Jack Jacobs is on the way out, and Governor Markell has nominated another Skadden attorney, Karen Valihura, to fill the vacancy on the Delaware Supreme Court. This follows the elevation of Leo Strine to the position of Chief Justice (joining Carolyn Berger, another Skadden alum) and the installment of Andy Bouchard as Chancellor. Nice run for Skadden Wilmington. Congrats, Karen!
Problems with the sale of the Canadian ambulance service have led to one of the strongest sanctions of an investment bank, let alone a board, that this outside observer can remember coming from a Delaware court. But for real insight, let's outsource to Steven Davidoff and Matt Levine:
in Rural Metro, RBC [the bank] seems to have had all the conflicts with none of the benefits. Rural Metro was thinking about selling itself at around the same time that a larger competitor, Emergency Medical Services Corporation, was also up for sale. RBC was not involved in the EMS deal, but hoped that it could get an assignment financing the EMS acquisition. According to the opinion, RBC concocted a plan: "if Rural engaged in a sale process led by RBC, then RBC could use its position as sell-side advisor to secure buy-side roles with the private equity firms bidding for EMS." The quid pro quo would be, you hire us to finance your EMS bid, and we will give you the inside track on the Rural Metro sale.
[T]his deal reads to me less like a story of the financing deal overwhelming the M&A advice, and more like a story of how investment banking is a sales business. From this opinion, you get the sense that RBC's efforts to drum up business, whether financing or advisory, were persistent and intense and occupied most of the attention of RBC's most senior bankers. Meanwhile, its actual execution efforts were sort of halfhearted and not all that well thought out.....
And here's Davidoff:
To find the investment bank liable, however, the judge also had to find misdeeds committed by the Rural/Metro board. Vice Chancellor Laster held that the Rural/Metro Board had breached its fiduciary duties because Mr. Shackelton and RBC effectively put the company up for sale without full board authorization and that the board had failed to properly supervise RBC. He also concluded that the Rural Metro board did not have an “adequate understanding of the alternatives available to Rural” and that its decision to accept the Warburg offer was not reasonable because of a lack of sufficient information.
The judge has yet to calculate damages, but they could be as much as $250 million, despite the fact that RBC was never retained to do the financing and earned only its $5 million fee.
Instead, perhaps we should rethink how companies are sold and who is held liable when things go wrong. The Rural/Metro case shows how skewed the incentives can be, and how the checks and balances can too easily go wrong. Next time, there may not be a bank that can be put on the hook so easily. In other words, the directors may once again get away with wrongdoing, and shareholders will be left with nothing.
The Chancery Daily flagged a pending case in the Delaware Court of Chancery, NAMA Holdings, LLC v. Related WMC, LLC, et al., involving a claim for "tortious interference with the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing." A Westlaw search reveals that this is not an entirely novel claim. The earliest instance of such a claim appears to be Haynal v. Target Stores, 1996 WL 806706 (S.D.Cal.,1996), and the federal court drop-kicked the claim: "Plaintiff's attempt to convert a contract action into a tort action is not supported by law." Two other courts note the claim, but neither addresses its merits. No law review articles discuss the claim, and even Google shows no results ... well, until this post gets included in the search results.
Of course, lots of cases involve claims of "tortious interference with contract" and "breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing." The arguments against recognizing tortious interference with contract would seem to apply to a claim of "tortious interference with the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing," but if you are willing to recognize the one, is there a reason not to recognize the other?
Kyle Compton is amazing. He produces an entertaining and useful email service called "Chancery Daily," which was first recommended to me by a member of the Delaware judiciary. The purpose of the service is to summarize proceedings pending in the Delaware Court of Chancery. The writing is insightful and accessible and sometimes even funny. I read every issue.
You can subscribe here. For members of the judiciary -- including court staff and law clerks, in Delaware and elsewhere -- and academic subscribers, the service is free (judicial subscribers should register using a government email address, and professors and current law students should register using a law school email address).
Leo Strine. Congratulations!
The WSJ: "a widely expected promotion for one of corporate law's biggest personalities." Indeed.
I have mixed feelings about this. I will miss reading Leo's solo opinions as Chancellor -- we can assume some moderation in Leo's opinions as a result of the unanimity norm that prevails on the Supreme Court -- but I assume he will help bring more coherence to corporate law issues in Supreme Court opinions.
So who is the next Chancellor? No inside information here, but it's hard to imagine a better choice than Larry Hamermesh.
Over the past few weeks, a handful of attorneys and academics have asked me exactly how specific the specific public benefit purpose(s) required by §362(a) of the DGCL for Delaware public benefit corporations (“PBCs”) must be. Section 362(a) reads, in pertinent part:
- “In the certificate of incorporation, a public benefit corporation shall. . . Identify within its statement of business or purpose . .1 or more specific public benefits to be promoted by the corporation”
Some of the early Delaware PBCs have used the general public benefit language from the benefit corporation’s Model Legislation to describe their specific public benefit purpose(s). (See, e.g., Farmingo, PBC; Ian Martin, PBC; Method Products, PBC; New Leaf Paper, Public Benefit Corporation; and RSF Capital Management, PBC). For those who are unfamiliar, the general public benefit language from the Model Legislation reads:
- “A material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole, assessed against a third-party standard, from the business and operations of a benefit corporation.”
At least one early Delaware PBC has added the following to the general public benefit language:
- “specific public benefit . . .may be further specified from time to time in the Bylaws of the Corporation . . . or a resolution or resolutions of the Board of Directors of the Corporation.” (Socratic Labs, PBC).
- “for the specific public benefit of furthering universal access to the Internet” (Unifi Communications, PBC)
- "giving people access to, and the benefit of, health knowledge that is as complete and unbiased as possible." (Profile Health Systems, PBC)
In my personal opinion, using only the Model Act’s general public benefit purpose as a Delaware PBC’s specific public purpose is a bit risky and possibly conflicts with the drafters' intent. To be clear, I have not yet spoken with the drafters on this issue, and will update this post if I do. However, if the drafters had intended to allow the general public benefit language to suffice, then I think they would have simply followed the lead of the Model Legislation and would have defined and used the term "general public benefit".
Further, the FAQ about Public Benefit Corporations circulated by the drafters contained the following question and answer.
- Q: “Why does the statute require both the identification of a specific benefit or benefits and that the corporation be managed for the best interests of all those materially affected by the corporations conduct?” (emphasis in original)
- A: “….The requirement of a specific public
benefit is intended to provide focus to the directors in managing toward
responsibility and sustainability, and giving investors notice of, and some
control over, specific public purposes the corporation serves.”
That said, the Model Legislation’s general public benefit language
is more specific than “any lawful purpose” and Section 362(a) has no limit
on the number of specific purposes that can be listed, so a Delaware PBC could
conceivably list all of the specific interests the Model Legislation requires
directors to consider and achieve the same lack of focus as listing the Model Legislation’s
general public benefit language.
I have spoken to a few people in the Delaware Secretary of State’s office in an attempt to understand their stance on the specific public benefit issue. The main take-aways from those conversations were:
- they are aware of the controversy surrounding whether the Model Legislation’s general public benefit purpose suffices as a specific public benefit under the statute;
- they are currently accepting the Model Legislation’s general public benefit language as a valid specific public benefit, until it is formally challenged or they are told to do otherwise;
- they will not accept “any lawful purpose” language as a specific public benefit.
Also, for those who are interested, there were 49 public benefit corporations formed in Delaware between the August 1, 2013 effective date and October 16, 2013.
Thanks to Boston attorney Bruce Landay for excellent, in-depth conversation on this topic and for some of the certificates of incorporation cited in this post. As an academic, it is always nice to connect with attorneys who practice in my areas of interest. Thanks to Alicia Plerhoples at Georgetown Law who also provided some of the certificates of incorporation cited in this post.
It's effective August 1. Cass Brewer of SocEntlaw has some excellent thoughts, including this conclusion:
Perhaps the ultimate lesson here is that absent a much more uniform and rigorous qualification and enforcement regime under prevailing law—like the regime that exists for tax-exempt entities—only a few, overly diligent individuals will know whether and which companies genuinely care about stakeholders as opposed to shareholders. If this is indeed the case, then maybe all that is really needed and in fact effective to instill public trust in socially beneficial businesses is a commonly-accepted rating system, not a change in corporate law. B Lab and other such rating agencies already understand and are responding to this reality.
Go read the whole thing.
So says Friend of Glom Lyman Johnson over at CLS Blue Sky. That's a title that's going to get the attention of some corporate types!
Lyman first objects to Chancellor Leo Strine's recent decision In re MFW S’holders Litig. to give bjr protection to a controlling shareholder in a self-dealing transaction when there's an independent committee and majority-of-the-minority shareholder approval (for more see here and here), calling this move "incoherent" because shareholders don't exercise business judgment in the way directors do.
But then, he says, let's call the whole thing off:
As just one law professor who has grappled with teaching this material to law students for almost thirty years, I can say that presenting students with a coherent and cogent understanding of fiduciary duties is made more difficult by Delaware’s current business judgment rule construct. Students – having studied the concept of legal duty in diverse curricular offerings such as torts, trusts and estates, agency and partnership law, and professional responsibility – understand the importance of legal duties, including the scope of duty and situations of no-duty. The concepts of care and loyalty, in all their manifestations, are relatively easy to grasp, if of somewhat surprising contours.
Analytically and doctrinally, the teaching could stop there – with fiduciary duties and their breach – and students would have a solid and workable understanding. Little but unnecessary complexity in the law and pedagogy is added by then filtering all of the above through the threshold of the business judgment rule construct as a standard of review, particularly with the Cede breach of duty/burden shift feature.
Go read the whole thing.
Some interesting cases on the duties of independent directors coming out of Delaware...I have yet to read either of them, but there's a holiday weekend coming up, and its sounds like they'll make for some excellent beach reading for the corporate faithful. They are Rich v. Chong, C. A. No. 7616-VCG (Del. Ch., April 25, 2013) and In re Puda Coal Stockholders’ Litigation C.A. No. 6476-CS (Del. Ch. Feb. 6, 2013) (bench ruling).
David A. Katz of Wachtell and Laura A. McIntosh connect the cases by posing an intriguing question on the CLS Blue Sky Blog: Can an independent director just resign from the board of a troubled company? Answer: No, you lily-livered slacker. You've got to stay put and make things right. Or, as they put it:
In both of the cases discussed above, the Delaware Chancery Court was critical of the independent directors’ decision to resign. Chancellor Strine observed: “[T]here are some circumstances in which running away does not immunize you. It in fact involves breach of duty…. If these directors are going to eventually testify that at the time that they quit they believed that the chief executive officer of the company had stolen the assets out from under the company, and they did not cause the company to … do anything, but they simply quit, I’m not sure that that’s a decision that itself is not a breach of fiduciary duty.” Similarly, Vice Chancellor Glasscock commented in a footnote in Rich v. Chong, “It may be that some of the former independent directors … attempted to fulfill their duties in good faith…. Nonetheless, even though [two of them] purported to resign in protest against mismanagement, those directors could still conceivably be liable to the stockholders for breach of fiduciary duty…. I do not prejudge the independent directors before evidence has been presented, but neither are those directors automatically exonerated because of their resignations.” Both decisions found it “troubling that independent directors would abandon a troubled company to the sole control of those who have harmed the company.”
There's more on Rich v. Chong from Francis Pileggi. The oddest thing about the case for me, based on Francis' summary, is that the plaintiffs made a demand on the board. What was that about? You never made a demand on the board, because then you're stuck with near-impossible wrongful refusal standard: you concede the board's independence and capacity to evaluate the demand. The board gets business judgment rule protection, and you lose. Which is why everyone pleads demand futility, to the sorrow and confusion of BA students each year.
But the Rich v. Chong plaintiffs made a demand. Who does that? Next to no one, right? And yet plaintiffs lucked out because the defendants sat on the demand for 2 years. They not only failed to respond, but started an investigation, uncovered evidence of mismanagement, didn't do anything about it, and abandoned the investigation. So plaintiffs survive a motion to dismiss on Caremark claims, which also never happens.
See? Told you it sounded interesting...
Yesterday, attorneys for the shareholders of News Corporation announced an agreement in principle to settle derivative claims filed in various U.S. jurisdictions, including Delaware, against officers and directors of the corporation for $139 million (minus attorney fees, TBD). The payment will be made to the corporation from the various D&O insurance policies. The Memorandum of Understanding is here. The amended complaint is here. The parties agreed to file a stipulation with the Delaware Chancery Court within 14 days for approval. Kevin La Croix's expert commentary on the D & O issues is here.
So, what were the claims? The claims fall roughly into two big groups, both under the Duty of Loyalty: (1) the conflicted $615 million acquisition by News Corp. of an entity owned by (controlling shareholder, CEO and Chair) Rupert Murdoch's daughter; and (2) lack of oversight related to the illegal surveillance scandal involving News Corp.'s 100% owned subsidiary, News of the World. Sprinkled around these claims are accusations of Murdoch using the corporation as a vehicle for supporting his political agenda. The overarching thesis of the complaint is that the board allowed Murdoch to use News Corp. for his own personal purposes: family and political.
Historically, conflict-of-interest claims have teeth; oversight (Caremark) claims do not: waste claims don't even have a mouth. Something here had a lot of teeth given that the parties agreed to go to mediation prior to a ruling on a motion to dismiss and given the $139 million figure. For those of us waiting to see a winning Caremark claim, failure to oversee an ongoing pattern of illegal news-gathering activity that was well-known internally might be it. But, we may never know if the settlement is all about the acquisition or a little bit of both. Perhaps the oral argument for the motion to dismiss last year held some clues that the court thought the oversight claim was not going to be dimissed, at least.
The remedy section of the MOU has not only the monetary award but also positive remedial changes, such as more compliance, a compliance officer, an independent Chairman of the Board, and new definitions of "independent" for board members, etc., that might match up to oversight if the money merely lines up with the acquisition. And, interestingly, a new "Political Activity Policy":
Stay tuned to see if this is a throw-away provision (like most remedial changes in derivative settlements, or something to see.
2. The Company has or will implement a policy requiring annual public disclosure to its shareholders of political conributions made directly by the Company to state or local candidates, political party committees, political committees (e.g., PACs) or other political organizations exempt from federal income taxes under Section 527 of the IRC; payments to any other entity that is earmarked to be used for independent expenditures for a candidate or political party; or to a ballot measure committee. . . .
3. The Company will notify the Board (for its information and not approval) on an annual basis of payments in excess of $25,000 (including special assessments) that are not deductible under Chapter 162(e) of the IRC . . . and are. . .made to any US-based trade association, Section 501(c)(4) organization, or Section 501(c)(3) organization that coordinates directly with the Company in drafting proposed legislation or grassroots lobbying activities. . . .
Thanks to Usha for asking me to guest blog about the proposed Public Benefit Corporation amendments to Delaware’s General Corporation Law. This summer one of my planned projects is writing an article tentatively entitled Governing Public Benefit Corporations, and I will be floating some of my early ideas here. Comments will be appreciated.
On March 20, I mentioned the proposed Delaware Public Benefit Corporation (“PBC”) amendments on the Social Enterprise Law Blog (“SocEntLaw”)* shortly after I received word from Professor Brian Quinn and some of my friends in Delaware. Last week, both Usha and Stephen Bainbridge added thoughtful posts about the PBC.
For this guest blogging stint, I plan on authoring three additional posts, starting next week. Each post will compare and contrast the proposed PBC amendments with the model benefit corporation legislation. The twelve states that currently have benefit corporation statutes follow the structure and main provisions of the model legislation without too much variation. (The variations can be seen in my chart that Usha mentioned). Delaware, however, cuts its own path. In the three posts, I will focus on private ordering, director guidance, and brand strength.
* I will cross-post my guest posts on the Conglomerate at my permanent blogging home over at SocEntLaw. Last year, Cass Brewer (Georgia State), Deborah Burand (Michigan), Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown), Dana Brakman Reiser (Brooklyn), a handful of practicing attorneys, and I (Regent) joined social enterprise lawyer Kyle Westaway (who is a Regent Law alum and a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School) at his blog. We welcome any and all readers.
From the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, via Allen M. Terrell, Jr. of Richards, Layton & Finger, comes a summary of proposed amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law. I had heard about the elimination of the vote in second-step mergers, but the public benefit corporation was news to me.
It sounds a lot like the benefit corporation legislation that's been spreading across the country (see this chart by Haskell Murray. At first blush I was surprised to see Delaware contemplating this kind of social enterprise legislation, since it's not really a stakeholders' rights kinda state. But on further reflection I guess a "let a thousand flowers bloom" attitude makes sense for Delaware's let-the-market-decide, opt-in attitude. Here's the description:
In general, under the proposed legislation, a public benefit corporation would be a corporation managed in a manner that balances the stockholders’ pecuniary interests, the interests of those materially affected by the corporation’s conduct, and one or more public benefits identified in its certificate of incorporation. To this last point, each public benefit corporation would be required, in its certificate of incorporation, to identify itself as a public benefit corporation and to state the public benefits it intends to promote. The proposed legislation generally defines “public benefits” as positive effects (or minimization of negative effects) on persons, entities, communities or interests, including those of an artistic, charitable, cultural, economic, educational, literary, medical, religious, scientific or technological nature.
Central to the proposed new subchapter’s operation is the statutory mandate that would be imposed on directors. The new subchapter would provide that directors, in managing the business and affairs of the public benefit corporation, shall balance the pecuniary interests of the stockholders, the interests of those materially affected by the corporation’s conduct, and the identified public benefits. The new subchapter also would provide that directors shall not have any duty to any person solely on account of any interest in the public benefit and would provide that, where directors perform the balancing of interests described above, they will be deemed to have satisfied their fiduciary duties to stockholders and the corporation if their decision is both informed and disinterested and not such that no person of ordinary, sound judgment would approve.
The new subchapter would impose special notice requirements on public benefit corporations, mandating periodic statements to stockholders regarding the corporation’s promotion and attainment of its public benefits. The new subchapter also would provide a means of enforcing the promotion of the public benefits. By statute, stockholders holding at least 2% of the corporation’s outstanding shares (or, in the case of listed companies, the lesser 2% of the outstanding shares or shares having at least $2 million in market value) would be able to maintain a derivative lawsuit to enforce specified requirements in the subchapter.
Update: Steve Bainbridge makes a good point: Delaware is moving to protect its market share.
Jesse Fried, Brian Broughman, and Darian Ibrahim have an excellent paper on Delaware's dominance in the market for corporate charters, arguing "that firms often choose Delaware corporate law because it is the only law 'spoken' by both in-state and out-of-state investors." Jesse described the paper in a recent blog post, and you can download it on SSRN. Jesse's summary of the evidence:
To test for a lingua-franca effect, we exploit a database of 1,850 VC-backed firms that provides precise information on the firm’s location, the identity and location of its investors, and changes in the firm’s domicile as its investor base evolves over time. We find, consistent with the lingua-franca effect, that the presence of out-of-state investors in each round of financing significantly increases the likelihood of Delaware incorporation or reincorporation. We also find that a startup is less likely to incorporate in Delaware if its out-of-state VC investors have already invested in firms incorporated in the startup’s home state, and thus have greater familiarity with home-state corporate law.
News today of a shooting in the Newcastle County Courthouse, which houses the Chancery Court. I was lucky enough to clerk down the street in the federal courthouse, and experienced firsthand the wonderfully close knit Delaware legal community. This news sickens me.
Our thoughts are with the victims, the Chancery Court, and those who go to work every day in courthouses around the country. It shouldn't be a dangerous job, but all too often we're reminded that it can be.
This past February, I blogged about Chancellor Leo Strine's opinion in Auriga Capital Corp. v. Gatz Properties, LLC. The case was particularly interesting because Chancellor Strine expressed his view that a manager in a manager-managed LLC owes fiduciary duties, even if the participants in the LLC are silent about fiduciary duties. In other words, the manager has fiduciary duties by default.
But Chief Justice Myron Steele has expressed a different view in his article, Freedom of Contract and Default Contractual Duties in the Delaware Limited Partnerships and Limited Liability Companies, 46 Am. Bus. L.J. 221, 223-224 (2009).
So when the Delaware Supreme Court issued an en banc opinion in Auriga earlier this week, we were all curious what Chief Justice Steele would say. The result was a per curium decision and it was surprising. The Court affirmed Chancellor Strine's decision, then added:
[W]e pause to comment on one issue that the trial court should not have reached or decided. We refer to the court’s pronouncement that the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act imposes “default” fiduciary duties upon LLC managers and controllers unless the parties to the LLC Agreement contract that such duties shall not apply. Where, as here, the dispute over whether fiduciary standards apply could be decided solely by reference to the LLC Agreement, it was improvident and unnecessary for the trial court to reach out and decide, sua sponte, the default fiduciary duty issue as a matter of statutory construction. The trial court did so despite expressly acknowledging that the existence of fiduciary duties under the LLC Agreement was “no longer contested by the parties.” For the reasons next discussed, that court’s statutory pronouncements must be regarded as dictum without any precedential value.
First, the Peconic Bay LLC Agreement explicitly and specifically addressed the “fiduciary duty issue” in Section 15, which controls this dispute. Second, no litigant asked the Court of Chancery or this Court to decide the default fiduciary duty issue as a matter of statutory law. In these circumstances we decline to express any view regarding whether default fiduciary duties apply as a matter of statutory construction. The Court of Chancery likewise should have so refrained.
Third, the trial court’s stated reason for venturing into statutory territory creates additional cause for concern. The trial court opinion identifies “two issues that would arise if the equitable background explicitly contained in the statute were to be judicially excised now.” The opinion suggests that “a judicial eradication of the explicit equity overlay in the LLC Act could tend to erode our state’s credibility with investors in Delaware entities.” Such statements might be interpreted to suggest (hubristically) that once the Court of Chancery has decided an issue, and because practitioners rely on that court’s decisions, this Court should not judicially “excise” the Court of Chancery’s statutory interpretation, even if incorrect. That was the interpretation gleaned by Auriga’s counsel. During oral argument before this Court, counsel understood the trial court opinion to mean that “because the Court of Chancery has repeatedly decided an issue one way, . . . and practitioners have accepted it, that this Court, when it finally gets its hands on the issue, somehow ought to be constrained because people have been conforming their conduct to” comply with the Court of Chancery’s decisions. It is axiomatic, and we recognize, that once a trial judge decides an issue, other trial judges on that court are entitled to rely on that decision as stare decisis. Needless to say, as an appellate tribunal and the court of last resort in this State, we are not so constrained.
Fourth, the merits of the issue whether the LLC statute does—or does not— impose default fiduciary duties is one about which reasonable minds could differ. Indeed, reasonable minds arguably could conclude that the statute—which begins with the phrase, “[t]o the extent that, at law or in equity, a member or manager or other person has duties (including fiduciary duties)”—is consciously ambiguous. That possibility suggests that the “organs of the Bar” (to use the trial court’s phrase) may be well advised to consider urging the General Assembly to resolve any statutory ambiguity on this issue.
Fifth, and finally, the court’s excursus on this issue strayed beyond the proper purview and function of a judicial opinion. “Delaware law requires that a justiciable controversy exist before a court can adjudicate properly a dispute brought before it.” We remind Delaware judges that the obligation to write judicial opinions on the issues presented is not a license to use those opinions as a platform from which to propagate their individual world views on issues not presented. A judge’s duty is to resolve the issues that the parties present in a clear and concise manner. To the extent Delaware judges wish to stray beyond those issues and, without making any definitive pronouncements, ruminate on what the proper direction of Delaware law should be, there are appropriate platforms, such as law review articles, the classroom, continuing legal education presentations, and keynote speeches.
Parts of this passage surfaced on Above the Law and generated a story today in the NYT, but neither story mentioned the underlying dispute between Chief Justice Steele and Chancellor Strine on default fiduciary duties.
Those stories also didn't note that this was not the first time the Delaware Supreme Court had warned Chancellor Strine about dicta. Ironically, the issue in Gotham Partners, L.P. v. Hallwood Realty Partners, L.P., 817 A.2d 160, 167 (Del. 2002) was then-Vice Chancellor Strine's assertion that fiduciary duties could be eliminated in a limited partnership. On that occasion, the Court observed, "we are constrained to draw attention to ... the underlying general principle in our jurisprudence that scrupulous adherence to fiduciary duties is normally expected."
Finally, inspired by the reaction of Brett McDonnell when we discussed this story yesterday, I wonder what Ed Rock thinks of this opinion. See Edward B. Rock, Saints and Sinners: How Does Delaware Corporate Law Work?, 44 UCLA L. Rev. 1009 (1997).