In Ensing v. Ensing, C.A. No. 12591-VCS (March. 6, 2017), Vice Chancellor Slights entered declaratory judgments in favor of the plaintiff, concluding that the defendant’s actions were null and void as a matter of law. A husband and wife, Dr. Hans Ensing (“Hans”) and Sara Ensing (“Sara”) own and operate a winery and boutique hotel in Italy. The businesses operate indirectly through two Delaware limited liability companies. Prior to the events leading up to this litigation, Sara was a manager and member of one of the entities and, through that entity, was manager of the other. Hans was neither a member nor manager of either entity. When Hans purported to remove Sara and appoint himself as manager of one of the two entities and then engaged in a series of transactions to divest Sara of her interests in the winery and hotel, Sara initiated this action.
In Solak v. Sarowitz, C.A. No. 12299-CB (Del. Ch. Dec. 27, 2016), the Delaware Court of Chancery held that plaintiff stated a claim that a stock corporation’s fee-shifting bylaw was facially invalid under Section 109(b) of the General Corporation Law of the State of Delaware (the “DGCL”). The fee-shifting bylaw purported to apply to a stockholder who sought to litigate claims involving the corporation’s internal corporate governance in a forum other than Delaware in violation of the corporation’s forum-selection bylaw. No stockholder had violated the forum-selection bylaw at the time of the decision, and the plaintiff successfully overcame a ripeness defense. In rendering its decision, the Court of Chancery confirmed that fee-shifting bylaws relating to internal corporate claims are impermissible for stock corporations following the 2015 amendments to the DGCL (the “2015 DGCL Amendments”) which prohibit stock corporations from enacting fee-shifting bylaws or certificate of incorporation provisions, in each case, relating to “internal corporate claims.” Under Section 115 of the DGCL, “internal corporate claims” are claims, including derivative claims, (1) that are “based upon a violation of a duty by a current or former director or officer or stockholder in such capacity” or (2) as to which the DGCL “confers jurisdiction upon the Court of Chancery.”
In Narayanan v. Sutherland Global Holdings C.A. No. 11757-VCMR (Del. Ch. July 5, 2016), Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves of the Delaware Chancery Court held, in a post-trial opinion, that the bylaws of Sutherland Global Holdings, Inc. (“Sutherland”) and an indemnification agreement between Sutherland and Plaintiff Muthu Narayanan (“Plaintiff”) are disjunctive and must be read separately, allowing Plaintiff to prevail on his claim for advancement of legal fees and expenses.
In Joel Z. Hyatt and Albert A. Gore, Jr. v. Al Jazeera America Holdings II, LLC and Al Jazeera International (USA) Inc., the Delaware Court of Chancery reviewed a motion for summary judgment in connection with a dispute regarding the advancement of fees for the litigation of various post-merger indemnification claims. The Chancery Court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to advancement for certain claims, but not for others, depending on whether the underlying facts of each claim required the plaintiffs to defend their actions as former officers or directors.
On June 11, 2013, Dole Food Company, Inc. (“Dole”) announced that its board had received an unsolicited proposal from David Murdock, Dole’s CEO, Chairman, and controlling stockholder, to purchase all of the outstanding shares of Dole’s common stock for $12 per share. Approximately two months later, Dole and Murdock announced an agreement to take Dole private in a merger at $13.50 per share (the “Merger”). On October 31, 2013, Dole held a special meeting of the stockholders at which the stockholders approved the Merger, and the transaction closed on November 1, 2013.
Hudson Bay Master Fund Ltd. and Hudson Bay Merger Arbitrage Opportunities Master Fund Ltd. (together, “Hudson Bay”) and Ripe Holdings LLC (“Ripe”), as holders of Dole common stock, subsequently sought an appraisal for their shares. Ripe is a special-purpose investment vehicle managed by the affiliates of Fortress Investment Group (“Fortress”).
Seaport Village Operating Company, LLC (the “LLC”) sought to recover from Seaport Village Ltd. (“Limited”) attorneys’ fees and expenses that the LLC incurred in two related actions. The limited liability company agreement of the LLC (the “LLC Agreement”) provided that if any action was brought by a party against another party relating to or arising out of the LLC Agreement, the prevailing party shall be entitled to recover from the other party reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses. Limited’s only defense was that because the LLC did not sign the LLC Agreement, it was not a “party” to the LLC Agreement. The Court of Chancery rejected this argument citing Section 18-101(7) of the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act, which states that “[a] limited liability company is bound by its limited liability company agreement whether or not the limited liability company executes the limited liability company agreement.” The court held that since the LLC was bound to the LLC Agreement and that, as a matter of contract law principles, “only parties to a contract are bound by that contract,” the LLC was a party to the LLC Agreement and could enforce the fee-shifting provision.
In ATP Tour, Inc., the Delaware Supreme Court responded to certified questions from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware regarding the validity of a fee-shifting provision in a Delaware non-stock corporation’s bylaws. The bylaw at issue provides that any member that asserts a claim against the corporation or another member and does not “substantially achieve, in substance and amount, the full remedy sought” will be obligated to reimburse the corporation or the member for all fees, costs and expenses, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and other litigation expenses. The Supreme Court answered, in relevant part, that such a fee-shifting provision is authorized by the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”), and therefore is facially valid, but whether it would be enforceable depends on the circumstances under which it is adopted and under which it is invoked. The Delaware Supreme Court stated that bylaws that otherwise may be facially valid will not be enforced if adopted or used for an inequitable purpose.
Here, two members of ATP Tour, Inc. (“ATP”), a Delaware membership corporation operating a professional tennis tour, had unsuccessfully sued ATP for breach of fiduciary duty and antitrust violations. ATP then moved to recover its costs and attorneys’ fees pursuant to the bylaw provision described above. The Federal District Court, in which the suit had been brought, found the issue of enforceability of a fee-shifting bylaw to be novel and certified four questions regarding its validity and its enforceability to the Delaware Supreme Court. After stating that the bylaw provision was facially valid, the Delaware Supreme Court found that it could not answer the questions regarding enforceability because they depended on the circumstances under which the bylaw was adopted and was being invoked, which were not before the Supreme Court. The fourth question was whether the bylaw could be enforced against a party that became a member before the bylaw was adopted. The Delaware Supreme Court answered this in the affirmative because the member had agreed to be bound by rules that may be adopted or amended from time to time.
Although ATP was a non-stock membership corporation, the decision was based on provisions of the DGCL that apply to all corporations, and there is no reason to think the decision would have been different if ATP had been a stock corporation.