In Sheldon v. Pinto Technology Ventures, C.A. No. 2017-0838-MTZ (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery in a Memorandum Opinion granted a motion to dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims and other allegations brought by the founder and an early stockholder (“Plaintiffs”) of non-party IDEV Technologies, Inc., a Delaware corporation (“IDEV”). The Court found that Plaintiffs’ primary claims were derivative, rejecting Plaintiffs’ assertion that Defendants were judicially estopped by a Texas state court ruling from arguing for that characterization of the claims, and dismissed the complaint for failure to comply with Chancery Court Rule 23.1’s derivative claims demand or demand futility pleading requirements.Read More
by David L. Forney and Tom Sperber
In Klein v. H.I.G. Capital, L.L.C., et. al, C.A. No. 2017-0862-AGB, the Delaware Chancery Court issued a Memorandum Opinion granting in part and denying in part a motion to dismiss under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1 for failing to make a demand and under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(6) for failing to state a claim of relief. Melvyn Klein (“Plaintiff”), a stockholder of Surgery Partners, Inc. (“SP”), brought direct and derivative claims against one of SP’s directors Michael Doyle (“Doyle”), SP’s controlling stockholder H.I.G. Capital, L.L.C. (“HIG”), and Bain Capital Private Equity, LP (“Bain”) (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging breaches of fiduciary duty against Defendants stemming from three interdependent transactions that were allegedly conflicted and unfair. The Court found that demand was futile because the Plaintiff sufficiently alleged that the board was interested, and found that Plaintiff stated claims for breach of fiduciary and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty by HIG and Bain, respectively, because Defendants failed to show that the conflicted transactions were entirely fair.
The board of directors of SP (the “Board”) approved, and SP entered into, three transactions on May 9, 2017 (the “Transactions”). The Transactions consist of: (1) SP acquiring National Surgical Healthcare for $760 million; (2) HIG selling its shares of SP to Bain at a price of $19 per share; and (3) SP issuing to Bain 310,000 shares of a new class of stock of SP at a price of $1,000 per share. These transactions were interrelated and dependent on each other; if one fell through, the others would fail as well. The Board approved the Transactions without a special committee and with no publicly disclosed abstentions. No public stockholders voted on the transactions as HIG approved each by written consent as majority stockholder. Bain and SP used the same law firm and accounting firm to represent them during negotiations. Once the Transactions were finalized, Bain was SP’s controlling stockholder.
Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging eight claims. Of those claims, four were pled directly and four were pled derivatively. Each direct claim had a corresponding derivative claim. Counts I and V asserted claims for breach of fiduciary duty against the Board of LP (all of whom were dropped from the complaint except for Doyle) for entering into the Transactions without ensuring that the share issuance to Bain was entirely fair. Counts II and VI were claims for breach of fiduciary duty against Bain and HIG for entering into a conflicted transaction in the share issuance to Bain. Counts III and VII alleged claims of breach of fiduciary duty against HIG, in the alternative, as the sole controlling stockholder for entering into the conflicted transaction. Lastly, Counts IV and VIII asserted that Bain aided and abetted breaches of fiduciary duty by HIG and Doyle.
In deciding Defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Court first turned to whether Counts I-IV were properly brought as direct claims. The Court observed that the claims brought by Plaintiff constitute “a classic form of an ‘overpayment’ claim,” which must normally be pled derivatively. Plaintiff, however, argued that his claim resembles the claim brought in Gentile v. Rosette, where the Delaware Supreme Court recognized a situation where a corporate overpayment claim implicated both direct and derivative injury. The Court, in rejecting Plaintiff’s argument, cited several subsequent Delaware cases that limited the holding in Gentile to its facts and applied it only where the challenged transaction resulted in an improper transfer of both economic value and voting power from the minority stockholders to the controlling stockholder. The Court also observed that not only was Bain not yet the controlling stockholder before the share issuance, but that even if it was, its increase in voting power would not have been so great as to have triggered the Gentile rule. Furthermore, the Court pointed to the structure of the share issuance for the proposition that common stockholders’ shares will only be diluted if and when Bain converts its preferred shares into common stock. Ultimately, the Court found that Plaintiff’s claims could not be brought directly, and therefore dismissed Counts I-IV.
The Court next turned to the question of whether Plaintiff was excused from making demand on the Board on the basis of demand futility. In assessing Plaintiff’s futility allegation, the Court applied the test articulated in Aronson v. Lewis, under which a Plaintiff must “provide particularized factual allegations that raise a reasonable doubt that (1) the directors are disinterested and independent [or] (2) the challenged transaction was otherwise the product of a valid exercise of business judgment.” Of the Board’s seven members, Plaintiff conceded that two were disinterested, while Defendants conceded that three were interested. The Court, therefore, was tasked with determining whether either of the two remaining directors, Doyle and Brent Turner, were conflicted. The Court found that the complaint raised a reasonable doubt as to whether Doyle could make decisions regarding the Transactions independently by alleging that SP engaged him in a consulting agreement that paid him more per month than he made as SP’s CEO. On that basis, the Court found that Plaintiff had properly alleged that making demand on the board was futile.
Once the Court determined that demand was excused, it addressed the merits of Plaintiff’s remaining claims (V-VIII). First, the Court turned to Count VI, which argued in the alternative that Bain and HIG had breached fiduciary duties by acting as a “control group.” The Court dispatched Plaintiff’s argument quickly by pointing out that there was never any allegation that Bain owned any stock, let alone a controlling percentage of stock, prior to the Transactions. Ultimately, the Court dismissed Count VI for failing to state a claim.
The Court then examined Count VII, in which Plaintiff alleged that HIG breached its fiduciary duty by issuing the new shares to Bain. The Court determined that entire fairness was the proper standard of review, observing that that standard is triggered when a controlling stockholder effectuates a conflicted transaction. The Court determined that HIG was conflicted in entering into the issuance of new shares to Bain because that transaction was a condition precedent to HIG’s sale of its own shares to Bain. Entire fairness is an onerous standard for a defendant to overcome, requiring the controlling stockholder to “show, conclusively, that the challenged transaction was entirely fair based solely on the allegations of the complaint and the documents integral to it.” Because Defendants failed to show entire fairness, the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss Count VII.
Count VIII alleged that Bain aided and abetted HIG’s breach of fiduciary duty. The Court found that Plaintiff’s allegations that Bain was aware of its shared legal representation with HIG, as well as the interrelated nature of the three transactions, and the lack of a stockholder vote, inferred Bain’s “knowing participation” in HIG’s breach. The Court, therefore, denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss as to Count VIII.
Lastly, due to the inclusion of an exculpatory provision in SP’s certificate of incorporation, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s Count V for failing to allege that Doyle acted in bad faith or had personal interest in the transactions.
In Jack L. Marchand II v. John W. Barnhill, Jr., et al, the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1, finding that Plaintiff failed to plead particularized facts that an appeal for board action on the complaint would have been futile or that a majority of the company’s board lacked the independence needed to respond.
By Joanna Diakos and Tom Sperber
In Kyle Ellis (AbbVie, Inc.) v. Richard A. Gonzalez, et al., the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed a derivative suit for failing to make a demand and to allege particularized facts demonstrating that demand would have been futile. Kyle Ellis (“Plaintiff”) alleged breaches of fiduciary duty by the CEO of AbbVie, Inc. (“AbbVie”), Richard A. Gonzalez (“Gonzalez”), and the individual members of AbbVie’s board of directors (“Director Defendants”) in connection with a proposed but ultimately abandoned corporate inversion between pharmaceutical giants AbbVie and Shire plc (“Shire”). The Court held that because AbbVie’s certificate of incorporation contained a Section 102(b)(7) exculpatory clause, Plaintiff had to allege that a majority of the board faced a substantial likelihood of liability for breaching the duty of loyalty in order for demand to be excused. Ultimately, Plaintiff failed to do that.
At all relevant times, Plaintiff was a minority stockholder of AbbVie, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Shire was an Island of Jersey biopharmaceutical company with its headquarters in Dublin, Ireland.
In Sciabacucchi v. Liberty Broadband Corp., et al., C.A. No. 11418-VCG (Del. Ch. July 26, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied in part a motion to dismiss brought by defendants Liberty Broadband Corporation (“Liberty”), Liberty’s largest stockholder, and the board of directors of Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter,” and collectively “Defendants”), for failure to plead demand futility. The Court ruled that the Plaintiff, a stockholder of Charter, pleaded sufficient facts to support a reasonable inference that the influence of Liberty’s largest stockholder would prevent the Charter board of directors from exercising independent and disinterested business judgment when considering a demand to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the corporation.
In Ms. Mary Giddings Wenske, et al. v. Blue Bell Creameries, Inc., et al., the Delaware Chancery Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss a breach of contract claim, finding that Plaintiffs had pled a set of facts that allow a reasonable inference that Defendants breached the standards set forth in its partnership agreement.
In Steinberg on behalf of Hortonworks, Inc. v. Bearden, C.A. No. 2017-0286-AGB (Del. Ch. May 30, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the stockholder plaintiff’s derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duties under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1, because the plaintiff failed to make a pre-suit demand or demonstrate that doing so would be futile. The Court found that the plaintiff failed to plead particularized facts sufficient to raise reasonable doubt that a majority of the directors on the Hortonworks, Inc. board could have exercised their independent and disinterested business judgment in responding to a pre-suit demand. Read More
In R.A. Feuer on behalf of CBS Corporation v. Sumner M. Redstone (C.A. No. 12575-CB (Del. Ch. April 19, 2018)), R. A. Feuer (“Plaintiff”), a stockholder of CBS Corporation (“CBS”) brought a derivative suit against the directors of CBS Corporation (“Board”) alleging corporate waste, bad faith, and unjust enrichment for compensation in excess of $13 million dollars paid to Sumner Redstone, the controlling stockholder, former executive chairman and chairman emeritus of CBS (“Redstone”). The payments were made under an extreme set of circumstances that resulted in the claims partially surviving a Rule 23.1 motion to dismiss for failure to make a pre-suit demand on the board and a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Read More
In Cumming v. Edens, et al., C.A. No. 13007-VCS (Del. Ch. Feb. 20, 2018), the Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss a derivative suit for breach of fiduciary duties brought by a stockholder of New Senior Investment Group, Inc. (“New Senior”) against New Senior’s board of directors (the “Board”) and related parties in connection with New Senior’s $640 million acquisition of Holiday Acquisition Holdings LLC (“Holiday”). The Court made clear that compliance with Section 144 does not necessarily provide a safe harbor against claims for breach of fiduciary duty and invoke business judgment review of an interested transaction. Because the complaint alleged with specificity “that the Board acted out of self-interest or with allegiance to interest other than the stockholders,” the court applied the entire fairness standard of review and concluded that the transaction was not fair to New Senior stockholders. Read More
In Wilkin v. Narachi, et al., and Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc., Civil Action No. 12412-VCMR (Del. Ch. February 28, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted a motion to dismiss brought by defendants (“Defendants”), directors and officers of biopharmaceutical company Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc. (“Orexigen”), for failure to plead demand futility under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1. The Court ruled that the plaintiff, a stockholder of Orexigen (“Plaintiff”), did not plead sufficient facts to show that a substantial likelihood of liability prevented the directors from exercising independent and disinterested business judgment when considering a demand to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the corporation.
In Ryan v. Armstrong, et al., C.A. No. 12717-VCG (Del. Ch. May 15, 2017), the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed the derivative action brought by a Plaintiff-shareholder (“Plaintiff”) against specified members of the board of directors (“Defendants”) of nominal defendant The Williams Companies (“Williams”). Plaintiff brought his claim against the Defendants without first demanding that the board pursue an action following Williams’ decision to allegedly undertake defensive measures against a takeover. The court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss holding that Plaintiff failed to plead facts demonstrating that an exception to the demand requirement of Court of Chancery Rule 23.1 applied.
The Court of Chancery granted a motion to dismiss a shareholder derivative action brought against the board of directors of UPS for breach of their fiduciary duty of loyalty in which it was alleged that the board failed to monitor UPS’s compliance with laws governing the transportation and delivery of cigarettes, resulting in the government seeking approximately $180 million in a pending enforcement action against UPS. In ruling on the motion, the Court held that the plaintiffs did not adequately plead facts to support their contention that making a demand on the board of directors to take corrective action or pursue the claim would be futile, which is a prerequisite to a shareholder derivative action.