The following article is reprinted with permission from the Jan. 15, 2020 edition of “The Delaware Business Court Insider”, (c) 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.
By: Francis G.X. Pileggi and Chauna A. Abner
This is the 15th year that Francis Pileggi and various co-authors have created an annual list of important corporate and commercial decisions of the Delaware Supreme Court and the Delaware Court of Chancery. This list does not attempt to include all important decisions of those two courts that were rendered in 2019. Instead, this list highlights notable decisions that should be of widespread interest to those who work in the corporate and commercial litigation field or who follow the latest developments in this area of Delaware law. Prior annual reviews are available at this hyperlink.
This list focuses, with some exceptions, on the unsung heroes among the many decisions that have not already been widely discussed by the mainstream press or legal trade publications. Links are also provided below to the actual court decisions and longer summaries.
DELAWARE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS
Company Required to Produce Emails Among Management to Stockholders
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 and electronically-stored information (ESI) 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. This opinion quoted from a law review article co-authored by Francis Pileggi on the intersection of DGCL Section 220 and ESI.
Supreme Court Explains the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
A recent Delaware Supreme Court decision is must-reading for those who need to know the latest iteration of Delaware law on the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In Oxbow Carbon & Minerals Holdings, Inc. v. Crestview-Oxbow Acquisition, LLC, Del. Supr. No. 536, 2018 (Jan. 17, 2019), Delaware’s High Court provided the latest articulation of Delaware law on the multi-faceted doctrine of the implied covenant of good faith and fairing dealing. In connection with affirming in part and reversing in part a 176-page trial court opinion, which was highlighted on these pages, the Supreme Court agreed with the analysis of the trial court’s correct reading of the plain meaning of the LLC agreement at issue, but disagreed with the application by the trial court of the implied covenant.
Delaware Supreme Court Clarifies Ab Initio Requirement for BJR Review
The Delaware Supreme Court recently clarified the “ab initio” requirement announced in Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp. case as part of the set of standards that would allow for the BJR standard to apply to a challenged merger. See Olenik v. Lodzinski, No. 392, 2018 (Del. Supr., rev. April 11, 2019). The High Court determined that the requirement was not satisfied based on the facts of the instant case because the “economic bargaining took place prior to the date” when the protections announced in the Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp. case needed to be in place.
Much commentary has already been written about this case, so a lengthy summary is not provided here, but I refer to prior decisions that have applied the ab initio requirement, for background purposes, as noted on these pages.
Delaware Supreme Court Clarifies Appraisal Law
The Delaware Supreme Court, in a per curiam decision, recently determined that “deal price less synergies” was the appropriate determination of fair value in the appraisal action before it. In Verition Partners Master Fund Ltd. v. Aruba Networks, Inc., C.A. No. 11448-VCL (Del. Apr. 16, 2019), the Court reversed the Court of Chancery’s holding that “unaffected market price” was the fair value on the date of the merger. This case is the third in a recent trilogy of precedent-setting Delaware appraisal cases, preceded by DFC Global Corp. v. Muirfield Value Partners, L.P., 172 A.3d 346 (Del. 2017) and Dell, Inc. v. Magnetar Global Event Driven Master Fund Ltd, 177 A.3d 1 (Del. 2017). This case has been the subject of extensive commentary by scholars and practitioners.
Delaware Supreme Court Addresses Independence of Directors
In Marchand v. Barnhil, CA. No. 2017-0586-JRS (Del. Ch. June 18, 2019), the Delaware Supreme Court addressed the meaning of the words “independence” and “disinterestedness” in the context of adequately pleading pre-suit demand futility as a prerequisite for pursuing a derivative claim against corporate directors. The court reversed the Court of Chancery’s dismissal of the case for failure to establish demand futility. This issue is one of the most nuanced and challenging in Delaware corporate litigation as indicated by the disagreement on the outcome among the experienced jurists deciding this case.
Delaware Supreme Court Instructs on Standards of Deposition Conduct
A recent Delaware Supreme Court opinion provides a tutorial on the standards imposed on Delaware lawyers when a deponent, who is the lawyer’s client, engages in inappropriate conduct during a deposition. In Shorenstein Hays-Nederland Theaters LLC Appeals, Nos. 596, 2018 and 620-2018 (Del. June 20, 2019), Delaware’s High Court issued its first decision on this specific issue, as compared to the rather abundant guidance that has existed for many years regarding the consequences when lawyers themselves engage in errant conduct during a deposition.
Confidentiality Agreement Not Always Required for Section 220 Demands
For the first time, the Delaware Supreme Court decided that in a lawsuit in which a stockholder demands corporate books and records pursuant to Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, although it is typical to condition the production of records on entering into a confidentiality agreement, that the statute does not strictly require such a condition for production. The court also explained in Tiger v. Boast Apparel, Inc., No. 23, 2019 (Del. Aug. 7, 2019), that a party need not show exigent circumstances for a court to grant something less than indefinite confidentiality, and the inspection of records pursuant to Section 220 is not subject to a presumption of confidentiality.
COURT OF CHANCERY DECISIONS
Chancery Clarifies Director’s Right to Corporate Records
A recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision addressed the important issue of the right of directors to be given access to corporate records. In Schnatter v. Papa John’s International, Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0542-AGB (Del. Ch. Jan. 15, 2019), Delaware’s court of equity considered a claim under Section 220(d) of the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL) by the founder and largest stockholder of the Papa John’s pizza chain who was forced out as the CEO but retained his position as a director. He sought to obtain books and records in his capacity as a director to support an investigation that the other directors breached their fiduciary duties by improperly ousting him for unjustified reasons.
Chancery Finds Usurpation of Corporate Opportunity
Delaware case law is well-established regarding the aspect of the fiduciary duty of loyalty that prohibits a corporate director from usurping a corporate opportunity. A recent decision from the Delaware Court of Chancery applies that well-settled prohibition in a flexible manner to a set of facts that have apparently not been squarely addressed in prior precedent. In Personal Touch Holding Corp. v. Glaubach, C.A. No. 11199-CB (Del. Ch. Feb. 25, 2019), the court awarded damages for the breach of this subset of fiduciary duty, as well as for other breaches of fiduciary duty.
Chancery Applies Corporate Advancement Case Law to LLC Context
A recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision interpreted the advancement provisions of an LLC Agreement by applying case law interpreting DGCL Section 145 in the corporate context. In Freeman Family LLC v. Park Avenue Landing LLC, C.A. No. 2018-0683-TMR (Del. Ch. Apr. 30, 2019), the court reviewed the applicability of “defined phrases” that are familiar prerequisites for advancement in the corporate context pursuant to DGCL Section 145, and analyzed that same language that was used in an LLC agreement provision granting advancement.
Chancery Instructs on DGCL Merger Requirements
A recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion began by describing the complaint as reading like a law school exam designed to test the knowledge of a student regarding the requirements in the DGCL that must be satisfied in connection with a merger, and the court commented that the company would not have done well on the exam.
In Mehta v. Mobile Posse, Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0355-KSJM (Del. Ch. May 8, 2019), the court identified the six primary issues in this case as follows:
(1) Whether DGCL Section 262 was not complied with in connection with the failure to notify stockholders of their appraisal rights within the required timeframe;
(2) Whether DGCL Section 228 was not complied with due to the failure to send prompt notice of the written stockholder consents;
(3) Whether the merger agreement, or documents it incorporates, failed to comply with DGCL Section 251 by not including the amount of cash the preferred stockholders would receive for their shares;
(4) Whether the stockholder consents did not enjoy the ratifying effect under DGCL Section 144;
(5) Whether the director defendants breached their fiduciary duty of disclosure; and
(6) Whether the director defendants breached the fiduciary duty of loyalty because the merger was a self-dealing transaction and not entirely fair. With one small exception, the court found that the statutory violations were sufficiently established at the early procedural stage of a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
Chancery Grants Advancement on Counterclaims
A recent decision of the Delaware Court of Chancery clarifies those instances where a defensive counterclaim against a former officer and director may be covered by advancement rights. In a bench ruling in Dodelson v. AC Hold Co., Inc., C.A. No. 2019-009-SG (Transcript) (Del. Ch. May 21, 2019), the court interpreted the charter provision that included within the coverage for “indemnified parties” both former directors and officers. Notably, bench rulings may be cited as authority in briefs before the Delaware Court of Chancery.
Chancery Orders Mandatory Indemnification per DGCL Section 145(c)
The recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision in Brown v. Rite Aid Corporation, C.A. No. 2017-0480-MTZ (Del. Ch. May 24, 2019), clarified the perennial issue of how the word “success” is defined for purposes of mandatory indemnification under Section 145(c) of the Delaware General Corporation Law–even if all of the arguments in the underlying litigation were not successful.
Chancery Determines Valid LLC Managers; Rejects Bump-Out Theory of Board Replacements
The Delaware Court of Chancery left no doubt in a recent ruling that the “bump-out theory” of replacing LLC managers is not recognized in Delaware. In Llamas v. Titus, C.A. No. 2018-0516-JTL (Del. Ch. June 18, 2019), the court explained that incumbent managers need to be removed before their replacements can validly “take their seats.” The court interpreted the counterpart to DGCL Section 225, which is Section 18-110(a) of the Delaware LLC Act.
Advancement Granted for Post-Termination Use of Confidential Information
A recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion in Ephrat v. medCPU, Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0052-MTZ (Del. Ch. June 26, 2019), will remain a noteworthy decision for two reasons: (1) It provides and anthology of prior Delaware decisions granting advancement to former directors or officers that defend claims regarding the use of confidential information acquired in a prior corporate capacity; and (2) It adds nuance to the existing abundant case law interpreting the threshold phrase “by reason of the fact,” which is one of the statutory prerequisites that must be satisfied for advancement claims to prevail pursuant to DGCL Section 145.
Chancery Addresses Personal Jurisdiction Over Co-Conspirator
In Clark v. Davenport, C.A. No. 2017-0839-JTL (Del. Ch. July 18, 2019), the court provided a noteworthy explanation of the important nuances that need to be understood when personal jurisdiction is contested, and this opinion provides an excellent analysis of the requirements for opposing personal jurisdiction based on the Delaware Long Arm Statute.
Fully-Executed Contract Ruled Unenforceable
In Kotler v. Shipman Associates, LLC, C.A. No. 2017-0457-JRS (Del. Ch. Aug. 21, 2019), the Delaware Court of Chancery issued an opinion that should be read by all lawyers who seek to avoid the risk of a fully-executed contract being ruled unenforceable due to a court later finding, perhaps surprisingly, that the agreement did not accurately express the understanding of the parties.
Chancery Explains Step-Transaction Doctrine and Defines “Affiliate”
An important concept known as the step-transaction doctrine, which treats the agreements in a series of formally separate but related transactions involving the transfer of property as a single transaction if all the steps are substantially linked, was explained in the recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion in PWP Xerion Holdings III LLC v. Redleaf Resources, Inc., C.A. No. 2017-0235-JTL (Del. Ch. Oct. 23, 2019) and should be consulted by anyone who needs to understand the components of this important doctrine.
Delaware Forum Selection Clause Controls Over Foreign Exclusive Jurisdiction Statute
The recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision in AlixPartners, LP v. Mori, No. 2019-0392-KSJM (Del. Ch. Nov. 26, 2019) rejected an effort to dismiss a Delaware action notwithstanding the provision in an agreement that provided for a forum in a foreign country, and the apparent law of that foreign country that also supported exclusive jurisdiction in that country.