In McElrath v. Kalanick, C.A. No. 2017-0888-SG (Ch. Del. April 1, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) dismissed a derivative suit brought by a stockholder of Uber Technologies, Inc. (“Uber”) for damages arising from its acquisition of Ottomotto, LLC (“Otto”), an autonomous vehicle technology company. Plaintiff did not make demand on the defendant board of directors of Uber (the “Board”) for action prior to pursuing litigation. The Court dismissed the derivative suit finding that a majority of the Board that would have evaluated a demand was disinterested and independent, and therefore, had plaintiff made demand of the Board, such a demand would not have been futile.Read More
In Juan C. Rojas derivatively and on behalf of J.C. Penney Company, Inc. v. Marvin R. Ellison, et al, C.A. No. 2018-0755-AGB (Del. Ch. July 29, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery dismissed with prejudice a derivative claim brought against J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (“J.C. Penney,” or the “Company”) and current and former members of the Company’s board of directors (the “Board”), on the grounds that the failure of plaintiff Juan Rojas (“Rojas”) to make a demand on the Board prior to filing suit did not satisfy the requirements of Delaware law for excuse from the requirement to make such a demand. The Court held that Rojas had failed to allege facts from which the Court could reasonably infer that any of the Board members had acted in bad faith by knowingly failing to exercise their oversight responsibilities, and that Rojas therefore had not demonstrated that a demand on the Board would have been futile.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
In In re Facebook, Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0661-JRS (Del Ch. May 30, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted a Section 220 demand for inspection of Facebook’s books and records, (the “Demand”) for the purpose of investigating potential wrongdoing on the part of the company’s Board of Directors (the “Board”). The consolidated action comes on the heels of news that the data of over 50 million Facebook users were poached by British political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica and used to influence the 2016 Presidential Election. In April 2018, Plaintiff, Construction and General Building Laborers’ Local No. 79 General Fund (“Local No. 79”), a Facebook stockholder since 2015, served its initial Section 220 Demand. After receiving about 1,700 pages of significantly redacted books and records, Local No. 79 filed the present action to compel production which was consolidated with two similar Section 220 demands. After holding a paper record trial in March 2019, the Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs with some limitations on the scope of the demand.Read More
In the consolidated stockholder derivative litigation, In re Fitbit, Inc., CA No. 2017-0402-JRS (Del. Ch. Dec. 14, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ insider trading and breach of fiduciary duty claims. The claims stem from alleged insider knowledge of members of Fitbit’s Board of Directors (the Board) and chief financial officer that Fitbit’s PurePulse™ technology was not as accurate as the company claimed. Plaintiffs alleged that members of the Board structured the company’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) and Secondary Offering (together, “the Offerings”) to benefit Fitbit insiders and voted to waive employee lock-up agreements, thereby allowing those insiders, to prematurely sell stock in the Secondary Offering. As a result of their sales, the alleged insiders sold about 6.2 million shares for over $115 million in the IPO and about 9.62 million shares for over $270 million in the Secondary Offering.Read More
In Steven H. Busch v. Edward J. Richardson et. al. and Richardson Electronics, Ltd., C.A. No. 2017-0868-AGB (Del. Ch. November 14, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) dismissed a plaintiff’s stockholder suit against certain board members of Richardson Electronics Ltd. (the “Company”) for breach of fiduciary duty. The Court found that the Company’s board (the “Board”) exercised valid business judgment in rejecting the plaintiff’s demand to unwind certain Company transactions, despite the Board’s failure to disclose certain related party transactions to the plaintiff and other stockholders.Read More
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 Tilden v. Cunningham et. al., C.A. No. 2017-0837-JRS (Del. Ch. Oct. 26, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted the motion of directors of Delaware corporation Blucora, Inc. (“Blucora”) named as Defendants to dismiss a derivative action and dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice, holding that the Plaintiff, a Blucora stockholder, failed to plead demand futility and failed to state viable claims under Rule 12(b)(6). This derivative action stems from three transactions Blucora entered into between 2013 and 2015: 1) an acquisition of Monoprice, Inc. (“Monoprice”), 2) the acquisition of HD Vest (“HD Vest”), and 3) several stock repurchases.
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.