Just over a year ago, the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld the facial validity of exclusive forum bylaws adopted by corporate boards as a means of rationalizing stockholder litigation. In the time since Chancery’s landmark Chevron opinion, numerous corporations have adopted exclusive forum bylaws, and courts in New York, Texas, Illinois, Louisiana, and California have enforced such bylaws against stockholders bringing duplicative lawsuits in violation of their terms. The result, as one commentator recently noted, has been to disincentivize duplicative filings and reduce the concomitant litigation “deal tax” on merging parties. Yet, despite this progress, pernicious multijurisdictional litigation persists. A recent decision from a court in Oregon (Roberts v. TriQuint SemiConductor, Inc., No. 1402-02441 (Or. Cir. Ct. Aug. 14, 2014)) illustrates the potential harm from such litigation and the importance of continued authoritative articulation of the law to ensure the efficacy of exclusive forum bylaws.
Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder suits’
In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW, the Delaware Supreme Court formally recognized the “Garner doctrine,” an exception to the attorney-client privilege, in connection with a stockholder’s demand for records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, and confirmed that the exception also applies to other stockholder claims. The decision may allow derivative plaintiffs to obtain certain sensitive privileged communications and attorney work-product in cases involving substantial allegations of serious fiduciary misconduct.
Public companies increasingly are adopting “exclusive forum” bylaws and charter provisions that require their stockholders to go to specified courts if they want to make fiduciary duty or other intra-corporate claims against the company and its directors.
Exclusive forum provisions can help companies respond to such litigation more efficiently. Following most public M&A announcements, for example, stockholders file nearly identical claims in multiple jurisdictions, raising the costs required to respond. Buyers also feel the pain, since they typically bear the costs and may even be named in some of the proceedings. Exclusive forum provisions help address the increased costs, while allowing stockholders to bring claims in the specified forum.
In Hamilton Partners, L.P. v. Highland Capital Management, L.P., C.A. No. 6547-VCN, 2014 WL 1813340 (Del. Ch. May 7, 2014), the Court of Chancery, by Vice Chancellor Noble, in connection with a challenge to a going-private transaction whereby American HomePatient, Inc. (“AHP”) was acquired by an affiliate of one of its stockholders, Highland Capital Management, L.P. (“Highland”), refused to dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims against Highland. The Court held that, for purposes of defendants’ motion to dismiss, plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to support an inference that Highland, which owned 48% of AHP’s stock and 82% of AHP’s debt, was the controlling stockholder of AHP and that the merger was not entirely fair.
Following the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in July 2013 upholding the validity of exclusive forum bylaws, a number of corporations, including over two dozen S&P 500 companies, amended their bylaws to include these provisions, and the provisions were commonly included in the charters or bylaws of companies in initial public offerings. Many public companies, however, determined to take a wait-and-see approach, in order to assess whether non-Delaware courts would enforce the bylaw and whether companies that adopted the bylaw received negative investor feedback in the 2014 proxy season or otherwise.
Corporations today are routinely subject to expensive shareholder litigation for which shareholders ultimately foot the bill. Even weak shareholder claims pose significant costs and uncertainty, and exert significant settlement pressures, on corporations. Several recent state court decisions, however, underscore the potential for corporate bylaws, including those adopted by boards, to reduce incentives for the plaintiffs’ bar to file such lawsuits:
- The Delaware Court of Chancery has upheld, at least as a general matter, the statutory and contractual validity of board-adopted bylaws that seek to limit the forum for intra-corporate litigation.
- State courts in Louisiana, New York and Illinois have, in turn, enforced Delaware exclusive forum clauses.
- The Delaware Supreme Court has upheld the statutory and contractual validity of bylaws that allocate the cost of intra-corporate litigation to a losing plaintiff.
- A state court in Maryland has upheld a corporate bylaw that requires the arbitration of intra-corporate disputes.
Only 2 percent of lawsuits filed in response to M&A deals that settled in 2013 produced monetary returns for shareholders. These findings are published in Settlements of Shareholder Litigation Involving Mergers and Acquisitions, which follows an earlier report on M&A filings and litigation outcomes issued this year by Cornerstone Research. Legal challenges to M&A deals resulted in only two monetary settlements in 2013, down from four in 2012 and seven in 2011.
The report also finds that plaintiff attorney fees awarded in disclosure-only settlements of M&A cases continued to drop in 2013. In addition, over the last four years, the Delaware Court of Chancery approved 80 percent of the fee amounts requested in such cases, compared with 90 percent in other courts.
On April 8, 2014, Vice Chancellor Laster of the Delaware Court of Chancery issued an opinion addressing the reasonableness of a “market check” as well as required proxy disclosures to stockholders in M&A transactions. In Chen v. Howard-Anderson,  the Vice Chancellor held that (i) evidence suggesting that a board of directors favored a potential acquirer by, among other things, failing to engage in a robust market check precluded summary judgment against a non-exculpated director, and (ii) evidence that the board failed to disclose all material facts in its proxy statement precluded summary judgment against all directors. The opinion addresses the appropriate scope of a market check, the necessary disclosure when submitting a transaction to stockholders for approval, the effect of exculpatory provisions in a company’s certificate of incorporation, and the potential conflicts faced by directors who are also fiduciaries of one of the company’s stockholders.
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.
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?