDX Holdings Inc., C.A. No. 8031-VCL (Del Ch. July 28, 2015). CDX is just the latest decision in which the Chancery Court has awarded damages and/or ordered injunctive relief based in part on a financial firm’s failure to discharge its role appropriately. Calling the valuation firm’s work “a new low,” Vice Chancellor Laster’s opinion is another chapter in this cautionary tale that lays bare how financial firms can be exposed not only to potential monetary liability but, as importantly, significant reputational harm from flawed sell side work on M&A transactions.
On April 20, 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding $171 million in damages to the common unitholders of a limited partnership against its general partner in connection with a “dropdown” transaction. The decision is the latest in a series of decisions by the Chancery Court concerning the conduct of directors and advisers in conflict of interest and/or sale of the company transactions. See also In re Rural/Metro Corp. S’holders Litig., No. 6350-VCL (Del. Ch. Oct. 10, 2014); Chen v. Howard-Anderson, No. 5878-VCL (Del Ch. April 8, 2014); In re Orchard Enter., Inc. S’holder Litig., No. 7840-VCL (Del. Ch. Feb. 28, 2014). The decision yet again highlights areas that should be of concern to boards and their advisers in such transactions.
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 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.