A recent decision by the Delaware Court of Chancery contrasted the difference between advancement rights based on an L.P. agreement as compared to the right of a corporate director or officer to receive advancement of fees and costs to defend a lawsuit. In Weil v. VEREIT Operating Partnership, L.P., C.A. No. 2017-0613-JTL (Del. Ch. Feb. 13, 2018), the court also distinguished between the different procedural and substantive aspects of an indemnification claim as compared to an advancement claim. This opinion provides important statements of the law and nuances of practical value to those engaged in this frequent subject of Delaware corporate and commercial litigation.
Also, unlike the claims in the context of an alternative entity such as an L.P. agreement, Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL) Section 145 provides certain “default boundaries” that are not necessarily applicable to an advancement claim based on pure contract terms in the L.P. context. Unlike rights based on an L.P. agreement, generally speaking, once there is an advancement right in the corporate context, DGCL section 145 imposes certain restrictions on the corporation that attempts to deny those rights. See, e.g., one of the three decisions in the Holley v. Nipro cases highlighted on these pages. The Holley decisions provide helpful basic and nuanced principles on this topic.
For those who need to know the latest iteration of Delaware law on advancement and how it differs from indemnification in the L.P. context, this 37-page opinion with over 70 footnotes is required reading. For purposes of this short blog post that is intended for busy corporate litigators, I provide highlights of the decision:
- The procedural context of this case was a motion for summary judgment which featured 55 exhibits. There were multiple parties involved and several different entities–only some of whom were entitled to advancement or indemnification under the applicable alternative entity agreements.
- Because this advancement claim was based on an alternative entity agreement, as opposed to corporate documents that were subject to the default constraints of DGCL section 145, the primary framework of the analysis was contractual and not statutory. The court provides a comprehensive review of the detailed factual setting which is necessary to grasp for a complete understanding of the case.
Key Legal Principles:
- The court referred to Section 17-108 of the Delaware Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act which gives a limited partnership the power to indemnify any partner or other person, and also includes an empowerment to provide for advancement. Section 17-108 defers completely to the contract of the parties to create rights and obligations with respect to indemnification and advancement of expenses.
- Importantly, Section 17-108 of the LP Act gives limited partnerships wider freedom of contract to draft their own framework for indemnification and advancement than is available to corporations under Section 145 of the DGCL, which creates mandatory indemnification rights for corporate indemnities in some circumstances–and also bars indemnification in others. See footnote 8 for supporting cases.
- The court provided a thorough contractual analysis of the advancement and the indemnification provisions in the LP agreement. The court noted the tension and lack of consistency in the LP agreement between the provisions for advancement and the legally quite distinct conceptual analysis of indemnification. The agreement here appeared to describe differently those covered by advancement and indemnification.
- The court emphasized the important distinctions between an analysis for advancement, which is a summary proceeding where the only question involves the extension of credit, and a completely separate procedural and substantive analysis of indemnification.
- In advancement cases, when there is an issue whether someone is sued in a covered or non-covered capacity, the court will generally resolve the doubt in favor of advancement, and defers until the subsequent indemnification analysis whether or not the advanced funds might later be subject to disgorgement if a party is later determined to be ineligible for indemnification. See footnotes 20 through 23.
- The court distinguished the case of Fasciana v. Electronic Data Systems Corp. (“Fasciana I”) 829 A.2d 160 (Del. Ch. 2003), because that case dealt with the determination of who was a “agent” for indemnification purposes under Section 145, but this case focuses on advancement.
- Based on the contractual basis on which the advancement claims were made in this case, the court analyzed and applied the defined terms, whose definitions were not the model of clarity. See footnotes 28 and 29 and accompanying text.
Specific Disputes About Allocation of Which Fees are Covered
- Although the parties seemed to acknowledge that there was a right to some advancement, the challenges were based on whether or not all of the fees demanded were properly allocated among covered and non-covered proceedings, as well as covered and non-covered persons.
- Consistent with prior case law, the court explained that the court will not engage in a line by line review of bills to determine if allocation was proper between covered and non-covered persons or proceedings, and will rely on the certification of senior counsel involved at the advancement stage of the proceedings.
- The court will wait for the indemnification stage to determine a more specific allocation of what fees were incurred for covered parties and which would be allocated to non-covered parties. See footnotes 33 to 39 and accompanying text.
- Nonetheless, the court emphasized that an effort must be made to allocate fees, to the extent possible, between those incurred for covered persons and underlying covered proceedings, and those fees incurred for persons or proceedings that are not covered by advancement. See footnote 40.
Unilateral Imposition of Conditions to Payment Rejected:
- This is an important principle that should have widespread application even outside the alternative entity context: A company cannot unilaterally impose conditions on advancement that are not contained in the underlying documents on which advancement is based. For example, in this case the court rejected efforts by the company to impose a litigation budget or impose billing guidelines as a condition for advancement because those conditions were not included in the advancement provision of the LP agreement. See footnotes 46 to 48 and accompanying text.
- Likewise, the court rejected an argument that a company could refuse to pay for annual increases in hourly rates. No such limitation was in the L.P. Agreement.
- Regarding invoices from third-parties, the court determined that at the advancement stage, it was sufficient to rely on the verification of a senior attorney involved that those invoices were necessary and reasonable.
Reasonableness of Total Fees:
- The limited partnership agreement allowed for advancement of “reasonable expenses.” Consistent with Court of Chancery Rule 88, as well as Delaware Lawyers’ Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5(a), the court explained that the fees requested must be reasonable in amount based on the eight factors applied under Rule 1.5(a) to make that determination.
- Nonetheless, the court will not review each line item or time entry and disbursement, nor will it second-guess the judgment of lawyers on the appropriate staffing of the case at the advancement stage.
- The parties do not have a blank check in this context, however, and the amount of fees are subject to review again at the indemnification stage. The court also observed that the client should also serve as a level of review because until indemnification is decided, that person incurs the risk that the fees may need to be paid back.
- Regarding the challenge to the rates charged by staff attorneys, the court found that there were factual issues that could not be resolved at summary judgment stage.
- Regarding allegations that the hours worked on the case were excessive and that the Paul Weiss firm overstaffed the matter, the court determined that it would rely on a certification from a senior partner of Paul Weiss by sworn affidavit that the amount of fees and expenses were reasonable under the circumstances.
- The court emphasized however that the firm does not have a blank check and that the person receiving the advancement has an incentive to monitor those bills in the event that it may be ultimately determined that the advancement was improvidently granted and may later need to be disgorged. Thus a more detailed review of fees alleged to be excessive is deferred until the indemnification stage, at which time levels of staffing and number of hours worked and rates can be reviewed.
Procedure for Determining Advancement Due on Future Invoices:
- The court described at pages 32 through 37 of the slip opinion the detailed procedure that the court required to be followed going forward based on the very specific methods described in the Fitracks case which is a very comprehensive procedure designed to minimize the amount of disputes about monthly bills that the court will need to address going forward.
Regarding Fees on Fees:
- The court determined that because only some of the claims were successful, only a partial amount of fees on fees would be awarded and that the parties should use the same Fitracks procedure to determine those amounts.