For the last 15 years, I have published a list of key corporate and commercial decisions by the Delaware Supreme Court and Court of Chancery on these pages. On a few occasions, I have published a Mid-Year Review of those cases. This year, veteran reporter and court watcher Jeff Montgomery of Law360 published such a review this month, and quoted your truly about the import of a few of those decisions. The link is here and the article is copied below.
Top Delaware Cases Of 2020: A Midyear Report
By Jeff Montgomery
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Law360 (July 2, 2020, 4:11 PM EDT) — Despite the pandemic, the first half of 2020 saw epic judicial gear-shifting but no real slowdown in Delaware’s key business courts, with new Chancery Court complaints actually picking up and important corporate and commercial law decisions regularly emerging from remotely conducted proceedings.
Movement was a little slower in the state Supreme Court and U.S. District Court, where new complaints slowed or held steady and arguments were generally handled differently, but both venues released rulings that were felt far beyond the 2,000 square miles of the First State.
COVID-19 Plan: Keep Socially Distant and Carry On
Delaware Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz declared a COVID-19 judicial emergency on March 13, closing courthouses to the public days later and limiting court activities to essential matters. Workarounds soon followed that limited physical public interaction at all levels of the state’s court system by turning to teleconference, videoconference and internet conference technologies that were already in use or being explored.
By May 29, a four-phase court reopening plan developed by a systemwide court committee emerged, with limited public access to courthouses resuming on June 15 during Phase 2. Although the use of courtrooms was permitted to resume, initial Phase 2 rules included tight restrictions on the number of individuals allowed inside, with remote proceedings still the norm and jury trials remaining on hold until the start of the next phase, which has yet to be announced.
“The Court of Chancery and the Supreme Court seem to have adjusted pretty well to the constraints,” said Lawrence A. Hamermesh, professor emeritus at Widener University Delaware Law School. “Of course, being able to process cases without a jury is a big advantage under the circumstances.”
As the eventful first half of 2020 came to a close, many looked back on:
Matthew B. Salzburg et al. v. Matthew Sciabacucchi
In March, Justice Karen L. Valihura and a unanimous state Supreme Court broadened the scope of Delaware chartered company affairs that can be handled in federal court, reversing Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster’s ruling that state corporation law prohibits companies from adopting federal forum selection provisions for Securities Act litigation.
Instead, the justices found a category of “intra-corporate” matters, including those involving Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, that also can be kept out of state courts if companies choose.
It was a case noteworthy in part for the characterization of opposing positions as “nonsense on stilts” by former Chancellor William B. Chandler III, now of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC, during winning arguments before the justices. Chandler’s firm represented Blue Apron, Roku and StitchFix, the companies challenging the forum ruling.
Francis G.X. Pileggi of Lewis Brisbois LLP, author of Delaware Corporate & Commercial Litigation Blog, said it was the first Supreme Court finding that a Delaware company’s bylaws can require some claims to be filed in federal court.
“The ramifications of that have not yet been fully felt, because there are certain variations on that decision that are not quite predictable in terms of how the court will rule,” Pileggi said. “Whether that same reasoning would apply to arbitration provisions is an open question in some circles.”
Hamermesh tagged the Blue Apron decision as a major ruling, noting that its reach could extend beyond venue choices to arbitration and limits on class actions, shifting of fees or rights under federal law. Interpretation of the decision in federal districts across the country remains unsettled, however.
“I’ve now seen a couple federal cases elsewhere that have tossed shareholder complaints asserting federal securities claims (even ones that can’t be brought in state court) based on Blue Apron and a forum selection bylaw,” Hamermesh said in an email. “The interesting question to me is how aggressive companies will be in adopting this sort of bylaw, and in regard to what range of federal claims.”
The case is Matthew B. Salzburg et al. v. Matthew Sciabacucchi, case number 346,2019, in the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware.
Dell Technologies Inc. Class V Stockholders Litigation
A court finding of “several recognized forms of coercion” tripped up Dell Technologies’ hopes of escaping a stockholder suit in June, with Vice Chancellor Laster refusing to dismiss a class complaint that stockholders came up at least $6 billion short when the tech company lined up a $24 billion stock swap deal. Any of the coercive acts, the court noted, were enough to deny business judgment deference in the suit. The remaining defendants are Dell, controlling shareholder Silver Lake Group LLC and four Dell directors.
In his 94-page opinion, the vice chancellor laid out a sort of Field Guide to Corporate Breaches, detailing a range of coercive conduct and ways in which it could circumvent or undermine requirements for independent special committee approvals and and majority of the minority shareholder votes.
Afterward, the vice chancellor’s opinion zeroed in on the company’s conduct, pointing to a brute-force species of coercion in the tech company’s plan to eliminate a costly class of stock that was supposed to track the value of cloud computing company VMWare, but in practice consistently came up short.
According to the stockholders, Dell and the directors threatened to pursue a forced conversion of their VMWare stock to Dell “Class C” common stock by a straight board vote, without negotiation or purportedly independent evaluation and with Dell founder Michael Dell having the independent power to trigger the move. The forced conversion, however, would have shrugged off customary corporate attempts to “cleanse” a troubled deal by relying on an independent committee of company directors to assess conflicts under precedents set in the Delaware Supreme Court’s 2014 Kahn v. M & F Worldwide Corp. decision, often referred to as MFW, and cases that followed.
While Dell did go with a special board committee, the vice chancellor found in his June decision that both directors on the panel were themselves “hopelessly conflicted” to begin with. They recommended approval of the deal in an hour after the company advised that it had bypassed the committee and lined up backing from a sizable block of stockholders in advance of a required approval by a majority of unconflicted “minority” investors.
Ex-Chancellor Chandler, who did not have a role in the Dell case, said that the vice chancellor’s decision affirmed that an “MFW special committee cannot be passive but has to be engaged throughout the process” while “stockholders play a separate and distinct role” in strategies to cleanse potentially conflicted deals.
Chandler said the Dell opinion also may figure prominently in a case now before Chancellor Andre G. Bouchard over the breakup of WeWork’s $3 billion acquisition by Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.
The case is In re: Dell Technologies Inc. Class V Stockholders Litigation, case number 2018-0816, in the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. The National Collegiate Master Student Trust
On May 31, a long-stalled, 2017 settlement of claims against a $15 billion student loan management and investment enterprise got tipped into a ditch, with Delaware federal Judge Maryellen Noreika finding that attorneys for the National Collegiate Master Student Trust lacked authority to sign a $22 million consent decree with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Among other determinations, Judge Noreika concluded that National Collegiate counsel McCarter & English LLP had no clearance to sign the deal with the CFPB. Only Wilmington Trust, the “owner trustee” for the National Collegiate funds, had the authority, with the deal also needing the support of note insurer Ambac Assurance Corp.
The decision threw the case into a round of briefings on motions to dismiss filed by investors in notes collateralized by the student loans acquired by National Collegiate. Businesses that service the loans also opposed the consent agreement.
Representatives of the administrators, insurers, trustees and servicers for the 15 National Collegiate Student Loan trusts involved have argued that the owners, controlled by affiliates of Donald Uderitz’s Vantage Capital Group, accepted the consent decree in an effort to regain control of assets, litigation rights and retention agreements. Opponents say those rights and powers belong to the noteholders, indenture trustee and affiliates until the notes are paid back.
In limbo, meanwhile, are student borrowers, some of whom have argued and sued for years over claims of improper and inadequately documented efforts to collect on unsupported default claims.
Separate litigation is pending in Chancery Court on related disputes.
The case is Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. the National Collegiate Master Student Loan Trust et al., case number 1:17-cv-01323, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware.
AmerisourceBergen v. Lebanon County Employees’ Retirement Fund et al.
In April, Delaware’s Supreme Court upheld a finding that drug wholesaler AmerisourceBergen Corp. had to turn over to stockholders books and records that it had previously released to investors in a federal stockholder action despite holding back against the state parties.
The decision came in an appeal of a Chancery Court conclusion that withholding of the same documents in the state case smacked of “plaintiff shopping” — giving an advantage to a potentially weaker plaintiff while holding back the stronger or more experienced ones.
The investors’ demand for books and records in Chancery Court and the derivative suit in Delaware federal court both focused on AmerisourceBergen’s allegedly costly and deadly failures in the distribution, control and oversight of opioids.
Pileggi, who has written extensively on disputes and decisions involving the Delaware General Corporation Law’s “Section 220” provisions for investor access to books and records, said the AmerisourceBergen action was among the most important on the topic in recent years.
The decision, Pileggi said, appeared to politely signal that “there are a lot of Section 220 decisions that have strayed” from the language of the law.
The case is AmerisourceBergen v. Lebanon County Employees’ Retirement Fund et al., case number 60 of 2020, in the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware.
In re: Tesla Motors Inc. Stockholder Litigation
In February, Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slights III released a decision that put a stockholder challenge to Elon Musk’s $2.6 billion merger of Tesla Inc. and SolarCity Corp. on track for one of the first major in-court Chancery Court trials since the COVID-19 crisis barred in-person arguments.
The vice chancellor rejected a partial summary judgment motion filed by investors and a dismissal motion sought by Musk for all but a valuation claim. Musk, who founded Tesla and co-founded SolarCity, was accused of orchestrating a deeply conflicted deal to bail out the rooftop solar company.
The suit, slimmed down since six Tesla directors agreed to an insurer-paid $60 million settlement, is now scheduled to be argued starting July 27, with one week in court and a second week of arguments via videoconference.
The case is In re: Tesla Motors Inc. Stockholder Litigation, case number 12711, in the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware.
Forescout Technologies Inc. v. Ferrari Group Holdings LP
One week before the Tesla trial begins, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III is scheduled to convene an expedited trial, to be streamed live via YouTube, in a pandemic-related merger breach case filed by cybersecurity firm Forescout Technologies Inc. on May 19.
In the suit, Forescout accused Ferrari Group Holdings LP, a deal affiliate of private equity firm Advent International, of attempting to walk away from its agreed-to $1.9 million acquisition of Forescout.
Although Forescout argued that Advent’s refusal to close was one of the latest examples of COVID-19 cold feet, and an unsupportable reason for breaching the deal, Advent said in counterclaims that Forescout’s business had fallen “off a cliff” since the merger pact was signed, creating a material adverse effect allowing Advent’s exit.
The case is Forescout Technologies Inc. v. Ferrari Group Holdings LP and Ferrari Merger Sub Inc., case number 2020-0385, in the Court of Chancery for the state of Delaware.
–Editing by Jill Coffey.