The recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion in Evans v. Avande, Inc., C.A. No. 2018-0454-LWW (Del. Ch. Sept. 23, 2021), provided much needed clarification for the rather unsettled nuance of indemnification under Section 145 of the Delaware General Corporation Law regarding when indemnification can be proportionate to the extent that the party seeking indemnification was not 100% successful in the underlying litigation.
This case involved a request for mandatory indemnification under DGCL Section 145 based on what the court described as a “novel theory of proportional indemnification.” The plaintiff argued that he should be indemnified for his “partial success” on fiduciary duty claims against him because the damages awarded to his former company were much less than the company originally sought.
The court provided a very helpful primer on the basics of indemnification under DGCL Section 145. In particular, the court explained that Section 145 grants corporations the discretion under subsections (a) and (b) to indemnify officers or directors where a minimum standard of conduct is met. The permissive language of Section 145(a) and Section 145(b) provides that indemnification may be available to an officer or a director if she is found to have acted in good faith.
By contrast, Section 145(c) contains mandatory language providing for an entitlement to indemnification. Under Section 145(c), whether an individual acted in good faith, or what she perceived to be in the best interest of the corporation, is irrelevant. The court explained that: “Section 145(c) is triggered when a covered person prevails in a proceeding that is covered by Section 145(a) or 145(b).”
The court further clarified that indemnification is compulsory where: “a present or former director or officer of a corporation has been successful on the merits or otherwise in defense of any action, suit or proceeding” (citing Section 145(c), and where that person was made a party to such action “by reason of the fact that the person is or was a director or officer . . . of the corporation.” (citing Section 145(a) – (b)).
The court emphasized that to satisfy the statutory prerequisite for mandatory indemnification “success” does not mean exoneration, and a corporate official “need not have been adjudged innocent in some ethical or moral sense.” See footnotes 39 and 40 and related text.
Highlights of Decision:
The most noteworthy aspects of this decision are the parts where the court addresses the standard for “proportionate indemnification” based on “partial success.”
The court observed that it was not aware of any authority where “partial success” was analyzed based on the percentages of damages the prevailing party recovered against an indemnitee. The court held that such an approach was “unworkable” in addition to being unprecedented; that is: to define partial success for indemnification purposes based on the proportion of damages recovered on a single claim. Such an approach would be untethered from the policy at the root of Section 145 because the overarching purpose of Section 145 is to encourage capable persons to serve as corporate directors knowing that expenses incurred by them will be borne by the corporation they serve. The court added that a director adjudged to have acted in bad faith in breach of his duty of loyalty can hardly assert that he is entitled to indemnification for a claim where the director’s integrity that the policy is intended to uphold while serving as a director, was found lacking.
Moreover, the court cited to other cases for the prevailing view that Delaware courts have made a determination on whether a person was successful for purposes of being entitled to indemnification “on a claim by claim basis,” as opposed to determining the percentage of damages that was awarded compared to the amount of damages that was initially sought. See footnotes 48 – 52 and accompanying text.