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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
In In Re Tesla Motors, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, the Delaware Chancery Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss an action brought by plaintiffs (Tesla stockholders) against nominal Defendant Tesla Motors in connection with Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity Corporation. Plaintiffs alleged that Tesla’s board of directors breached their fiduciary duties by approving the acquisition of SolarCity, which benefitted SolarCity stakeholders but negatively affected Tesla stockholders. SolarCity is a public Delaware corporation founded by Elon Musk and his cousins, Peter and Lyndon Rive. Musk and his cousins sit on the SolarCity Board. Lyndon was SolarCity’s CEO and Peter was its CTO.
In Sciabacucchi v. Liberty Broadband Corporation, C.A. No. 11418-VCG (Del. Ch. May 31, 2017), the Court of Chancery ruled on a motion to dismiss by defendants Liberty Broadband Corporation (“Liberty”), a stockholder of Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) and officers and directors of Charter. The Court held that facts alleged by plaintiff, a Charter stockholder, supported the inference that a vote by Charter stockholders approving a shares issuance to and voting proxy agreement with Liberty was structurally coercive. The Court determined that since the vote was coercive, it did not ratify actions by Liberty and Charter’s directors and officers claimed by plaintiff to have breached fiduciary duties of loyalty. As a result, the Court held, defendants were not entitled to dismissal of plaintiff’s claims solely on the basis that stockholder vote ratification operated to “cleanse” fiduciary duties breaches.
Delaware Court Of Chancery Ruling Provides a Cautionary Tale for Investment Fund Directors Seeking to Monetize Their Investment
In The Frederick Hsu Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corp., et al., one of the founders of ODN Holding Corporation (the “Company”) filed suit against the controlling stockholder, the board and certain officers of the Company for cash redemptions of preferred stock allegedly made in violation of statutory and common law instead of using the Company’s cash to maximize the value of the Company for the long term benefit of all stockholders. The Delaware Court of Chancery granted defendants’ motions to dismiss claims of waste and unlawful redemption. However, the Court of Chancery denied defendants’ motions to dismiss claims of breach of fiduciary duty, aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment finding that the allegations of the Plaintiff supported a reasonable inference that the entire fairness standard would apply and that individual defendants may have acted in bad faith.
In In re Books-A-Million, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, No. 11343-VCL (Del. Ch. Oct. 10, 2016), the plaintiffs, minority stockholders of Books-A-Million, Inc. (the “Company”), alleged that the Company’s directors, controlling stockholders and several of its officers breached their fiduciary duties in connection with a squeeze-out merger effected by the controlling stockholders in 2015 to take the Company private. The Court of Chancery held that the plaintiffs failed to plead facts to take the transaction outside the six-pronged framework approved by the Delaware Supreme Court in Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635 (2014) (“MFW”), and, consequently, the business judgment rule, rather than the entire fairness test, applied in reviewing the merger. Upon application of the business judgment rule, the Court dismissed the case.
In Calesa Associates, L.P, et. al v. American Capital, Ltd., et. al, C.A. No. 10557-VCG (Del. Ch. February 29, 2016) (Glascock, V.C.), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied (with one minor exception) a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in a direct suit brought by stockholders of Halt Medical, Inc. (“Halt”) alleging breaches of fiduciary duties by an alleged controlling stockholder, American Capital, Ltd., a publicly traded private equity firm, and several of its affiliates (collectively, “American Capital”), and certain of Halt’s directors. The fiduciary duty claims relate to a recapitalization transaction (denominated by the Plaintiffs as a “squeeze-out merger”) that the plaintiffs claimed disproportionately benefitted American Capital and certain of Halt’s directors allegedly controlled by American Capital at the expense of Halt’s other stockholders. The Plaintiffs argued that, through a complex series of premeditated transactions and control of Halt’s Board, American Capital chocked off Halt’s capital needs and then restructured Halt pursuant to a transaction resulting in a “squeeze out” of the minority stockholders.
The Court found that the plaintiff stockholders alleged facts sufficient to support a reasonable inference that American Capital was Halt’s controlling stockholder because of its control over the Halt Board, despite its 26% equity ownership stake. In reaching the decision, the Court reaffirmed that majority equity ownership is not the sole test, and that “control” exercised by a significant minority stockholder, even when the stockholder is exercising contractual blocking rights negotiated in prior equity transactions, is enough to characterize the non-majority stockholder as a controller for purposes of determining that the “entire fairness” standard, and not the business judgment rule, governs the board’s fiduciary duties and the controller’s actions.
In Fotta v. Morgan, C.A. No. 8230-VCG (Feb. 29, 2016), Vice Chancellor Glasscock denied cross motions for summary judgment and granted a motion to dismiss for failure to comply with Rule 23.1. After determining that factual issues remained as to causes of action brought by certain stockholders of First Orion Corp. for waste, breach of fiduciary duty, and statutory claims, the Court of Chancery was unable to determine whether a significant creditor to nominal defendant First Orion Corp. used its control over the board of directors to divert equity to itself in breach of duties owed to the common stockholders.