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 Scott Waxman and Adrienne Wimberly
In Mesirov v. Enbridge Company, Inc., et al. C.A. No. 11314-VCS (Del. Ch. Aug.29, 2018), the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed five of eight counts alleged with respect to a transaction where Enbridge Energy Company (EEP) repurchased for $1 billion a two-thirds interest in Alberta Clipper Pipelines (AC interest), despite the fact that EEP had sold that same interest years prior for $800 million and the business had steadily declined since such sale. The dismissals were based primarily upon the language and obligations included in EEP’s limited 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 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.
By: Scott E. Waxman and Daisy Sexton
In Brett Kandell v. Dror Niv et al., the Delaware Chancery Court denied in part and granted in part a motion to dismiss a derivative action brought by a stockholder (“Plaintiff”) against nominal defendant FXCM, Inc. (“FXCM” or “the Company”), a foreign exchange (“FX”) broker. The claim was brought against FXCM directors (“Defendants”) for losses associated with the “Flash Crash” in the value of the euro relative to the Swiss franc, which happened when the Swiss decoupled the two currencies. As a result of these huge losses, FXCM had to obtain a loan under onerous conditions. Two main causes of action were asserted: (1) that the directors’ ability to exercise business judgment with respect to the Flash Crash was impaired, and (2) that the directors knowingly violated 17 C.F.R. § 5.16 (“Regulation 5.16”) which prohibits foreign exchange traders from representing that they will limit clients’ trading losses. Plaintiff did not make a demand on the company prior to bringing suit.
In Morris vs. Spectra Energy Partners (DE) GP, LP, the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware found that a limited partner adequately pled that the general partner of a master limited partnership breached its contractual duty to act in good faith in connection with a conflicted transaction between the master limited partnership and the indirect parent of the general partner. The Court also dismissed claims for breach of the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing and tortious interference with a partnership agreement.
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.
By Scott E. Waxman and Russell E. Deutsch
In In re Massey Energy Company Derivative And Class Action Litigation, C.A. No. 5430-CB (Del. Ch. May 4, 2017), the Chancery Court dismissed both the direct class action claim for “inseparable fraud” and the derivative claim brought by the former shareholders of Massey Energy (“Massey” or the “Corporation”) against the former directors and officers of Massey for breaching their fiduciary duties by causing Massey to operate in willful disregard of safety regulations. The court dismissed the derivative claim holding that the plaintiffs were not continuous shareholders, and therefore lacked standing to bring a derivative claim after Massey merged into Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (Alpha) in June of 2011. The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ direct claim for “inseparable fraud” claim holding that, though pled as a direct claim, it was, in fact, also a derivative claim that the plaintiffs’ lacked the standing to maintain.
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.
In Dietrichson v. Knott, C.A. No. 11965-VCMR (Del. Ch. Apr. 19, 2017), the Chancery Court dismissed the entire complaint brought by one member of a limited liability company against another member for paying himself an unauthorized salary and misappropriating the proceeds of a sale of the company’s assets, concluding that the claims made were derivative rather than direct stockholder claims. The Court also held that plaintiff’s claims were not “dual-natured” (i.e., having both direct and derivative aspects), because the plaintiff failed to plead that the transaction resulted in both an improper transfer of economic value and voting power from the minority equity holders to the controlling equity holder.
In Sandys v. Pincus et al., C.A. No. 9512-CB (Del. Ch. Feb. 29, 2016), the Delaware Court of Chancery systematically dismissed claims brought in a stockholder derivative suit on behalf of Zynga, Inc. (“Zynga”), regarding alleged breaches of fiduciary duties in connection with Zynga’s secondary offering of its common stock, due to the plaintiff’s failure to demonstrate that the procedurally required demand upon Zynga’s board of directors to initiate such litigation would have been futile. The court applied the Rales test to assess demand futility, which required the plaintiff to prove reasonable doubt that the board at the time the litigation commenced was able to properly exercise its independent and disinterested business judgement in responding to a demand to file suit, and in doing so extended the scenarios in which to apply the Rales test.
Following the initial public offering (“IPO”) of its Class A common stock at $10 per share in December 2011, Zynga launched a secondary offering in April 2012 for $12 per share, in which various executives of Zynga and four members of Zynga’s board of directors (the “Participating Board Members”) were selling stockholders. To allow such participation in the offering by the various executives and the Participating Board Members, the underwriters agreed to the early release of certain lock-up agreements entered into by such executives and directors in conjunction with the IPO, and the audit committee of Zynga’s board of directors approved exceptions to the trading window restrictions set forth in Zynga’s 10b5-1 trading plan that otherwise would prohibit such sales by these individuals at the time of the secondary offering.
The secondary offering, including the selling stockholder participation, was approved by Zynga’s board of directors; however, of the eight members at such time, only seven were present to vote. The four Participating Board Members voted for the secondary offering, constituting the majority vote required to proceed. At the time the complaint was filed, Zynga’s board had increased to nine members, comprised of six members who served on Zynga’s board at the time of the secondary offering (of which only two were Participating Board Members) and three additional members who had since been added to Zynga’s board.
On April 4, 2014, the plaintiff, a stockholder of Zynga at all relevant times, filed suit and asserted three claims: (1) against the Participating Board Members, alleging breach of fiduciary duties by misusing Zynga’s confidential information when they sold shares in the secondary offering while in possession of materially adverse, non-public information, (2) against Zynga’s board of directors at the time of the secondary offering, alleging breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty for approving the secondary offering and exempting the Participating Board Members from the trading window restrictions set forth in Zynga’s 10b5-1 trading plan, and (3) against Zynga’s board of directors and various Zynga executives at the time of the secondary offering alleging breach of fiduciary duties by failing to put controls in place to ensure adequate public disclosures and to avoid material omissions in its public statements.
The plaintiff brought each of the claims derivatively on behalf of Zynga, invoking Court of Chancery Rule 23.1, which requires the plaintiff of a derivative stockholder suit to make a demand upon the board of directors to initiate such litigation or demonstrate that such a demand would be futile. As the plaintiff in Sandys v. Pincus did not make a demand on Zynga’s board to initiate litigation, to over come the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the plaintiff needed to instead demonstrate such demand would be futile. To prove demand futility, Delaware courts apply one of two tests. The first, articulated in Aronson v. Lewis, 473 A.2d 805, 814 (Del. 1984), requires the plaintiff to plead facts that create a reasonable doubt either that the directors are disinterested and independent, or that the challenged transaction was otherwise the product of a valid business judgment (the “Aronson test”). The Aronson test does not apply when the board that would be considering the demand did not make a business decision which is being challenged in the derivative suit. The second test, articulated in Rales v. Blasband, 634 A.2d 927, 933-34 (Del. 1993), requires the plaintiff to create reasonable doubt that the board could have properly exercised its independent and disinterested business judgment in responding to the demand at the time the complaint was filed (the “Rales test”).
As demand futility is assessed claim by claim, the court addressed each of the three claims separately, first determining whether to apply the Aronson or Rales test. The court applied the Rales test for each claim. In doing so, the court analyzed whether the plaintiff created reasonable doubt that at least five of the nine directors of Zynga’s board at the time the complaint was filed were able to properly exercise his or her independent and disinterested business judgement in responding to a demand to file suit. According to the court, a director lacks independence when he or she is sufficiently beholden to someone interested in the litigation that he or she may be unable to consider the demand impartially. An interested director is one who receives from a corporate transaction a personal benefit not equally shared by the stockholders, such that he or she could face liability if the transaction were subjected to entire fairness scrutiny.
With respect to the first claim, the court applied the Rales test because the claim did not challenge a business decision of the board, but rather the Participating Board Members’ individual decisions to sell in the secondary offering. Applying the Rales test, the court concluded that of the members of Zynga’s board at the time the complaint was filed, only the two remaining directors that had sold shares and received a benefit, faced liability under the alleged claim. Thus, the remaining seven members were not interested directors. The court reviewed certain facts pled to ascertain whether the seven disinterested board members were beholden to the two remaining Participating Board Members, and found that facts such as friendship or co-ownership of an asset, each absent a bias nature, are insufficient to raise reasonable doubt as to independence. The court dismissed plaintiff’s first claim for failure to allege demand futility under the Rales test.
For the second claim, the court applied the Rales test because Zynga’s board composition had changed since the secondary offering, marking an expansion of the scenarios in which such test applies. In assessing whether Zynga’s board at the time the complaint was filed could impartially decide whether to pursue plaintiff’s second claim, the court stated that the mere fact that two board members are both partners in the same firm does not support the plaintiff’s theory that they would not want to initiate litigation against the other, as the plaintiff presented no evidence that they are beholden to one another or have a relationship aside from their partnership that would suggest otherwise. In addition, in response to plaintiff’s argument that non-selling directors of Zynga’s board at the time of the secondary offering are interested directors because of the litigation risk they would face in an entire fairness review applicable to such claim, the court stated that a plaintiff seeking monetary damages as a result of this claim must plead non-exculpated facts against a director who is protected by Section 102(b)(7) of the Delaware General Corporation Law. Since Zynga’s charter contains such exculpatory provision, plaintiff needed to demonstrate breaches of duty of loyalty, bad faith, or a conscious disregard for directorial duties. As the plaintiff failed to demonstrate such facts and thus to cast the required reasonable doubt, the court dismissed the claim.
Lastly, the court applied the Rales test to plaintiff’s third claim because the claim did not address a business decision of the board, but rather a violation of the board’s oversight duties. The court held that in the context of an alleged oversight violation, there is no transaction in which the directors may be interested. For directors to have a disabling interest, they must face a meaningful litigation risk with a substantial likelihood of personal liability for the violations. Due to the exculpatory provision in Zynga’s charter, its directors would not face likelihood of personal liability unless plaintiff pled exculpated facts. As no such exculpated facts were pled, the court dismissed this claim for failure to allege demand futility under the Rales test.
In sum, the court dismissed each of plaintiff’s claims due to plaintiff’s failure to demonstrate that a demand upon Zynga’s board to initiate litigation would have been futile, applying the Rales test for demand futility. Under the Rales test, plaintiff failed to prove reasonable doubt that Zynga’s board was able to properly exercise its independent and disinterested business judgement in responding to plaintiff’s demand to file suit.