The Delaware Supreme Court recently provided guidance to corporate litigators regarding the nuances of DGCL Section 220, which most readers recognize as the statute that allows stockholders to demand certain corporate records if the prerequisites in the statute–and those imposed by countless court decisions–have been satisfied. In NVIDIA Corp. v. City of Westmoreland Police and Fire Retirement System, Del. Supr., No. 259, 2021 (July 19, 2022), a divided en banc bench of Delaware’s High Court explained in a 54-page decision why the “credible basis” requirement may be satisfied in some circumstances by “reliable hearsay”.
Regular readers of these pages will be forgiven if their reaction might be: what more can be said about the relatively simple right of stockholders to demand corporate records, in some circumstances, pursuant to DGCL Section 220–that hasn’t already been covered by the hundred or more Section 220 cases highlighted on these pages over the last 17 years, as well as the thousands of court decisions on the topic over the many decades preceding this publication? In short, when the Delaware Supreme Court speaks, those who labor in its vineyard need to listen. And one indication that this topic is not as simple as the statute might suggest, is that those with the final word on Delaware corporate law–the members of the Delaware Supreme Court–were not in complete unanimity in their decision in this case. A concurrence was not in 100% agreement with the majority opinion.
Prior to this decision, it was not well-settled whether a stockholder could satisfy the “proper purpose” requirement under DGCL Section 220 with hearsay–instead of live testimony, for example. The Delaware Supreme Court ruled that: “The Court of Chancery did not err in holding that sufficiently reliably hearsay may be used to show proper purpose in a Section 220 litigation, but did err in allowing the stockholders in this case to rely on hearsay evidence because the stockholders’ actions deprived NVIDIA of the opportunity to test the stockholders’ stated purpose.” Slip op. at 4. (emphasis added).
Overview of Background
After finding post-trial both a proper purpose and a credible basis for the requests, the trial court ordered the production of documents to investigate: possible wrongdoing and mismanagement; the ability of the board to consider a pre-suit demand; and to determine if the board members were fit to serve on the board. The trial court rejected the defenses that: the requests were overbroad and not tailored with rifled precision to what is necessary and essential for the stated purpose; no proper purpose was shown; no credible basis was demonstrated to infer wrongdoing; and the stockholder failed to follow the “form and manner” requirements–in part by changing the list of requested documents during the litigation.
Several stockholders consolidated their demands prior to suit, and 530,000 pages were produced prior to the litigation. Suit was filed in February 2020 based in part on public statements made during an earnings call. Prior to trial, the stockholders were less than forthcoming about whether they would call any witnesses, or which witnesses they would call at trial to establish their proper purpose. The Supreme Court held that the lack of pre-trial transparency by the stockholders deprived the company of the option to depose witnesses to explore the proper purpose issue prior to trial.
Most readers are familiar with the basic Section 220 requirements, but the Court’s review provides a helpful reminder. Some of the prerequisites include:
- Stockholders must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence a credible basis from which the court may “infer possible mismanagement that would warrant further investigation.” Slip op. at 18
- The requested documents must be “essential to the accomplishment of the stockholder’s articulated purpose of inspection.” Id.
Key Highlights and Takeaways
- The Court of Chancery has discretion to trim overly broad requests to craft a production order circumscribed with rifled precision.
- Although a stockholder may not broaden the scope of their requests throughout the litigation, a Section 220 plaintiff may narrow their requests if they do so in good faith and such narrowing does not prejudice the company.
- The Court observed that Section 220 cases are “summary proceedings” and such trials do not always include live testimony. Thus, the court reasoned that: “hearsay is admissible in a Section 220 proceeding when the hearsay is sufficiently reliable.” Slip op. at 38.
- The Court cautioned that Section 220 plaintiffs should not abuse the hearsay exception, and “must be up front about their plans regarding witnesses” in the pre-trial phase of a case. Slip op. at 41. In this case the Court held that the company was deprived of the “ability to test the stockholders’ purpose”, such as through a deposition or otherwise, because the stockholders did not give the company sufficient notice about what they would rely on at trial to establish a proper purpose. Slip op. at 42-43.
- In dicta, the Court upheld the trial court’s inference made by “connecting the dots” that the credible basis requirement was satisfied based on a combination of: insider stock sales, public statements that may have been false, and concurrent securities litigation supported by ample research. Slip op. at 45.
- The Court restated the law that the “credible basis threshold may be satisfied by a credible showing, through documents, logic, testimony, or otherwise, that there are legitimate issues of wrongdoing.” Slip op. at 46.
The concurring opinion of one member of the High Court observed that Section 220 cases often involve the issue of whether the “stated purpose” is the “actual purpose”, which makes the truth of the stockholder’s statements on that point a key issue. The concurrence also emphasized the importance of the distinction between a proper purpose and the threshold requirement of credible basis–and that a stockholder who is neither an employee nor an officer of a company will rarely have first-had knowledge of wrongdoing, but a typical stockholder “will always have knowledge of her purpose because it is, after all, her purpose.” Slip op. at 54. (emphasis in original).
Although this decision may make it easier in some ways for a stockholder to prove its case in a Section 220 lawsuit, companies still have several tools at their disposal to test the basis for a stockholder’s assertion of a proper purpose and other statutory and court-made prerequisites for a Section 220 demand.