March 22, 2016

Delaware Declines to Address Disclosure Claims Pre-Closing; Signals Hostility Towards “Ritualized Litigation Leading to Mootness Fee Buy-Offs”

Here’s news from Tom Bayliss of Abrams & Bayliss (with help from Matt Miller & Alex Krischik):

In a pair of recent bench rulings, the Delaware Court of Chancery rejected the contention that allegedly colorable disclosure claims brought by stockholder plaintiffs challenging mergers risked irreparable harm sufficient to warrant expedited injunction proceedings. The two attached rulings by Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster – Johnson v. Driscoll, C.A. No. 11721-VCL (Del. Ch. Feb. 3, 2016) (transcript) and Chester County Retirement System v. Collins, C.A. No. 12072-VCL (Mar. 14, 2016) (transcript) — reflect continued evolution in the Court of Chancery’s treatment of disclosure claims and may represent a shift that will have a major impact on M&A litigation. In these rulings, Vice Chancellor Laster:

– Holds that certain, allegedly material omissions in pre-merger disclosures did not warrant pre-closing expedited proceedings because the disclosure claims raised purely legal issues that could be resolved after closing;

– Implies that even critical disclosure violations may not give rise to irreparable harm sufficient to warrant expedition or deal-blocking injunctive relief;

– Envisions a regime in which at least one category of disclosure claims will only result in relief if stockholder plaintiffs demonstrate both that the disclosures were inadequate and that the transaction was mispriced; and

– Signals distaste for “creat[ing] a system where we substitute ritualized litigation leading to disclosure-only settlements and replace that with ritualized litigation leading to mootness fee buy-offs.”

The Court’s determinations regarding irreparable harm depart from longstanding Delaware precedent indicating that the omission of material information prior to a stockholder vote risks harm sufficient to warrant expedited proceedings and potentially injunctive relief.

Driscoll and Collins signal that plaintiffs and defendants may no longer be able to rely on pre-closing feedback from the Court of Chancery regarding the strength of certain types of disclosure claims. This dynamic could increase the pressure on lawyers for both sides to predict the Court of Chancery’s views on materiality in a post-closing environment when the Court will have the benefit of full briefing and more time to come to a conclusion about materiality. Perhaps most importantly, the Court’s comments about the need to show not only a disclosure violation but also damages could sap the incentive of plaintiffs’ lawyers to challenge disclosures accompanying deals they determine are well-priced.

Johnson v. Driscoll: Transaction and Litigation

On October 28, 2015, Diamond Foods announced that it had agreed to sell itself to wholly owned subsidiaries of Snyder’s-Lance in a mixed cash and stock transaction valued at approximately $1.91 billion. Stockholders of Diamond sued to enjoin the merger. The stockholder plaintiffs initially alleged that Diamond’s board of directors breached its fiduciary duties through a defensive merger process and selective and materially incomplete disclosures, and that Snyder aided and abetted those breaches. Plaintiffs sought expedited discovery and a preliminary injunction hearing prior to the stockholder vote on the merger.

By the time the Court ruled on plaintiffs’ motion to expedite, plaintiffs were only pressing for expedition on their claim that Diamond’s proxy statement omitted material information regarding management projections, the sales process, potential conflicts of interest, confidentiality agreements, and Diamond’s financial advisor’s analysis of and valuation metrics for the transaction. On February 3, 2016, the Court denied plaintiffs’ motion for expedited proceedings on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to show a risk of irreparable harm. According to the Court, the disclosure claims could be resolved post-closing.

The Rationale for Delaying Resolution of Disclosure Claims

The Court identified several reasons to defer consideration of the disclosure claims. First, the Court emphasized that the parties disputed pure questions of law regarding the materiality of omissions rather than questions of fact conceivably warranting discovery. Second, the Court noted that deferring consideration of the disclosure claims would allow the Court to address the claims after closing with the benefit of full motion to dismiss briefing and argument. Third, if the Court resolved the disclosure claims at the motion to dismiss stage and an appeal followed, the Delaware Supreme Court would have the benefit of a trial court opinion on materiality rather than “musings and transcript rulings and probabilistic determinations” from hearings on requests for interim relief. Fourth, the Court implied that deferring consideration of the disclosure claims would impose “a gut check on the plaintiffs as to whether they actually think that this deal is underpriced and that the people they are representing have suffered harm, or whether this is just some type of . . . setup to a disclosure-only settlement.” Fifth, the Court intimated that if plaintiffs succeeded in later demonstrating that their disclosure claims were meritorious and that the transaction was underpriced, they would be able to obtain money damages – “far more meaningful relief than a little more information now.”

The Ability to Moot But the Danger of Mootness Fees

The Court noted that, through their complaint and the motion to expedite process, plaintiffs had “made their pitch” in attempting to demonstrate the materiality of the alleged disclosure omissions and that it was now “in the court of the defendants and their counsel” to determine whether supplemental disclosures were desirable. The Court further recognized that, if defendants believed plaintiffs’ disclosure claims had merit, or that “prudence outweighs the risk,” defendants could supplement their public filings prior to the stockholder vote.

The Court warned, however, that it did not “want[] to create a system where we substitute ritualized litigation leading to disclosure-only settlements and replace that with ritualized litigation leading to mootness fee buy-offs.”

Chester County Retirement System v. Collins: Transaction and Litigation

On December 10, 2015, Blount International announced that it would sell itself to a buyout group consisting of its second largest stockholder and a private equity firm for approximately $482.5 million. Stockholders sued to enjoin the merger. They alleged fiduciary duty breaches by Blount’s directors and officers, various aiding and abetting claims, and claims against other necessary parties or beneficiaries to the challenged transaction. Plaintiffs anchored their claims on alleged sales process problems and a number of alleged disclosure violations, including Blount’s alleged failure to disclose adequately: engagement terms or fees with various financial advisors, relationships between financial advisors and the buyout group, Blount’s Special Committee’s bases for understanding Blount’s value, and certain options granted to Blount’s officers in the post-closing company.

Blount filed an amendment to its preliminary proxy statement and later a definitive proxy statement. Defendants argued that these supplemental disclosures were unnecessary but, in any event, mooted all of plaintiffs’ disclosure claims. Plaintiffs argued that material omissions remained.

The Process Claims

Vice Chancellor Laster found that plaintiffs’ alleged process deficiencies failed to give rise to irreparable harm. The Court emphasized that plaintiffs’ claims arose in a “post-C&J” world, where a process-based injunction would not issue unless the deal as a whole was being enjoined, “which will really only exist if there is a topping bid in the offing.” See C & J Energy Service, Inc. v. City of Miami Gen. Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust, 107 A.3d 1049 (Del. 2014).

The Rationale for Delaying Resolution of Disclosure Claims

Consistent with Driscoll, the Court found that the disclosure claims identified alleged omissions that raised legal issues that should be addressed post-closing, with the “benefit of full briefing from both sides” “rather than in the context of a quick motion to expedite, or even in the context of a moderately less quick preliminary injunction.” The Court noted that defendants may have mooted some or all of plaintiffs’ disclosure claims and that defendants could act to moot any remaining claims.

The Court emphasized that a post-closing determination that plaintiffs had identified material omissions would have “have consequences.” The Court noted that disclosure violations could shift the standard of review and might give rise to quasi-appraisal and other remedies.

Take-Aways & Further Thoughts

1. Driscoll and Collins represent a significant departure from precedent suggesting that colorable disclosure claims challenging pre-transaction disclosures nearly always threaten irreparable harm sufficient to warrant expedition and potentially injunctive relief. Prior precedent depended on the sensible conclusion that disclosure claims are better addressed pre-closing when they can be remedied by supplemental disclosures, at least in part because of the difficulty of assessing what would have happened had the disclosures been adequate. This precedent also suggested that irreparable harm existed because a Section 102(b)(7) provision would eliminate the availability of post-closing damages for deficient disclosures in most circumstances.

2. The Court’s willingness to challenge settled expectations regarding irreparable harm demonstrates that the Court of Chancery’s adjustment to the perceived abuses of the “disclosure settlement industry” and strike suit M&A litigation extends beyond its new approach to disclosure-only settlements.

3. Driscoll and Collins depend on the idea that the Court can remedy meritorious disclosure claims post-closing through a damages award. But the Court signaled that damages would only be available in mispriced deals, and that will only be true when 102(b)(7) provisions are inapplicable. Thus, cases involving well-priced deals accompanied by deficient disclosures may not be worth pursuing because plaintiffs’ attorneys will lack sufficient upside. Even mispriced, misdisclosed deals may not be worth pursuing if defendants will likely qualify for 102(b)(7) or 141(e) protection. This dynamic could also sap the incentive for defendants to moot disclosure claims in a wide variety of circumstances.

4. The Court’s suggestion that quasi-appraisal can serve a post-closing remedy for disclosure violations refreshes pre-existing questions about the nature of that remedy. If inadequate disclosures prevent a fully-informed decision about whether or not to seek appraisal, should a stockholder class be able to pursue a quasi-appraisal remedy? Against whom? The Court of Chancery has indicated that Section 102(b)(7) protects qualifying directors from quasi appraisal claims, and disclosure deficiencies typically arise out of negligence, so the likelihood of a quasi-appraisal remedy against directors seems remote in most circumstances. Would a quasi-appraisal remedy lie against the surviving corporation? If not, would stockholders who failed to receive material information bearing on whether or not to seek appraisal lack a remedy?

5. Vice Chancellor Laster appears to have been motivated by concern that the Court’s prior willingness to address colorable disclosure claims on an expedited basis contributed to a regime where the Court and the parties made interim assessments of materiality in a context where they lost sight of whether the alleged disclosure deficiencies might have an impact on deal pricing. By deferring consideration of the disclosure claims in Driscoll and Collins until post-closing, the Court eliminated the pressure of pre-closing expedited proceedings (that often set up disclosure settlements) and signaled that plaintiffs will only be able to recover if they can both (a) identify a disclosure flaw and (b) tie it to some mispricing that gives rise to a viable damages claim. In the Court’s words: “[L]et’s find out if these things are really material or not.”

6. The Court took pains to emphasize that it was addressing situations where plaintiffs had identified alleged omissions that raised purely legal questions regarding materiality. It is unclear whether the Court of Chancery will apply the same approach in situations where plaintiffs identify alleged misstatements or omissions that raise questions of fact. It is also unclear whether the Court will adopt this approach where the alleged omissions relate to “plainly material” topics.

7. The Court’s historical willingness to address the materiality of disclosure claims at the motion to expedite and preliminary injunction phases of deal litigation gave both plaintiffs and defendants the benefit of the Court’s interim views on the viability of the disclosure claims. A regime that declines to address materiality on a preliminary basis in certain circumstances will deprive both plaintiffs and defendants of that preliminary insight. This could raise the stakes for plaintiffs’ lawyers, who will not only need to handicap the strength of their disclosure claims but also the likelihood they can prove the deal is mispriced before investing the time and energy on dismissal practice.

8. The Driscoll and Collins approach to deal litigation could also raise the stakes for the defendants’ lawyers. A wrong decision on disclosure will prevent favorable treatment under Corwin v. KKR Fin. Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015) (holding that fully-informed stockholder vote has defendant-friendly standard of review shifting and/or claim extinguishing effects) and result in intermediate scrutiny where Revlon or Unocal apply. Moreover, a disclosure problem might result in a dangerous quasi-appraisal claim.

9. Vice Chancellor Laster rejected the suggestion that expedition was necessary in part because pre-closing litigation (including pre-closing expedited discovery) performs a valuable “tire-kicking function.” He suggested that well-motivated plaintiffs could seek books and records under 8 Del. C. § 220 in stock deals or during the pre-closing period in cash deals.

10. Increasingly, the Court appears to be encouraging litigants to employ appraisal in lieu of or in addition to traditional representative litigation challenging acquisitions. But appraisal is only available in limited circumstances, and Delaware’s legislature appears poised to adopt a de minimis exception that will further restrict its application.