Topic: Controlling Stockholder

Delaware Court of Chancery Denies Plaintiff’s Request for Declaration of Status as Majority Stockholder, Sole Director, and Chief Executive Officer

By Scott E. Waxman and Frank J. Mazzucco

In In Re Hawk Systems, Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0288-JRS (Del. Ch. Sept. 4, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) denied a plaintiff’s request for a declaration that he was the majority stockholder, sole director, and chief executive officer of a company.

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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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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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YES, WE HAVE NO ESTOPPEL: CHANCERY COURT RULES DERIVATIVE, DISMISSES DILUTED STOCKHOLDERS’ EX-TEXAS MERGER-RELATED CLAIMS

 By Remsen Kinne and Adrienne Wimberly

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.

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IN RULING ON MOTION TO DISMISS, CHANCERY COURT ALLOWS ADMISSION OF EXTRINSIC EVIDENCE TO RESOLVE AMBIGUITY IN PREFERRED STOCK CERTIFICATE OF DESIGNATIONS

By Michelle R. McCreery Repp and Stephanie A. Winkler

In Cedarview Opportunities Master Fund, L.P. v. Spanish Broadcasting System, Inc., CA No. 2017-0785-AGB (Del. Ch. Aug. 27, 2018), the Court of Chancery granted in part and denied in part the motion of Spanish Broadcasting System (“SBS” or the “Company”) to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims, which were based on alleged breaches by the Company of its certificate of incorporation and certificate of designations for its preferred stock, under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim and Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of ripeness. In ruling on one aspect of the Company’s motion to dismiss, the Court notably held that the parties should be permitted to admit extrinsic evidence to resolve an ambiguity with respect to the terms governing preferred stock, and in doing so, expressly declined to apply two arguably conflicting principles historically used by Delaware courts in resolving such an ambiguity, the application of which would not necessitate or permit the admission of extrinsic evidence.

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Board’s Lack of Independence from Interested Director Excuses Stockholder Demand as Futile

By: Christopher B. Tillson and J. Tyler Moser

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.

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CONTROLLER BREACHES FIDUCIARY DUTIES BY COERCING ONEROUS FINANCING TERMS

By: Kent Carlson and Rich Minice

In Basho Technologies, Inc. v. Georgetown Basho Investors, LLC, C.A. No. 11802-VCL (Del. Ch. July 6, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery reaffirmed the principle that a stockholder with actual control of a corporation violates its fiduciary duties by advancing its own interests to the detriment of the corporation.  Applying the entire fairness standard in its decision following trial, the court held that Georgetown Basho Investors, LLC (“Georgetown”), the controlling stockholder of Basho Technologies, Inc. (“Basho”), owed and breached fiduciary duties to Basho as a stockholder with actual-but not majority-control. The court ultimately awarded plaintiffs Earl Gallaher (“Gallaher”) and various investment funds under his control (the “Plaintiff(s)”) damages in the aggregate amount of $20,268,878.

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A Conflicted Controller Transaction Survives a Motion to Dismiss

By: Lisa R. Stark and Samira F. Torshizi

In In re Hansen Medical, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, C.A. No. 12316-VCMR (Del. Ch. June 18, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery found that plaintiffs had stated a reasonably conceivable claim that the acquisition of Hansen Medical, Inc. (“Hansen”) by Auris Surgical Robotics, Inc. (“Auris”) should be reviewed under the entire fairness standard of review because the transaction involved a controlling stockholder group which extracted benefits from the transaction not shared with the minority. The Court denied motions to dismiss filed by the alleged control group and Hansen’s directors and officers.

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CHANCERY COURT FINDS TRANSACTION STRUCTURE CAN TRIGGER PRESUMPTIONS OF BUSINESS JUDGMENT DEFERENCE AT PLEADING STAGE

Nicholas Oleinik…v. Frank A. Lodzinski, et al., and Earthstone Energy,…

By: Carty Bibee and Samantha Beatty

In Olenik v. Lodzinski, C.A. No. 2017-0414-JRS (Del. Ch. July 20, 2018), the Court of Chancery, in a motion to dismiss, found that Earthstone Energy, Inc.’s (“Earthstone”) decision to employ the framework laid out in Kahn v. M&F Worldwide, Corp., 88 A.3d 635 (Del. 2014) (“MFW”) in structuring a transaction secured the benefit of the business judgment rule for its fiduciaries, even at the pleadings stage.  The Court found that where the Plaintiff failed to plead waste, or facts which the Court could reasonably conceive as waste, the Plaintiff’s claim that officers and the controlling stockholder breached their fiduciary duties by approving an unfair transaction as interested parties, must be dismissed.

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MOTION FOR A TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER OF CONTROLLING STOCKHOLDERS DENIED AS NO EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES FOUND

By Annette Becker and Caitlin Velasco

In CBS Corporation, et al. v. National Amusements, Inc., et al., Civil Action No. 2018-0342-AGB, the Court of Chancery denied a motion for temporary retraining order brought by CBS Corporation (“CBS”) and five independent directors of CBS (the “Plaintiffs”) to restrain controlling shareholders, Shari Redstone, her father Sumner Redstone, National Amusements, Inc. (“NAI”), NAI Entertainment Holdings LLC, and the Sumner M. Redstone National Amusements Trust (the “Defendants”) from taking certain actions that would interfere with the governance of CBS or other proposed actions of the board of directors of CBS.  The Court found that there was no precedent for the type of relief requested by Plaintiff and that no extraordinary circumstances existed to warrant the grant of such relief. Read More

CONTROLLING STOCKHOLDER CANNOT ADVANCE ITS OWN SELF-INTEREST AT EXPENSE OF MINORITY STOCKHOLDERS

By: C. J. Voss and Rich Minice

In Carr v. New Enterprise Associates, Inc., C.A. No. 20170381-AGB (Del. Ch. Mar. 26, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery, in denying in part and granting in part a motion to dismiss, reaffirmed the principle that a controlling stockholder, when acting outside its capacity as a stockholder, cannot use the corporation to advance the controlling stockholder’s self-interest at the expense of minority stockholders.  In the context of defendants’ motion to dismiss, the court found that it was reasonably conceivable that the controlling stockholder of American Cardiac Therapeutics, Inc. (“ACT”) and its conflicted board of directors had breached their duty of loyalty to ACT’s minority stockholders by approving a sale of a warrant to a third party that included an option to acquire ACT, allegedly at an unfairly low price, in order to incentivize the third party to also acquire and invest in the controlling stockholder’s other portfolio companies.

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