Topic: Employee Stock Plan

Chancery Court Declines to Dismiss Breach of Contract, Implied Covenant and Declaratory Judgment Claims Stemming from Termination Purportedly for Cause

By: Scott E. Waxman, Michael C. Payant, and Julia M. Knitter

In William Patrick Sheehan, et al. v. AssuredPartners, Inc., et al., C.A. No. 2019-0333-AML (Del. Ch. May 29, 2020), the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss brought by insurance brokerage firm, AssuredPartners, Inc. (“AP Inc.”), and its private equity backers (collectively, the “Defendants”) finding that plaintiffs’ claims for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and declaratory judgment survived under the minimal pleading standard for a motion to dismiss.

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Delaware Court of Chancery Allows Derivative Claim To Proceed Regarding Allegedly “Grossly Excessive” Non-Employee Director Compensation

By Remsen Kinne and Frank J. Mazzucco

In Stein v. Blankfein et al., C.A. No. 2017-0354-SG (Del. Ch. May 31, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery, in considering a motion to dismiss, allowed a stockholder’s derivative claim to proceed against an entity’s non-employee directors alleging that such director compensation was grossly excessive and thus represented a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty.

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Chancery Court Applies Contract Terms to Clarify Difference Between Void and Voidable Stock Issuances

By Jessica Pearlman and Jonathan Miner

Southpaw Credit Opportunity Master Fund, L.P. v. Roma Restaurant Holdings, Inc., C.A. No. 2017-0059-TMR (Del. Ch. Feb. 1, 2018) came before the Delaware Court of Chancery as a dispute over control of the board of directors of Roma Restaurant Holdings, Inc. (“Roma” or the “Company”). Plaintiffs were a stockholder group that had taken a majority position in Roma’s common stock. After learning of Plaintiffs’ majority position, the Roma board adopted a new equity compensation plan and issued sufficient shares of restricted stock to Roma employees to dilute Plaintiffs below a majority ownership position. Plaintiffs considered the dilutive restricted stock issuances as invalid for a number of reasons, including the Company’s failure to obtain contractually mandated stockholder agreement joinder documents from each recipient before issuance, and presented Roma with a written consent that removed two of Roma’s current directors (the “Defendant Directors”) and replaced them with Plaintiffs’ nominees. Roma contested the validity of Plaintiffs’ written consent and the case came before the Court under Section 225 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL) to determine the proper composition of Roma’s board of directors. Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves found that the disputed restricted stock issuances were void and could not be counted toward a stockholder vote.

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By: Shoshannah Katz and Alexa Ekman

In In re Investors Bancorp, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, C.A. No. 12327-VCS (Del. Ch. Apr. 5, 2017), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted a motion to dismiss derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment, asserting that directors of Investors Bancorp, Inc. (“Company”) granted themselves equity compensation that was “excessive and unfair to the corporation”. Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slights ruled against the plaintiffs due to the fact that the stockholder approved equity compensation plan included director-specific limits on equity compensation that the grants were within, and that the stockholder vote to adopt the equity compensation plan was fully informed and the stockholder approval constituted “ratification of the awards”

The Company’s Board of Directors (“Board of Directors”) adopted the Company’s 2015 Equity Incentive Plan on March 24, 2015 (the “EIP”), to provide additional incentives for the Company’s officers, employees and directors to promote the Company’s growth and performance and further align their interests with those of the Company’s stockholders. The EIP authorized 30,881,296 shares of the Company’s common stock for issuance under the EIP for restricted stock awards and stock options for the Company’s officers, employees, and non-employee directors. The EIP also set separate limits on the number of shares (i) the Company could issue as stock options or as restricted stock awards, restricted stock units or performance shares, (ii) that could be awarded to any one employee pursuant to a restricted stock or restricted unit grant or the exercise of stock options, and (iii) that could be issued or delivered to all non-employee directors, in the aggregate, pursuant to the exercise of stock options or grants of restricted stock or restricted stock units at no more than 30% of all shares available for awards to be granted in any calendar year). A proxy statement was filed on April 30, 2015 soliciting stockholder votes to adopt the EIP. The proxy statement disclosed “[t]he number, types and terms of awards to be made pursuant to the EIP are subject to the discretion of the Compensation Committee and will not be determined until subsequent stockholder approval.” The EIP was put to a stockholder vote on June 9, 2015, and received approval from 96.25% of the shares voted at the meeting (representing 79.1% of the total shares outstanding).

Shortly after the stockholders adopted the EIP, the Compensation Committee held several meetings in June of 2015 that resulted in the Compensation Committee’s approval of awards of restricted stock and stock options to all twelve members of the Board of Directors (which, at the time, included two employee directors). In addition to the Compensation Committee’s recommendation, the Board of Directors also received input from various experts as to awards other similar companies had distributed to its directors and officers over the past twenty years, including a presentation by outside counsel. The Board of Directors then awarded stock options and restricted stock for each of the twelve members of the Board of Directors, with an aggregate grant date fair value of approximately $51.5 million. The Company’s Chief Executive Officer was awarded a grant valued at more than $16 million, while the Company’s Chief Operations Officer was awarded a grant valued at more than $13 million.

The plaintiffs, stockholders of the Company at all relevant times, filed their suit shortly after the awards were announced on April 14, 2016, alleging that the directors had breached their fiduciary duties by awarding themselves grossly excessive compensation. The defendants filed a Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1, for failing to make a pre-suit demand with respect to the grants of equity compensation to the executive directors. The key issue was whether stockholder approval of the EIP would be deemed ratification of the awards made under the EIP. If so, then the awards to all directors would be subject to the business judgment standard of review and would be reviewed for waste.

Plaintiffs pled the only circumstance in which a stockholder vote could prospectively ratify a board’s decision to approve equity awards to directors is when the plan is “completely self-executing” in that it provides a fixed amount of compensation or specifically imposes meaningful limits on the directors’ ability to compensate themselves. The court denied this claim and explained that the key issue was “whether the stockholder approval of the plan will be deemed ratification of the awards under the plan.” The Court concluded that “approval of plans with ‘specific limits’…will be deemed as ratification of awards that are consistent with those limits,” and “this plan included director-specific limits that differed from the limits that applied to awards to other beneficiaries under the plan.”

Plaintiffs also alleged that the disclosures related to the vote were insufficient, yet the Court held that the plaintiffs either pointed to omissions that are not material as a matter of law or have selectively referred to portions of the proxy without providing full context. The plan (with director-specific limits) was approved by a fully informed stockholder vote and as the plaintiffs did plead a claim for waste, the Court held the plaintiffs failed to adequately plead a claim of breach of fiduciary duty against Defendants relating to subsequent awards issued under the plan. Plaintiff’s claim for unjust enrichment was dismissed by the Court for being “duplicative of the breach of fiduciary duty claim” and also deficient.

Chancery Court Confirms Delaware’s Merger Statutes Inapplicable to Options

By Lisa Stark and Eric Jay

In Kurt Fox v. CDX Holdings, Inc. (f/k/a Caris Life Sciences, Inc.), C.A. No. 8031-VCL (Del. Ch. July 28, 2015), the Delaware Court of Chancery confirmed that Delaware’s merger statutes do not effect a statutory conversion of options at the effective time of a merger. Rather, the treatment of stock options in a merger is governed by the underlying stock option plan, which must be amended in connection with a merger if the treatment of options in the merger differs from the treatment contemplated by the plan. The Court also confirmed that a standard qualification in stock option plans, requiring a corporation’s board of directors to determine the fair market value of the option for purposes of cashing out the options, could not be satisfied by informal board action or a delegation to management or a third party.

This class action arose from a 2011 spin-off/merger transaction pursuant to which Miraca Holdings, Inc. (“Miraca”) acquired CDX Holdings, Inc. (formerly known as Caris Life Sciences, Inc.) (“Caris”) for $725 million (the “Merger”). Immediately prior to the Merger, Caris spun off two of its three subsidiaries to its stockholders (the “Spin-Off”). In the Merger, each share of Caris stock was converted into the right to receive $4.46 in cash. Each option was terminated with the right to receive the difference between $5.07 per share and the exercise price of the option, minus 8% of the total option proceeds, which were held back to fund an escrow account from which Miraca could satisfy indemnification claims brought post-closing.

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Chancery Court Holds that Compensation Paid to Non-Employee Directors Pursuant to Shareholder-Approved Plan Must Be Reviewed Under Entire Fairness Standard

By David Bernstein and Priya Chadha

In Calma v. Templeton, C.A. No. 9579-CB (Del. Ch. April 30, 2015) (Bouchard, C.), the Delaware Chancery Court held that Citrix System, Inc’s (“Citrix”) payment of compensation to non-employee directors under a shareholder-approved compensation plan must be reviewed under the entire fairness standard because the shareholders’ omnibus approval of a plan covering several different types of beneficiaries did not constitute ratification of the amount of compensation to be paid to non-employee directors.

In 2005, Citrix shareholders approved an equity compensation plan (the “Plan”) for beneficiaries such as directors, officers, employees, consultants, and advisors.  The plan did not specify the amount of compensation that non-employee directors could receive, instead only providing a limit of 1 million restricted stock units (“RSUs”) for any beneficiary’s annual compensation.  Based on the company’s share price at the time the suit was filed, 1 million RSUs would be worth over $55 million.

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