In Salamone, et al. v. Gorman, No. 343, 2014 (Del. Dec. 9. 2014), the Supreme Court of Delaware writes for nearly 60 pages sorting out contradictory provisions in a voting agreement that was supposed to clearly spell out the rights of various investors and investor groups to elect directors to the board. It did not, and the Court was forced to resolve ambiguities in the document that made it unclear whether directors were to be elected and removed on a “per share” or a “per capita” basis by different classes of investors.
The voting agreement at issue intended to set forth a scheme by which, among other things, (1) one independent director was to be designated by “the majority of holders of the Series A Preferred Stock, and (2) two directors were to be “elected by the Key Holders,” who were defined in the agreement. The potential ambiguity in the wording of the director election provisions came to the fore when compared to the director removal clause which provided, in material part, that the removal of the two types of directors noted would only be valid where “such removal is directed or approved by the affirmative vote of the Person, or of the holders of more than fifty percent (50%) of the then outstanding Shares entitled under Section 1.2 to designate that director.”
The litigation centered upon the efforts of one of the stockholders, who controlled a majority of the voting shares, to single-handedly remove and replace the independent director and the two directors to be elected by the Key Holders based on that majority voting power. Such power would follow from a “per share” voting scheme. The opposing parties, however, argued that the voting agreement was designed to disaggregate voting power and to give particular investors an equal voice in selecting directors to represent their respective class of equity. Thus, they argued that the voting agreement set forth a “per capita” scheme pursuant to which the majority shareholder had just one of several votes, and thus must convince a majority of the individual investors that either held Series A Preferred or who were Key Holders to support his nominees.
After employing a host of contractual interpretation devices, the Supreme Court ultimately found that (1) the “majority of the holders” language regarding the independent director’s election referred to a “per share” basis for election and removal, and (2) that the Key Holders elected and removed their representative directors on a “per capita” basis. In so ruling, the Supreme Court’s decision seems to turn on two important points. First, the Supreme Court found that the election and removal provisions should be read as setting forth the same–rather than contradictory–methods for the election and removal of directors. Second, the Court applied the judicial presumption under Delaware law that, absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, the Court will not infer an intent to disenfranchise a majority stockholder by recognizing that “[a] court ought not to resolve doubts in favor of disenfranchisement.”
This facts presented in this case, and the Supreme Court’s efforts to bring order to the voting agreement’s terms, show that terms like “majority of the holders” can be ambiguous in application and that carefully considering such provisions can avoid the troubles presented in this litigation.