Last week, the Delaware Court of Chancery reached the rare conclusion that an independent, disinterested board breached its fiduciary duties in connection with an arm’s-length, third-party, premium merger transaction. The decision, In re Rural Metro Corp. Stockholders Litig., C.A. No. 6350-VCL (Del. Ch. Mar. 7, 2014), which relies heavily on findings that the board’s financial advisor had undisclosed conflicts of interest, holds the advisor liable for aiding and abetting the breaches, but does not reach the question of whether the directors themselves could have been liable, as they settled before trial. The decision sends a strong message that boards should actively oversee their financial advisors in any sale process.
Posts Tagged ‘Boards of Directors’
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) litigation activity associated with failed financial institutions increased significantly in 2013, according to Characteristics of FDIC Lawsuits against Directors and Officers of Failed Financial Institutions—February 2014, a new report by Cornerstone Research. The FDIC filed 40 director and officer (D&O) lawsuits in 2013, compared with 26 in 2012, a 54 percent increase.
The surge in FDIC D&O lawsuits stems from the high number of financial institution failures in 2009 and 2010. Of the 140 financial institutions that failed in 2009, the directors and officers of 64 (or 46 percent) either have been the subject of an FDIC lawsuit or settled claims with the FDIC prior to the filing of a lawsuit. Of the 157 institutions that failed in 2010, 53 (or 34 percent) have either been the subject of a lawsuit or have settled with the FDIC.
This Spring, the Supreme Court will decide whether a for-profit corporation can refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services mandated by the Affordable Healthcare Act (or “Obamacare”) when doing so would conflict with “the corporation’s” religious beliefs. Although the main legal issue in Sibelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., et al. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., et al. v. Sibelius concerns the extent to which the guarantee of free exercise of religion under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act may be asserted by for-profit corporations, the Court’s decision may also have important—and unsettling—implications for state corporate laws that define the fiduciary duties of boards of directors.
The board of directors is a collective body, whose members have diverse expertise in various aspects of the company’s business. Therefore, communication between directors is critical to successful board functioning. In recent years, regulators, shareholders, and directors themselves have been paying increased attention to decision-making policies that could increase the quality of board discussions. Executive sessions that exclude the management, separation of the CEO and chairman positions, board retreats, and separate committees on specific topics have been put in place to promote more effective communication. As governance experts Carter and Lorsch (2004) emphasize, “If we could offer only one piece of advice, it would be to strive for open communication among board members.”
Thursday February 13, 2014 was an important day for shareholder democracy in Canada. We know that athletes train many years in order to reach the Olympics, but the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (CCGG) also has worked publicly and behind the scenes for many years to bring majority voting to Canada. Finally, last week the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) agreed to adopt a listing requirement effective June 30, 2014 pursuant to which TSX listed companies (other than those which are majority controlled) must adopt a majority voting policy which requires each director of a TSX listed issuer to be elected by a majority of the votes cast with respect to his or her election other than at contested meetings.
As the fallout from the financial crisis recedes and both institutional investors and corporate boards gain experience with expanded corporate governance regulation, the coming year holds some promise of decreased tensions in board-shareholder relations. With governance settling in to a “new normal,” influential shareholders and boards should refocus their attention on the fundamental aspects of their roles as they relate to the creation of long-term value.
Institutional investors and their beneficiaries, and society at large, have a decided interest in the long-term health of the corporation and in the effectiveness of its governing body. Corporate governance is likely to work best in supporting the creation of value when the decision rights and responsibilities of shareholders and boards set out in state corporate law are effectuated.
The recent announcement of the formation of the Shareholder-Director Exchange, a new group that aims to facilitate direct communication between institutional shareholders (namely, mutual funds and pension programs) and non-management directors of the U.S. public companies they own, has been accompanied by a flurry of articles regarding the purposes and possibilities of this new group. From my perspective, the Shareholder-Director Exchange has tremendous potential to help improve corporate governance and performance in this country.
Schulte Roth & Zabel’s Shareholder Activism practice was at the forefront of the industry in 2013, advising our clients in a number of proxy contests. These are our observations from a busy year.
Rapid growth with many new entrants
By almost any measure, shareholder activism became more popular in 2013 than ever. With assets under management quickly growing and returns consistently outperforming the average hedge fund, the activist sector has seen an influx of new activist-oriented funds. As activist investors have appeared on the cover of Time magazine and filled the pages of Vanity Fair throughout the year, it is clear that investors and boards are not the only ones interested in learning more about shareholder activism.
There are many good, independent boards of directors at public companies in the United States. Unfortunately, there are also many ineffectual boards composed of cronies of CEOs and management teams, and such boards routinely use corporate capital to hire high-priced “advisors” to design defense mechanisms, such as the staggered board and poison pill, that serve to insulate them from criticism. Recently, these advisors have created a particularly pernicious new mechanism to protect their deep-pocketed clients—a bylaw amendment (which we call the “Director Disqualification Bylaw”) that disqualifies certain people from seeking to replace incumbent members of a board of directors. Under a Director Disqualification Bylaw, a person is not eligible for election to the board of directors if he is nominated by a shareholder and the shareholder has agreed to pay the nominee a fee, such as a cash payment to compensate the nominee for taking the time and effort to seek election in a proxy fight, or compensation that is tied to performance of the company. 
The Shareholder-Director Exchange (SDX™)  is a working group of leading independent directors and representatives from some of the largest and most influential long-term institutional investors.  SDX participants came together to discuss shareholder-director engagement and to use their collective experience to develop the SDX Protocol, a set of guidelines to provide a framework for shareholder-director engagements. While the decision to engage directly with investors should be made in consultation with or at the request of management, the 10-point SDX Protocol offers guidance to US public company boards and shareholders on when such engagement is appropriate and how to make these engagements valuable and effective.