Friday, May 10, 2024

What is the Value of the Corporate Charter?

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the proposed amendments to the DGCL, and the questions they raised.  Well, I wasn’t the only one who had concerns, and so, now, there are new amendments to the amendments (which The Chancery Daily has posted here).  And once again, I just got these last night and I read quickly (in the middle of end-of-semester grading) so I reserve the right to be completely wrong, but, here is my quick reaction.

As I explained in my prior post , many of the original amendments were intended as a response to VC Laster’s decision in West Palm Beach Firefighters’ Pension Fund v. Moelis & CoMoelis struck down a shareholder agreement that functionally conveyed management power on a particular stockholder, by giving him veto power over most board decisions.  VC Laster held that a board’s authority can only be cabined to such a degree in the charter, including through a preferred share issuance – and he also suggested that there may be some outer limits on how far even a charter provision could go in restricting board authority.

The original proposed DGCL amendments would have overruled Moelis in both respects.  They would have authorized stockholder agreements that usurped board authority and would not have placed any limits on the degree of authority that could be usurped.  The latter point struck me as particularly important, because traditionally, the corporate form is defined by its board-centric model.  If that can be contractually avoided, does the corporate form have any value at all?

The new amendments are a little different, in that they do not permit contracts that would confer governance powers beyond what could be included in the charter, or would be contrary to Delaware law.  In other words, if there are certain core powers that must remain with the board and can’t be visited in someone else via the charter, then, these amendments to the amendments would not allow those powers to be transferred via stockholder contracts.  The new language provides:

no provision of such contract shall be enforceable against the corporation to the extent such contract provision is contrary to the certificate of incorporation or would be contrary to the laws of this State … if included in the certificate of incorporation.

But also, in determining what these “core” board powers are, courts can’t rely on the fact that the power is one that is statutorily conferred on the board.  As the amendments put it, “a restriction, prohibition or covenant in any such contract that relates to any specified action shall not be deemed contrary to the laws of this State or the certificate of incorporation by reason of a provision of this title or the certificate of incorporation that authorizes or empowers the board of directors (or any one or more directors) to take such action.”

Now, the first thing that leaps out at me is how these new amendments interact with VC Laster’s decision in McRitchie v. Zuckerberg.  There, Laster held that the directors of a Delaware corporation have a duty to maximize the value of the equity, and do not have a duty to maximize the value of a diversified portfolio. (I blogged about the case when the complaint was first filed).  But Laster went on to hold that corporations could adopt charter provisions that would change directors’ fiduciary duties, so that they are obligated to consider diversified shareholders.   That’s contestable; Steve Bainbridge, for example, has suggested that Delaware corporations cannot by private ordering depart from shareholder wealth maximization and I personally would ask what’s the difference between Laster’s proposal and a charter provision that waives the duty of loyalty – which has long been assumed to be unwaivable, except as otherwise statutorily provided (like, opportunity waivers). 

But if Laster is right, then, of course, that represents a very broad view of how far charters can go to alter the board’s authority, which would also mean that stockholder agreements, under the amended proposed amendments, could go very far in altering board authority. 

Which then raises the question: Is there value to requiring that restrictions on board authority be placed in the charter rather than a separate shareholder agreement?

One obvious value is transparency; at least if the company is not subject to SEC reporting, shareholder agreements may not be available to the public or even to other shareholders.  Another value may concern the ease with which an agreement versus a charter could be amended, though I still think that if you conferred special rights to preferred shareholders, you could also confer the right to vote on amendments to those rights to the same preferred shareholders, which would make ease of amendment roughly equivalent.

Another value, though, concerns choice of law.  As I previously blogged, shareholder agreements are subject to ordinary choice of law principles; charter provisions and preferred share terms are subject to the internal affairs doctrine.  (Read my paper addressing this!)

The comments to the amendments to the amendments now discuss choice of law, but I don’t think they change the landscape.  The comments say:

Notwithstanding any choice of law provision in the contract, the reference in the last sentence of § 122(18) to the law “governing” the contract shall be deemed to refer to the laws of this State if and to the extent choice of law principles (such as the internal affairs doctrine) so require.

In other words, it’ll be another state’s law if choice of law principles so require, which, for stockholder agreements, they often do.

But further muddying the waters is this:  The new amendments say that stockholder contracts can’t go beyond what a charter amendment would permit except with respect to DGCL §115, which can be waived in a stockholder contract.

DGCL §115 requires that a Delaware forum be available for claims that “(i) that are based upon a violation of a duty by a current or former director or officer or stockholder in such capacity, or (ii) as to which this title confers jurisdiction upon the Court of Chancery.”

So, as I understand it, let’s say a stockholder agreement conferred extraordinary governance powers on a single stockholder.  Let’s say those powers arguably made the stockholder a “controller” subject to fiduciary obligations.  The contract could also provide that claims against the stockholder for breach of fiduciary duty must be brought in an arbitral or non-Delaware forum.  Presumably, this would include derivative claims – a shareholder would sue derivatively claiming self-dealing by a controller, the corporation would be bound by the forum selection clause, and so, the claim would be heard outside of Delaware.

I also assume that disputes regarding compliance with, or even the interpretation of, a stockholder agreement could be heard in a non-Delaware forum.  So, if someone wanted to claim that a particular stockholder agreement was unenforceable because it conferred power on a stockholder that went beyond what Delaware law permits, and it turned out that the agreement selected another state’s courts as the forum for disputes, that argument – that Delaware law does not permit delegation of such-and-such power – would not be heard in a Delaware court.

As far as I can tell, this provides an incentive for stockholders to enter into these agreements – even if they have hard control over the board and don’t really need them – because it allows them to opt out of DGCL 115, and possibly even the statutory limits on the agreements themselves, which will no longer be policed in Delaware.

Well, I have no idea how this ends but, I gotta tell you, all this drama fascinated my corpgov seminar students, so I suppose I will have much to discuss with my classes next year.

Ann Lipton | Permalink


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