June 8, 2011

Delaware Addresses Advance Notice For Shareholder Proposals

From Steven Haas of Hunton & Williams:

Last Friday, the Court of Chancery issued an interesting decision in Goggin v. Vermillion, Inc. applicable to shareholder proposals and annual meetings. In denying a motion to enjoin a stockholders meeting, the court enforced an advance notice requirement for shareholder proposals that was set forth in the company’s 2010 proxy statement rather than its bylaws.

By way of background, the company’s 2010 proxy materials mailed last October provided that the advance notice deadline for shareholder proposals at the 2011 annual meeting was January 1, 2011. At the time, however, it wasn’t clear when the company’s 2011 annual meeting would be held. While the company traditionally had held its annual meetings in June of each year, it had filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and decided to hold its 2010 meeting in December–just weeks before the January 1, 2011, advance notice deadline disclosed in the proxy materials.

In February 2011, more than a month after the advance notice deadline had passed, the company announced that its 2011 annual meeting would be held on June 7, 2011. As a result, the January 1 deadline resulted in a 150-day advance notice requirement for the 2011 meeting–far more than the typical 90 or 120-day requirements found in many bylaws of Delaware corporations.

The court observed that Delaware law does not require that shareholders provide advance notice of proposals or of director nominations to be raised at an annual meeting. It also acknowledged that the company didn’t have an advance notice bylaw, although it had since adopted one applicable to its 2012 stockholders meeting. Nevertheless, the court held that “the Company set forth its notice requirement for the 2011 Meeting in the October 20, 2010 proxy and that the plaintiff was unlikely to prevail on the merits by showing that the advance notice requirement was unreasonably long or unduly restrictive of [his] franchise rights.”

The court seems to have been strongly influenced by the fact that 5 of the 6 directors were independent and there were no clear signs of entrenchment motives (e.g., the plaintiff did not signal his dissatisfaction with management until after the advance notice deadline had passed). Thus, the deadline was established on the “proverbial clear day” and conformed to the company’s pre-bankruptcy practices.

Still, many observers may be surprised to see the court enforce an advance notice provision that was not set forth in the company’s governing documents. It also is notable that shareholders had approximately 2½ months notice of the pending deadline (i.e., the time in between the mailing of the October 2010 proxy statement and the January 1, 2011, deadline), and that the deadline turned out to be 150 days before the then-unknown meeting date. In contrast, many advance notice bylaws provide that, if the date of an annual meeting significantly deviates from the prior year’s meeting date, shareholders can provide notice of proposals or director nominations within 10 days after the announcement of the meeting date.