Topic: Derivative Suit

Chancery Court Dismisses Inseparable Fraud Claim Based on Derivative Claims That Former Shareholders Lacked Standing To Maintain

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.

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Chancery Court Dismisses Derivative Claim Over Board’s Defensive Measures Against a Takeover as Stockholder Failed to Plead Specific Facts

By Rem Kinne and Peter Soskin

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.

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Failure to Make Demand to the Board of Directors Dooms 50% Owner’s Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims Against Co-Owner

By: Michelle McCreery Repp and Benjamin Kendall

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.

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CHANCERY COURT DISMISSES STOCKHOLDER DERIVATIVE SUIT ON BEHALF OF ZYNGA, INC. ON GROUNDS OF FAILURE TO DEMONSTRATE DEMAND FUTILITY APPLYING THE RALES TEST

By: Shoshannah D. Katz and Alexa M. Ekman

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.

Sandys v. Pincus et al.

Stockholder’s Challenge to $35M Stock Issuance to Freeport-McMoran CEO Dismissed by Delaware Court of Chancery

By Holly Hatfield and James Parks

A stockholder’s claims regarding a $35 million stock issuance to Freeport-McMoran CEO Richard Adkerson were dismissed. Governance changes within Freeport that were thought to have triggered an option in Adkerson’s employment contract that would have permitted him to quit and receive a $46 million severance package allowed the board to preempt that eventuality by issuing him $35 million in stock.

In Shaev v. Adkerson, C.A. No. 10436-VCN (Del. Ch. Oct. 5, 2015), Vice Chancellor Noble, writing for the Delaware Court of Chancery, granted defendant Freeport-McMoran’s (“Freeport” or the “Company”) motion to dismiss plaintiff Victoria Shaev’s (“Shaev” or “Plaintiff”) direct and derivative claims under Court of Chancery Rules 12(b)(6) and 23.1.

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Chancery Court Dismisses Derivative Lawsuit against GM Directors Relating to Recalled Ignition Switches, Finding That Plaintiffs Failed to Show Demand Futility

By Scott Waxman and Lauren Garraux

In a June 26, 2015 Memorandum Opinion, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III dismissed a derivative complaint filed by stockholders of General Motors (“GM”) relating to defective ignition switches that led to the recall of approximately 13 million GM vehicles beginning in February 2014.  According to Vice Chancellor Glasscock, Plaintiffs failed to adequately plead bad faith on the part of the GM directors named as defendants in the lawsuit and, therefore, failed to show demand futility under Chancery Rule 23.1.

The general facts underlying this derivative lawsuit have been widely publicized and relate to GM’s recall of approximately 13 million vehicles for issues with the vehicles’ ignition switch, which caused a vehicle’s engine and electrical system to shut off, disabling power steering and power brakes and causing the vehicle’s airbags to not deploy in the event of a crash.

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Tossed Out With The Weeds – Delaware Chancery Court Dismisses Derivative Action Alleging Breaches of Fiduciary Duty by DuPont Directors and Officers

By Holly Vance and Jonathan Miner

In Ironworkers v. Andreotti, Vice Chancellor Glasscock of the Delaware Chancery Court granted DuPont’s motion to dismiss for plaintiff’s failure to properly state a derivative action claim. In reaching its decision, the Court affirmed that the business judgment rule is the standard of review used in derivative actions where the plaintiff has made a demand of the board of directors and the board declined such demand.

Beginning in 2002 DuPont began to develop genetically modified corn and soybean seeds to compete with Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” seeds, which have the ability to survive application herbicides, including Monsanto’s own Roundup herbicide. DuPont referred to the product it was developing as “GAT”. During this same time period, DuPont was also licensing the Roundup Ready gene trait from Monsanto. DuPont encountered setbacks in field testing of GAT and as a result began experiments in combining GAT together with the Roundup Ready gene trait. The relationship between DuPont and Monsanto deteriorated as DuPont attempted to develop its GAT products, and in May 2009 Monsanto brought suit against DuPont for breaches of the license agreement for the Roundup Ready gene trait, patent infringement and other related claims. In July 2012 a jury found in favor of Monsanto and awarded it $1.2 billion in damages. DuPont began steps to appeal the decision and began negotiating a settlement with Monsanto. On March 25, 2013 DuPont and Monsanto entered into a settlement agreement that was structured as a new license agreement and included royalty payments to Monsanto of $1.75 billion over 10 years for the rights to use the patent for the Roundup Ready gene trait.

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Sound the Alarm? Not so Fast as Chancery Court Dismisses Derivative Suit Alleging Self-Interested “Pump-And-Dump” Scheme Arising Out of Alarm Company’s Repurchase of $450 Million in Stock from Hedge Fund Investor

By Lauren Garraux and Phillip Kardis

In his April 28, 2015 Memorandum Opinion, Vice Chancellor Parsons dismissed a derivative suit brought by ADT Corp. stockholder Walter E. Ryan, Jr. (“Plaintiff”) against the Company’s board of directors, Corvex Management LP (“Corvex”), a hedge fund investor, and Corvex’s principal arising out of the Company’s repurchase of $450 million in stock held by Corvex, a move that led to a drop in the Company’s stock price.  Citing Chancery Court Rule 23.1, Vice Chancellor Parsons dismissed the suit because Plaintiff had neither made a pre-suit demand on the Company’s board nor met his burden of proving that demand should be excused as futile under Aronson.

Plaintiff commenced this derivative action on August 1, 2014 and filed an amended complaint on October 3, 2014, asserting claims of breach of fiduciary duties of care and loyalty against ADT’s board of directors, aiding and abetting those breaches against Corvex and unjust enrichment against Corvex and Corvex principal Keith Meister (“Meister”) who, during the time period relevant to the complaint, held a seat on ADT’s board and audit committee.  Plaintiff’s claims arose out of what Plaintiff characterized as a self-interested “pump-and-dump” scheme pursuant to which Meister managed to “pump up” the price of ADT’s stock and then convinced his fellow board members to repurchase most of Corvex’s ADT stock in November 2013 at $44.01 per share for an approximate total of $450 million, the alleged “dump.”  Following the repurchase, ADT was left in a “far-worse-than forecasted financial condition,” with “diminished future prospects” and a slipping stock price that ultimately settled around $28 per share in the first few days of February 2014.

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In re Sanchez Energy Derivative Litig., C.A. No. 9132-VCG (November 25, 2014) (Glasscock, V.C.)

By Priya Chadha and David Bernstein

In In re Sanchez Energy, Vice Chancellor Glasscock granted a motion to dismiss in a shareholder derivative action because the plaintiffs had failed to make a demand on the Board, holding that the plaintiffs failed to meet Rule 23.1’s particularized pleading standards for demand futility.  The case centered around a transaction in which Sanchez Energy Corporation (“Sanchez Energy”), a publicly held corporation, purchased property at $2500/acre from Sanchez Resources, LLC (“Sanchez Resources”), a privately held, company, which Sanchez Resources had purchased for  $184/acre.  Two members of the Sanchez family—A.R. Sanchez Jr. and A.R. Sanchez III—owned a combined 21.5% of the shares of Sanchez Energy and served on its board of directors, which had three other members.  Those three members comprised Sanchez Energy’s audit committee, which approved the transaction.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s claim that demand would have been futile because the three members of the Audit Committee were not independent.  The Vice Chancellor said the plaintiffs had failed to show the audit committee members’ social and business relationships with the Sanchezes were such that “the non-interested director would be more willing to risk his or her reputation than risk the relationship with the interested director.”  He also rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments that the Sanchezes should be treated as controlling shareholders because they failed to show that the Sanchezes controlled the board or the negotiation process for the transaction.  Vice Chancellor Glasscock pointed to the fact that transaction was approved by the Audit Committee and that the Sanchezes owned at most a combined 21.5% stake in Sanchez Energy as evidence that the Sanchezes were not controlling shareholders.  Lastly, VC Glasscock rejected the idea that because of  the huge disparity between what Sanchez Resources paid to acquire the property and what Sanchez Energy paid to acquire the property from Sanchez Resources, the transaction was so facially unfair that it could not have been the product of valid business judgment, noting, among other things, that between Sanchez Resources’ initial purchase and its sale to Sanchez Energy, half of the property had been developed and found to contain proven oil reserves.

Thus, because the Complaint failed to specifically please facts excusing demand, the Court dismissed the Complaint.

In Re Sanchez

Higher Education Management Group, Inc. v. Matthews, C.A. No. 911-VCP (November 3, 2014) (Parsons, V.C.)

By David Bernstein and Max Kaplan

On November 3, 2014, the Delaware Chancery Court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss derivative claims in Higher Education Management Group, Inc. v. Mathews, C.A. No. 911-VCP (Del. Ch. Nov. 3, 2014) (Parsons, V.C.), after finding, among other things, that plaintiffs failed to plead with particularity facts showing demand upon nominal defendant’s board would have been futile.  In this case, defendant corporation’s subsidiary, Aspen University, paid out nearly $2.2 million in what were apparently expense reimbursements between 2003 and 2011.  These outlays were never recorded in the firm’s accounts—a fact discovered by management through a November 2011 audit. Apparently, rather than recording the expense, which would have required Aspen to restate previous years’ financial statements, management chose to treat the $2.2 million as a secured loan receivable owed by Aspen University’s former CEO—plaintiff Patrick Spada—with the intention of taking a write-off in the future.  Spada denied there ever was a loan and alleged that defendant officers and directors materially misrepresented the corporation’s finances by knowingly mischaracterizing the $2.2 million as a loan.

The court did not reach the merits of plaintiffs’ accusations, and it instead found that plaintiffs failed to either make a demand on the board or sufficiently plead that such a demand would be futile.  Plaintiffs had argued that the director defendants had made knowing misrepresentations that exposed them to a “substantial likelihood” of liability, and therefore all the directors were “interested” for purposes of satisfying the demand futility test.  However, Plaintiffs pled events that, if taken as true, showed only that two directors knew that there was no loan.  With regard to all the other directors, plaintiffs alleged only general knowledge of the loan being fake, attributing identical actions to all of the directors as a group without making specific allegations with regard to individual directors.  According to the court, “such broad and identical assertions . . . do not meet the requirements of pleading facts with particularity.”  Having found that the facts pled by the plaintiffs were only sufficient to show that a minority of directors were “interested,” the court concluded that a demand had not been shown to be futile and dismissed the claim.

Higher Education Management Group, Inc. v. Mathews

Wolst v. Monster Beverage Corporation, C.A. No. 9154-VCP (Del. Ch. October 3, 2014) (Noble, V.C.)

By David Bernstein and Meredith Laitner

On October 3, 2014, the Delaware Chancery Court issued its ruling in Wolst v. Monster Beverage Corporation, C.A. No. 9154-VCP (Del. Ch. October 3, 2014) (Noble, V.C.), rejecting the plaintiff’s request to inspect Monster Beverage Corporation’s books and records pursuant to Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law.

The plaintiff’s stated purpose for her request to inspect Monster’s books was to determine whether there was a basis for her to bring a derivative suit against Monster based on insider trading that occurred seven years ago.  A class action regarding the insider trading had been settled for $16.25 million and a prior derivative suit, in which the plaintiff had been a participant, had been dismissed for failure to make a demand on the Board.  Subsequently a demand on the Board had been made and rejected.

The Court held that the possible new derivative suit that was the reason for the plaintiff’s Section 220 demand was time-barred by laches. Further, Vice Chancellor Noble refused to extend to derivative claims the general rule that a class action tolls the statute of limitations for the members of the class pursuing individual direct claims.

WolstvMonsterBeverage

In re Jenzabar, Inc. Derivative Litig., Civil Action No. 4521-VCG (July 30, 2014) (Vice Chancellor Glasscock)

By David Bernstein and Priya Chadha

In In re Jenzabar, Inc. Derivative Litig., Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III held that a terminated trust that has not yet distributed to its beneficiaries shares of a corporation, cannot bring a derivative suit on behalf of the corporation. It “can take only those actions related to preserving its assets for purposes of distribution and wind-up, together with those actions for which the trust instrument specifies.”

The Gregory M. Raiff 2000 Trust (the “Trust”) was established in 2000.  The terms of the Trust Instrument held that it was to terminate in 2002 and distribute all of its assets to another trust.  However, the Trust assets, which included shares of Jenzabar, were never actually distributed after the Trust terminated in 2002.  After the trustee filed this derivative action on behalf of the Trust in 2013, Jenzabar filed a motion to dismiss the derivative suit, arguing that the Trust lacked the capacity to sue because it had terminated.  The Plaintiff countered that because the Trust had never distributed its assets, it still had the capacity to bring a derivative suit due to the fact that it still held Jenzabar stock.

Vice Chancellor Glasscock rejected this argument.  He said that Massachusetts law, which governed the Trust, restricted the powers of a trustee of a terminated trust to what’s necessary to “preserve the trust property while winding up the trust and delivering any trust property to the beneficiary.”  He said that post termination, the only litigation in which the Trust could engage was defensive action necessary to preserve its assets, pursuing litigation was not encompassed within the Trust’s limited powers and thus, it lacked the capacity to pursue the derivative action.

InReJenzabar

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