The Delaware Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that clarifies the duty of a company to produce emails among its management in a Section 220 case. In KT4 Partners LLC v. Palantir Technologies, Inc., Del. Supr., No. 281, 2018 (Jan. 29, 2019), Delaware’s High Court addressed a demand under Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL) Section 220 by a stockholder for corporate books and records, including emails among management, to allow the stockholder to investigate possible wrongdoing, such as the reasons behind amendments to an Investors’ Rights Agreement that severely reduced the original rights granted under that agreement.

Notably, the court in its opinion quoted from a law review article that yours truly co-authored on the topic, which explained why demands under DGCL Section 220 should often include electronically-stored information (ESI) such as emails. See footnote 76.

This opinion is noteworthy because it clarifies Delaware law and authoritatively describes those circumstances when a demand for books and records under DGCL Section 220 will require the company to produce ESI, such as emails among management, to the extent necessary for the proper purpose established in a Section 220 case.

Brief Overview:

The stockholder demand in this case stated as its purpose the investigation of mismanagement, including depriving investors of their right of first refusal under an investors’ agreement that was amended without the consent of all investors, as well as interfering with the sale of stock by a large stockholder. The Court of Chancery, in a decision highlighted on these pages, determined that although some books and records had to be produced, emails need not be. The Supreme Court disagreed with that ruling and affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Importantly, the facts of this case include an acknowledgment by the company that it often did not follow corporate formalities such as preparing board resolutions and keeping minutes of board meetings, but rather often communicated by email and took action by email–including on matters that were the subject of the investigative purpose of the Section 220 demand.

Highlights of Key Aspects of the Court’s Ruling:

For busy readers, I provide bullet points of key aspects of this crucial decision, but those who need to be familiar with the nuances of this aspect of Delaware corporate litigation should read the entire 49-page opinion linked above.

Procedural Background:

  • The court discussed what appeared to be an issue of first impression about the standard of review regarding a dispute over the interpretation of the stated purpose in a Section 220 demand. The court explained that the standard of review for the scope of relief is abuse of discretion, but de novo review applies to questions of law such as whether the stated purpose under Section 220 is proper. Although contract interpretation is also subject to de novo review as a question of law, fact-intensive and judgment-based determinations are reviewed for abuse of discretion, and factual determinations that underlie the trial court’s interpretation of an ambiguous written document deserve the deference given to factual findings.
  • The Delaware Supreme Court found that the demand in this case did include an explicit reference to a request for electronic documents.
  • The core issue identified by the High Court was whether the Court of Chancery abused its discretion in ruling that emails and other ESI were not necessary to satisfy the purpose of investigating the wrongdoing alleged in this Section 220 case.

Basic Principles:

  • The court reviewed the basic principles and policy undergirding the qualified common law and statutory right to inspect corporate books and records. See Slip op. at 22 to 24.
  • The court observed that the scope of documents to which a stockholder is entitled under Section 220 is limited to those that are necessary to accomplish the proper purpose as stated in the demand. See Slip op. at 24 to 25.

Emails/ESI Production:

  • In explaining why ESI should be included in appropriate Section 220 cases, the Delaware Supreme Court quoted from a law review article on this topic co-authored by your truly. See footnote 76 (quoting Francis G.X. Pileggi, et al., Inspecting Corporate “Books and Records” in a Digital World: The Role of Electronically Stored Information, 37 Del. J. Corp. L. 163, 165 (2012)).
  • The court reviewed Delaware cases that previously addressed whether ESI such as emails should be included in a Section 220 request. See footnotes 71 to 74. See also Amalgamated Bank v. Yahoo!, Inc., a Chancery opinion highlighted on these pages that also cited the same law review article on this topic co-authored by yours truly that was quoted by the Supreme Court in the instant case. See, e.g., footnote 72 (citing a Court of Chancery Order allowing for imaging of a Blackberry in a Section 220 case.)
  • The court also explained, based on the facts and circumstances of this case, why emails and ESI had to be produced and were needed to accomplish the stated purpose. See Slip op. at 31. For example, the court explained that the company involved did not comply with required corporate formalities such as minutes of board meetings and that it often conducted corporate business informally, including over email, regarding the issues subject to the Section 220 demand. See footnote 77 and accompanying text. The ESI at issue included, for example,  an allegedly incriminating message sent via LinkedIn.
  • The court also emphasized that there may be some Section 220 cases where ESI may not be required to be produced by the company, such as those situations where the corporation has traditional, non-electronic documents that are sufficient to satisfy the needs of the Section 220 petitioner.
  • In this case, the company admitted that there were no hardcopy documents that addressed all of the requests, and that there were emails and other ESI that were responsive to the requests.
  • The court also provided practice tips for future litigants: there should be a cooperative effort to focus on the substantive data that should be produced–or in other words, focus on the information that is needed and that is available whether it be in hardcopy or in ESI format.

The court also addressed an unrelated issue. It rejected the argument that the company made that as a condition of production it could require the stockholder to file any suits based on the data received in the Delaware Court of Chancery. Although there have been cases that have imposed similar jurisdictional conditions, the court explained why such a condition should be the exception and not the norm.

SUPPLEMENT: Law360 published an article about this case in which they quoted my comments about the importance of the High Court’s opinion. (Subscription required)