Chancery Upholds Poison Pill of Airgas; and Air Products Walks Away

Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. v. Airgas, Inc., C.A. No. 5249 (Del. Ch. Feb. 15, 2011), read Delaware Court of Chancery opinion here. This much-anticipated 158-page opinion (153 pages of which is text), upheld the use of the poison pill by Airgas to rebuff the efforts of Air Products to acquire it for the last year or so. Kevin F. Brady plans to provide a fuller summary of this epic decision, but for the meantime, the shortest summary is the one provided by the Court in the introduction to the opinion as follows:

This case poses the following fundamental question: Can a board of directors, acting in good faith and with a reasonable factual basis for its decision, when faced with a structurally non-coercive, all-cash, fully financed tender offer directed to the stockholders of the corporation, keep a poison pill in place so as to prevent the stockholders from making their own decision about whether they want to tender their shares—even after the incumbent board has lost one election contest, a full year has gone by since the offer was first made public, and the stockholders are fully informed as to the target board’s views on the inadequacy of the offer? If so, does that effectively mean that a board can “just say never” to a hostile tender offer? The answer to the latter question is “no.” A board cannot “just say no” to a tender offer. Under Delaware law, it must first pass through two prongs of exacting judicial scrutiny by a judge who will evaluate the actions taken by, and the motives of, the board. Only a board of directors found to be acting in good faith, after reasonable investigation and reliance on the advice of outside advisors, which articulates and convinces the Court that a hostile tender offer poses a legitimate threat to the corporate enterprise, may address that perceived threat by blocking the tender offer and forcing the
bidder to elect a board majority that supports its bid.

In essence, this case brings to the fore one of the most basic questions animating all of corporate law, which relates to the allocation of power between directors and stockholders. That is, “when, if ever, will a board’s duty to ‘the corporation and its shareholders’ require [the board] to abandon concerns for ‘long term’ values (and other constituencies) and enter a current share value maximizing mode?”[1]  More to the point, in the context of a hostile tender offer, who gets to decide when and if the corporation is for sale?

Since the Shareholder Rights Plan (more commonly known as the “poison pill”) was first conceived and throughout the development of Delaware corporate takeover jurisprudence during the twenty-five-plus years that followed, the debate over who ultimately decides whether a tender offer is adequate and should be accepted—the shareholders of the corporation or its board of directors—has raged on. Starting with Moran v. Household International, Inc.[2] in 1985, when the Delaware Supreme Court first upheld the adoption of the poison pill as a valid takeover defense, through the hostile takeover years of the 1980s, and in several recent decisions of the Court of Chancery and the Delaware Supreme Court,[3]  this fundamental question has engaged practitioners, academics, and members of the judiciary, but it has yet to be confronted head on.

For the reasons much more fully described in the remainder of this Opinion, I conclude that, as Delaware law currently stands, the answer must be that the power to defeat an inadequate hostile tender offer ultimately lies with the board of directors. As such, I find that the Airgas board has met its burden under Unocal to articulate a legally cognizable threat (the allegedly inadequate price of Air Products’ offer, coupled with the fact that a majority of Airgas’s stockholders would likely tender into that inadequate offer) and has taken defensive measures that fall within a range of reasonable responses proportionate to that threat. I thus rule in favor of defendants. Air Products’ and the Shareholder Plaintiffs’ requests for relief are denied, and all claims asserted against defendants are dismissed with prejudice.[4]

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1. TW Servs., Inc. v. SWT Acquisition Corp., 1989 WL 20290, at *8 (Del. Ch. Mar. 2,1989).
2. 490 A.2d 1059 (Del. 1985).
3. See, e.g.,Yucaipa Am. Alliance Fund II, L.P. v. Riggio, 1 A.3d 310, 351 n.229 (Del.Ch.2010); eBay Domestic Holdings, Inc. v. Newmark, 2010 WL 3516473 (Del. Ch. Sept. 9, 2010); Versata Enters., Inc. v. Selectica, Inc., 5 A.3d 586 (Del. 2010).
4. Defendants have also asked the Court to order Air Products to pay the witness fees and expenses incurred by defendants in connection with the expert report and testimony of David E. Gordon in defense against Count I of Air Products’ Amended Complaint, alleging breach of fiduciary duties in connection with Peter McCausland’s January 5, 2010 exercise of Airgas stock options. That request is denied. The parties shall bear all of their own fees and expenses.

Supplement: The Wall Street Journal’s Deal Journal Blog links to this post here in its treatment of the case, as does Professor Bainbridge here. Prof. Steven Davidoff reports here that in light of this decision, Air Products has decided not to appeal and not to go forward with its hostile bid for Airgas. Professor Bainbridge compiles commentary on the decision here, and prior to the decision he analyzed the issues here. Also noteworthy is an ongoing case by Airgas against the Cravath firm, in federal court in Pennsylvania, alleging a conflict of interest in Cravath’s representation of Air Products in the litigation in Delaware, as reported here. We previously discussed here on this blog the Delaware Chancery Court’s refusal to grant a motion to disqualify in this case. Finally, in an article about the case shortly before the opinion was released, Harold Brubaker of The Philadelphia Inquirer, here, made my daughter proud by quoting me along with Professors Stephen Bainbridge and Charles Elson, and calling all of us "corporate governance experts".

  • http://community.martindale.com/legal-blogs/Practice_Areas/b/delawarelitigation/archive/2011/02/15/professor-regan-on-the-airgas-decision.aspx Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog

    Professor Regan on the Airgas Decision

    The recent decision by the Delaware Court of Chancery in Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. v. Airgas,