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 In re United Capital Corp., Stockholders Litigation, C.A. No. 11619-VCMR (Del. Ch. Jan. 4, 2017), the Delaware Court of Chancery dismissed a suit brought by plaintiff minority stockholders (“Plaintiff”) that sought a quasi-appraisal to remedy alleged breaches of the duty of disclosure in connection with the acquisition of United Capital Corp. (“United Capital” or “Company”) via short-form merger. The Court concluded that Plaintiff had not adequately alleged that any omitted information was material to the decision to seek appraisal and that the duty of disclosure was not violated.
In In Re Appraisal of Dell, C.A. No. 9322-VCL, (Del. Ch. May 31, 2016), stockholders of Dell Inc. (“Dell”) sought appraisal of their shares in connection with Dell’s 2013 “go-private” merger. Vice Chancellor Laster of the Delaware Court of Chancery held that the fair value of the Dell’s common stock at the effective time of the merger was $17.62, approximately a 28% premium over the final merger consideration of $13.75 per share. In making its determination, the court rejected Dell’s contention that the negotiated merger consideration was the best evidence of Dell’s fair value and held that the Dell was sold for too little and that the concept of fair value under Delaware law is not equivalent to the economic concept of fair market value.
In this memorandum opinion, the Delaware Court of Chancery found Sandra Manno (“Manno”), the manager of CanCan Development, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company (the “Company”), liable for breaching her fiduciary duty of loyalty to the Company by engaging in numerous self-interested transactions.
A manager of a Delaware limited liability company owes traditional fiduciary duties of care and loyalty unless the organizational documents of the limited liability company modify such duties. The Court, citing Feeley v. NHAOCG, LLC, 62 A.3d 649 (Del. Ch. 2012), implied that the organizational documents of the Company did not modify the traditional fiduciary duties.
TCV v. TradingScreen, Inc. concerns the interplay between a charter provision providing for the mandatory redemption of preferred stock, Section 160 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”), and Delaware common law. The Chancery Court held that despite an adequate surplus under Section 160, common law restrictions prohibited a corporation from redeeming preferred stock as required by its charter.
In TCV, TradingScreen’s charter required that if after a specified date holders of a majority of TradingScreen’s Series D preferred stock asked for assistance in selling their preferred stock, TradingScreen would give that assistance. If no third-party buyer were found, TradingScreen would repurchase its preferred stock at its fair value as agreed upon or determined by an expert. In June 2012, the holders of a majority of the preferred stock requested assistance in selling their shares. When no suitable third-party buyer was found, an expert selected by Trading Screen and the majority owners of the preferred stock made a valuation and determined the sale price. After receiving the valuation, TradingScreen refused to repurchase more than a small portion of the preferred stock, stating that its board had determined, based on a study it had had prepared by an outside expert, that doing so would impair TradingScreen’s ability to continue as a going concern. The preferred stockholders brought suit, alleging, among other claims, that TradingScreen breached the Charter by failing to honor the charter’s redemption provision and, as a result, triggered interest payments at 13% on the unpaid amounts.
The preferred stockholders argued that because TradingScreen had a surplus that far exceeded the amount it would need to redeem the preferred stock without violating Section 160, its charter required it to repurchase the preferred stock. TradingScreen argued that under Delaware common law, funds would not be “legally available” for repurchase of preferred stock if doing so threatened the corporation’s ability to continue operating as a going concern. The Chancery Court agreed with TradingScreen. It held that even though redemption of the preferred stock would not violate Section 160, “outside the DGCL, a wide range of statutes and legal doctrines restrict a corporation’s ability to use funds.” It held that the common law restricted TradingScreen’s ability to redeem its shares when doing so would damage its ability to continue as a going concern, and that to challenge the Board’s judgment regarding the effect of redemption on TradingScreen’s ability to continue as a going concern, the preferred stockholders would have to show that the Board’s decision was made in bad faith or was so far off the mark as to constitute actual or constructive fraud. The Court rejected the argument that the charter provisions regarding the preferred stock were a contract between the corporation and the holders of the preferred stock, saying the preferred stockholders “fail to appreciate the hybrid nature of preferred stock” and that the preferred stockholders “are holders of equity, not debt.” It is likely many holders of preferred stock will be surprised to learn that their rights with regard to their preferred stock are subject to the issuers’ needs as going concerns.
In re Nine Systems Corp. S’Holders Litig. involves the 2002 recapitalization of a two-year-old start-up company, Streaming Media Corporation, later known as Nine Systems Corporation (the “Corporation”). The Corporation was going to have to liquidate unless it could carry out two acquisitions, and the purpose of the 2002 recapitalization was to fund these acquisitions. The recapitalization was approved by four of the directors of the Board of the Corporation, one the CEO of the Corporation and the other three employees of three private equity funds, two of which provided the financing needed for the acquisitions through the recapitalization, and the third of which was given a 90-day option to participate in the recapitalization but did not do so. The fifth director, whose firm had brought in minority stockholders, was not kept informed regarding the recapitalization, which was highly dilutive to the minority stockholders, and never fully approved it. The terms of the recapitalization were proposed by the director whose firm was the largest participant in the recapitalization based on his estimate that the Corporation was worth $4 million, without any independent valuation of the Corporation. After the acquisitions, the Corporation became successful, and it was sold four years later for $175 million.
In In re: El Paso Pipeline Partners L.P. Derivative Litigation, the Delaware Court of Chancery granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on claims for breach of contract and breach of the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing in connection with a conflicted transaction.
In March 2010, El Paso Pipeline Partners, L.P., a Delaware limited partnership that operates as a publicly traded master limited partnership (the “MLP”), purchased a 51% interest in two entities that owned certain liquid natural gas (“LNG”) assets (the “Drop-down”) from its parent corporation that “sponsored” the MLP, El Paso Corporation (the “Parent”). Parent also indirectly owned the general partner of the MLP, El Paso Pipeline GP, L.L.C. (the “General Partner”), giving it control over and an economic interest in the MLP. As a result, the proposed Drop-down created a conflict of interest for the General Partner.
Plaintiff Hamilton Partners, L.P. challenged in the Delaware Chancery Court the fairness of a merger between a Nevada corporation, American HomePatient, Inc. (“New AHP”), a successor to a Delaware corporation of the same name (“AHP”), and Highland Capital Management, L.P. (“Highland”), which before the challenged transactions owned 48% of AHP’s stock and held most of its debt. The initial question was whether the validity of the actions was governed by Nevada law or by Delaware law. The Court said that most of the transactions took place under an agreement that was signed while the corporation was a Delaware corporation and that those transactions would be governed by Delaware law. However, transactions that were not approved by the Board until after the reincorporation in Nevada would be governed by Nevada law.
The Court then addressed whether the fairness of the merger should be determined under the business judgment rule or under the entire fairness test, which would apply if Highland was a controlling stockholder. The Court said that although there were prior Delaware decisions that made it possible that Highland’s 48% ownership interest alone might not have caused it to be viewed as a controlling person when determining whether the Board’s approval of the merger should be evaluated based on the business judgment rule or on the entire fairness test, the combination of Highland’s 48% stock interest and the fact that it had used its creditor position to force the corporation to engage in the series of transactions that was being challenged made it clear that Highland was a controlling person and that the entire fairness test should apply. Therefore, noting that it is almost never possible to dismiss a complaint in an instance in which the entire fairness test applies, the Court refused to dismiss the claim against Highland.
The Plaintiff also sued Joseph Furlong, the CEO and a director of AHP, claiming that he had a personal interest in the merger (he would receive a $6.5 million payment if it took place) and therefore his actions as a director should be evaluated under the entire fairness test. The Court said that because the Board consisted of three directors, and the other two directors, whose independence was not challenged and who were not claimed to have been dominated by Furlong, approved the merger, and their approval was governed by the business judgment rule, it made no difference whether Furlong’s approval was governed by the business judgment rule or was subject to the entire fairness test. The Court also pointed out that because the merger was approved by the Board after the corporation had reincorporated in Nevada, Furlong’s liability would be governed by a Nevada statute that exculpates a director from personal liability unless the director’s act or failure to act constituted a breach of fiduciary duties and the “breach of those duties involved intentional misconduct, fraud or a knowing violation of the law”. The Court found that the Plaintiff had not claimed that Furlong had been guilty of intentional misconduct, fraud or a knowing violation of law, and therefore Furlong was entitled to the protection of the Nevada exculpation statute. Accordingly, it dismissed the claims against Furlong.
In Chen v. Howard-Anderson, Vice Chancellor Laster considered a motion for summary judgment brought by certain officers and the Board of Directors of Occam Networks, Inc., (“Occam”), a public Delaware corporation seeking a determination by the Court that they did not breach their fiduciary duties. The plaintiffs (former stockholders of Occam) claim that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties “by (i) making decisions during Occam’s sale process that fell outside the range of reasonableness (the “Sale Process Claim”) and (ii) issuing a proxy statement for Occam’s stockholder vote on the Merger that contained materially misleading disclosures and material omissions” (the “Disclosure Claim”).
In 2009, Calix, Inc. and Occam (competitors in the broadband market) began discussing a potential business combination. In response, the Board of Occam determined that formal discussions with Calix were not appropriate at that time and retained Jeffries & Company for advice on strategic alternatives. By June 2010, Occam proposed to acquire Keymile International GmbH (“Keymile”) for $80 million, and Calix submitted a term sheet proposing to purchase Occam for $156 million (in a mix of cash and stock). Another suitor, Adtran, presented a third option by offering a slightly higher cash offer price to acquire Occam as compared with the Calix offer. Occam had a cool reaction to Adtran. Occam prepared April and June financial projections for 2010, 2011, and 2012 which were more positive than the estimates of the two public analysts who followed Occam. The projections were not shared with Adtran, and were materially higher than Adtran’s internal projections for Occam, and later projections that Adtran would create. Occam did not provide Calix with the June financial projections. On June 23, 2010 Calix submitted a revised term sheet increasing its offer to purchase Occam to $171.1 million (to be paid in a mix of cash and stock). Adtran confirmed its interest in acquiring Occam and on June 24, 2010 proposed an all cash offer at a premium of approximately 11% over Calix’s bid. On June 24, 2010 the Board met to consider the various alternatives – the cash and stock merger with Calix, the cash sale to Adtran, or remaining independent and acquiring Keymile. It was not clear that the Board was aware that Adtran’s bid was 11% higher than Calix’s offer. The Board directed Jeffries to conduct a 24 hour “market check.”
In a much anticipated decision, on March 14, 2014 the Delaware Supreme Court sitting en banc unanimously affirmed then-Chancellor Strine’s decision in In re MFW Shareholders Litigation to dismiss a stockholder lawsuit related to the 2011 acquisition of M&F Worldwide Corp. (“MFW”) by its controlling stockholder, MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc. (“Holdings”). In upholding the dismissal, the Delaware Supreme Court confirmed that the business judgment standard of review, rather than an “entire fairness” standard of review, applies to controlling-party buyouts where the transaction is conditioned ab initio upon both: (1) the approval of an independent, adequately-empowered special committee that meets its duty of care and (2) the un-coerced, informed vote of a majority of the minority stockholders.
In May 2011, Holdings, which owned 43.4% of MFW’s common stock, began to explore the possibility of taking MFW private. In June 2011, Holdings delivered a written proposal to purchase the MFW shares not already owned by Holdings for $24 per share in cash, representing a premium to the prior day’s closing price of $16.96. Holdings’ proposal expressly stated that it would be subject to approval by a special committee of MFW’s board made up of independent directors, and included a non-waivable condition that a majority of the minority of stockholders approve the transaction.