In Sciabacucchi v. Liberty Broadband Corp., et al., C.A. No. 11418-VCG (Del. Ch. July 26, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied in part a motion to dismiss brought by defendants Liberty Broadband Corporation (“Liberty”), Liberty’s largest stockholder, and the board of directors of Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter,” and collectively “Defendants”), for failure to plead demand futility. The Court ruled that the Plaintiff, a stockholder of Charter, pleaded sufficient facts to support a reasonable inference that the influence of Liberty’s largest stockholder would prevent the Charter board of directors from exercising independent and disinterested business judgment when considering a demand to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the corporation.
In Basho Technologies, Inc. v. Georgetown Basho Investors, LLC, C.A. No. 11802-VCL (Del. Ch. July 6, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery reaffirmed the principle that a stockholder with actual control of a corporation violates its fiduciary duties by advancing its own interests to the detriment of the corporation. Applying the entire fairness standard in its decision following trial, the court held that Georgetown Basho Investors, LLC (“Georgetown”), the controlling stockholder of Basho Technologies, Inc. (“Basho”), owed and breached fiduciary duties to Basho as a stockholder with actual-but not majority-control. The court ultimately awarded plaintiffs Earl Gallaher (“Gallaher”) and various investment funds under his control (the “Plaintiff(s)”) damages in the aggregate amount of $20,268,878.
In In re Hansen Medical, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, C.A. No. 12316-VCMR (Del. Ch. June 18, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery found that plaintiffs had stated a reasonably conceivable claim that the acquisition of Hansen Medical, Inc. (“Hansen”) by Auris Surgical Robotics, Inc. (“Auris”) should be reviewed under the entire fairness standard of review because the transaction involved a controlling stockholder group which extracted benefits from the transaction not shared with the minority. The Court denied motions to dismiss filed by the alleged control group and Hansen’s directors and officers.
In Olenik v. Lodzinski, C.A. No. 2017-0414-JRS (Del. Ch. July 20, 2018), the Court of Chancery, in a motion to dismiss, found that Earthstone Energy, Inc.’s (“Earthstone”) decision to employ the framework laid out in Kahn v. M&F Worldwide, Corp., 88 A.3d 635 (Del. 2014) (“MFW”) in structuring a transaction secured the benefit of the business judgment rule for its fiduciaries, even at the pleadings stage. The Court found that where the Plaintiff failed to plead waste, or facts which the Court could reasonably conceive as waste, the Plaintiff’s claim that officers and the controlling stockholder breached their fiduciary duties by approving an unfair transaction as interested parties, must be dismissed.
In Carr v. New Enterprise Associates, Inc., C.A. No. 20170381-AGB (Del. Ch. Mar. 26, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery, in denying in part and granting in part a motion to dismiss, reaffirmed the principle that a controlling stockholder, when acting outside its capacity as a stockholder, cannot use the corporation to advance the controlling stockholder’s self-interest at the expense of minority stockholders. In the context of defendants’ motion to dismiss, the court found that it was reasonably conceivable that the controlling stockholder of American Cardiac Therapeutics, Inc. (“ACT”) and its conflicted board of directors had breached their duty of loyalty to ACT’s minority stockholders by approving a sale of a warrant to a third party that included an option to acquire ACT, allegedly at an unfairly low price, in order to incentivize the third party to also acquire and invest in the controlling stockholder’s other portfolio companies.
In Cumming v. Edens, et al., C.A. No. 13007-VCS (Del. Ch. Feb. 20, 2018), the Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss a derivative suit for breach of fiduciary duties brought by a stockholder of New Senior Investment Group, Inc. (“New Senior”) against New Senior’s board of directors (the “Board”) and related parties in connection with New Senior’s $640 million acquisition of Holiday Acquisition Holdings LLC (“Holiday”). The Court made clear that compliance with Section 144 does not necessarily provide a safe harbor against claims for breach of fiduciary duty and invoke business judgment review of an interested transaction. Because the complaint alleged with specificity “that the Board acted out of self-interest or with allegiance to interest other than the stockholders,” the court applied the entire fairness standard of review and concluded that the transaction was not fair to New Senior stockholders. Read More
In In re Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, Consolidated C.A. No. 11202-VC (Ch. Ct August 18, 2017) former stockholders of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. (“MSLO”) brought a consolidated class action suit against Martha Stewart (“Stewart”), the former controlling stockholder of MSLO, for breach of fiduciary duty and against Sequential Brands Group, Inc. (“Sequential”), the acquirer of MSLO by merger, for aiding and abetting that breach claiming that Stewart leveraged her position as a controller to obtain disparate consideration for herself as compared to the minority stockholders of MSLO in the acquisition of MSLO. Plaintiffs moved to dismiss, with the Court finding that the complaint failed to state a claim for breach of fiduciary duty against Stewart, and on that basis need not reach the question of whether the complaint adequately pleads the elements of aiding and abetting such a breach, and granted the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss the complaint.
In Williams v. Ji, C.A. No. 12729-VCMR (Del. Ch. June 28, 2017), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that the option and warrant grants and voting agreements in question were subject to entire fairness and that the Defendant directors had not carried their burden at that stage. The Defendants also moved to stay in favor of an earlier filed case in the Court, but the motion was denied as moot because the earlier filed case had settled.
Delaware Court Of Chancery Ruling Provides a Cautionary Tale for Investment Fund Directors Seeking to Monetize Their Investment
In The Frederick Hsu Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corp., et al., one of the founders of ODN Holding Corporation (the “Company”) filed suit against the controlling stockholder, the board and certain officers of the Company for cash redemptions of preferred stock allegedly made in violation of statutory and common law instead of using the Company’s cash to maximize the value of the Company for the long term benefit of all stockholders. The Delaware Court of Chancery granted defendants’ motions to dismiss claims of waste and unlawful redemption. However, the Court of Chancery denied defendants’ motions to dismiss claims of breach of fiduciary duty, aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment finding that the allegations of the Plaintiff supported a reasonable inference that the entire fairness standard would apply and that individual defendants may have acted in bad faith.
In In Re Riverstone National, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, C.A. No. 9796-VCG (July 28, 2016), the Delaware Court of Chancery held that a board’s approval of a merger agreement containing a release of claims against the directors and entered into while a potential derivative suit for usurpation of corporate opportunity was threatened against such directors warranted entire fairness review.
In Calesa Associates, L.P, et. al v. American Capital, Ltd., et. al, C.A. No. 10557-VCG (Del. Ch. February 29, 2016) (Glascock, V.C.), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied (with one minor exception) a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim in a direct suit brought by stockholders of Halt Medical, Inc. (“Halt”) alleging breaches of fiduciary duties by an alleged controlling stockholder, American Capital, Ltd., a publicly traded private equity firm, and several of its affiliates (collectively, “American Capital”), and certain of Halt’s directors. The fiduciary duty claims relate to a recapitalization transaction (denominated by the Plaintiffs as a “squeeze-out merger”) that the plaintiffs claimed disproportionately benefitted American Capital and certain of Halt’s directors allegedly controlled by American Capital at the expense of Halt’s other stockholders. The Plaintiffs argued that, through a complex series of premeditated transactions and control of Halt’s Board, American Capital chocked off Halt’s capital needs and then restructured Halt pursuant to a transaction resulting in a “squeeze out” of the minority stockholders.
The Court found that the plaintiff stockholders alleged facts sufficient to support a reasonable inference that American Capital was Halt’s controlling stockholder because of its control over the Halt Board, despite its 26% equity ownership stake. In reaching the decision, the Court reaffirmed that majority equity ownership is not the sole test, and that “control” exercised by a significant minority stockholder, even when the stockholder is exercising contractual blocking rights negotiated in prior equity transactions, is enough to characterize the non-majority stockholder as a controller for purposes of determining that the “entire fairness” standard, and not the business judgment rule, governs the board’s fiduciary duties and the controller’s actions.
In In Re EZCorp Inc. Consulting Agreement Derivative Litigation, C.A. No. 9962-VCL (Del. Ch. January 25, 2016) (Laster, V.C.) the Delaware Court of Chancery granted in part and denied in part a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, but at its heart the ruling addressed the proper standard of review in a case alleging self-dealing by a controlling stockholder for “tunneling” cash flow and receiving non-ratable benefits from related-party services agreements. After a detailed and extensive analysis, the court held that the entire fairness standard of review, and not the business judgment standard of review, applied to non-merger business transactions where controlling stockholders can exact non-ratable benefits from the company, regardless of the type of transaction or method of extraction.