In Quadrant Structured Products Company, Ltd. v. Vertin (October 1, 2014), Vice Chancellor Laster clarified the Delaware Chancery Court’s approach to breach of fiduciary duty derivative actions brought by creditors against the directors of an insolvent corporation. Importantly, the Vice Chancellor applied business judgment rule deference to the non-independent directors’ decision to try to increase the value of the insolvent corporation by adopting a highly risky investment strategy—even though the creditors bore the full risk of the strategy’s failing, while the corporation’s sole stockholder would benefit if the strategy succeeded. By contrast, the court viewed the directors’ decisions not to exercise their right to defer interest on the notes held by the controller and to pay above-market fees to an affiliate of the controller as having been “transfers of value” from the insolvent corporation to the controller, which were subject to entire fairness review.
Posts Tagged ‘Derivative suits’
My article, Standing at the Singularity of the Effective Time: Reconfiguring Delaware’s Law of Standing Following Mergers and Acquisitions, examines the doctrine of standing as applied to mergers and acquisitions of Delaware corporations with pending derivative claims. The settled rules of direct and derivative standing break down at the “singularity of the effective time” of a merger, yielding to conflicting principles of standing, corporation law and policy, and basic equity. The path-dependent network of rules and exceptions that has developed is an outgrowth of case-by-case adjudication that now begs for a one-time, wholesale reconfiguration.
The article takes on that task, proposing three straightforward rules that need no exceptions:
Transactional class and derivative actions have long been controversial in both the popular and the academic literatures. Some commentators have argued that every deal faces litigation, that the overwhelming majority of such cases are frivolous, that the only people who benefit from them are the lawyers, and that the costs of these suits outweigh their benefits to shareholders. Others have taken the opposite view, that the litigation costs are overblown and that shareholders benefit from such suits. Yet, the debate over this litigation has so far neglected to consider a change in legal technology, adopted in Delaware a decade ago, favoring selection of institutional investors as lead plaintiffs. My article, “Private Policing of Mergers and Acquisitions: An Empirical Assessment of Institutional Lead Plaintiffs in Transactional Class and Derivative Actions,” fills the gap, offering new insights into the utility of mergers and acquisitions litigation. The most significant findings in the paper are that public pension funds and labor union funds have become the dominant institutional players in these cases, and that public pension fund lead plaintiffs correlate with the outcomes of most interest to shareholders: an increase from the offer to the final price, and lower attorneys’ fees.
The Delaware Supreme Court held that the Court of Chancery erred by failing to give preclusive effect to an earlier with-prejudice dismissal of a parallel derivative suit in another state, and by creating a presumption that all plaintiffs who file derivative suits without first conducting books-and-records inspections are inadequate representatives. Pyott v. La. Mun. Police Emps.’ Ret. Sys., No. 380, 2012 (Del. Apr. 4, 2013). The decision stresses the importance of interstate comity and the need to give full faith and credit to the decisions of other courts.
Allergan is a drug company that incurred losses in resolving civil and criminal investigations of off-label drug marketing. Derivative suits were filed in both federal court in California and the Court of Chancery alleging that Allergan’s directors were liable for the losses because they failed to properly monitor the company’s marketing practices. The Delaware shareholder plaintiff obtained documents through a books-and-records inspection under 8 Del. C. § 220 before filing suit. The California plaintiffs did not, but later amended their complaints when the Delaware plaintiff shared the documents. Defendants moved to dismiss in both jurisdictions. The California federal court ruled first, dismissing with prejudice for failure to establish demand futility. The Court of Chancery refused to give preclusive effect to that ruling, applying Delaware law to the preclusion question. Turning to the merits, Chancery disagreed with the federal court, holding that demand was futile and that the case should proceed.
The prevalence of settlements in class and derivative litigation challenging mergers and acquisitions in which the only payment is to plaintiffs’ attorneys suggests potential systemic dysfunction arising from the increased frequency of parallel litigation in multiple state courts. After examining possible explanations for that dysfunction, and the historical development of doctrines limiting parallel state court litigation — the doctrine of forum non conveniens and the “first-filed” doctrine — this paper suggests that those doctrines should be revised to better address shareholder class and derivative litigation. Revisions to the doctrine of forum non conveniens should continue the historical trend, deemphasizing fortuitous and increasingly irrelevant geographic considerations, and should place greater emphasis on voluntary choice of law and the development of precedential guidance by the courts of the state responsible for supplying the chosen law. The “first-filed” rule should be replaced in shareholder representative litigation by meaningful consideration of affected parties’ interests and judicial efficiency.
Putting Stockholders First responds to the observation that in 2011, only 5% of settlements of shareholder litigation challenging mergers and acquisitions involved an additional payout to stockholders, 84% of such settlements were based on additional disclosure only, but all of such settlements involved payment of fees for plaintiffs’ attorneys. These figures reflect a significant change from 1999 to 2000, when 52% of suits filed on behalf of shareholders produced a financial benefit for the class, and only 10% of settlements were “disclosure-only.”
On September 25, 2012, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster of the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware dismissed the derivative complaint in South v. Baker, C.A. No. 7294-VCL, with prejudice. This decision reaffirms the Chancery Court’s low tolerance for hastily filed shareholder derivative lawsuits brought under the In re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation, 698 A.2d 959 (Del. Ch. 1996), line of cases where the plaintiff makes little effort to plead any connection between a “corporate trauma” and the conduct of a board of directors. At the same time, the South decision also finds that shareholders are entitled to, and should seek, books and records from Delaware corporations before bringing derivative lawsuits in Delaware. Accordingly, Delaware corporations should anticipate an increase in shareholder demands for books and records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law in the wake of any “corporate trauma.” In addition, the South decision found that dismissal of the South complaint did not preclude other Hecla shareholders from filing future derivative suits because the South plaintiffs did not use Section 220 and, therefore, did not adequately represent Hecla’s interests.
A number of derivative suits have been filed in recent months alleging that the senior executive compensation plans at public companies do not comply with Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code. Section 162(m) provides that any compensation paid to the CEO and next three highest compensated proxy officers (other than the CFO) in excess of $1 million per year is not tax deductible unless, among other things, the compensation is subject to objective performance metrics that have been disclosed to and approved by shareholders. The complaints generally allege that the performance goals established by the plans are not sufficiently objective to comply with Section 162(m) and that the purported failure of the plans to comply with Section 162(m) renders the required proxy disclosure false and misleading in violation of Section 14(a) of the Securities Exchange Act. In addition, the complaints allege that the provision of non-deductible compensation to senior executives constitutes waste, unjust enrichment of the executives and a breach of the directors’ duty of loyalty.
On January 28, 2011, the Delaware Supreme Court clarified in King v. VeriFone Holdings, Inc., Del. Supr., No. 330, 2010, that plaintiffs may in some circumstances inspect a corporation’s books and records to bolster a derivative action complaint even after they have filed a lawsuit.
Section 220 of Delaware’s General Corporation Law provides shareholders with a limited right to inspect the books and records of Delaware companies in which they own stock. That right is subject to several conditions, including the condition that shareholders have a “proper purpose” for seeking inspection.  Investigating corporate mismanagement, for example, is a proper purpose.  Indeed, Delaware courts have repeatedly urged shareholders to use Section 220 to conduct such investigations before filing a derivative action. By using the “tools at hand,” those courts have explained, shareholders can become better equipped to plead allegations that are sufficient to meet the stringent pleading requirements that apply to derivative complaints, particularly in cases in which the plaintiffs did not serve a pre-suit demand and thus must plead “demand futility” (i.e., that serving a demand would be useless because the board of directors is biased against the claims or dominated by others who are).  Litigants have frequently clashed over whether the purpose of obtaining information to fortify a derivative complaint is “proper” when the complaint has already been filed.
In a recent decision, the Delaware Court of Chancery for the first time held that preferred stockholders have standing to bring derivative suits on behalf of a corporation. MCG Capital Corp. v. Maginn, C.A. No. 4521-CC (Del. Ch. May 5, 2010).
The plaintiff was the sole holder of Jenzabar, Inc.’s preferred stock but held no common stock of the corporation. Plaintiff brought suit alleging that the board’s decision to pay certain compensation to executive management breached fiduciary duties owed to the corporation and violated both the corporation’s charter and contractual consent rights. Resolving an issue of first impression under Delaware law, the Court held that “preferred shareholders have standing to bring derivative claims unless the ability to bring a derivative claim has been expressly limited in the articles, preferred stock designations, or some other appropriate document.” Delaware corporations are thus now on notice that preferred stockholders presumptively have the same rights as common stockholders to attack corporate action through derivative litigation. At the same time, the Court indicated that express limitations on preferred holder derivative standing will be enforced.
Coming in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2007 Gheewalla decision, which explained that the creditors of a corporation may bring derivative suits once the corporation is insolvent, MCG Capital Corp. expands the universe of potential derivative plaintiffs, and, accordingly, potential derivative liability. Nevertheless, and in accordance with Delaware’s longstanding policy favoring private ordering, the Chancellor took pains to reassure Delaware companies that limitations on such standing will be respected if clearly set forth in the charter or the preferred stock’s designations.
The Delaware Chancery Court recently issued a resounding affirmation of the business judgment rule in the case In re the Dow Chemical Company Derivative Litigation.  Directors can take comfort in this timely reminder that, despite challenging economic circumstances and an environment of heightened scrutiny of boards and individual directors, the protections of the business judgment rule remain robust in Delaware.
The Dow Chemical Case
Dow was a shareholder derivative suit filed nearly a year ago amid turmoil over Dow’s planned acquisition of another chemical company, Rohm & Haas, for aggregate consideration of approximately $18.8 billion. The Dow stockholders alleged that the directors and officers of Dow had breached their fiduciary duties in at least three different respects: first, in approving the Rohm & Haas transaction without a financing contingency; second, in misrepresenting the connection between the Rohm & Haas transaction and another pending transaction, a joint venture with a Kuwaiti company for which a memorandum of understanding had been entered into six months previously; and third, in failing to detect and prevent various corporate misdeeds during the course of both transactions, including bribery, misrepresentation, insider trading and wasteful compensation.