Sutherland v. Sutherland, 2008 WL 1932374 (Del. Ch., May 5, 2008), read opinion here.

[This is one of four opinions issued on May 5 by the Chancery Court, two of which were written by the same vice-chancellor. I hope to post on the other 3 opinions issued on May 5 by tomorrow.]

Factual background details can be obtained from the three prior decisions by the Chancery Court involving these parties, and summarized on this blog here, here and here. This latest opinion in this ongoing internecine Sutherland family squabble denied a motion to dismiss, despite the great weight often given to the recommendation of the Special Litigation Committee (SLC), on which the defendant companies relied for their motion to dismiss. The reason for rejecting the SLC’s conclusions: After having considered the briefs, affidavits, limited discovery and arguments of the parties, the Chancery Court reasoned that:

"the special litigation committee [consisting of one man] has not satisfied the court that it acted in good faith and conducted a reasonable investigation."

The opinion also discusses the issue of independence, the third requirement that the SLC needs to satisfy pursuant to the decision in Zapata Corp. v. Maldonado, 430 A.2d 779 (Del. 1981), as well as closely scrutinizing whether the SLC satisfied the other requirements of good faith and reasonable investigation.

One lesson from this opinion that can be learned by "negative example" is how "not to constitute"" an SLC (if one wants to have maximum "protection") , and how "not to conduct an SLC investigation" (if one wants to increase the odds of not  having the court disregard the SLC’s conclusions.)

The court noted that the SLC has the burden of establishing its good faith, reasonable investigation and independence, based on Rule 56 standards, although the review has some aspects of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. The court also referred to the decision in Kaplan v. Wyatt , 484 A.2d 501, (Del. Ch. 1984), that requires the SLC’s conclusions to be supported by a "thorough record". The court may also apply its own business judgement to the conclusion of the SLC even if the SLC satisfied all other prerequisites.

A central theme in the complaint was that the directors were allegedly using the company’s assets for their own personal benefit via such things as personal use of the corporate jet, lavish personal expenses charged to the company for chartered private railroad cars, private parties, club memberships, expensive hotels, rental cars, and other examples of opulence not required by their position at the company.

The court provided reasoning and examples of why the one-man committee’s investigation was not adequate. He only spent  less than one full-day at the company’s office reviewing records. He arrived at 8:30 and then met with various accounting and management personnel before reviewing records. He took a one-hour lunch and then left at 3:30. The following quote from the opinion provides more details:

Perhaps more notable than what Jeffrey did is what Jeffrey [the one-man committee] did not do. Jeffrey testified at his deposition that, although he is a certified public accountant, he did not arrive at the companies’ offices with a plan for how he was going to conduct the review. He did not take any notes. Thus, there is no written record of what he did. Jeffrey testified that he did not review a statistically significant number of invoices when testing whether the accounting records were accurate. He did not verify that the vendor number he asked the accounting department to run was Perry’s only vendor number. And he conducted no search for payments the companies may have made to third parties on Perry’s behalf. For instance, if Perry used Maysville and Maysville then invoiced the companies rather than Perry, Jeffrey’s investigation would not have found the check sent to Maysville on Perry’s behalf.FN33  Nor, as Jeffrey testified, would he have found checks the companies made to credit card issuers on Perry’s behalf. Indeed, Jeffrey testified that his review of the ledgers would have failed to capture the two large payments made to King on Perry’s behalf.