Tag Archives: bylaws

Delaware Supreme Court Permits Delaware Corporations to Include Federal Forum Provisions in Their Charters & Bylaws

By: Oderah C. Nwaeze and James J. Regan

On March 18, 2020, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg, 2018 WL 6719718 (Del. Ch. Dec. 19, 2018), which had held that federal forum provisions (FFPs) for claims under the Securities Act of 1933 (’33 Act) are facially invalid and therefore cannot be included in a Delaware company’s charter or bylaws.

The Delaware Supreme Court’s holding that Delaware corporations may add FFPs to their charter and bylaws is a positive development for companies that wish to trade the uncertainty and expense of defending multiple lawsuits in various state and federal court jurisdictions for the steady guidance of a venue with the background and experience necessary to resolve disputes under the ’33 Act.

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Annual Meetings–When Your Stockholders Cannot Actually Meet

As I write this post safely ensconced—and properly “socially-distanced”—in my home office, the annual rites of spring march on oblivious to the disruption caused by a global pandemic. The bulbs outside my window are in full-bloom, trees are budding out, and spindly-legged foals gambol about in their paddocks. Corporate annual meetings (another rite of spring), however, are not so immune. Millions of stockholders of Delaware corporations are currently under some form of “stay-at-home” restrictions, and applicable guidelines from health officials limit gatherings to no more than 5-10 people, each of which have to be at least 6 feet away from one another.  These safety protocols, while necessary, make it essentially impossible to convene annual stockholders’ meetings as has been traditional–in person.

In this time of extreme disruption, Delaware corporations may continue to carry on the critical business attended to at the annual meeting of stockholders by taking advantage of the flexibility granted by the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”) to conduct such annual meetings “virtually” via electronic means. Moreover, as described below, Delaware corporations may also be given the freedom to delay their annual meetings until the biological dangers of in-person meetings have passed.

“Virtual” Annual Meetings

Section 211 of the DGCL was amended at the turn of this century to authorize corporations to hold annual meetings of stockholders “by means of remote communication” so long as it was not prohibited by the corporation’s charter or bylaws and was approved by the board of directors. Section 211 further gives the board sole discretion to adopt guidelines and procedures that would allow stockholders (or proxy-holders) to utilize “means of remote communications” such that they may:

1) participate in the stockholders’ meeting, and;

2) be deemed present in person and vote at a meeting of stockholders, provided that:

(i) the company implements reasonable measures to verify that each person deemed present and permitted to vote at the meeting by means of remote communication is a stockholder or proxyholder,

(ii) the company implements reasonable measures to provide its stockholders and proxyholders a reasonable opportunity to participate in the meeting and to vote on matters submitted to the stockholders, including an opportunity to read or hear the proceedings of the meeting substantially concurrently with the proceedings, and

(iii) if any stockholder or proxyholder votes or takes other action at the meeting by means of remote communication, a record of such vote or other action will be maintained by the company.

Corporations considering utilizing the freedom offered by Section 211 to conduct their annual meetings virtually should consult their governing documents to determine whether such meetings would be prohibited, and if not prohibited, the board of directors should establish proper procedures to ensure compliance with Section 211. If a virtual meeting is, however prohibited by the governing documents, and that prohibition is contained in the company’s bylaws, then the board of directors may have the power to amend the bylaws to allow annual meetings to be conducted by remote means.

Delayed Annual Meetings

To the extent a Delaware corporation has already given notice of an “in-person” annual meeting, another option may be to delay the convening of such a gathering until it is both safe and permitted by local orders. To the extent a company decides to delay its annual meeting, among the issues that might need to be addressed are: (a) federal securities laws and regulations related to notices and solicitations of proxies (recent SEC guidance on this front is addressed here), and (b) Delaware state-law matters related to the timing of annual meetings. For instance, DGCL Section 211 mandates that a corporation convene an annual meeting no later than 13 months since the last annual meeting or the last time directors were elected by written consent. Thus, a delayed annual meeting could run afoul of this timing constraint.

As of this morning, however, it appears that the Delaware State Bar Association (“DSBA”) is working on emergency proposals for the Governor and the General Assembly that would, if presented and adopted, (a) make clear in DGCL Section 110(a) that a pandemic or epidemic is a type of emergency that could trigger a board’s ability to adopt emergency bylaws, and (b) give the board of directors broad powers regarding the timing of and method of convening an annual meeting of stockholders beyond those discussed above. These proposed measures are currently making their way through the DSBA committee process.

These are rapidly-evolving times, so stay tuned for future developments on this front.

Citing “Issue Preclusion,” the Delaware Court of Chancery Denies Advancement to a Company’s Vice President

The Delaware Court of Chancery typically holds that a corporation must advance the fees and expenses of an executive or officer-level employee who is required to defend a civil, criminal, administrative or investigative action by virtue of his or her employment with the company. Recently, however, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster held that a plaintiff was not entitled to advancement because he did not prove that someone with the bare title of “Vice President,” without any managerial or supervisory responsibilities, fit within the definition of “officer” found in the relevant bylaws.

The Court of Chancery’s holding in Aleynikov v. The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., C.A. No. 10636-VCL (Del. Ch., July 13, 2016) was based, in large part, on its conclusion that it was bound by an incorrect finding by the Third Circuit in a related action because the doctrine of “issue preclusion prevent[ed] relitigation of wrong decisions just as much as right ones.”

To read the full text of the Alert, please visit www.duanemorris.com.

Corporate Governance In Chapter 11 – Business As Usual, With Possible Exceptions

Under the Bankruptcy Code, a debtor in possession operates its business “as usual” during the pendency of a case. Likewise, in most cases, prepetition corporate governance practices and procedures should continue post-petition. In fact, as Judge Sontchi recently held in In re SS Body Armor I, Inc., Case No. 10-1125(CSS) (Bankr. D. Del. April 1, 2015), the right of a shareholder to compel a shareholders’ meeting for the purpose of electing a new board of directors continues during bankruptcy.  Absent “clear abuse,” the automatic stay of 11 U.S.C. §  362 is inapplicable.`

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Fee-Shifting Bylaws–Remain In A State of Flux

As we previously reported on this page, the topic of fee-shifting bylaws being adopted to shift the costs of shareholder litigation to shareholder plaintiffs and those who assist them has been the subject of activity in both Delaware’s courts and its General Assembly.  While the General Assembly is poised to take up the issue of fee-shifting bylaws in the new legislative session (the subject of an upcoming blog post), we wanted to report on the issuance of the first written decision from the Court of Chancery addressing a challenge to a fee-shifting bylaw that had been adopted by a stock corporation.

On March 16, 2015, Chancellor Bouchard issued his decision in Strougo v. Hollander, et al., C.A. No. 9770-CB (Del. Ch. March 16, 2015), in which he granted plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, and which challenged the efficacy of a fee-shifting bylaw adopted by the board of directors of First Aviation Services, Inc.  It is important to note that the facial validity of fee-shifting bylaws was not before the court on this motion.  Rather, the plaintiff moved on a much narrower issue, that is, whether a fee-shifting bylaw adopted after he was no longer a stockholder–but before he filed litigation challenging conduct that occurred while a stockholder–was valid for that litigation.

The board of directors of First Aviation, at the behest of its controlling stockholder, adopted a reverse stock split that had the purpose and effect of freezing out the minority shareholders and taking the company private.  Plaintiff Strougo’s interest in First Aviation was eliminated via the transaction.  Shortly after the reverse stock split, First Aviation adopted the following bylaw:

Section VII.8.  Expenses for Certain Actions.  In the event that (i) any current or prior stockholder or anyone on their behalf (collectively a “Claiming Party”) initiates or asserts [any] claim or counterclaim (collectively a “Claim”), or joins, offers substantial assistance to or has a direct financial interest in any Claim against the Corporation or any director, officer, assistant officer or other employee of the Corporation, and (ii) the Claiming Party (or the third party that received substantial assistance from the Claiming Party or in whose Claim the Claiming Party has a direct financial interest) does not obtain a judgment on the merits that substantially achieves, in substance or amount, the full remedy sought, then each Claiming Party shall be obligated jointly and severally to reimburse the Corporation and any such director, officer, assistant officer or employee for all fees, costs and expenses of every kind and description (including, but not limited to, all reasonable attorneys’ fees and other litigation expenses) that the parties may incur in connection with such Claim.

First Aviation did not disclose to its former stockholders that it had adopted this new bylaw provision.  After the adoption of the bylaw, and unaware of its existence, former-stockholder Strougo filed suit in the Court of Chancery alleging that the reverse stock spit was unfair to the minority stockholders.  When the company informed Mr. Strougo and his counsel of the bylaw, plaintiff amended his pleading to also challenge the fee-shifting bylaw.

Chancellor Bouchard rejected the application of the fee-shifting bylaw to Mr. Strougo and this litigation.  Because the courts of Delaware have consistently construed bylaws as a contract between the company and its stockholders, he held the new bylaw could not apply to Mr. Strougo and his suit because it was adopted after he was no longer a stockholder, and thus, not a party to that “contract.”  Moreover, the litigation challenged conduct that occurred prior to the adoption of the fee-shifting bylaw.

While acknowledging the “serious policy questions implicated by fee-shifting bylaws in general” and the fact that the total value of the reverse stock split was less than $100,000, the Chancellor noted the reality that “applying the bylaw in this case would have the effect of immunizing the Reverse Stock Split from judicial review because, in [his] view, no rational stockholder–and no rational plaintiff’s lawyer–would risk having to pay the Defendants’ uncapped attorneys’ fees to vindicate the rights of the Company’s minority stockholders, even though the Reverse Stock Split appears to be precisely the type of transaction that should be subject to Delaware’s most exacting standard of review to protect against fiduciary misconduct.”

With this decision–and pending legislation on this front–the topic of how Delaware corporate entities might use bylaw provisions to control shareholder litigation continues to be a hot topic in Delaware corporate law.

 

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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“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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