Wednesday, May 28, 2014
The ubiquity of transaction-related litigation is, I think, a real problem. By now, 94%+ of announced mergers end up with some litigation. I think that most reasonable people can agree that not all 94% of transactions where there are lawsuits do the facts suggest that something has gone wrong. Much of the litigation is really just flotsam intended to generate a settlement -- a settlment that directors are all too willing to grant in exchange for a global release.
In any event, there have been a series of efforts, including exclusive forum provisions, which have been deployed in a self-help manner to try manage this issue and its multi-jurisidictional cousin. In the 2013 Boilermakers opinion, Chief Justice Strine gave his blessing to board-adopted exclusive forum bylaw. Following Galaviz v Berg there was some question as to whether an exlcusive forum bylaw adopted by the board had sufficient inidicia of consent such that it would be enforceable against shareholders. In Boilermakers, Strine noted that forum selection bylaws were consistent with both Delaware and federal law, and also that the mere fact that such a bylaw was adopted by the board does not render such a bylaw invalid:
The certificates of incorporation of Chevron and FedEx authorize their boards to amend the bylaws. Thus, when investors bought stock in Chevron and FedEx, they knew (i) that consistent with 8 Del. C. § 109(a), the certificates of incorporation gave the boards the power to adopt and amend bylaws unilaterally; (ii) that 8 Del. C. § 109(b) allows bylaws to regulate the business of the corporation, the conduct of its affairs, and the rights or powers of its stockholders; and (iii) that board-adopted bylaws are binding on the stockholders. In other words, an essential part of the contract stockholders assent to when they buy stock in Chevron and FedEx is one that presupposes the board’s authority to adopt binding bylaws consistent with 8 Del. C. § 109. For that reason, our Supreme Court has long noted that bylaws, together with the certificate of incorporation and the broader DGCL, form part of a flexible contract between corporations and stockholders, in the sense that the certificate of incorporation may authorize the board to amend the bylaws' terms and that stockholders who invest in such corporations assent to be bound by board-adopted bylaws when they buy stock in those corporations.
Boilermakers set the stage for the Delaware Supreme Court very recent opinon in ATP Tour. ATP Tour, you know, the tennis guys. The issue in the ATP is related both to the question of transaction-related litigation and unilaterally adopted bylaws. In ATP, the tour adopted a fee shifting bylaw that would eschew the "American Rule" and require that in the event of unseuccessful shareholder litigation - or litigation that "does not obtain a judgment on the merits that substantially achieves, in substance and amount, the full remedy sought" then the shareholder will be responsible for paying the corporation's litigation fees. Here's the bylaw as adopted:
(a) In the event that (i) any [current or prior member or Owner or anyone on their behalf (“Claiming Party”)] initiates or asserts any [claim or counterclaim (“Claim”)] or joins, offers substantial assistance to or has a direct financial interest in any Claim against the League or any member or Owner (including any Claim purportedly filed on behalf of the League or any member), and (ii) the Claiming Party (or the third party that received substantial assistance from the Claiming Party or in whose Claim the Claiming Party had a direct financial interest) does not obtain a judgment on the merits that substantially achieves, in substance and amount, the full remedy sought, then each Claiming Party shall be obligated jointly and severally to reimburse the League and any such member or Owners for all fees, costs and expenses of every kind and description (including, but not limited to, all reasonable attorneys’ fees and other litigation expenses) (collectively, “Litigation Costs”) that the parties may incur in connection with such Claim.
Clearly, such a bylaw, if adopted and upheld, would bring the transaction-related litigation train to a screeching halt or at the very least dramatically alter the settlement dynamics.
This bylaw ended up in front of the Delaware Supreme Court as a certified question from the federal district court in Delaware. You'll remember that Delaware is one of the few state supreme courts that will accept certified questions of law. The question before the court was whether the unilaterally adopted fee-shifting bylaw above was valid under Delaware law.
That such a provision is legal under Delaware law isn't all that surprising, really. What is surprising is that court would agree to wander into this hornet's nest of an issue entirely of voluntarily. Whether or not to accept a certified question is entirely within the discretion of the court and the court could have avoided deciding the question altogether had it wanted to. But, apparently it wanted to decide the issue.
The reaction to the opinion has been pretty incredible. For example, Delaware litigator Stuart Grant remarked,"The Delaware Supreme Court seems to have caused Delaware to secede from the union." A little over the top, sure. But, the just because plaintiffs hate the result, don't think that the defense bar is jumping up and down claiming victory and recommending widespread adoption of these provisions. They're not. In fact, many worry that adopting such provisions might just put their clients in the cross hairs. No one wants a fight if they can avoid it. And anyway, the global releases their clients get from settling otherwise trivial transaction challenges are valuable security blankets for directors.
The reaction by both plaintiffs and defendants to the ATP ruling has been a unique constellation of interests. Ronald Baruch calls the reaction evidence of the "cozy" litigation community in Delaware. Plaintiffs want to get paid and defendants want their releases. In response the Corporation Law Section of the Delaware Bar has moved quickly to propose an amendment to elminate fee shifting under the DGCL. The proposed amendment (with underlined insertion) is below:
Amend § 102(b)(6), Title 8 of the Delaware Code by making insertions as shown by underlining as follows:
A provision imposing personal liability for the debts of the corporation on its stockholders based solely on their stock ownership, to a specified extent and upon specified conditions; otherwise, the stockholders of a corporation shall not be personally liable for the payment of the corporation's debts except as they may be liable by reason of their own conduct or acts.
The effect of the proposed amendment would make fee shifting impermissable under the DGCL and therefore rule it out as a bylaw. If approved by the legislature in Delaware, the amended 102(b)(6) would go into effect on August 1. Now that's swift justice.
The battle against transaction-related litigation will have to be fought on other ground.