Tag Archives: Delaware Contract Interpretation

Resolving Contractual Disputes With “An Expert Not An Arbitrator”

The Delaware courts have been asked several times in the last few years to interpret contracting parties’ intent when they have relegated certain disputes to “an expert not an arbitrator” as a form of alternative dispute resolution.  On January 29, 2019, the Court of Chancery issued the latest opinion on this topic in Ray Beyond Corp. v. Trimaran Fund Mgt., LLC, C.A. No. 2018-0497-KSJM., and reiterated that such language will be construed as limiting the ADR professional’s jurisdiction to deciding “factual disputes within the decision maker’s expertise.”

In this case, the decision maker was to be an independent accountant, and thus, the court found that the clause at issue was to delegate factual disputes regarding calculation disputes to that “expert” but that legal disputes were reserved for the courts to decide as judicial officers.

The takeaway from these decisions continues to be a lesson in “words matter.”  If contracting parties wish certain disputes that might arise be decided by someone other than through litigation in courts, they should carefully spell out the authority of the persons resolving those disputes.  “Experts” will likely be relegated to deciding factual matters within their expertise, while “arbitrators” will likely be found to exercise judicial-like functions.

“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.

How Immediate is “Prompt” in a Contract? New Delaware Supreme Court Justice Vaughn Finds that It Depends

What does the term “prompt” mean in a contract? Well, it depends, according to Judge James T. Vaughn Jr., who was recently confirmed to the Delaware Supreme Court. In an opinion issued last week from his prior post in the Superior Court (Complex Commercial Division), Justice Vaughn found that notice after ten months may in some circumstances constitute “prompt notice.”

In Avaya, Inc. v. Charter Communications Holding Company, LLC, C.A. No. N14C-03-052, Plaintiff Avaya, Inc. (“Avaya”) moved for summary judgment, arguing that defendants Charter Communications Holding Company, LLC and Charter Communications, Inc. (together “Charter”) failed to satisfy a contractual indemnity requirement to “promptly notify” Avaya of a claim or suit for which indemnity was requested. Charter was served with the complaint at issue on September 5, 2006. However, Charter did not provide a copy of that complaint and tender its defense to Avaya until approximately ten months later on July 2, 2007.

Justice Vaughn denied Avaya’s summary judgment motion, declining to find that notice given ten months after the filing of a lawsuit was, as a matter of law, not prompt. Instead, the Court found that Charter should have the opportunity to conduct discovery to develop the “attendant facts and circumstance.”

Avaya and Charter were party to a Master Purchase Service Agreement (“Agreement”) pursuant to which Charter purchased certain equipment and software from Avaya, including a “private branch exchange system,” an “automatic call distribution system,” and customer management software.

Under the Agreement, Avaya was required to “defend, or settle, at its own expense”, and “pay all damages and costs” relating to, any claims for infringement of patent, copyright or trade secret brought against Charter related to Charter’s use of Avaya products purchased under the Agreement. However, the Agreement also provided, among other things, that “Avaya’s obligation is expressly conditioned upon the following: (1) [Charter] shall promptly notify Avaya in writing of such claim or suit…” The Agreement further provided that if any Avaya product is, or is likely to become, the subject of an infringement lawsuit, that Avaya would procure sufficient rights for Charter to continue using the product without infringement, or would provide a sufficient replacement product or a refund.

On September 1, 2006, Ronald A. Katz Technology Licensing, L.P., sued Charter in the United States District Court for the District of Delaware (the “Infringement Suit”), alleging that Charter’s “call process systems” and “telephone bill pay services” (among other things) infringed Katz’s patents. Charter was served with the complaint on September 5, 2006 and Charter gave notice ten months later.

Avaya initially rejected the indemnification request on grounds that the Infringement Suit did not specifically allege infringement by an Avaya product. Avaya did not initially raise lack of “prompt notice.” On March 16, 2014, Avaya filed the declaratory judgment action in the Delaware Superior Court seeking a determination that “prompt notice” was not given and that Avaya had no duty to defend and indemnify Charter in the Infringement Suit.

Avaya argued that providing notice in 10 months is not “prompt notice” as a matter of law, and that there are no mitigating factors here that would excuse Charter’s delay. Judge Vaughn rejected the argument. “I am not persuaded that the fact alone of a ten month period between the commencement of the Katz Lawsuit and the giving of the July 2, 2007 notice constitutes lack of prompt notice as a matter of law. I agree with Charter that the phrase is subject to some interpretation, and that the interpretation may be influenced by attendant facts and circumstances.”

The Agreement was governed by New York law, and while there was no caselaw discussion, Justice Vaughn did cite to one case in a footnote: Am. Transtech Inc. V. U.S. Trust Corp., 933 F. Supp. 1193, 1200 (S.D.N.Y. 1996). The court in Transtech found that “prompt notice” in an indemnification provision meant notice that gives the indemnitor sufficient time to participate in the defense and that a determination of “sufficient time” required consideration of all of the circumstances.