Vice Chancellor Laster has been writing for several years about the fiduciary duties of directors who represent the interests of a particular block of stockholders. In his opinion in the Trados Shareholder Litigation he found that directors, elected by the venture capital investors who held Trados’s preferred stock, had a conflict of interest in deciding on a sale of the corporation in which all the proceeds would be absorbed by the liquidation preference of the preferred and nothing would go to the common.  As a result of this finding, Vice Chancellor Laster applied the entire fairness standard of review to the Trados board’s decision. He concluded that while the directors failed to follow a fair process, the transaction was fair because the common stock had no economic value before the sale and so it was fair for the common stock to receive nothing from the sale.  In a recent Business Lawyer article which he co-authored with Delaware practitioner John Mark Zeberkiewicz,  Vice Chancellor Laster extended his Trados conflict of interest analysis to other situations in which directors represent stockholder constituencies with short-term investment horizons, including directors elected by activist stockholders seeking immediate steps to increase the near term stock price of the corporation. He states that such directors can face a conflict of interest between their duties to the corporation and their duties to the activists.
Posts Tagged ‘Fiduciary duties’
Disentangling Mutual Fund Governance from Corporate Governance addresses mutual fund governance, explaining how in recent years it has become entangled with the norms and rules of corporate governance. At one level, it is understandable that mutual funds have been seen simply as a type of ordinary corporation, leading the SEC and the courts to treat mutual fund governance as simply a variation on the theme of corporate governance. Both mutual funds and corporations are separate legal entities, having directors and shareholders. Directors of each are held to fiduciary duties, charged with serving shareholders’ interests, and aspire to best practices. But there are fundamental differences between mutual funds and ordinary corporations, and this article contends that these differences have important implications for the governance of mutual funds, differences that should lead not to further entanglement of fund governance with corporate governance but to disentanglement.
A foundational premise of Delaware jurisprudence has been the courts’ deference to decisions made by independent and disinterested directors. Over the last year, the Delaware courts have continued a trend in their opinions toward increased judicial deference to the decisions of independent and disinterested directors. Thus, for example, the Delaware Supreme Court’s seminal MFW decision provides a roadmap to business judgment review even of controller transactions (which used to be reviewed under an entire fairness standard).
Other than MFW, however, the courts have not changed the fundamental ground rules for review of a sale process. Thus, as in the past:
On December 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of Delaware reversed the Delaware Court of Chancery’s November decision (discussed on the Forum here) to preliminarily enjoin for 30 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. The Supreme Court decision clarifies that in a sale-of-control situation, Revlon and its progeny require an effective, but not necessarily active, market check, and there is no “specific route that a board must follow” in fulfilling fiduciary duties.
The decision also reaffirms the type of record that must be made to support a mandatory preliminary injunction, a type of injunction that requires parties to take affirmative actions as opposed to merely maintaining the status quo. The Court found that the Chancery Court “blue penciled” the merger agreement, and in the process stripped Nabors of its contractual rights, by effectively inserting a go-shop provision into the contract where the parties never agreed to one. Moreover, the Chancery Court improperly did so without finding that Nabors aided and abetted a fiduciary duty breach and based its holding only on disputed facts that were not adjudicated following a trial. While the decision does not break new ground, it is significant in better defining directors’ duties when selling control and articulating the limits of a court’s ability to issue mandatory preliminary injunctions.
On Friday, December 19, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed a preliminary injunction entered by the Delaware Court of Chancery which had (a) barred, for 30 days, a stockholder vote to approve the combination of C&J Energy Services, Inc. and a division of Nabors Industries Ltd., (b) required C&J to conduct a “go-shop” during that period and (c) preemptively declared that such “go-shop” did not constitute a breach of the “no-shop” or other deal-protection provisions in the Nabors/C&J merger agreement. In reversing the injunction, the Supreme Court held that the C&J board likely satisfied its Revlon duties (to the extent such duties applied), notwithstanding the lack of a pre-signing market check, given that “[w]hen a board exercises its judgment in good faith, tests the transaction through a viable passive market check, and gives its stockholders a fully informed, uncoerced opportunity to vote to accept the deal, [Delaware courts] cannot conclude that the board likely violated its Revlon duties.”
In In re Zhongpin Inc. S’holders Litig., the Delaware Court of Chancery denied motions to dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims against an alleged controlling stockholder and members of the company’s board of directors, holding that the plaintiffs had raised reasonable inferences that (i) although the stockholder held only 17.3% of the company’s outstanding common stock, as CEO and Chairman of the Board, he possessed “both latent and active control” over the company, and (ii) the sales process was not entirely fair.
What would happen to shareholder litigation if the class action disappeared? In my article, Shareholder Litigation Without Class Actions, forthcoming in the Arizona Law Review as part of its symposium on Business Litigation and Regulatory Agency Review in the Era of the Roberts Court, I sketch out some possible futures of post-class action shareholder litigation. For now, such litigation persists despite recent existential challenges, most notably the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Erica P. John Fund v. Halliburton. While these actions may continue in their current form, sustained criticism from sectors of the academy, and from business lobbies, suggest that existential threats to these suits will continue. Such threats have already re-emerged in the form of mandatory arbitration provisions and “loser pays” (more accurately, “plaintiff pays”) fee-shifting provisions in corporate bylaws or certificates of incorporation. While it is possible that such provisions will not spread widely—perhaps because of organized shareholder opposition—the rapid adoption of fee-shifting provisions suggests the possibility that mandatory arbitration or “plaintiff pays” or both could become ubiquitous. If so, either type of provision could eliminate the shareholder class action, or at least drastically reduce its prevalence. As I describe in greater detail in the article, mandatory arbitration provisions requiring bilateral arbitration of claims and barring consolidation of such claims would eliminate the class action in either litigation or arbitration form. (Importantly, even if Delaware were to try to curb arbitration provisions, such action could be preempted by federal law under the Supreme Court’s recent Federal Arbitration Act decisions). Similarly, fee-shifting provisions would greatly increase the risk to plaintiffs generally, and to entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ lawyers in particular, who bear the risks and costs of this litigation, potentially threatening the existence of the plaintiffs’ bar itself and restricting class actions to only a small handful of the most egregious cases. I discuss arbitration and fee shifting provisions in the article, and in the summary below, but I do not confine my analysis to these provisions. Rather, my focus is to assess what would happen to shareholder litigation if the class action disappeared, regardless of the particular mechanism of its demise.
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.
M&A practitioners are well aware of the several standards of review applied by Delaware courts in evaluating whether directors have complied with their fiduciary duties in the context of M&A transactions. Because the standard applied will often have a significant effect on the outcome of such evaluation, establishing processes to secure a more favorable standard of review is a significant part of Delaware M&A practice. The chart below identifies fact patterns common to Delaware M&A and provides a preliminary assessment of the likely standard of review applicable to transactions fitting such fact patterns. However, because the Delaware courts evaluate each transaction in light of the transaction’s particular set of facts and circumstances, and due to the evolving nature of the law in this area, this chart should not be treated as a definitive statement of the standard of review applicable to any particular transaction.
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.