DelawareUnder Delaware law, when a derivative plaintiff loses its stockholder status as the result of a merger, the plaintiff usually also loses its standing to pursue a derivative suit on behalf of the corporation.  This rule is subject to only two limited exceptions: (1) when “the merger itself is the subject of a claim of fraud, being perpetrated merely to deprive shareholders of the standing to bring a derivative action,” and (2) when “the merger is in reality merely a reorganization which does not affect plaintiff’s ownership in the business enterprise.”  Lewis v. Ward, 852 A.2d 896, 902 (Del. 2004) (clarifying exceptions identified in Lewis v. Anderson, 477 A.2d 1040 (Del. 1984)).  In a decision revisiting a 2010 mining tragedy in which dozens of miners were killed, the Delaware Court of Chancery recently concluded that neither exception applied to preserve the standing of stockholders of Massey Energy Company (“Massey”) to bring derivative claims, and that plaintiffs had not brought direct claims for an “inseparable fraud.”  In re Massey Energy Co. Derivative & Class Action Litig., Consol. C.A. No. 5430-CB (May 4, 2017).

Backstory: The Court of Chancery Refuses To Enjoin The Massey-Alpha Merger

In 2011, stockholder plaintiffs attempting to enjoin a merger between Massey and Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (“Alpha”) argued that Massey should be forced to assume and transfer derivative claims against certain Massey fiduciaries to a trust for the benefit of Massey stockholders, rather than allowing the claims to pass to Alpha.  While finding “little doubt” that plaintiffs’ derivative claims could survive a motion to dismiss, the Court also concluded that plaintiffs were likely to lose standing to pursue those claims if the merger was consummated.

The Court of Chancery noted that a corporation reasonably may conclude that the risks arising from a lawsuit outweigh the potential risk-weighted recovery, even when the corporation clearly has been harmed.  As a practical matter, a corporation with strong claims against former executives may choose not to pursue those claims for valid reasons, including a wish to avoid pleading formal admissions that potentially could be used against the corporation by third parties, such as insurance carriers, government agencies, and employees and other individuals with personal injury and other claims.  Delaware courts have declined to hold that these kinds of dilemmas – which arise because the corporation itself is conflicted, and not because the directors suffer a personally disabling conflict of interest – justify excusing a would-be plaintiff from the requirement of a pre-suit demand.  In its injunction opinion, the Court in Massey similarly refused to create another exception to the general rule that a merger extinguishes the ability of a former stockholder plaintiff to pursue claims derivatively on behalf of the corporation.  In addition, the Court noted that if a potential buyer cannot rely on the fact that a merger will eliminate derivative claims, bids for troubled assets will be reduced, if not deterred completely, because the buyer must discount the value of the assets to reflect the uncertainty. 
Continue Reading

architecture-22039_960_720“Veil piercing” is an equitable remedy that allows a plaintiff with a claim against an entity to obtain relief from the entity’s owners, in spite of laws providing for limited liability.  When the owners provide personal guarantees or otherwise contract around liability protections, or when the owners are sued in their own right based on their own conduct, it is not necessary to pierce a veil of limited liability.  True veil piercing – where the owners are asked to stand in for acts of the entity – is an extraordinary remedy to be reserved for the most extreme cases.

Courts generally have reviewed several factors, with varying degrees of emphasis, when determining whether to pierce the veil of a corporation.  These have included the existence of fraud, adherence to “corporate formalities” such as holding and documenting meetings, the level of capitalization, whether a dominant stockholder siphoned funds from the corporation, and whether investors are so active in the management of the corporation that the corporation is their “alter ego” or “instrumentality.”  Fraud may, depending on the circumstances, provide an independent basis for the liability of stockholders and others on the grounds that individuals are being found liable based on their own conduct.  Other factors supporting veil piercing also often stand in as proxies for fraud, or reasons to suspect fraudulent behavior.

As has become increasingly clear, Delaware “alternative entities” such as limited partnerships and limited liability companies are not the same thing as corporations.  While many of the same fiduciary principles applicable to corporate fiduciaries may apply under certain circumstances to the fiduciaries of an alternative entity, courts must remain sensitive to distinctions in entity law.  In the context of veil piercing, these distinctions suggest that a Delaware LLC should not be subject to true veil piercing at all, as opposed to the imposition of liability under standard concepts of fraud, fraudulent conveyance, etc.; and that assuming the LLC’s veil may be pierced, any piercing should be subject to different standards than those applicable to piercing the corporate veil.

Section 102(b)(6) of the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”) states that a certificate of incorporation “may” contain “[a] provision imposing personal liability for the debts of the corporation on its stockholders to a specified extent and upon specified conditions; otherwise, the stockholders of a corporation shall not be personally liable for the payment of the corporation’s debts except as they may be liable by reason of their own conduct or acts.”  8 Del. C. § 102(b)(6).  Thus, under the DGCL, the default rule is that stockholders are not personally liable for corporate debts based on their ownership of stock, but may be liable as a result of their own conduct, and may also agree in the charter to be liable to a specified extent and upon specified conditions.

Section 18-303(a) of the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act (“DLCCA” or “Delaware LLC Act”) states that

Except as otherwise provided by this chapter, the debts, obligations and liabilities of a limited liability company,


Continue Reading

Delaware Supreme Court
Delaware Supreme Court

The Delaware Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of a derivative suit for failure to make demand, finding that the complaint alleged particularized facts sufficient to create a reasonable doubt as to the disinterestedness and independence of a majority of directors, in Sandys v. Pincus, No. 157, 2016 (Del. Dec. 5, 2016).  In Sandys, the plaintiff alleged that some top managers and directors at Zynga, Inc. were given an exemption to Zynga’s rule preventing sales by insiders until three days after an earnings announcement.

Because Zynga’s board of directors had nine members, the Court examined whether the complaint had excused a demand as to at least five directors.  Two of the directors (Reid Hoffman, and the controlling stockholder and former CEO, Mark Pincus) had participated in the trades and were considered interested in the transaction.  Another director, Don Mattrick, had been named as the new CEO, and was therefore deemed interested because the corporation’s controlling stockholder was interested in the transaction.  The Court concluded that the complaint alleged reasonable doubt as to the disinterestedness of another three directors (adding up to six of the nine directors).

One director, Ellen Siminoff, was deemed to be potentially interested because she and her husband were co-owners of a private plane with Pincus, which “signaled an extremely close, personal bond” between the two directors and their families because unlike some other assets, a private plane “requires close cooperation in use, which is suggestive of detailed planning indicative of a continuing, close personal friendship.”  The Court noted that at the pleading stage, a plaintiff need not “plead a detailed calendar of social interaction to prove that directors have a very substantial personal relationship rendering them unable to act independently of each other.”

Another two directors, William Gordon and John Doerr, were partners at a prominent venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which had interlocking relationships with both directors who traded in Zynga stock.  Specifically, Kleiner Perkins also was invested in a company that Pincus’ wife co-founded, and with a company on whose board Hoffman served as a director.  According to its public disclosures, the Zynga board had determined that Gordon and Doerr did not qualify as independent directors under the NASDAQ listing rules.  The plaintiff’s books and records inspection demand did not inquire as to the board’s NASDAQ determination, and the Court of Chancery found that these directors’ independence had not been sufficiently challenged.  The Delaware Supreme Court disagreed, stating that “to have a derivative suit dismissed on demand excusal grounds because of the presumptive independence of directors whose own colleagues will not accord them the appellation of independence creates cognitive dissonance that our jurisprudence should not ignore.”  While agreeing that “the Delaware independence standard is context specific and does not perfectly marry with the standards of the stock exchange in all cases,” the Court nonetheless identified criteria of the NASDAQ rule that “are relevant under Delaware law and likely influenced by our law.”

The
Continue Reading

Gavel_editFor the first time since 1997, the United States Supreme Court explored the requirements for proving a federal securities fraud claim based on insider trading, in Salman v. United States (Dec. 6, 2016).  The Salman opinion confirms that a factfinder may infer a personal benefit to a tipper from a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend, without the added requirement of “proof of a meaningful relationship” that had been imposed by the Second Circuit in United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2015).  Salman thus resolves a circuit split that had developed between the Second and Ninth Circuits.

Historically, individuals have been found to have engaged in securities fraud under “classical” theory or “misappropriation” theory.  Under classical theory, corporate “insiders” (directors, officers, and others deemed to hold a temporary fiduciary status) either trade on inside information or tip the information to someone who does.  Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646 (1983).  Under misappropriation theory, the person trading or tipping inside information need not owe fiduciary duties generally to a corporation and its stockholders, but must violate some relationship of trust and confidence through which she received the information.  United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642, 650-52 (1997).  In both cases, then, the person engaging in insider trading has committed an act of deception by violating a relationship of trust and confidence.  Also, in both cases, the actionable deception is to the source of information and not to the other party to the trade or the general trading public, even though the latter may be injured by the trader’s conduct.  See id.  The Supreme Court has not read the federal securities laws as establishing “a general duty between all participants in market transactions to forgo actions based on material, nonpublic information.”  Chiarella v. United States, 445 U.S. 222, 233 (1980).

In the 2015 Newman case, the Second Circuit further limited the ability of the government to bring insider trading cases.  The court acknowledged that language in the Supreme Court’s Dirks opinion could be read as permitting a factfinder to infer that a tipper received a personal benefit by providing confidential information to a trading relative or friend, but added that such an inference “is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  Newman, 773 F.3d at 452.  The Newman opinion called into question hard-won victories by the federal government against insider trading defendants in the Southern District of New York.

The Ninth Circuit took a different direction in Salman.  In that case, confidential information originally was obtained by an investment banker at Citigroup, Maher Kara, who shared it with his brother Michael.  Unbeknownst to Maher, Michael then shared the information with others including the defendant, Bassam Salman, whose sister was married to Maher.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit refused to follow Newman,
Continue Reading

Delaware Supreme Court
Delaware Supreme Court

The Delaware Supreme Court recently held that the plain language of an employment agreement and an LLC agreement prevented an LLC from interjecting a fraudulent inducement defense into a summary proceeding for the advancement of litigation expenses under Section 18-108 of the Delaware LLC Act.

Trascent Mgmt. Consulting, LLC v. Bouri, No. 126, 2016 (Del. Nov. 28, 2016). In Trascent, an LLC brought claims against a terminated executive for breach of his employment agreement. The executive then counterclaimed for advancement of his litigation expenses under his employment agreement and the operating agreement of the LLC, both of which contained nearly identical language stating that, “[u]nless a determination has been made by final, nonappealable order of a court of competent jurisdiction that indemnification is not required, [the LLC] shall, upon the request of [the indemnitee], advance or promptly reimburse [the indemnitee’s] reasonable cost of investigation, litigation or appeal, including reasonable attorneys’ fees [subject to the condition that the indemnitee provide a written undertaking to repay advancements if a court of competent jurisdiction ultimately decided he was not entitled to indemnification].” Having agreed to this language, the LLC “knew it agreed to provide a right, subject to expedited specific enforcement, and it could not reasonably believe that it could deny that right simply by alleging that the contract was invalid.”

Under those circumstances, the Court explained, allowing the LLC to interpose a defense of fraudulent inducement would be inconsistent with the contractual language, would defeat the purpose of a statutory advancement proceeding by inserting a “plenary claim” into what the Court noted should be a summary proceeding, and would impair the public policy interests served by contractual advancement provisions. In dicta, the Court also noted that equity supported its ruling because the LLC had employed the executive for 16 months and then sued him under the same contract that it claimed was invalid.

Link to ruling:

http://courts.delaware.gov/Opinions/Download.aspx?id=249390
Continue Reading