December 6, 2012
Lining up like Jets and Sharks
This post is not about football, though I will admit to being amused by the circus that presently calls itself the NY Jets. No, it's about an article by David Marcus who points out how Vice Chancellor Laster has lined up with Chancellor Strine on the other side of Chief Justice Myron Steele and the Delaware Supreme Court over the issue of default fiduciary duties in LLCs. It's really not about the issue at hand -- whether managers in an LLC are subject to fiduciary duties by default -- but a larger issue that relates to sometimes tense relationship between the Chancery Court and the Supreme Court. The default fiduciary duty issue is an interesting one with some important ramifications (e.g. can you have federal insider trading liability in a publicly-traded LLC where managers don't have fiduciary duties?, etc), but I'll leave that for another day.
In a per curiam decision last month in Gatz Properties LLC v Auriga Capital, the Supreme Court attempted to put Chancellor Strine back on a short leash:
The opinion suggests that “a judicial eradication of the explicit equity overlay in the LLC Act could tend to erode our state’s credibility with investors in Delaware entities.” Such statements migh be interpreted to suggest (hubristically) that once the Court of Chancery has decided an issue, and because practitioners rely on that court’s decisions, this Court should not judicially “excise” the Court of Chancery’s statutory interpretation, even if incorrect. That was the interpretation gleaned by Auriga’s counsel. During oral argument before this Court, counsel understood the trial court opinion to mean that “because the Court of Chancery has repeatedly decided an issue one way, . . . and practitioners have accepted it, that this Court, when it finally gets its hands on the issue, somehow ought to be constrained because people have been conforming their conduct to” comply with the Court of Chancery’s decisions. It is axiomatic, and we recognize, that once a trial judge decides an issue, other trial judges on that court are entitled to rely on that decision as stare decisis. Needless to say, as an appellate tribunal and the court of last resort in this State, we are not so constrained.
It seems that too many people are forgetting that the Chancery Court is a trial court and not an appellate court, the Supreme Court is reminding us, and practitioners, and the Chancery. OK, got it. Oh, and then the court adds this:
Fifth, and finally, the court’s excursus on this issue strayed beyond the proper purview and function of a judicial opinion. “Delaware law requires that a justiciable controversy exist before a court can adjudicate properly a dispute brought before it.” We remind Delaware judges that the obligation to write judicial opinions on the issues presented is not a license to use those opinions as a platform from which to propagate their individual world views on issues not presented. A judge’s duty is to resolve the issues that the parties present in a clear and concise manner. To the extent Delaware judges wish to stray beyond those issues and, without making any definitive pronouncements, ruminate on what the proper direction of Delaware law should be, there are appropriate platforms, such as law review articles, the classroom, continuing legal education presentations, and keynote speeches.
Uh, ouch. OK, but Marcus points to a recent opinion, Feely v NHAOCG LLC by Vice Chancellor Laster in which he lines up with Chancellor Strine and takes issue with the Surpreme Court that Chancellor Strine's analysis of default fiduciary duties in the LLC context are "dictum without any precendential value." He points to the long line of Chancery cases on this issue as persuasive and until such point as the Supreme Court rules on the issue, those cases and Chancellor Strine's analysis of default fiduciary duties will be good enough for him:
The Delaware Supreme Court is of course the final arbiter on matters of Delaware law. The high court indisputably has the power to determine that there are no default fiduciary duties in the LLC context. To date, the Delaware Supreme Court has not made that pronouncement, and Gatz expressly reserved the issue. Until the Delaware Supreme Court speaks, the long line of Court of Chancery precedents and the Chancellor's dictum provide persuasive reasons to apply fiduciary duties by default to the manager of a Delaware LLC. As the managing member of Oculus, AK-Feel starts from a legal baseline of owing fiduciary duties.
Is any of this earth shattering or new? No, but it's an example of the real tension between the Chancery Court and the Supreme Court as it plays out in the opinions of both courts. This dynamic has existed for some time now - predating Strine and Laster. Court watchers - and court anthropoligists - shouldn't be surprised by this.
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