DealLawyers.com Blog

May 26, 2016

Taking Action That Affects The Shareholder Vote? Expect the “Gimlet Eye”

Here’s the intro for this Orrick memo:

On May 19, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court preliminarily enjoined the directors of Cogentix Medical from reducing the size of the company’s board because, under the facts presented, there was a reasonable probability that the board reduction plan was implemented to defeat insurgent candidates in a contested director election. Pell v. Kill, C.A. No. 12251-VCL (Del. Ch. May 19, 2016). The decision is a reminder that board actions that affect the shareholder vote—particularly decisions that make it more difficult for stockholders to elect directors not supported by management—will be subject to enhanced judicial scrutiny by Delaware courts on the lookout with a “gimlet eye” for conduct having a preclusive or coercive effect on the stockholder vote.

May 23, 2016

Federal Court Shreds Staples’ Acquisition of Office Depot

Here’s the summary of this Goodwin Procter memo:

In yet another example of the Obama Administration’s continued vigorous enforcement of the antitrust laws, the Federal Trade Commission successfully sued and ultimately blocked the acquisition of Office Depot, Inc. by Staples, Inc. This litigation provides another reminder to potential merging entities that a careful assessment of the antitrust risks is an essential component to any transaction and that closing is by no means guaranteed, especially where the merging parties are close competitors and where the parties’ defenses are predicated closely on concepts of new and disruptive entrants. In this alert, we provide a detailed overview of the litigation itself, as well as some key takeaways for clients considering their own transactions.

May 20, 2016

Appraisals: Delaware Provides Guidance on “Dissenting Stockholder” Requirement

Here’s the intro from this Richards Layton memo:

In In re Appraisal of Dell Inc., C.A. No. 9322-VCL (Del. Ch. May 11, 2016), the Court held that fourteen mutual funds sponsored by T. Rowe Price & Associates, Inc. (“T. Rowe”) as well as institutions that relied on T. Rowe to direct the voting of their shares (the “T. Rowe Petitioners”) were not entitled to an appraisal of their shares of Dell Inc. in connection with Dell’s go-private merger, because the record holder had voted the shares at issue in favor of the merger, thus failing to meet the “dissenting stockholder” requirement of Section 262 of Delaware’s General Corporation Law. The T. Rowe Petitioners held their shares through custodians. The custodians, however, were not record holders of the shares; they were participants of the Depository Trust Company, which held the shares in the name of its nominee, Cede & Co., which, for purposes of Delaware law, was the record holder. As the record holder, Cede had the legal right to vote the shares on the Dell merger and to make a written demand for an appraisal of the shares.

May 19, 2016

Will Disclosure-Only Settlements in Merger Objection Suits Live On Outside Delaware?

Here’s the intro from this blog by Kevin LaCroix:

When Delaware Chancellor Andre Bouchard rejected the proposed disclosure-only settlement in the litigation arising out of Zillow’s acquisition of Trulia, there was some belief that his decision represented the death knell for these kinds of settlements in merger objection lawsuits. There is indeed some evidence that the number of merger objection lawsuits filed has declined. However, as discussed in a Washington Legal Foundation article by attorneys Anthony Rickey and Keola R. Whittaker, “Delaware’s sister courts continue to approved disclosure only settlements and award six-figure attorneys’ fees.” As discussed below, the net effect of Delaware’s hostility to disclosure only settlements may not necessarily be that fewer of these kinds of cases get filed, it may be that weaker cases are “driven to other jurisdictions.”

May 10, 2016

Zale: Delaware Enhances Directors/Financial Advisors Defenses (If Well-Run/Fully Disclosed)

Here’s news from this Cleary Gottlieb memo (we’re posting memos in our “Financial Advisors” Practice Area):

On May 6, the Delaware Supreme Court issued an Order that sets forth concisely the contours of the defendant-favorable standards for determining liability of directors and their advisors following the closing of sales of control of companies. These standards are available, however, only following an uncoerced and informed approval of the sale by the target stockholders, including a majority of the disinterested holders. Thus, while the Order clarifies a roadmap (set forth recently in Corwin v. KKR) for obtaining easy dismissal of post-merger damages claims against directors and advisors, the need for directors and their advisors to avoid, or at least ferret out and disclose, any deficiencies in sales processes remains as strong as ever. Only if these deficiencies are avoided or uncovered and disclosed in advance of the shareholder approval will the lower courts be able to rely on these defendant-favorable standards to dismiss claims.

The Supreme Court issued this Order upon reviewing the Chancery Court’s dismissal of post-closing damages claims against the board of Zale and its financial advisor. As discussed previously, the claims by the shareholder plaintiff were based on the alleged failure of the Zale board to make sufficient advance inquiries into, and the alleged delay by the board’s financial advisor to notify the Zale board of, the financial advisor’s conflicts. The lower court found that the shareholders, including a majority of the disinterested holders, approved the sale of Zale after the disclosure in the proxy statement of these alleged shortcomings and therefore concluded that this fully informed shareholder approval required the court to find that no breach of duty occurred unless a director’s conduct failed to satisfy the gross negligence standard (i.e., a “wide disparity” between the process used and the process that “would have been rational”). The Supreme Court agreed with this reasoning, including the decision of the Chancery Court to dismiss the claims, except the Court clarified that the gross negligence standard is not defendant-favorable enough after there has been an informed shareholder approval. The proper standard following informed shareholder approval is whether there has been “waste,” which occurs only if “no person of ordinary or sound business judgment” could have found the transaction to be fair. The Supreme Court noted strongly that there is “little real-world relevance” to “the vestigial waste exception” when there has been an informed shareholder approval, since informed shareholders cannot be presumed to be irrational, and therefore dismissal on the pleadings is appropriate in these instances where the only issue is whether waste occurred.

This Order in the Zale case is good news for target boards that either have well-run sale processes or, if their process had any deficiencies, have adequately disclosed these deficiencies in advance of obtaining shareholder approval of the transaction. But where does this leave target boards’ financial advisors, which, as occurred in the Zalesuit, are named from time to time as co-defendants alongside the target directors? Does dismissal of the claims against the directors similarly merit dismissal of the post-closing damages claims against their advisors for aiding and abetting breaches of duty by the directors?

Per the Supreme Court Order in Zale, the answer is yes, with one exception. The exception arises only in a scenario that turned out not to be determinative in the Zalecase: Where the court dismisses the claims against the directors not under the rule of Corwin, which provides for the applicability of the director-friendly “waste” standard following informed shareholder approval, but under the rule of In re Cornerstone, which confirms that exculpatory provisions in charters mandate dismissal of damages claims against directors who acted in good faith no matter what the context, even those contexts involving conflicts where heightened “entire fairness” review applies. If the dismissal of the claims against the directors is the result of the directors’ having relied in good faith on their advisors, who were in turn “intentionally dup[ing]” or perpetrating a “fraud on the board,” then the dismissal of the claims against the directors does not merit dismissal of the claims against the advisors for aiding and abetting. But even in these instances, the Supreme Court stresses, if the advisors acted without scienter—i.e., without knowledge—then the claims for aiding and abetting must be dismissed. Moreover the Supreme Court highlights its “skeptic[ism] that the supposed instance of knowing wrongdoing—the late disclosure of a business pitch that was then considered by the board, determined to be immaterial, and fully disclosed in the proxy—produced a rational basis to infer scienter.” Still, determinations of whether or not scienter existed are fact-specific and the easier path to dismissal of aiding and abetting claims is the path used in the Zalecase: dismissal of the claims against the financial advisors, together with the claims against the director defendants, as a result of the informed shareholder approval.

To sum up:

1. After an uncoerced, informed shareholder approval that includes a majority of the disinterested holders, lower courts should dismiss on the pleadings all post-closing damages claims against directors for breaches of duty and against advisors for aiding and abetting. The only claims that theoretically survive this shareholder approval are those for “waste,” which are typically not tenable following an informed shareholder approval.

2. In the absence of such a shareholder approval:

– Post-closing damages claims against directors for breach of duty should be evaluated under the gross negligence standard (i.e., a “wide disparity” between the process used and the process that “would have been rational”) in addition to being subject to the exculpatory provisions of charters that mandate dismissal of damages claims where the directors acted in good faith.
– Post-closing damages claims against advisors for aiding and abetting must establish both scienter (i.e., knowledge) and a predicate breach by the directors. Even though breach of duty of care claims against directors acting in good faith will be dismissed if the charter has an exculpatory provision, that breach can still be the basis of an aiding and abetting claim where the advisor knowingly provided “misleading or incomplete advice tainted by the advisor’s own knowing disloyalty.”

3. As a practical matter, the path to dismissal described in item 1 is much more efficient. Thus, well-run board processes, including advance inquiries into and consideration of advisor conflicts, and adequate disclosure of any flaws in these processes is now of more value than ever to directors and their advisors.

May 9, 2016

New York: Adopts Delaware’s “Controlling Shareholder Merger” Standard

Here’s news from this Wachtell Lipton memo:

The New York Court of Appeals held that business judgment review is available in the context of going-private mergers of controlled companies. In re Kenneth Cole Prods., Inc. S’holder Litig., No. 54 (N.Y. May 5, 2016). The decision adopts the same standards set forth by the Delaware Supreme Court in its MFW opinion and affirms dismissal of a stockholder suit.

The case concerned a merger transaction between Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. and its controlling stockholder, Kenneth Cole. In February 2012, Cole informed the board of directors that he wished to take the company private. The board appointed a special committee of independent directors. Cole thereafter made an offer conditioned on the approval of both that independent committee and the vote of the majority of the minority stockholders. Following months of negotiation, the special committee approved the merger and some 99% of the minority stockholders voted in favor of it. Multiple stockholder class action lawsuits challenging the transaction were nevertheless filed. The trial court dismissed these actions, reasoning that the complaints failed to impugn the independence of the special committee, and the appellate division affirmed. On appeal to New York’s highest court, plaintiffs argued that all controlled company go-private mergers should be subject to “entire fairness” review.

The Court of Appeals unanimously disagreed and affirmed dismissal. In so doing, the Court expressly adopted the Delaware MFW standard, which applies business judgment review to controller buyouts when “(i) the controller conditions the procession of the transaction on the approval of both a Special Committee and a majority of the minority stockholders; (ii) the Special Committee is independent; (iii) the Special Committee is empowered to freely select its own advisors and to say no definitively; (iv) the Special Committee meets its duty of care in negotiating a fair price; (v) the vote of the minority is informed; and (vi) there is no coercion of the minority.” Stressing the “general principle that courts should strive to avoid interfering with the internal management of business corporations,” Judge Stein’s opinion for the Court of Appeals also made clear that this standard applies at the pleadings stage and cannot be avoided through conclusory or artful allegations.

The Kenneth Cole decision brings standards for controlling stockholder mergers in New York in line with those of Delaware and provides transaction planners with a path for controlled New York corporations to obtain business judgment review, and early litigation relief, in going-private mergers.