Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Favorite Business Law Cases, Round 1: Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Levien (Del. 1971)

I am such a fan of Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Levien,  280 A.2d 717 (Del. 1971), that I use the case in both Business Organizations and in Energy Law. The case does a great job of giving a basic overview of parent-subsidiary relationships, some of the basic fiduciary duties owed in such contexts, and it sets up the discussion of why companies use subsidiaries in the first place. 

On fiduciary duties and when the intrinsic (entire) fairness test applies: 

A parent does indeed owe a fiduciary duty to its subsidiary when there are parent-subsidiary dealings. However, this alone will not evoke the intrinsic fairness standard. This standard will be applied only when the fiduciary duty is accompanied by self-dealing — the situation when a parent is on both sides of a transaction with its subsidiary. Self-dealing occurs when the parent, by virtue of its domination of the subsidiary, causes the subsidiary to act in such a way that the parent receives something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of, and detriment to, the minority stockholders of the subsidiary

On what test to apply to parent-subsidiary dividends: 

We do not accept the argument that the intrinsic fairness test can never be applied to a dividend declaration by a dominated board, although a dividend declaration by a dominated board will not inevitably demand the application of the intrinsic fairness standard. Moskowitz v. Bantrell, 41 Del.Ch. 177, 190 A.2d 749 (Del.Supr. 1963). If such a dividend is in essence self-dealing by the parent, then the intrinsic fairness standard is the proper standard. For example, suppose a parent dominates a subsidiary and its board of directors. The subsidiary has outstanding two classes of stock, X and Y. Class X is owned by the parent and Class Y is owned by minority stockholders of the subsidiary. If the subsidiary, at the direction of the parent, declares a dividend on its Class X stock only, this might well be self-dealing by the parent. It would be receiving something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of and detrimental to its minority stockholders. This self-dealing, coupled with the parent's fiduciary duty, would make intrinsic fairness the proper standard by which to evaluate the dividend payments.

. . . . The dividends resulted in great sums of money being transferred from Sinven to Sinclair. However, a proportionate share of this money was received by the minority shareholders of Sinven. Sinclair received nothing from Sinven to the exclusion of its [722] minority stockholders. As such, these dividends were not self-dealing. We hold therefore that the Chancellor erred in applying the intrinsic fairness test as to these dividend payments. The business judgment standard should have been applied. 

On whether shareholder of one subsidiary should be allowed to participate in ventures pursued by other subsidiaries: 

The plaintiff proved no business opportunities which came to Sinven independently and which Sinclair either took to itself or denied to Sinven. As a matter of fact, with two minor exceptions which resulted in losses, all of Sinven's operations have been conducted in Venezuela, and Sinclair had a policy of exploiting its oil properties located in different countries by subsidiaries located in the particular countries.

It makes sense for companies, often, to use subsidiaries to keep certain businesses well organized and to protect assets for shareholder.  That is, I might only want to invest in a subsidiary doing business in Mexico because I trust that the assets there are secure.  I may not want to participate in work in Venezuela, which I might deemed riskier.  And it's not just shareholders who might feel that way.  Creditors, too, may view such investments very differently and may only be willing to participate in ventures where the risks can be more easily assessed. 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2017/06/my-favorite-business-law-cases-round-1-sinclair-oil-corp-v-levien-del-1971-.html

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Comments

This case is a favorite of mine, too. I also use it as an excuse in class to talk about the rule in some jurisdictions that a subsidiary must have a shareholder who is a resident or must have a minimum number of shareholders (forcing firms to issue minority "qualifying shares" in foreign subsidiaries to ensure the corporation continues to validly exist in that jurisdiction).

Posted by: joanheminway | Jun 18, 2017 11:33:23 PM

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