Topic: Breach of Fiduciary Duty

Transactions Involving Controlling Stockholder as a Result of Actual or Inherent Coercion are Subject to Entire Fairness Standard of Review

By: Annette Becker and Rich Minice

In In re Tesla Motors, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, C.A. No. 12711-VC (Del. Ch. Feb. 4, 2020), the Delaware Court of Chancery rejected the defendants’ (Elon Musk and the Tesla, Inc. (“Tesla”) board of directors (“Defendants”)) novel position that “inherent coercion” doctrine–as it relates to a controlling stockholder–evaporates when a case for breach of fiduciary duty moves beyond the pleading stage and stockholder ratification exists, and re-affirmed the Delaware principle that entire fairness is the appropriate standard of review.  The Court rejected motions for summary judgment by both parties finding that there remained issues of material fact to be determined as to whether stockholder ratification was fully informed and uncoerced, and whether a majority of the Tesla board of directors approving the merger was independent.

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Directors Breach Fiduciary Duties in Coercive Self-Tender

By: Annette Becker and Serena Hamann

In Robert A. Davidow v. LRN Corporation, et al., C.A. No. 2019-0150-MTZ (Del. Ch. Feb. 25, 2020), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims brought against the founder and two directors (the “Individual Defendants”) of LRN Corporation, a corporation that advises on ethics and compliance (“LRN”) because the plaintiff (on behalf of the former stockholders who tendered shares in the tender offer) (“Plaintiff”) adequately pled facts sufficient to state a claim that the Individual Defendants breached their fiduciary duties by launching a coercive self-tender at an unfair price, providing inadequate disclosure, and authorizing the self-tender notwithstanding the Individual Directors’ interestedness.

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Out of the money: breach of fiduciary duty claim survives motion to dismiss when the board approved an asset sale that left no consideration for the common unitholders

By: Scott E. Waxman and Chris Fry

In JJS, Ltd., et al., v. Steelpoint CP Holdings, LLC, et al., No. 2019-0072-KSJM (Del. Ch. 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) held that John Sarkisian, individually and on behalf of JJS, Ltd. and PPS Investors Ltd., L.P. (together, the “Plaintiffs”) successfully stated a claim for breach of fiduciary duty against a venture capital fund and its appointed board members in approving a transaction for the asset sale of Pro Performance Sports, LLC (the “Company”) where the common unitholders receive no compensation, the board members are under common ownership or employment with the venture capital fund, and one board member received an extraordinary severance package. The Court dismissed the Plaintiffs’ remaining claims, which turned on the interpretation of the voting rights provision of the limited liability company (“LLC”) agreement of the Company, finding that the operative language was not ambiguous and that a careful reading of the agreement would have given Plaintiffs notice of the voting rights mechanics. 

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Delaware Court of Chancery Dismisses Derivative Claims in Reliance on Exculpatory Language in Limited Liability Company Agreement

By Scott E. Waxman and Frank J. Mazzucco

In MKE Holdings, Ltd. and David Bergevin v. Kevin Schwartz, et al. and Verdesian Life Sciences, LLC, C.A. No. 2018-0729-SG (Del. Ch. Sept. 26, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery relied on exculpatory language in a Limited Liability Company  Agreement to grant a defendant’s motion to dismiss a derivative claim alleging breach of duty by the company’s managers.

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Delaware Court of Chancery Holds That Third-Party Stockholder Has Standing to Enforce Anti-Takeover Protections

By Scott E. Waxman and Frank J. Mazzucco

In Arkansas Teacher Retirement System v. Alon USA Energy, Inc., et al., C.A. No. 2017-0453-KSJM (Del. Ch. Jun. 28, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery found that a plaintiff stockholder, in connection with a merger, had standing as a third-party beneficiary to bring claims for breach of fiduciary duty and breach of a stockholder agreement.

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Delaware Court of Chancery Allows Derivative Claim To Proceed Regarding Allegedly “Grossly Excessive” Non-Employee Director Compensation

By Remsen Kinne and Frank J. Mazzucco

In Stein v. Blankfein et al., C.A. No. 2017-0354-SG (Del. Ch. May 31, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery, in considering a motion to dismiss, allowed a stockholder’s derivative claim to proceed against an entity’s non-employee directors alleging that such director compensation was grossly excessive and thus represented a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty.

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Chancery Court Reaffirms Protection of Mandatory Advancement Rights

By: David Forney and Rich Minice

In Nielsen v. EBTH Inc., C.A. No. 2019-0164-MTZ (Del. Ch. Sep. 30, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery reaffirmed its standard favoring advancement of expenses to officers or directors of a company where the corporation provides mandatory advancement rights either by its certificate of incorporation (“Charter”) or separate indemnification agreements. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs because they (i) either used their corporate powers or such powers were necessary for the commission of the alleged misconduct in the underlying action; or (ii) the alleged misconduct in the underlying action is inextricably intertwined with the actions taken in the plaintiffs’ former capacities as officers or directors, such that the plaintiffs would necessarily be required to disprove allegations that they acted improperly as such. Advancement is appropriate when either of the two prongs for this nexus test are met.

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CHANCERY COURT ALLOWS CLAIMS DUE TO MANAGER’S ALLEGIANCE TO PARTICULAR EQUITY HOLDERS OVER THE COMPANY

By: Scott E. Waxman and Douglas A. Logan

In Klein and Cambridge Therapeutic Technologies, LLC, v. Wasserman et al., C.A. No. 2017-0643-KSJM (May 29, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery addressed claims of breach of fiduciary duties, tortious interference, and civil conspiracy. Defendants’ motion to dismiss the claims was granted in part and denied in part.

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MAINTAINING GOOD CORPORATE GOVERNANCE: ENTIRE FAIRNESS CREEPING INTO ACTIONS BENEFITING A CONTROLLING STOCKHOLDER

By: Scott Waxman and Rich Minice

In Tornetta v. Musk, Civil Action No. 2018-0408-JRS (Del. Ch. Sep. 30, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery addressed the appropriate standard of review to apply when examining stockholder approval of a conflicted controller for the controller’s own executive incentive compensation package. In January 2018, Tesla, Inc.’s board of directors (the “Board”) approved a compensation package (the “Award”) for its CEO, Elon Musk. The Board then submitted the Award to Tesla’s stockholders for approval. The Award was overwhelmingly approved. Tornetta (“Plaintiff”), a Tesla stockholder, brought four direct and derivative claims against Musk and members of the Board (the “Defendants”) alleging the Award is a product of breaches of fiduciary duty, constitutes waste, and unjustly enriches Musk. The Defendants moved to dismiss all counts under Rule 12(b)(6) (the “Motion”).

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A SIGNATURE ALONE IS NOT DISPOSITIVE EVIDENCE OF AN INTENT TO BE BOUND IN AN AGREEMENT

By: Scott E. Waxman and Mehreen Ahmed

In Eagle Force Holdings, LLC, and EF Investments, LLC, v. Stanley V. Campbell, 2999991.08000 (Del. Ch. Aug. 29, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) held that Stanley Campbell’s (“Campbell”) conduct and communications with the Plaintiff before and during the signing of the transaction documents did not constitute an overt manifestation of assent to be bound by the documents. Therefore, the breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty claims failed.

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Director Independence and Demand Futility: A Holistic Inquiry of the Pleading

By: Josh Gaul and Rich Minice

In In re BGC Partners, Inc. Derivative Litigation, Civil Action No. 2018-0722-AGB (Del. Ch. Sep. 30, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied motions to dismiss for (i) failure to establish demand futility and (ii) failure to state a claim for relief (the “Motions”) filed by nominal defendant BGC Partners, Inc. (“BGC”), its affiliates CF Group Management, Inc. (“CF”) and Cantor Fitzgerald L.P. (“Cantor”), Howard Lutnick, the CEO, Chairman of the Board, and controlling stockholder of BGC (“Lutnick”), and four “independent” members of the Board of Directors of BGC (the “Special Committee Defendants” and all of which, together, are the “Defendants”). In denying the Motions in this stockholder derivative litigation, the court primarily discussed and applied recent guidance from the Delaware Supreme Court on the Aronson test for demand futility. In re BGC Partners, Inc. puts controlling stockholders on notice that their professional and personal ties to board members may undermine the purported independence of those board members.

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Delaware Court of Chancery Allows Stockholder’s Derivative Claim to Proceed Against Alleged Controlling Stockholder Under Entire Fairness Standard of Review

By Scott E. Waxman and Frank Mazzucco

In Reith v. Lichtenstein et al., C.A. No. 2018-0277-MTZ (Del. Ch. Jun. 28, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery, in considering a motion to dismiss, allowed a stockholder’s derivative complaint to proceed against a minority stockholder under the entire fairness standard of review, because the complaint had sufficiently alleged that such minority stockholder, by exercising “actual control” as part of transactions being challenged, was effectively a controlling shareholder and thus owed fiduciary duties.

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