Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Today's post continues the discussion started by Anne’s informative post regarding the law of controlling stockholders. Anne astutely notes that the MFW “enhanced ratification” framework was rendered in connection with a going private merger. Although I recognize the intuitive appeal, I wish to call into question the impact of MFW’s holding on other manners of controlling shareholder transactions.
Going private transactions differ from going concern transactions in that their successful completion wipes out the minority float. This distinction accelerates stockholders' divergent incentives and raises the possibility for minority stockholder abuse. An unscrupulous controller might structure the transaction in a manner that captures all unlocked value for later private consumption. Going private transactions allow controlling stockholders to shed the restrictions of the public market, thereby evading future retribution by minority stockholders. Policy considerations accordingly call for superior protection of minority stockholders participating in a going private transaction.
Since MFW establishes a procedure for achieving less intrusive judicial review for going private transactions, it stands to reason that this procedure should apply to all transactions involving a controlling stockholder. Indeed, without addressing the distinction between going private and going concern transactions in this context, a fairly recent Chancery Court decision has explicitly opined that the MFW framework applies to all controlling stockholder transactions (In re Ezcorp Inc. Consulting Agreement Derivative Litig., 2016 WL 301245, at *28 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2016)).
In a forthcoming article at the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, I argue that the borders of "MFW-Land" are not as clear-cut as they appear. The Delaware Supreme Court decision does not create a universally-applicable safe harbor procedure for all manner of controlling stockholder transactions. Two main arguments form the basis of this contention.
The dual tenets of doctrinal clarity and cohesion underpin the first argument. A careful reading of the MFW decision fails to detect any mention of competing precedent or a general proclamation regarding its applicability to other types of controlling stockholder transactions. MFW is clearly situated on a path of doctrinal evolution of judicial inspection of going private transactions with controlling stockholders. Canons of judicial interpretation counsel against an indirect reversal or modification of established precedent.
Additionally, the theoretical justifications for the MFW decision hold significantly less weight in the going concern context. MFW's doctrinal shift is grounded on the twin pillars representing the competency of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders. Whatever the validity of these mechanisms in the freeze out context, the legal and financial scholarship does not validate an extension to going concern transactions. Serious flaws hamper the ability of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders to pass meaningful judgment on going concern transactions. In the final tally, MFW does not produce an all-encompassing framework for all controlling stockholder transactions.