The balance of power between shareholders and boards of directors is central to the U.S. public corporation’s success as an engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation. Yet that balance is under significant and increasing strain. In 2015, we expect to see continued growth in shareholder activism and engagement, as well as in the influence of shareholder initiatives, including advisory proposals and votes. Time will tell whether, over the long term, tipping the balance to greater shareholder influence will prove beneficial for corporations, their shareholders and our economy at large. In the near term, there is reason to question whether increased shareholder influence on matters that the law has traditionally apportioned to the board is at the expense of other values that are key to the sustainability of healthy corporations. These concerns underlie the issues that will define the state of governance in 2015 and likely beyond:
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder suits’
Director-adopted bylaws that affect shareholders’ litigation rights have attracted both praise and controversy. Recent bylaws specify an exclusive judicial forum for litigation of corporate-governance claims, require that shareholder claims be arbitrated, and (most controversially) impose a one-way regime of fee shifting on shareholder litigants. To one degree or another, courts have legitimated each development, while commentators differ in their assessments. My paper, Forum-Selection Bylaws Refracted Through an Agency Lens, brings into clear focus issues so far blurred in the debate surrounding these types of bylaws.
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.
Governance of public corporations continues to move in a more shareholder-centric direction. This is evidenced by the increasing corporate influence of shareholder engagement and activism, and shareholder proposals and votes. This trend is linked to the concentration of ownership in public and private pension funds and other institutional investors over the past 25 years, and has gained support from various federal legislative and regulatory initiatives. Most recently, it has been driven by the rise in hedge fund activism.
In its landmark 1971 Chris-Craft decision, the Delaware Supreme Court observed that “inequitable action does not become permissible simply because it is legally possible.” This quote aptly captures the two-stage inquiry that Delaware courts will apply when reviewing a challenged board action—first determining the legality of the action, and second appraising the equity, or fairness, of the act and its application under the specific circumstances.
“[T]he fact that a federal statute has been violated and some person harmed does not automatically give rise to a private cause of action in favor of that person.”
—Touche Ross & Co. v. Redington, 442 U.S. 560, 568, 99 S.Ct. 2479, 61 L.Ed.2d 82 (1979).
In June 2008, I posted a short piece on this website entitled A Different Perspective on CSX/TCI: Should Courts Reject a Private Right of Action Under Section 13(d)? In that posting, I questioned whether, after Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), a private right of action existed to enforce the Williams Act, in that case, section 13(d) of the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act. It drew a grand total of zero comments.
Let’s fast forward to the lawsuit du jour. Allergan and one of its employees who was a shareholder that sold some shares while Bill Ackman was buying and before Valeant announced its intent to acquire Allergan have sued Ackman in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for allegedly violating Rule 14e-3. Judge David O. Carter concluded that Allergan did not have standing to sue Ackman but that that a selling shareholder did have standing and that there were “serious questions” that need to be decided by a jury to determine whether Ackman violated Rule 14e-3. A number of respected commentators have weighed in on the merits of the case and about a potential class action lawsuit to recoup Ackman’s “illegal” profits.
On October 10, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding nearly $76 million in damages against a seller’s financial advisor. In an earlier March 7, 2014 opinion in the case, In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Laster found RBC Capital Markets, LLC liable for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty in connection with Rural’s 2011 sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus for $17.25 a share, a premium of 37% over the pre-announcement market price. The recent decision reinforces lessons from the March 7 decision and provides new guidance for directors and their advisors in M&A transactions and related litigation.
In a recent decision, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio invoked federal procedural law to enforce a board-adopted forum selection bylaw. North v. McNamara, No. 1:13-cv-833 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 19, 2014). In so ruling, the court recognized that such bylaws can promote “cost and efficiency benefits that inure to the corporation and its shareholders by streamlining litigation into a single forum.”
The litigation involves Chemed, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. In August 2013, the corporation’s board adopted a bylaw selecting any state or federal court in Delaware as the exclusive forum for intracorporate litigation. Several months later, a stockholder filed a derivative suit in federal court in Delaware on behalf of the corporation challenging certain conduct dating back to 2010. Shortly thereafter, a different stockholder filed substantially similar litigation, also on behalf of the corporation, against the same defendants concerning the same conduct in Ohio federal court. Invoking the bylaw, defendants moved to transfer the case to the Delaware federal district court under the federal venue statute, essentially seeking to consolidate it with the earlier-filed Delaware federal action.