Topic: Independence

Court of Chancery Holds That Corwin Defense Is Not Appropriate for the Limited Scope and Purpose of a Books and Records Action Under Section 220

By: David Forney and Tami Mack

In Lavin v. West Corporation, C.A. No. 2017-0547-JRS (Del. Ch. December 29, 2017), the Court of Chancery held that stockholder plaintiff Mark Lavin (“Lavin”) had adequately demonstrated a credible basis from which the Court could infer that wrongdoing had occurred regarding the merger of West Corporation (the “Company”) and Apollo Global Management (“Apollo”) in support of Lavin’s Section 220 demand for inspection, and that a Corwin defense (that the transaction at issue was approved by a majority of disinterested and informed stockholders) is not a bar to an otherwise properly supported Section 220 demand for inspection.

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CHANCERY COURT DENIES MOTION TO DISMISS AND ALLOWS DERIVATIVE SUIT AGAINST BOARD MEMBERS TO CONTINUE

By: Whitney J. Smith and Michael Bill

In H&N Management Group, Inc. & Aff Cos Frozen Money Purchase Plan v. Robert M. Couch et al., No. 12847-VCMR (Del. Ch. Ct. August 1, 2017), the Court of Chancery denied defendants’ motion to dismiss and held that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged a reason to doubt that the board of AGNC Investment Corp (the “Company”) was adequately informed when approving (i) subsequent renewals of a management agreement between the Company and American Capital Mortgage Management, LLC (the “Manager”) as well as (ii) the acquisition of the Manager for a price of $562 million.

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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.

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

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