On September 8, 2014, Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard issued a notable decision in City of Providence v. First Citizens BancShares, Inc., upholding—as a matter of facial validity and on an “as-applied” basis at the motion to dismiss stage—a forum selection bylaw adopted by a Delaware corporation selecting another jurisdiction (North Carolina, where the company is headquartered) as the forum for intra-corporate disputes. This decision is important not only because it reaffirms the decision last year by then-Chancellor, now Chief Justice, Leo E. Strine, Jr. in Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund v. Chevron Corporation, 73 A.3d 934 (Del. Ch. 2013), upholding the facial validity of forum selection bylaws, but also because it includes notable pronouncements from the current Chancellor on the application of such provisions. 
Posts Tagged ‘Delaware cases’
Financial reports should provide useful information to both shareholders and creditors, according to U.S. accounting principles. However, directors of corporations have fiduciary duties only toward equity holders, and those fiduciary duties normally do not extend to the interests of creditors. In our paper, Does Corporate Governance Make Financial Reports Better or Just Better for Equity Investors?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we examine whether this slant in corporate governance biases financial reports in favor of equity investors. We show that the likelihood that firms will manipulate their reporting to circumvent debt covenants is higher when directors owe fiduciary duties only to equity holders, rather than when they owe fiduciary duties also to creditors. Covenants limit the amount of new debt that the firm issues, for example, and by that reduce bankruptcy risk, and allow creditors to avoid bankruptcy costs, and to recover more from the borrowing firm in case it approaches insolvency. When managers manipulate financial reports to circumvent these debt covenants, they transfer wealth from creditors to shareholders. Our results suggest that when corporate governance is designed to protect only equity holders, firms’ financial reports serve equity holders’ interests at the expense of other stakeholders. We find that when the legal regime requires directors to consider creditors’ interests, firms are less likely to use structured transactions designed to skirt debt covenant limits, particularly if the board of directors of the firm is independent.
Just over a year ago, the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld the facial validity of exclusive forum bylaws adopted by corporate boards as a means of rationalizing stockholder litigation. In the time since Chancery’s landmark Chevron opinion, numerous corporations have adopted exclusive forum bylaws, and courts in New York, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, and California have enforced such bylaws against stockholders bringing duplicative lawsuits in violation of their terms. The result, as one commentator recently noted, has been to disincentivize duplicative filings and reduce the concomitant litigation “deal tax” on merging parties. Yet, despite this progress, pernicious multijurisdictional litigation persists. A recent decision from a court in Oregon (Roberts v. TriQuint SemiConductor, Inc., No. 1402-02441 (Or. Cir. Ct. Aug. 14, 2014)) illustrates the potential harm from such litigation and the importance of continued authoritative articulation of the law to ensure the efficacy of exclusive forum bylaws.
In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW, the Delaware Supreme Court formally recognized the “Garner doctrine,” an exception to the attorney-client privilege, in connection with a stockholder’s demand for records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, and confirmed that the exception also applies to other stockholder claims. The decision may allow derivative plaintiffs to obtain certain sensitive privileged communications and attorney work-product in cases involving substantial allegations of serious fiduciary misconduct.
It almost goes without saying that the first half of 2014 brought with it the most significant development in securities litigation in decades: the U.S. Supreme Court decided Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc.—Halliburton II. In Halliburton II, the Court declined to revisit its earlier decision in Basic v. Levinson, Inc.; plaintiffs may therefore continue to avail themselves of the legal presumption of reliance, a presumption necessary for many class action plaintiffs to achieve class certification. But the Court also reiterated what it said 20 years ago in Basic: the presumption of reliance is rebuttable. And the Court clarified that defendants may now rebut the presumption at the class certification stage with evidence that the alleged misrepresentation did not affect the security’s price, making “price impact” evidence essential to class certification.
Given today’s low interest rate environment, the enforceability of make-whole provisions has been the subject of intense litigation as debtors seek to redeem and refinance debt entered into during periods of higher interest rates, and investors seek to maintain their contractual rates of return. This trend has come to the forefront most recently in two separate cases, one filed in Delaware and the other in New York. In Energy Future Holdings, the first-lien and second-lien indenture trustees have each initiated separate adversary proceedings in Delaware bankruptcy court claiming the power company’s plan to redeem and refinance its outstanding debt entitles the respective holders to hundreds of millions of dollars in make-whole payments.  Conversely, In MPM Silicones, LLC, it is the debtors that have sought a declaratory judgment from the New York bankruptcy court that, on account of an automatic acceleration upon the bankruptcy filing, no make-whole payment is required to be paid.  Given the frequency which make-whole disputes have arisen and the enormous sums at stake, it is important for all investors to understand the various arguments for and against payment of a make-whole premium, and the specific issues to look for when analyzing debt containing make-whole provisions. Despite the various legal arguments that exist, the single most important factor will always be the specific language of the applicable credit agreement or indenture.
Following a merger (or consolidation), Section 262 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”) requires notice to be sent to any stockholder of record who has demanded appraisal informing that stockholder that the transaction was accomplished. For long-form mergers approved pursuant to a stockholder vote (i.e., under Section 251(c) of the DGCL), Section 262(d)(1) requires notice of the effective date of the merger to be sent within 10 days of the merger becoming effective. For mergers approved pursuant to Sections 228, 251(h), 253 or 267 of the DGCL (e.g., mergers approved by written consent, certain mergers following a tender or exchange offer, short-form mergers between parent and subsidiary corporations and short-form mergers between a non-corporation parent entity and its subsidiary corporation) the notice of the effective date is governed by Section 262(d)(2), which sets its own timing requirements.
This has been called “the heyday of hedge fund activism,” and it is certainly true that today boards of directors must constantly be vigilant to the many and varied ways in which activist investors can approach a target. Commencing a proxy fight long has been an activist tactic, but it is now being used in a different way. Some hedge funds are engaging in proxy fights in order to exercise direct influence or control over the board’s decision-making as opposed to clearing the way for a takeover of the target company or seeking a stock buyback. In some cases, multiple hedge funds acting in parallel purchase enough target shares to hold a voting bloc adequate to elect their director nominees to the board. A recent Delaware case addressed a situation in which a board resisted a threat from hedge funds acting together in this manner. The court determined that a shareholder rights plan, or poison pill, could, in certain circumstances, be an appropriate response. As a general matter, boards of directors facing activist share accumulations and threats of board takeovers can take comfort in this latest affirmation of the respect accorded to an independent board’s informed business judgment.
Under Delaware’s corporate benefit doctrine, a stockholder who presents a meritorious claim to a board of directors may be entitled to attorneys’ fees if the stockholder’s efforts result in the conferring of a corporate benefit.  On June 20, 2014, the Delaware Chancery Court considered in Raul v. Astoria Financial Corporation  whether attorneys’ fees are warranted under this doctrine when a stockholder identifies potential deficiencies in executive compensation disclosures required by the SEC pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act “say on pay” provisions.  The court held that the alleged omissions at issue failed to demonstrate any breach of the Board of Directors’ fiduciary duties under Delaware law and accordingly the Plaintiff did not present a meritorious demand to the Board. This decision makes clear that the courts will not shift fees to a stockholder (and the stockholder’s law firm) who “has simply done the company a good turn by bringing to the attention of the board an action that it ultimately decides to take.” 
In Hamilton Partners, L.P. v. Highland Capital Management, L.P., C.A. No. 6547-VCN, 2014 WL 1813340 (Del. Ch. May 7, 2014), the Court of Chancery, by Vice Chancellor Noble, in connection with a challenge to a going-private transaction whereby American HomePatient, Inc. (“AHP”) was acquired by an affiliate of one of its stockholders, Highland Capital Management, L.P. (“Highland”), refused to dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims against Highland. The Court held that, for purposes of defendants’ motion to dismiss, plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to support an inference that Highland, which owned 48% of AHP’s stock and 82% of AHP’s debt, was the controlling stockholder of AHP and that the merger was not entirely fair.