Delaware Docket

Timely, brief summaries of cases handed down by the Delaware Court of Chancery and the Delaware Supreme Court.

 

Surgery Partners, Inc. Fails to Excise Conflicts Infecting Three Interdependent Transactions

by David L. Forney and Tom Sperber

In Klein v. H.I.G. Capital, L.L.C., et. al, C.A. No. 2017-0862-AGB, the Delaware Chancery Court issued a Memorandum Opinion granting in part and denying in part a motion to dismiss under Court of Chancery Rule 23.1 for failing to make a demand and under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(6) for failing to state a claim of relief. Melvyn Klein (“Plaintiff”), a stockholder of Surgery Partners, Inc. (“SP”), brought direct and derivative claims against one of SP’s directors Michael Doyle (“Doyle”), SP’s controlling stockholder H.I.G. Capital, L.L.C. (“HIG”), and Bain Capital Private Equity, LP (“Bain”) (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging breaches of fiduciary duty against Defendants stemming from three interdependent transactions that were allegedly conflicted and unfair. The Court found that demand was futile because the Plaintiff sufficiently alleged that the board was interested, and found that Plaintiff stated claims for breach of fiduciary and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty by HIG and Bain, respectively, because Defendants failed to show that the conflicted transactions were entirely fair.

The board of directors of SP (the “Board”) approved, and SP entered into, three transactions on May 9, 2017 (the “Transactions”). The Transactions consist of: (1) SP acquiring National Surgical Healthcare for $760 million; (2) HIG selling its shares of SP to Bain at a price of $19 per share; and (3) SP issuing to Bain 310,000 shares of a new class of stock of SP at a price of $1,000 per share. These transactions were interrelated and dependent on each other; if one fell through, the others would fail as well. The Board approved the Transactions without a special committee and with no publicly disclosed abstentions. No public stockholders voted on the transactions as HIG approved each by written consent as majority stockholder. Bain and SP used the same law firm and accounting firm to represent them during negotiations. Once the Transactions were finalized, Bain was SP’s controlling stockholder.

Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging eight claims. Of those claims, four were pled directly and four were pled derivatively. Each direct claim had a corresponding derivative claim. Counts I and V asserted claims for breach of fiduciary duty against the Board of LP (all of whom were dropped from the complaint except for Doyle) for entering into the Transactions without ensuring that the share issuance to Bain was entirely fair. Counts II and VI were claims for breach of fiduciary duty against Bain and HIG for entering into a conflicted transaction in the share issuance to Bain. Counts III and VII alleged claims of breach of fiduciary duty against HIG, in the alternative, as the sole controlling stockholder for entering into the conflicted transaction. Lastly, Counts IV and VIII asserted that Bain aided and abetted breaches of fiduciary duty by HIG and Doyle.

In deciding Defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Court first turned to whether Counts I-IV were properly brought as direct claims. The Court observed that the claims brought by Plaintiff constitute “a classic form of an ‘overpayment’ claim,” which must normally be pled derivatively. Plaintiff, however, argued that his claim resembles the claim brought in Gentile v. Rosette, where the Delaware Supreme Court recognized a situation where a corporate overpayment claim implicated both direct and derivative injury. The Court, in rejecting Plaintiff’s argument, cited several subsequent Delaware cases that limited the holding in Gentile to its facts and applied it only where the challenged transaction resulted in an improper transfer of both economic value and voting power from the minority stockholders to the controlling stockholder. The Court also observed that not only was Bain not yet the controlling stockholder before the share issuance, but that even if it was, its increase in voting power would not have been so great as to have triggered the Gentile rule. Furthermore, the Court pointed to the structure of the share issuance for the proposition that common stockholders’ shares will only be diluted if and when Bain converts its preferred shares into common stock. Ultimately, the Court found that Plaintiff’s claims could not be brought directly, and therefore dismissed Counts I-IV.

The Court next turned to the question of whether Plaintiff was excused from making demand on the Board on the basis of demand futility. In assessing Plaintiff’s futility allegation, the Court applied the test articulated in Aronson v. Lewis, under which a Plaintiff must “provide particularized factual allegations that raise a reasonable doubt that (1) the directors are disinterested and independent [or] (2) the challenged transaction was otherwise the product of a valid exercise of business judgment.” Of the Board’s seven members, Plaintiff conceded that two were disinterested, while Defendants conceded that three were interested. The Court, therefore, was tasked with determining whether either of the two remaining directors, Doyle and Brent Turner, were conflicted. The Court found that the complaint raised a reasonable doubt as to whether Doyle could make decisions regarding the Transactions independently by alleging that SP engaged him in a consulting agreement that paid him more per month than he made as SP’s CEO. On that basis, the Court found that Plaintiff had properly alleged that making demand on the board was futile.

Once the Court determined that demand was excused, it addressed the merits of Plaintiff’s remaining claims (V-VIII). First, the Court turned to Count VI, which argued in the alternative that Bain and HIG had breached fiduciary duties by acting as a “control group.” The Court dispatched Plaintiff’s argument quickly by pointing out that there was never any allegation that Bain owned any stock, let alone a controlling percentage of stock, prior to the Transactions. Ultimately, the Court dismissed Count VI for failing to state a claim.

The Court then examined Count VII, in which Plaintiff alleged that HIG breached its fiduciary duty by issuing the new shares to Bain. The Court determined that entire fairness was the proper standard of review, observing that that standard is triggered when a controlling stockholder effectuates a conflicted transaction. The Court determined that HIG was conflicted in entering into the issuance of new shares to Bain because that transaction was a condition precedent to HIG’s sale of its own shares to Bain. Entire fairness is an onerous standard for a defendant to overcome, requiring the controlling stockholder to “show, conclusively, that the challenged transaction was entirely fair based solely on the allegations of the complaint and the documents integral to it.” Because Defendants failed to show entire fairness, the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss Count VII.

Count VIII alleged that Bain aided and abetted HIG’s breach of fiduciary duty. The Court found that Plaintiff’s allegations that Bain was aware of its shared legal representation with HIG, as well as the interrelated nature of the three transactions, and the lack of a stockholder vote, inferred Bain’s “knowing participation” in HIG’s breach. The Court, therefore, denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss as to Count VIII.

Lastly, due to the inclusion of an exculpatory provision in SP’s certificate of incorporation, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s Count V for failing to allege that Doyle acted in bad faith or had personal interest in the transactions.

FOR CAUSE REMOVAL MUST BE FOR CAUSE

By Scott E. Waxman and Annamarie C. Larson

In A&J Capital, Inc. v. Law Office of Krug, Civil Action No. 2018-0240-JRS (Del. Ch. January 29, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted an LLC manager a final declaratory judgment that the manager had been improperly removed, and the Court ordered immediate reinstatement of the manager.  In short, if a Delaware LLC’s operating documents only allow “for cause” removal of the manager, then the manager cannot be removed “on a whimsy” by the members who then manufacture cause after-the-fact to justify the removal.

Plaintiff A&J Capital, Inc. (“A&J”) was selected as the manager of LA Metropolis Condo I, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company (the “Company”). The Company was organized to raise $100 million from 200 Chinese nationals so they could become United States lawful permanent residents through the EB-5 program. The capital was invested in a construction loan for the development of real estate in downtown Los Angeles, and the loan was extended to Greenland LA Metropolis Development I, LLC (“Greenland”).

When the real estate project was substantially completed, funds from the sale of the condominium units were released to a pledge account in Greenland’s name for the benefit of the Company. Greenland approached A&J with an offer to repay the loan before its maturity date in order to free up capital to redeploy for other projects. Also, the amount in the pledge account could foreseeably exceed the principal of the loan, potentially violating the members’ EB-5 requirements. Greenland and A&J negotiated a prepayment plan and a $1 million prepayment fee for A&J, in exchange for A&J foregoing $1.6 million in management fees that it would otherwise receive at maturity of the loan.

A&J notified the members of the prepayment plan and the prepayment fee and requested the members’ approval. Any member’s abstention from voting was counted as a vote in favor of the plan. The members ultimately rejected the plan, as Greenland had a change of heart and became concerned that A&J would not commit the redeployed funds to Greenland on favorable terms.

Pursuant to the Management Agreement between A&J, the Company, and its members, the manager may be removed only by a majority vote of the members for gross negligence, intentional misconduct, fraud, or deceit. Other documents such as the Private Placement Memorandum support this standard.

James Krug, attorney for some of the members and defendant in this case, sent a removal ballot to the members, asking them to vote for (1) removal of A&J as manager and (2) election of Mr. Krug as the new manager. Importantly, the removal ballot did not state the basis for removal. Out of 200 members, 105 members voted to remove A&J; however, the authenticity of the ballots was questionable. A&J brought this suit to request that it be reinstated as manager.

Mr. Krug made two arguments that A&J violated the required standard of conduct. First, he argued that A&J’s request for a prepayment fee plus the structure of the first vote revealed fraudulent intent. The Court rejected this argument, because A&J unabashedly disclosed to the members the reasons for the prepayment plan and fee and made clear that it was up to the members to decide whether to approve the proposal. Ultimately, the members voted to reject the proposal.

Second, Mr. Krug argued that A&J made improper payments to its strategic partner, Henry Global. The Court quoted language from the Operating Agreement allowing the manager to enter into agreements it reasonably deems appropriate for any purpose beneficial to the Company. The Court found that Henry Global provided significant services to the Company, including organizing conferences with potential investors, translating loan documents, assisting investors with their immigration applications, traveling with investors outside of China to open escrow accounts, and assisting with currency transfers. The Court emphasized that Henry Global was not paid out of the members’ initial $100 million investments, rather out of the interest income, and that the members themselves were not able to receive a high amount of interest due to the structured purpose of the EB-5 investment program. Finally, the Court noted that A&J ordered an independent accounting firm to review the Company’s financial statements, including payments to Henry Global, and A&J later distributed such statements to the members.

The Court held that a “for cause” removal was not warranted and therefore reinstated A&J as manager of the company. One footnote explains, “a holding that would allow removal for any reason unearthed after the fact of removal would circumvent the for-cause contractual predicate for which A&J bargained. And it would deny the Members of the opportunity meaningfully to participate in the removal process because, by definition, their removal votes would not have been informed by the after-acquired evidence.”

CHANCERY COURT DENIES MOTION TO DISMISS CLAIM FOR BREACH OF MERGER AGREEMENT EARN-OUT EFFORTS PROVISION

By: Remsen Kinne and Greyson Blue

In Himawan, et al. v. Cephalon, Inc., et al., C.A. No. 2018-0075-SG (Del. Ch. Dec. 28, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery in a Memorandum Opinion denied a motion to dismiss a breach of contract claim brought against defendants Cephalon, Inc. (“Cephalon”), Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (“Teva”) and Teva’s affiliate Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. (“Teva USA”) by former shareholders of Ception, Inc. (“Ception”), a biotech company acquired by Cephalon in a merger transaction. The case concerns a dispute over the phrase “commercially reasonable efforts” as used in an earn-out provision in the merger agreement. The decision highlights pleadings requirements for supporting an initial claim for breach of an objective contractual standard.

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Chancery Court Denies Dismissal of Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims after Concluding that Stockholder Vote was Not Informed

By: David Forney and Rachel P. Worth

In In re Tangoe, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, C.A. No. 2017-0650-JRS (Del. Ch. Nov. 20, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied the director defendants’ motion to dismiss the stockholder plaintiffs’ claim for breach of fiduciary duties on the basis that the stockholder vote approving the transaction was not informed and the defendants were therefore not entitled to business judgment rule deference at the pleading stage. The Court also found that the plaintiffs had adequately pled a breach of the fiduciary duty of loyalty against each of the director defendants, which would not be covered by the exculpatory clause in the company’s certificate of incorporation.

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Patently False: The Delaware Chancery Court Dissolves Limited Liability Company Founded on False Claims of Patent Ownership

By: Scott Waxman and Tom Sperber

In Decco U.S. Post-Harvest, Inc., v. MirTech, Inc., the Delaware Chancery Court issued a Memorandum Opinion dissolving a limited liability company based on evidence presented at trial. Decco U.S. Post-Harvest, Inc. (“Decco” or “Plaintiff”), whose business primarily involved the post-harvest treatment and packaging of produce, and MirTech, Inc. (“MirTech” or “Defendant”) formed the joint venture entity Essentiv LLC (the “Company”) for the purpose of commercializing products based on 1-Methylcyclopropene (“1-MCP”), a gas used to delay the ripening of fruit and other produce. In forming the Company, Defendant assured Plaintiff that Defendant owned intellectual property in 1-MCP technology. The Court found that Plaintiff proved that Defendant did not, in fact, own such intellectual property and ruled that the Company must dissolve.

1-MCP was patented in 1996. After Nazir Mir (“Mir”), of MirTech, started experimenting with 1-MCP technologies, the Defendant entered into a consulting agreement with AgroFresh Inc. (“AgroFresh”). Under that agreement, the parties agreed to joint ownership of “any and all inventions conceived or reduced to practice jointly by the [p]arties.” Subsequent agreements between Defendant and AgroFresh granted AgroFresh sole ownership over joint inventions. During this business relationship, Mir developed a technology called “RipeLock,” as well as several patents the Court refers to as the “RipeLock Patents.”

In 2014, Plaintiff and Defendant began discussions relating to a potential joint venture for the development of technology related to 1-MCP and RipeLock Patents. A letter of intent that was issued based on these discussions listed “three overarching tasks for the joint venture: (i) secure the legal rights of the listed patents; (ii) coordinate research, regulatory approvals, and other pre-commercial activity; and (iii) commercialize the developed technology.” To commercialize such technology, Defendant asserted that it would license the use of its patents to the joint venture. The Company was formed in April of 2016. The Company was a manager-managed LLC, with Plaintiff and Defendant as the only members/managers. The Company’s LLC agreement required consent of both Plaintiff and Defendant to take actions requiring manager approval. The agreement also identified the Company’s purpose as being to research, develop, manufacture, and market 1-MCP products. It did not, however, limit the Company to activities related to 1-MCP products. Per the agreement, Plaintiff had a right of first refusal over any non-1-MCP product business. Defendant was obligated to develop and license exclusively to the Company the RipeLock patents. Defendant, in the agreement, represented that it owned intellectual property rights in the relevant technology, that no other person had any “right, title or interest” in it, and that it owned the technology “free and clear of all claims, mortgages, leases, loans and encumbrances.”

The Company began selling a product utilizing 1-MCP technology called TruPick. AgroFresh quickly filed suit against Plaintiff, Defendant, and the Company alleging that TruPick amounted to an infringement of its intellectual property rights in the RipeLock Patents. The Court, ruling in favor of AgroFresh, found that the technology underlying TruPick belonged to AgroFresh. The Company stopped selling TruPick immediately. Ultimately, Mir and AgroFresh entered into a settlement agreement which called for an entry of a final judgment by consent. According to this judgment, Mir and MirTech agreed to disclose and assign to AgroFresh “all inventions, discoveries, or improvements” relating to 1-MCP. The Judgement included a finding that the RipeLock Patents belonged to AgroFresh. Shortly thereafter, Francois Girin (“Girin”), of Plaintiff, contacted defendant suggesting that the Company dissolve. Defendant refused, and Plaintiff brought this action.

Plaintiff sought an order to dissolve the Company and appoint Girin as the receiver to wind-up the Company. MirTech answered and asserted a counterclaim, but the Court granted a motion by Plaintiff to strike the counterclaim prior to trial.

In deciding this case, the Court relied on Section 18-802 of the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act (“DLLCA”). § 18-802 allows the Court to dissolve a limited liability company where it is not, or is no longer “reasonably practicable to carry on the business in conformity with a limited liability company agreement.” In considering the dissolution under § 18-802, the Court looked to the Company’s LLC agreement. The Court broke the purpose of the Company’s business, as laid out in the LLC agreement, into two categories: (1) the 1-MCP business; and (2) the Non-1-MCP business. Ultimately, the court found that the Company could not carry on business in either category.

The Court found that the LLC agreement defined 1-MCP business as business relating to 1-MCP products. The only product the Company ever developed, manufactured, or sold was TruPick. The Plaintiff pointed out that, pursuant to the judgement in the MirTech-AgroFresh litigation, the Company could no longer market TruPick. Defendant argued that the Company could still rely on Defendant’s “know-how” and “trade secrets” to conduct 1-MCP business. The Court rejected this argument, citing the previous judgment as having assigned all MirTech “know-how” relating to 1-MCP to AgroFresh. Mir admitted at trial that his proposed 1-MCP business required measuring 1-MCP, and that he could not think of a way to measure 1-MCP without relying on “know-how” that had been assigned to AgroFresh. As such, the Court found that there was no practicable way in which the Company could continue any 1-MCP business.

While the LLC agreement did contemplate the Company’s engaging in potential non-1-MCP business, the Court pointed out that any venture in that capacity was subject to a right of first refusal by Plaintiff. Seeing as how Girin testified that he no longer trusted Mir, the Court found that no new non-1-MCP venture would survive Plaintiff’s right of first refusal. Defendant argued that a non-1-MCP business already existed, and therefore survived Plaintiff’s right of first refusal, relating to “in-transit ripening” and “nano-absorbent films,” neither of which was purportedly 1-MCP technologies. The only support that Defendant provided for these assertions was testimony from Mir about conversations with low-level employees of Plaintiff regarding these technologies. Mir also conceded that nothing was ever signed or even definitively agreed to with respect to any non-1-MCP business or technology. Despite Defendant’s assertions otherwise, the Court found that there was no practicable way in which the Company could continue on by engaging in any non-1-MCP business. Consequently, Court dissolved the Company and appointed Girin as the receiver.

No Rummaging Required: Chancery Court Rules Form 10-K Adequate to Discharge Duty of Disclosure When Provided Conspicuously and Concurrently with Stockholder Proxy

By: Joanna A. Diakos and Will Smith

In a memorandum opinion, Samuel Zalmanoff v. John A. Hardy et. al, Civil Action No. 12912-VCS (Del. Ch. November 13, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant board of directors of Equus Total Return, Inc. (“Equus”), ruling that the board of directors (the “Board” or “Defendants”) adequately fulfilled their disclosure obligations because the facts allegedly omitted from the operative proxy statement (the “Proxy”) were indisputably contained in the Form 10-K (the “10-K”), which the Board provided to stockholders in the same mailing as the Proxy.

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Delaware Chancery Court Rejects Fraud-Based and Uncapped Indemnification Claims of Great Hill Partners Against the Founders of Plimus

By:  Peter N. Flocos and Joanna Diakos

In a case arising out of the purchase by Great Hill Partners of Plimus (now known as BlueSnap, Inc.), the Delaware Court of Chancery, after a 10-day trial and extensive post-trial briefing and oral argument, recently rejected all of the fraud-based claims made by Great Hill against the two founders of Plimus, Messrs. Daniel Kleinberg and Tomer Herzog (the “founders”), who were also directors and major shareholders of Plimus at the time of the transaction. The Court’s decision in Great Hill Equity Partners IV, LP v. SIG Growth Equity Fund I, LLLP, No. 7906-VCG, 2018 WL 6311829 (Del. Ch. Dec. 3, 2018), is notable for its rejection of several claims Great Hill pressed for years after initiating the litigation in September 2012.

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MANDATORY INDEMNIFICATION PROVIDED UNDER BYLAWS TO AGENT DUE TO ACTIONS TAKEN ON COMPANY’S BEHALF

By: Annette BeckerRich Minice

In Fred L. Pasternack v. Northeastern Aviation Corp., C.A. No. 12082-VCMR (Del. Ch. Nov. 9, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery awarded mandatory indemnification for legal expenses and fees-on-fees to Fred Pasternack (“Pasternack”), a former pilot for Northeastern Aviation Corp. (“Northeastern”) under Northeastern’s Bylaws (the “Bylaws”) because he was determined to be an agent of Northeastern when attending a random drug test to maintain his pilot certification.

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POSSIBILITY OF WRONGDOING CONSTITUTES PROPER PURPOSE IN SECTION 220 PROCEEDING

By: James Bruce and Hillary Dawe

In Barnes v. Sprouts Farmers Market, Inc., Jennifer Barnes, a stockholder of Sprouts Farmers Market, Inc. (“Stockholder”), sought to inspect the books and records of Sprouts Farmers Market, Inc. (the “Company”) in order to investigate potential breaches of duty, corporate mismanagement, wrongdoing, and unjust enrichment by the Company’s fiduciaries. Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law permits stockholders of a Delaware corporation to inspect a company’s books and records for any proper purpose. Such purpose need only be reasonably related to the person’s interest as a stockholder, and the stockholder need only show “some evidence to suggest a credible basis from which a court can infer” the related conduct.

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CONTRACT LANGUAGE MUST BE UNAMBIGUOUS FOR CHANCERY COURT TO GRANT DISMISSAL AS MATTER OF LAW

By: Scott E. Waxman and Douglas A. Logan

In Fortis Advisors LLC v. Stora Enso AB letter opinion 180810, Stora Enso AB (the “Defendant”) filed a motion to dismiss the claims by Fortis Advisors LLC (the “Plaintiff”), alleging the merger agreement (the “Merger Agreement”) entered into by each of the parties unambiguously did not obligate the Defendant to make further payments to the Plaintiff. The Chancery Court disagreed, finding the language of the Merger Agreement ambiguous, therefore denying the Defendant’s motion.

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Chancery Court Holds that Party Seeking Indemnification under Contract Procedure Loses Ability to Claim Excused Performance due to Material Breach

By Christopher J. Voss and Michael C. Payant

In Post Holdings, Inc., et al. v. NPE Seller Rep LLC, et al., Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard granted defendant NPE Seller Rep LLC’s (“Seller Representative”) motion for judgment on the pleadings on its counterclaim seeking payment of tax refunds and insurance proceeds allegedly owing under a stock purchase agreement (the “Agreement”). In rendering its decision, the Court concluded that once a party has made a contractual indemnification demand based on a counterparty’s alleged material breach, such party cannot rely on the same breach to excuse non-performance of its own obligations under the contract. The Court also found that unliquidated indemnification claims could not be the basis for an offset of amounts owed in the absence of contract language to the contrary.

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Stockholder’s Suit for Directors’ Fiduciary Breach Related to Acquisitions and Stock Repurchases Dismissed With Prejudice for Failure to Plead Demand Futility and to State Viable Claims, Directors Found to be Disinterested Regardless of 10-Q Filing Stating Action Without Merit

By: Remsen Kinne and Adrienne Wimberly

In Tilden v. Cunningham et. al., C.A. No. 2017-0837-JRS (Del. Ch. Oct. 26, 2018), the Delaware Court of Chancery granted the motion of directors of Delaware corporation Blucora, Inc. (“Blucora”) named as Defendants to dismiss a derivative action and dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice, holding that the Plaintiff, a Blucora stockholder, failed to plead demand futility and failed to state viable claims under Rule 12(b)(6). This derivative action stems from three transactions Blucora entered into between 2013 and 2015: 1) an acquisition of Monoprice, Inc. (“Monoprice”), 2) the acquisition of HD Vest (“HD Vest”), and 3) several stock repurchases.

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