In its recent decision in In Re Rural Metro Corporation Stockholders Litigation,  the Delaware Court of Chancery, in a footnote, touches on what it means for directors to be “fully protected” by §141(e) of the Delaware General Corporation Law when they rely on information, opinions, reports or statements provided to them by officers, employees, board committees or experts. While not central to the Rural Metro decision, this is an issue that should be of interest to conscientious public company directors. Below I suggest that, as currently applied, §141(e) does not sufficiently protect conscientious directors, examine why that may be so, highlight the need for alternative approaches to provide truly full protection without undermining other important conduct imperatives Delaware law imposes on directors and others, and offer some suggestions toward that end.
Posts Tagged ‘Delaware law’
On March 7, 2014, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster of the Delaware Court of Chancery found a financial advisor liable for aiding and abetting breaches of fiduciary duties by the board of Rural/Metro Corporation in connection with the company’s 2011 sale to an affiliate of Warburg Pincus LLC. In its 91-page, post-trial opinion, the Court concluded that the financial advisor allowed its interests in pursuing buy-side financing roles in both the sales of Rural/Metro and Emergency Medical Services (“EMS”) to negatively affect the timing and structure of the company’s sales process, that the board was not aware of certain of these actual or potential conflicts of interest, and that the valuation analysis provided to the board was flawed in several respects. Both the Rural/Metro board of directors and a second financial advisor to Rural/Metro settled before trial for $6.6 million and $5.0 million, respectively.
It is now clear that, for Delaware companies, a charter or by-law forum selection clause (FSC) is a valid and promising response to the problems posed by multi-jurisdictional disputes involving claims based upon internal corporate affairs (such as M&A litigation and derivative actions). Three recent rulings by “foreign” courts—courts located outside of the forum selected in the charter or by-law (which is usually Delaware). In each case, the “foreign” court granted motions to dismiss based upon an FSC that selected Delaware as the exclusive forum. Still, as we have previously advocated,  the better course would be to include with an FSC a consent to jurisdiction and service provision for stockholders who commence the foreign litigation that would permit the defendants in the foreign case to enforce the forum selection clause in Delaware. 
With M&A activity expected to increase in 2014, shareholder activism is an important factor to be considered in the planning, negotiation, and consummation of corporate transactions. In 2013, a year of relatively low deal activity, it became clear that activism in the M&A context was growing in scope and ambition. Last year activists were often successful in obtaining board seats and forcing increases in deal consideration, results that may fuel increased efforts going forward. A recent survey of M&A professionals and corporate executives found that the current environment is viewed as favorable for deal-making, with executives citing an improved economy, decreased economic uncertainty, and a backlogged appetite for transactions. There is no doubt that companies pursuing deals in 2014—whether as a buyer or as a seller—will have to contend with activism on a variety of fronts, and advance preparation will be important.
On March 7, the Delaware Court of Chancery published a post-trial opinion in In Re Rural Metro Corporation Stockholders Litigation (Rural Metro) finding Rural/Metro’s financial advisor RBC liable for aiding and abetting the Rural/Metro’s board of directors’ breach of its fiduciary duties in connection with the acquisition of Rural/Metro by Warburg Pincus. The decision is the latest in a series of Delaware opinions concerning conflicts of interest of banks and investment firms in advising companies in buy-out transactions.
The private equity firm that was the controlling stockholder of Orchard Enterprises effected a squeeze-out merger of the minority public stockholders. Two years later, a Delaware appraisal proceeding determined that Orchard’s shares at the time of the merger were worth more than twice as much as was paid in the merger. Public shareholders then brought suit, claiming that the directors who had approved the merger and the controlling stockholder had breached their fiduciary duties and should be held liable for damages. The Orchard decision  issued by the Delaware Chancery Court this past Friday adjudicates the parties’ respective motions for summary judgment before trial.
The Delaware Supreme Court today affirmed that a going-private transaction may be reviewed under the deferential business judgment rule when it is conditioned on the approval of both a well-functioning special committee and a majority of the minority stockholders. Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., No. 334, 2013 (Del. Mar. 14, 2014).
As described in our previous memo, the case arose out of a stockholder challenge to a merger in which MacAndrews & Forbes acquired the 57% of M&F Worldwide it did not already own. Then-Chancellor Strine granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that the record established the transaction was approved by both an independent special committee that functioned effectively and had the power to say no and the fully-informed vote of a majority of the unaffiliated stockholders, thus entitling them to business judgment review.
In the US, every M&A deal of any significant size generates litigation. The vast majority of these lawsuits settle, and the vast majority of these settlements are for non-pecuniary relief, most commonly supplemental disclosures in the merger proxy.
The engine that drives this litigation is the concept of “corporate benefit.” Under judge-made law, litigation that produces a corporate benefit allows the court to order plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees to be paid directly by the defendants provided that the outcome of the litigation is beneficial to the corporation and its shareholders. In a negotiated settlement, plaintiffs will characterize supplemental disclosures in the merger proxy as producing a corporate benefit, and defendants will typically not oppose the characterization, as they are happy to pay off the plaintiffs’ lawyers and get on with the deal. The supposed benefits of these settlements thus are rarely tested in adversarial proceedings. Knowing this creates a strong incentive for plaintiffs’ attorneys to file claims, put in limited effort, and negotiate a settlement consisting exclusively of corrective disclosures. But is there any real value to these settlements?
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.
Some corporate practitioners could have the impression that significant fee awards are granted as a matter of course in M&A class action litigation, even where the results obtained by class counsel were supplemental (and arguably routine) disclosures regarding the proposed transaction. Recent comments by the judges of the Delaware Court of Chancery, however, may suggest an increasing concern over what might be perceived as “default” fee awards in this context, as well as the value of purely supplemental, as opposed to remedial, disclosures.
In 2011, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster analyzed M&A fee awards in a published case titled In re Sauer-Danfoss Inc. Shareholders Litigation, 65 A.3d 1116 (Del. Ch. 2011). This undertaking, it reasonably could be hoped, would serve to promote consistency and establish reasonable expectations, especially in an area where precedent frequently lies in transcripts and unpublished orders. Of particular note, Vice Chancellor Laster wrote: