In Martin v. Harbor Diversified, Inc., the Delaware Court of Chancery denied the plaintiff’s request for attorneys’ fees under the corporate benefit doctrine because the corporate benefit produced by the litigation was “a mere externality” to the plaintiff’s ultimate, personal goal of achieving a buyout of his interest in the corporation.Read More
In Almond v. Glenhill Advisors LLC, C.A. No. 10477-CB (Del. Ch. April 10, 2019), the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’ fees, even though Plaintiffs made a prima facie showing to support a fee award under the corporate benefit doctrine, given that Plaintiffs fought to prevent the particular benefit throughout the litigation. The Court held that it would be inequitable to reward Plaintiffs for “conferring” a benefit they fought to prevent throughout the litigation.Read More
Raul v. Astoria Financial Corporation involves the question of whether, under the corporate benefit doctrine adopted by Delaware courts, a stockholder can recover, from a corporation, attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of the stockholder’s attorney investigating the corporation’s activities. In this case, David Raul (“Raul”), as custodian of Malka Raul Utma, NY, a common stockholder of Astoria Financial Corporation (“Astoria”), filed a complaint against Astoria, seeking an equitable assessment of attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with the investigation of potential violations of “say-on-pay” disclosure requirements under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the “Say-On-Pay Disclosure Requirements”).
The corporate benefit doctrine provides for an award of attorneys’ fees to a stockholder if (1) the stockholder presents a claim to the corporation such that, at the time the claim was presented, a suit based on the actions underlying the claim would have survived a motion to dismiss and (2) a material corporate benefit results.
In Crothall, et al. v. Zimmerman, et al., the defendants in a derivative suit sought to reverse the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision awarding attorneys’ fees to counsel for Robert Zimmerman, the plaintiff in the underlying action. Zimmerman, a common unitholder of Adhezion Biomedical, LLC (“Adhezion”), originally brought a derivative suit against the directors and certain investors of Adhezion, claiming that (i) certain financing transactions involving the sale of Adhezion units were substantively unfair, and (ii) the units issued in those transactions were not properly authorized in accordance with Adhezion’s operating agreement. The Chancery Court’s opinion rejected Zimmerman’s claim of substantive unfairness, but agreed that Adhezion’s operating agreement had been violated because the units issued in the financing transactions had been issued without an amendment approved by a separate vote of the common unitholders.
The Chancery Court, however, awarded only nominal damages for the breach of the operating agreement, and, before a final judgment was entered, Zimmerman decided to sell his Adhezion units and abandon the lawsuit, thus rendering his claims moot. As a result, the Chancery Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Zimmerman’s claims. Nevertheless, Zimmerman’s counsel was allowed to intervene in the case, and was ultimately awarded $300,000 in attorneys’ fees, on the theory that Adhezion had realized a corporate benefit from the Chancery Court’s decision that a vote of the common unitholders was required to authorize additional units under the operating agreement.
The defendants, while unable to appeal the Chancery Court’s ruling directly due to the absence of a final judgment, asked the Delaware Supreme Court to re-consider the merits of the Chancery Court’s finding that attorneys’ fees were warranted on the basis of a corporate benefit to Adhezion. The Supreme Court reversed the Chancery Court’s ruling, finding that Zimmerman’s counsel had not created a corporate benefit, and therefore was not entitled to the $300,000 in attorneys’ fees originally awarded by the Chancery Court. Without evaluating the Chancery Court’s substantive reading of the Adhezion operating agreement, the Supreme Court held that when a plaintiff takes action to moot his own claim, as Zimmerman did by selling his units and abandoning his claims before entry of a final judgment after trial, no corporate benefit can be created and therefore no attorneys’ fees should be awarded on that basis. The Supreme Court noted that, while attorneys’ fees have previously been awarded on the basis of mooted claims, those claims were rendered moot by the actions of the defendant, not the plaintiff. In contrast, in this case the Supreme Court refused to award fees on the basis of a claim that even the plaintiff himself had chosen not to pursue.