February 29, 2024

Stockholders Agreements: Chancery Voids Terms that Tred on Board’s Statutory Authority

Stockholders’ agreements are a common feature in a variety of transactional settings, and the rights and obligations they impose are often an essential part of the deal. That’s why the Delaware Chancery Court’s recent decision in West Palm Beach Firefighters v. Moelis & Company, (Del. Ch.; 2/24) voiding key provisions of a “new-wave” stockholders’ agreement merits close review by everyone involved in the dealmaking process.

The case focused on pre-approval rights for key corporate decisions and director designation rights granted by Moelis to the company’s founder in a stockholder agreement. The transactions requiring the founder’s prior approval included stock issuances, financings, dividend payments and senior officer appointments. The director designation rights & related governance provisions were intended to ensure that the founder could designate a majority of the members of the board and, among other things, required the company to recommend shareholders vote for any candidate designated by the founder.

Vice Chancellor Laster concluded that the pre-approval and governance rights contained in the agreement ran afoul of Section 141(a) of the DGCL, which says that “the business and affairs of every corporation organized under this chapter shall be managed by or under the direction of a board of directors, except as may be otherwise provided in this chapter or in its certificate of incorporation.” This excerpt from Goodwin’s memo on the decision summarizes the basis for the Vice Chancellor’s decision:

[P]laintiff argued that the challenged provisions in the Stockholder Agreement violate Delaware law because they effectively remove from directors “in a very substantial way” their duty to use their own best judgment on matters of management. Meanwhile, the Company argued that Delaware corporations possess the power to contract, including contracts that may constrain a board’s freedom of action, and the Stockholder Agreement should not be treated any differently.

After a painstaking analysis of applicable Delaware cases, the court found that several of the Board Composition Provisions, and all of the Pre-Approval Requirements, were facially invalid under Delaware law. The court decided that each of the Pre-Approval Requirements went “too far” because they forced the Board to obtain Moelis’s prior written consent before taking “virtually any meaningful action” and, thus, “the Board is not really a board.”

The Goodwin memo also points out that the key problem here was that the rights at issue weren’t contained in the company’s certificate of incorporation. It also contends that the biggest takeaway from the case is that investors are likely to insist on including these provisions in charter documents, rather than in the agreement itself.

Importantly, VC Laster did not hold that all of the contractual investor rights challenged by the plaintiff were invalid on their face. For example, he said that a director designation right didn’t necessarily violate Section 141(a) of the DGCL. Instead, the problem in this case was that it was coupled a recommendation requirement compelling the board to support the designated candidate no matter what:

“The Designation Right does not violate Section 141(a) because it only permits Moelis to identify a number of candidates for director equal to a majority of the Board. The Company can agree to let Moelis identify a number of candidates. What the Board or the Company does with those candidates is what matters. The Recommendation Requirement improperly compels the Board to support Moelis’ candidates, whomever they might be. But there is nothing wrong with a provision that lets Moelis identify candidates.”

Traditionally, I think companies haven’t been completely insensitive to this issue, and many stockholders’ agreements include some sort of a fiduciary out when it comes to a recommendation requirement. But as Meredith blogged last summer, when it comes to activist settlements, boards haven’t always been cognizant of the limitations imposed by their fiduciary duties when negotiating the terms of those agreements. Moelis should serve as a reminder that those agreements don’t just have to satisfy Unocal, they also need to avoid running afoul of the limitations imposed by Section 141(a).

John Jenkins