The issue presented to the Delaware Supreme Court in Flood v. Synutra International, Inc., Del. Supr., No. 101, 2018 (Oct. 9, 2018), was whether it was proper for the Court of Chancery to apply the MFW standard by: “(i) allowing for the application of the business judgment rule if the controlling stockholder conditions its bid on both of the key procedural protections at the beginning stages of the process of considering a going private proposal and before any economic negotiations commence; and (ii) requiring the Court of Chancery to apply traditional principles of due care and to hold that no litigable question of due care exists if the complaint fails to allege that an independent special committee acted with gross negligence.” See page 1.
The “MFW standard” was announced by the Delaware Supreme Court in Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635 (Del. 2014), which was highlighted on these pages. That standard allowed for the deferential business judgment review that be applied to a merger “proposed by controlling stockholder conditioned before the start of negotiations on ‘both the approval of an independent, adequately-empowered Special Committee that fulfils its duty of care; and the uncoerced, informed vote of the majority of the minority stockholders.’” Id. at 644.
The high court concluded, in its majority opinion, that the interpretation of MFW standard based on the foregoing principles was correct, and cited with approval, for support of its conclusion, the high court’s previous affirmance in Swomley v. Schlecht, 128 A.3d 992 (Del. 2015) (Table).
Although this majority decision could be the subject of a lengthy analysis, especially in light of the vigorous dissenting opinion–which is an indication that reasonable people could easily differ on the conclusions in this case–I will provide highlights only in this short post, via bullet points, to allow a quick reference to key parts of the ruling. Those interested may read the whole opinion for a complete understanding of this important decision:
- One of the issues in the case was whether or not the prerequisites that must be satisfied in order for the MFW standard to apply must be imposed as a condition of the deal at the absolute beginning of the negotiations–or if the imposition of those conditions at the “beginning” of negotiations can be more flexibly determined as a matter of chronology, as opposed to a “bright line test” requiring a specific point in time. See pages 9 to 21.
- This issue arose because of the description in the Supreme Court’s initial announcement of the MFW decision that the prerequisites that must be a condition of the deal need to be announced “ab initio” which can be translated as “at inception” or “at the beginning.”
- The court used several descriptions to explain why a more flexible approach should be used for exactly when in the chronology of a deal the conditions must be imposed, by referring to many situations where the word “beginning” does not refer to a specific point in time, such as the “beginning of a book” that extends beyond just the first word in a novel, and may at least include the first few pages of a novel, for example.
- The court reasoned that a more flexible approach is sensible in terms of focusing on the more meaningful point in a deal when “substantive economic negotiations take place,” as in this case when a second offer letter was sent and no prior economic substantive negotiations had taken place after the first letter, but before the second offer letter was sent.
- The second issue addressed was whether due care violations were pled in the complaint.
- This ambiguity was raised by footnote 14 in the original MFW opinion of the Supreme Court, but which was clarified by this case which essentially nullified the dicta in footnote 14 of the original MFW opinion of the court. See pages 23 to 25, where the majority opinion in this case explains why that footnote 14 should not be relied on, and why no due care violation was adequately pled in this case.