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.
By Eric Feldman and Michael Bill
On a motion for summary judgment in Marino v. Patriot Rail, the Delaware Court of Chancery confirmed, under Section 145 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL), that the advancement rights of officers and directors of a Delaware corporation, acting in their capacity as such, (i) continue after they leave office with respect to actions taken while in office, (ii) cannot be amended or eliminated retroactively unless the source of such rights provides otherwise, and (iii) do not apply to actions taken after an officer or director leaves office.
The case involves an underlying action that took place in a California court between Patriot Rail Company LLC (the “Company”) and Sierra Railroad Company (“Sierra”) which ended in favor of Sierra. Sierra moved to amend the judgment to add, among others, Gary Marino, the former Chairman, President and CEO of the Company, as a judgment debtor (the “Post-Judgment Motion”). The Company existed as a Delaware corporation until May 1, 2013, when it converted to a Delaware limited liability company. Prior to the time of such conversion, on June 18, 2012, the Company, which was partially owned indirectly by Marino, had been sold to a third party and Marino resigned from all of his positions with the Company. Marino asked the Company to advance the fees and expenses that he would incur to oppose Sierra’s Post-Judgment Motion, but the Company denied the request. Marino subsequently commenced this action seeking the advancements of attorneys’ fees and expenses; the Company answered, and the parties cross-moved for summary judgment. As the Company was a Delaware corporation during the time that Marino was an officer and director of it, and the conversion did not affect the obligations or liabilities of the Company arising prior to its conversion, the organizational documents of the Company during the time in which it was a Delaware corporation and the DGCL were relevant to the advancement issues.
The Company’s certificate of incorporation stated: “This Corporation shall indemnify and shall advance expenses on behalf of its officers and directors to the fullest extent permitted by law in existence either now or hereafter.” Marino and the Company disagreed as to whether this language continued to cover Marino after he ceased being an officer or director of the Company against claims arising during his service. Marino contended, and the Court agreed, that Marino remained covered for claims challenging the propriety of his actions taken while he was serving as an officer and director of the Company. The Court looked at Section 145 of the DGCL—Delaware’s indemnification and advancement statute—because the Company’s certificate of incorporation contemplated advancement “to the fullest extent permitted by law.” The Court paid particular attention to (i) Section 145(e), which authorizes advancements, (ii) Section 145(j), which addresses the extent to which a covered person’s indemnification and advancement rights continue after the person leaves their position, and (iii) Section 145(f), which restricts a corporation’s ability to alter the rights after a person has served in reliance upon them.
After looking at the statutory history of Section 145 and prior precedent, the Court determined that Section 145 allows a corporation to grant mandatory advancement rights to directors and officers that provide coverage conditioned solely on an undertaking (Section 145(e)). The granted rights continue to provide coverage for actions taken by individuals during their service, even after the individuals have ceased to serve, unless the governing provision clearly states otherwise (Section 145(j)). And, unless the governing provision provides otherwise, the granted rights cannot be altered or eliminated retroactively with respect to prior actions, after a director or officer has already exposed themselves to potential suit by acting on the corporation’s behalf (Section 145(f)). The Court noted that this structure is set up to “encourage capable men [and women] to serve as corporate directors” as they will be “secure in the knowledge that expenses incurred by them in upholding their honesty and integrity as directors will be borne by the corporation they serve.”
Thus, when Marino agreed to serve in a covered capacity, Marino became “entitled to receive mandatory indemnification and advancements to the fullest extent of Delaware law” as part of the consideration offered to him by the Company and was entitled to advancement for covered claims. The Court therefore found that Marino was entitled to receive advancement in the Sierra Post-Judgment Motion for actions taken by Marino during his service and in his capacity as a director or officer of the Company.
However, certain of the claims made by Sierra in the Post-Judgment Motion related to actions taken by Marino after he ceased serving as a director and officer of the Company and taken on behalf of himself or other entities which he directly or indirectly controlled. The Court found that Marino was not entitled to advancement with respect to any such claims.
In Konstantino v. AngioScore, Inc. v. Quattro Vascular PTE Ltd, et al., the Delaware Court of Chancery reviewed a motion to dismiss filed by three Singapore entity defendants seeking dismissal of a third party claim brought by AngioScore, Inc. (“AngioScore”) for lack of personal jurisdiction and by the Singapore entity defendants and a Delaware entity defendant for failure to state a claim for contribution and tortious interference with contract in connection with the manufacture and sale of a competing product. The Court of Chancery denied the third party defendants’ motion in part, holding that the Court had personal jurisdiction over the three Singapore entity defendants under the conspiracy theory of jurisdiction, and that AngioScore stated a claim for contribution from all of the third party defendants, and granted the motion in part, holding that AngioScore had not stated a claim for tortious interference with contract.
Chancellor Bouchard finds, as a matter of first impression in Delaware, that a non-reciprocal fee-shifting bylaw is inapplicable to a plaintiff stockholder because it was adopted after the plaintiff’s interest in the corporation was eliminated in a reverse stock split.
In Strougo v. Hollander, C.A. No. 9770-CB (March 16, 2015), Plaintiff – a former stockholder of First Aviation Services, Inc. (“First Aviation”) – challenged (on behalf of himself and a putative class) the fairness of a 10,000-to-1 reverse stock split that cashed out the ownership interests of Plaintiff and the putative class at the request of the Chief Executive Officer and controlling shareholder of First Aviation in order to take First Aviation private. Four days after consummation of the reverse stock split, the First Aviation Board adopted a non-reciprocal fee shifting bylaw that required any “current or prior stockholder or anyone on their behalf” who initiates or asserts a claim or counterclaim against First Aviation or any director, officer or employee and who does not obtain a judgment on the merits that substantially achieves the full remedy sought, to be jointly and severally liable for all fees, costs and expenses incurred in connection with the claim or counterclaim. There was no public announcement to the First Aviation stockholders that the board had adopted the bylaw and Plaintiff was notified of the bylaw after the lawsuit was filed.
This case involves a plaintiff who sought advancement for his legal fees and expenses in connection with insider trading charges. In opining on the defendant’s motion to dismiss or stay the action and the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the Court considered various issues, including the four-factor analysis of McWane and the difference between advancement and indemnification.
Nipro Diagnostics, Inc. (“Nipro”), the defendant, acquired Home Diagnostics, Inc. (“HDI”) on March 15, 2010. Soon after the merger, the SEC began an investigation of George H. Holley (“Holley”), the founder and chairman of HDI and the plaintiff in this case, for suspicious trading in HDI stock around the time of the merger announcement (the “SEC Investigation”). On May 20, 2010, Holley requested that HDI advance his expenses in the SEC Investigation, and executed an undertaking (required with any advancement) promising to repay HDI for any advanced expenses if it were ultimately determined that Holley was not entitled to indemnification. From June 2010 to November 2010, Nipro advanced Holley’s expenses relating to the SEC Investigation. On January 13, 2011, the SEC commenced an action against Holley for violating federal securities laws by disclosing information about the merger (the “SEC Action”). On February 4, 2011, Holley was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the State of New Jersey for insider trading (the “Criminal Action”). On August 19, 2011, the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office obtained a stay of the SEC Action. Holley eventually pled guilty to two counts of insider trading in the Criminal Action.
On August 22, 2014, Vice Chancellor Laster approved a fee award for counsel to certain plaintiff-stockholders related to a settlement of a class action claim alleging breaches of fiduciary duties related to a freeze-out merger. The settlement amounted to $10.725 million. In the same opinion, V.C. Laster denied a fee award due to lack of standing to counsel for other stockholders in the same freeze-out merger, who separately litigated an appraisal claim, and which was relied upon by the successful class action plaintiffs.
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.