“Per Capita” v. “Per Share” Voting in Agreements–Words Matter

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.

A Bit About Break-up Fees in M&A

In In re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litig., C.A. No. 7368-VCP, a decision on a motion to dismiss by Court of Chancery, Vice Chancellor Parsons provided practitioners and clients with a thorough and helpful analysis (essentially a road-map) of  how the Court of Chancery reviews challenges to third-party sale transactions, that are approved by a disinterested board, under the enhanced scrutiny of Revlon.  In addition to the primer on a Revlon analysis, the opinion is worth a read for its discussion of what the Court considers the outer bounds for break-up fees.  The Vice Chancellor allowed claims challenging the break-up fees in this transaction to go forward because, when viewed in the aggregate, they could total north of 11% of the equity value.  For purposes of this motion, the Vice Chancellor accepted the plaintiff’s argument that a convertible note held by the buyer, if converted, could add more than $3 million to the purchase price if another bidder emerged, and thus should be considered an enhancer of the termination fees.  The Vice Chancellor held he could not dismiss this claims because it is reasonably conceivable that the plaintiffs might be able to show that this decision by the board was so far out of bounds as to be only explainable as “bad faith”—and thus not exculpable under a Section 102(b)(7) exculpatory clause.

Corporations Don’t Independently Owe Fiduciary Duties to Stockholders

On August 7, 2014, Vice Chancellor Glasscock issued a letter opinion in the matter Buttonwood Tree Value Partners, L.P., et al. v. R.L. Polk & Co., Inc., et al., C.A. No. 9250-VCG that is not attention-grabbing because it wrestles with some nuanced topic du jure of Delaware corporate law, but rather because it deals nearly entirely with the rather pedestrian, but not often explicated, principal that a Delaware corporation does not independently owe its stockholders fiduciary duties. Rather, fiduciary duties are owed to the stockholders (and the company) by the directors and officers who are the actual actors on behalf of the company. Continue reading “Corporations Don’t Independently Owe Fiduciary Duties to Stockholders”

Fee-Shifting Corporate Bylaws–The Judicial Challenges Begin

As discussed in a previous post, the Delaware General Assembly has tabled its consideration of a bill that would ban fee-shifting bylaws for traditional corporations until the next legislative session. This legislative push followed the Delaware Supreme Court’s holding, in responding to certified questions of law, that “fee shifting provisions in a non-stock corporation’s bylaws can be valid and enforceable under Delaware law”. See ATP Tour, Inc., et al. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund (German Tennis Federation), et al., No. 534, 2013 (Del. Supr. May 8, 2014). The fee-shifting bylaws being considered are designed to shift the company’s costs (including attorneys’ fees) of successfully defending against litigation prosecuted by a company’s stockholders to the stockholder plaintiff. As one might imagine, such a scenario might be seen as a “game changer” with regard to shareholder representative litigation.

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Recent Developments in Business and Commercial Courts

While once somewhat of a novelty, the creation and adoption of specialized business or commercial courts—designed to adjudicate complex business and commercial disputes in an efficient manner to meet the needs of a jurisdiction’s corporate and commercial citizens—continues to mature. Moreover, the resources available discussing these specialized courts or dockets are constantly expanding.

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DGCL Now Provides Mechanism to Ratify Certain Defective Corporate Acts

As of April 1st, the Delaware General Corporation Law contains a new § 204, which provides Delaware corporations with a statutory safe harbor procedure for ratifying acts or transactions (including stock issuances) that due to a “failure of authorization” would be void or voidable. A copy of the Synopsis and Bill are attached here.

This is an important addition to the DGCL, as it allows companies to “clean up” certain prior missteps in approving corporate events, and represents the General Assembly’s intent to overturn case law such as STARR Surgical Co. v. Waggoner, 588 A.2d 1130 (Del. 1990), which made it difficult to ratify or otherwise seek validation on equitable grounds acts that were taken but not in strict compliance with the DGCL or the company’s governing documents.

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A Minute About Minutes

Drafting minutes of meetings—particularly for meetings of boards of directors or special committees of boards—is an art rather than a science, and while there are certainly many ways to accurately record the proceedings, understanding the ways minutes might be used later is very important.

In the world of Delaware corporate law, minutes of board meetings often play a pivotal role in shareholder litigation challenging the acts of the directors. Indeed, in a recent high-profile decision in which the Court of Chancery refused to enjoin the annual meeting for Sotheby’s in the face of a vigorous proxy fight, the Vice Chancellor’s opinion remarks upon the contents of board minutes on several occasions, and in a manner that provides some practical tips for consideration when drafting minutes. See, Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, et al., C.A. Nos. 9469-VCP; 9497-VCP, Mem. Op. (Del. Ch. May 2, 2014).

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“Fee-Shifting” Bylaws–A New Tool to Stem the Tide of Shareholder Litigation?

On May 8, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court issued an en banc response to certified questions of law from the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, in which the Supreme Court held that a “fee shifting” bylaw provision in a non-stock corporation’s bylaws “can be valid and enforceable under Delaware law.” ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund (German Tennis Federation), et al., No. 534, 2013 (Del. May 8, 2014). The bylaw at issue would shift the company’s defense fees and costs to a member who had sued the company (or any other member) and was unsuccessful in “substantially achiev[ing], in substance and amount, the full remedy sought” in the litigation.

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DGCL Sec. 251(h) Makes “Two-Step” Mergers Easier to Complete

While not necessarily “breaking news” at this point, as of August 1, 2013, the Delaware General Corporation Law was amended to make two-step mergers—tender offers with back-end mergers—easier to complete. Pursuant to new § 251(h), third-party acquirors and targets may enter into merger agreements that specifically opt in to this statute and will allow the acquiror to complete the second-stage merger without a shareholder vote if the acquiror obtains a sufficient number of shares in the opening tender offer (usually more than 50%) that its vote alone would be sufficient to approve the merger.

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Welcome to the Duane Morris Delaware Business Law Blog

The lawyers of the Wilmington, DE, office of Duane Morris LLP are pleased to announce the launch of a new blog designed to highlight developments in all aspects of Delaware Business Law. Readers who follow the blog will receive timely reports on: (1) important new opinions from the Delaware Supreme Court, Delaware’s Court of Chancery, and the Complex Commercial Division of the Superior Court; (2) announcements and analysis of amendments to Delaware’s General Corporation Law and alternative-entity statutes; (3) important developments in IP law from the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware; and (4) news from Delaware’s Bankruptcy Court.

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