By Rebecca Bjork, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Jennifer A. Riley
Duane Morris Takeaways: In a new legal development of significant import, employees of corporations incorporated in Delaware who serve in officer roles may be sued for breach of the duty of oversight in the particular area over which they have responsibility, including oversight over workplace harassment policies. In its ruling in In Re McDonald’s Corp. Stockholder Derivative Litigation, No. 2021-CV-324 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2023), the Delaware Court of Chancery determined that like directors, officers are subject to oversight claims. This decision expands upon the rule established in the case of In Re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation, 698 A.2d 959 (Del. Ch. 1996), which recognized the duty of oversight for directors. The decision will likely result in a flurry of litigation activity by the plaintiffs’ bar, as new cases will be filed alleging that officers in corporations who were responsible for overseeing human resource functions can be held liable for failing to properly oversee investigations of workplace misconduct such as sexual harassment.
On January 25, 2023, the Court of Chancery for the State of Delaware issued a ruling that will have a substantial impact on shareholder derivative lawsuits, especially as they implicate allegations of workplace harassment. For the first time, corporate officers may be held liable for breach of the fiduciary “duty of oversight.” This ruling is likely to result in a multitude of court filings as the contours of this new legal rule are tested in litigation filed by plaintiffs’ attorneys. This represents yet another reason for companies to boost their efforts at corporate compliance and to ensure that robust complaint reporting and investigation systems are in place to protect employees who claim they are victims of discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.
The Facts Underlying The Delaware Ruling
In In Re McDonald’s Corp. Stockholder Derivative Litigation, No. 2021-CV-324 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2023), the Court found that Defendant David Fairhurst, who served as Executive Vice President and Global Chief People Officer of McDonald’s Corporation from 2015-2019, was liable to stockholders of McDonald’s for his failure to fulfill his fiduciary duty to fulfill his oversight role over human resource practices and policies. As the Court explained, Fairhurst “breached his fiduciary duties by allowing a corporate culture to develop that condoned sexual harassment and misconduct” and “breached his duty of oversight by consciously ignoring red flags.” (Slip Op. at 1.) The Court therefore denied Fairhurst’s motion to dismiss, clarifying that under the logic of Caremark, Delaware law does recognize a duty of oversight for corporate officers.
To prevail in their claims against Fairhurst, the plaintiffs had a legal challenge to surmount, in that no court had found that officers as opposed to directors had a duty of oversight in light of misconduct within a corporation. Even more, Delaware law presumes that directors and officers act in good faith when making decisions. Id. at 3. But the plaintiffs did have sufficient and specific facts on their side, which the Court discussed in detail.
McDonald’s has its principal place of business in Chicago, Illinois, and has a global workforce that exceeds 200,000 individuals. Id. at 5-6. The Complaint alleged that the Chicago headquarters of the Company had a “party atmosphere” that was encouraged by former CEO Stephen J. Easterbrook and Fairhurst, who were close personal friends. Id. at 7. Weekly happy hours featured an open bar, and “Easterbrook and Fairhurst developed reputations for flirting with female employees, including their executive assistants.” Id. Importantly, the plaintiffs alleged that the process for reporting human resource complaints (a company function directly under Fairhurst’s control) failed to address complaints sufficiently. Between 2016 and 2018, more than a dozen complaints were filed with the EEOC by employees who alleged sexual harassment and retaliation. Id. at 8. In December 2018, McDonald’s employees in ten cities went on strike in protest, attracting the attention of the U.S. Senate. Id. at 8-9, 12.
Plaintiffs also alleged that Fairhurst engaged in acts of sexual harassment in December 2016 and November 2018, and was warned about his use of alcohol at company events. Id. He was terminated in November 2019 after committing yet another act of sexual harassment. Id. And in October 2019, the Board of Directors learned that Easterbrook was engaging in a prohibited relationship with an employee, and he was terminated after an investigation by outside counsel. Id. at 15.
The crux of the reasoning behind the Court’s ruling is that an officer of a corporation has a fiduciary duty to oversee the corporation’s activities that fall within his or her role in the corporation. As the Global Chief People Officer at McDonald’s, the Court opined that “[Fairhurst] had an obligation to make a good faith effort to put in place reasonable information systems so that he obtained the information necessary to do his job and report to the CEO and the board, and he could not consciously ignore red flags indicating that the corporation was going to suffer harm.” Id. at 3. Simply put, his human resources role required that he act in good faith to maintain an awareness of potential liability resulting from improper workplace conduct, and the Court found that he did not do so. “Corporate fiduciaries can face liability if they knowingly fail to adopt an internal information and reporting system that is ‘reasonably designed to provide to senior management and to the board itself timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning both the corporation’s compliance with law and its business performance.’” Id. at 24 (citation omitted). Because plaintiffs pled specific facts sufficient to allege that Fairhurst ignored red flags surrounding sexual harassment and the Company’s failed complaint system, the Court denied Fairhurst’s motion to dismiss.
While the Court’s decision is notable because it established a new fiduciary duty applicable to corporate officers, it is not a surprising outcome. The logic of Caremark leads inevitably to this decision, once it is established that corporate officers have real power and obligations within a corporation to manage risk. Because workplace harassment and retaliation claims pose very high risks to a corporation, it is to be expected that an officer responsible for the human resource function will come under strong scrutiny when EEOC charges and lawsuits are filed. The best defense to a high stakes workplace lawsuit is to prevent it from being filed in the first place. Ensuring that the proper systems for reporting and investigating workplace complaints are in place is by far preferable to litigating a case like this one.