Earlier today [Wednesday, December 10, 2014], the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important decision overturning the insider trading convictions of two portfolio managers while clarifying what the government must prove to establish so-called “tippee liability.” United States v. Newman, et al., Nos. 13-1837-cr, 13-1917-cr (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014). The Court’s decision leaves undisturbed the well-established principles that a corporate insider is criminally liable when the government proves he breached fiduciary duties owed to the company’s shareholders by trading while in possession of material, non-public information, and that such a corporate insider can also be held liable if he discloses confidential corporate information to an outsider in exchange for a “personal benefit.”
Archive for the ‘Court Cases’ Category
A New York appellate court today [December 04, 2014] ruled that the “common-interest privilege” can protect from discovery pre-closing communications among merger parties and their counsel made for the predominant purpose of furthering a common legal interest, even if there is no pending or anticipated litigation. Ambac Assurance Corp. v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., No. 651612/10 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t Dec. 4, 2014). The ruling recognizes that after a merger agreement is signed, the merging parties must often share legal advice to complete the transaction.
A recent Delaware decision in Cigna provides important guidance on simple yet important steps that buyers of private companies using a merger structure can take to more effectively impose certain post-closing obligations on stockholders who do not sign agreements to support the deal.
While a stock purchase involves entering into an agreement with each stockholder of a target company, creating an avenue to bind each selling stockholder to terms such as indemnification obligations, non-compete clauses and general releases, in a merger structure direct contractual relationships are only established with those target stockholders who may sign a written consent or voting agreement to support the merger. This leaves buyers facing the challenge of how to impose these post-closing obligations on stockholders who do not consent or sign a voting agreement (“non-signatory stockholders”).
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 November 20, 2014, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, in a case of first impression under New York law, ruled in favor of Kenneth Cole in a litigation where minority shareholders had challenged the fashion designer’s transaction to take private Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. Mr. Cole controlled approximately 89% of KCP’s voting power and owned a 46% economic interest in KCP. Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP represented Mr. Cole in the transaction and the class action litigation.
The Appellate Division found that the business judgment standard of review—and not the heightened entire fairness standard—applied to judicial review of breach of fiduciary claims because the transaction had been structured at the outset with dual protections of an independent special committee review and the vote of a “majority of the minority” (that is, non-Cole) shareholders. The judicial standard of review can have important litigation consequences, as cases governed by the business judgment rule can be dismissed at an early stage, as occurred here, whereas transactions governed by the “entire fairness” standard generally require discovery and further proceedings, which can be burdensome and expensive.
“[T]he fact that a federal statute has been violated and some person harmed does not automatically give rise to a private cause of action in favor of that person.”
—Touche Ross & Co. v. Redington, 442 U.S. 560, 568, 99 S.Ct. 2479, 61 L.Ed.2d 82 (1979).
In June 2008, I posted a short piece on this website entitled A Different Perspective on CSX/TCI: Should Courts Reject a Private Right of Action Under Section 13(d)? In that posting, I questioned whether, after Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), a private right of action existed to enforce the Williams Act, in that case, section 13(d) of the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act. It drew a grand total of zero comments.
Let’s fast forward to the lawsuit du jour. Allergan and one of its employees who was a shareholder that sold some shares while Bill Ackman was buying and before Valeant announced its intent to acquire Allergan have sued Ackman in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for allegedly violating Rule 14e-3. Judge David O. Carter concluded that Allergan did not have standing to sue Ackman but that that a selling shareholder did have standing and that there were “serious questions” that need to be decided by a jury to determine whether Ackman violated Rule 14e-3. A number of respected commentators have weighed in on the merits of the case and about a potential class action lawsuit to recoup Ackman’s “illegal” profits.
On November 7, 2014, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice brought a lawsuit against Flakeboard America Limited, its foreign parents, and SierraPine, charging that Flakeboard exercised operational control over SierraPine prior to expiration of the statutory pre-merger waiting period, prematurely assuming beneficial ownership of the target assets in violation of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and conspiring in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Flakeboard and SierraPine settled the case, with each agreeing to pay $1.9 million in HSR fines and Flakeboard disgorging an additional $1.15 million in unlawful profits.
In a bench ruling  issued on October 14, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery (VC Laster) declined to dismiss fiduciary duty claims against the directors of Healthways, Inc. (“Healthways”) and an aiding and abetting claim against SunTrust Bank (“SunTrust”), the lender administrative agent, for entering into a credit facility of Healthways that has a dead hand “proxy put” provision. The provision at issue allows the lenders to declare an event of default and accelerate the debt in the event that a majority of the Healthways board during a period of 24 months is comprised of “non-continuing” directors, including directors initially nominated as a result of an actual or threatened proxy contest. Rejecting the director defendant claims that the fiduciary duty claims were not ripe, the Court stated that Healthways’ stockholders may presently be “suffering a distinct injury” from the deterrent effect of the “proxy put” and the fact that the dissident directors are non-continuing directors under the “proxy put.” In addition, in a further significant development, the Court stated that its prior holdings on the “entrenching” nature of “proxy puts” placed SunTrust on notice that a borrower’s board runs the risk of breaching their fiduciary duties if they accept dead hand “proxy puts” in the borrower’s debt documentation without negotiating significant value in return. Because the dead hand “proxy put” was included in Healthways’ credit agreement shortly after the threat of a proxy contest had occurred, the Court found that there was sufficient “knowing participation” pled to survive a motion to dismiss the aiding and abetting claim against SunTrust.
Two recent Chancery Court decisions, Crimson Exploration and KKR Financial, confirm that Delaware takes a flexible and fact-specific approach to determining whether a stockholder is deemed to be “controlling” for purposes of judicial review of a transaction. It is important for dealmakers to understand when the courts may make a determination of control, both to properly craft a defensible process and to understand the prospects for resulting deal litigation.