In a very interesting opinion on a matter of first impression, Vice Chancellor John Noble has indicated that the refusal of a board of directors to accept the resignation of a director who fails to obtain a majority vote under a “Pfizer-style” majority vote resignation policy is largely immune from judicial review.
The case – City of Westland Police & Fire Retirement System v. Axcelis Technologies, Inc., decided September 29, 2009 – involved something of a collateral issue: namely, whether to permit inspection of documents relating to the board’s decision to reject the proffered resignations of three directors. In rejecting that demand, however, the court suggested that such a rejection would not ultimately be tested under standards of judicial review more demanding than the business judgment rule. For reasons explained below, I question whether that degree of deference should prevail as a general rule, especially in the situation where the majority voting rule exists as a requirement in the bylaws, rather than only as a matter of board policy.
The three directors in question, while elected by the required plurality vote as specified in Axcelis’ bylaws, did not receive a majority of votes cast at Axcelis’ 2008 annual meeting. (The opinion suggests that this shortfall resulted from an ISS recommendation based on the 7-member board’s refusal to support a proposal to dismantle the board’s classified structure). As a result, and as mandated by a governance policy adopted by the board of directors (a so-called Pfizer type policy), those three individuals were required to submit their resignations. Under the policy, however, the board of directors had the discretion to reject the resignations. In announcing the board’s rejection of the three directors’ policy-mandated resignations, Axcelis referred to the experience of the directors, their membership on key committees, and the anticipated need to supervise negotiations with a potential bidder for the company.
Over six months after the annual meeting, and after a very disappointing outcome of the bidding negotiations, the stockholder plaintiff made a formal demand to inspect documents, mostly relating to the board’s dealings with and evaluation of a potential bidder’s acquisition proposals. The demand also included the following two categories:
6. All minutes of agendas for meetings (including all draft minutes and exhibits to such minutes and agendas) of the Board at which the Board discussed, considered or was presented with information concerning or related to the Board’s decision not to accept the resignations of Directors Stephen R. Hardis, R. John Fletcher, and H. Brian Thompson.
7. All documents reviewed considered, or produced by the Board in connection with the Board’s decision not to accept the resignations of Directors Stephen R. Hardis, R. John Fletcher, and H. Brian Thompson.
The stated purpose for this inspection was apparently to investigate possible waste or mismanagement, a traditionally accepted basis for inspection under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law. Under settled Delaware law, all the plaintiff had to proffer to become entitled to the inspection demanded was “some evidence to suggest a credible basis from which [this Court] can infer that mismanagement, waste, or wrongdoing may have occurred.” And as the Vice Chancellor acknowledged, this evidentiary requirement has accurately been described as “‘the lowest possible burden of proof’ in Delaware jurisprudence.”
…continue reading: Delaware Decision Defers to Retention of Directors Under a “Majority Vote Resignation Policy”