The current issue of the Delaware Business Court Insider includes an article on the titular topic by yours truly and my colleague Cheneise Wright. Courtesy of the good folks at the Delaware Business Court Insider, and with their permission, it appears below.
Chancery Declines to Follow First-Filed Rule in Advancement Case
By: Francis G.X. Pileggi*
Cheneise V. Wright**
A recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion applied an exception to the general rule that Delaware courts will often exercise their discretion to dismiss or stay a Delaware action in favor of a first-filed action between the parties that is pending in another jurisdiction. In Lay v. Ram Telecom International, Inc., C.A. No. 2021-0631-SG (Del. Ch. Oct. 4, 2021), the court analyzed the nuances of the first-filed rule regarding an advancement case under Section 145 of the Delaware General Corporation Law.
The first-filed rule, often referred to as the McWane doctrine, based on the Delaware Supreme Court decision in McWane Cast Iron Pipe Corp. v. McDowell-Wellman Eng’g Co., 263 A.2d 281, 283 (Del. 1970), provides that a Delaware court’s “discretion should be exercised freely in favor of the stay when there is a prior action pending elsewhere, in a court capable of doing prompt and complete justice, involving the same parties and the same issues.”
The background of the Lay case involves a demand letter sent in early June of 2021 seeking indemnification and advancement of fees and expenses incurred in defending an action the defendant had filed against the plaintiffs in the Superior Court of California. Instead of responding, five days after that letter was sent, the defendant amended their complaint in California to add a claim for declaratory relief, asking the California court to make a ruling on the indemnification and advancement issues. About a month later, the plaintiffs filed the Delaware suit seeking advancement for fees and costs incurred in the California Action.
In early August, the defendant filed a motion seeking a stay or dismissal of the Delaware advancement case in light of the California Action. Briefing was completed on the motion to stay or dismiss by Sept. 27, 2021. The court distinguished prior Delaware decisions that stayed advancement actions in favor of a first-filed action in which the same indemnitee had already asserted advancement rights. See Johnston v. Caremark RX, Inc., 2000 WL 354381, at * 2-5 (Del. Ch. Mar. 28, 2000). In contrast, the court cited to its decision in Fuisz v. Biovail Technologies, Ltd., 2000 WL 1277369, at * 4 (Del. Ch. Sept. 6, 2000), in which the court denied a stay of an advancement action where the prior action was not filed by the indemnitee.
The Court of Chancery also applied the reasoning in the Fuisz case in which the plaintiffs sought advancement under Section 145(k) for a Virginia action in which they had already asserted their advancement rights as an affirmative defense, but notably did nothing to obtain any relief from the Virginia court on the basis of that defense. The court explained in Fuisz that “unless the person having such an entitlement first actively invokes the jurisdiction of a foreign tribunal and seeks an adjudication of that issue from it . . . this court will not regard the foreign action as ‘first-filed’ for purposes of McWane’s comity-based analysis.” Id. at * 1.
The court in the instant case supported its decision not to apply McWane by noting that the plaintiffs in this case did not select California as the forum and they made no effort to obtain an adjudication from the California court of any of the issues presented in this action. Rather, “it was the defendant in this action who sought a declaratory judgment in the California action concerning the plaintiff’s advancement and indemnification rights.”
The court emphasized the importance to its holding of the fact that the defendant amended the California Action to add a declaratory relief claim after the plaintiffs sent a demand for advancement and indemnification. The court underscored that it would be inequitable to allow any plaintiff that receives an advancement demand from a defendant to circumvent the right to a summary advancement proceeding in Delaware under Section 145(k) by simply amending its complaint in the other forum to add a declaratory relief claim on the advancement issue upon receiving a demand. Instead, the court ruled: “that is not our law.”
The court explained that the first-filed rule under the McWane doctrine does not apply because in this instance the California Action should not be considered a first-filed action.
The court also distinguished a very recent Chancery decision which stayed an advancement action in favor of a federal action even though the plaintiff in the federal action had not claimed advancement. See Harmon 1999 Descendants’ Trust v. CGH Investment Management, LLC, 2021 WL 4270220 at * 3 & n.12 (Del. Ch. Sept. 21, 2021). The court explained why the Harmon case was inapplicable. In Harmon, the court reasoned that the federal action was “in its penultimate phase” and an issue before the federal court was whether the person seeking advancement was a limited partner. That issue was a “material, factually rife, and disputed issue” in the advancement action. Therefore, the Court of Chancery held in that case that because the federal court was likely to resolve the factual issue before the Court of Chancery could, efficiencies would be gained by staying the Delaware suit in favor of the federal action.
In contrast, the pending motion to stay or dismiss did not identify any “material, factually rife and disputed issue” that had to be decided in the California Action before the question of advancement could be resolved in the Court of Chancery, nor does the motion to dismiss in Delaware argue that the California Action is in its “penultimate phase.”
In sum, the Court of Chancery held that the motion to stay or dismiss did “not present exceptional circumstances warranting a departure from the rule that claims under Section 145(k) for advancement of expenses should not be stayed or dismissed in favor of the prior pending foreign litigation that gave rise to them.” Thus, the Court of Chancery declined to stay the Delaware Action in favor of the California Action.
In a concluding footnote the court regaled readers with the entertaining linguistic observation that in addition to not being in its penultimate phase, the California Action did not appear to be in an antepenultimate or even a pre-antepenultimate phase.
*Francis G.X. Pileggi is the managing partner of the Delaware office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, and the primary author of the Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog at www.delawarelitigation.com.
**Chenesie V. Wright is a corporate and commercial litigation associate in the Delaware office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP