A recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion interpreted related agreements that included forum selection clauses that were conflicting.  In Mack v. Rev Worldwide, Inc., C.A. No. 2019-0123-MTZ (Del. Ch. Dec. 30, 2020), the court addressed forum selection provisions in two related agreements which the court treated as one because they were incorporated by reference.

The court was asked to decide whether Delaware was the proper forum when one of the forum selection clauses required courts in Texas to address certain issues–and the other forum selection provision provided for a California court to hear disputes.

Key Takeaways:
● The court recited the well-established Delaware law about the enforceability of forum selection clauses generally.  Slip op. at 15 to 17.
● The court also addressed Rule 12(b)(3) motions challenging venue and whether arguments required to be made in an initial Rule 12 motion are waived if all the grounds for such motions are not explained, as well as the impact of a second motion under Rule 12 in connection with an amended complaint.  The court explained why those arguments would generally not be waived, even if all the grounds for such a motion were not recited in the original motion.
● The court also observed that in some instances non-signatories to a forum selection clause may also be bound by it.
● The court reasoned that unlike the typical situation where conflicting forum selection clauses choose Delaware and another forum, in this instance competing forum selection clauses both required litigation in states outside of Delaware. Therefore, the court determined that because neither of the parties chose Delaware, a court in one of the other two forums selected would need to decide which of them would address the merits of the case.

A recent Court of Chancery decision is almost as noteworthy for what it decided as for what was not decided. In JUUL Labs, Inc. v. Grove, C.A. No. 2020-0005-JTL (Del. Ch. Aug. 13, 2020), Delaware’s court of equity enforced an exclusive forum selection clause in a company charter, based at least in part on the internal affairs doctrine, to prevent a stockholder in a Delaware corporation from filing suit in California in reliance on a California statute to demand the inspection of corporate records, notwithstanding a California statute that appears to allow a stockholder to sue in California for corporate records if the Delaware company has its principal place of business in California.

What the court did not decide is whether a stockholder may contractually waive her rights under DGCL section 220. Count this writer as a skeptic on that point. The court reviewed several overlapping agreements, such as a stock option exercise agreement, that the stockholder signed and that purported, at least in the company’s view, to waive inspection rights under DGCL section 220. Some of the agreements were governed by Delaware law and some by California law.

This decision could be the topic of a law review article due to the many core principles of corporate law and doctrinal underpinnings the court carefully analyzes. Alas, for now, I’ll only provide a few bullet points with an exhortation that the whole opinion be reviewed closely.

    • The court provides an in-depth discussion of the foundational concepts that undergird the internal affairs doctrine as it applies to the request for corporate records, as well as related constitutional issues that arise.
    • But footnote 7 acknowledges contrary authority that suggests that a local jurisdiction may apply its law to a demand by a local resident for corporate records of a foreign corporation.
    • The court compares DGCL section 220 with its counterpart in the California statutory regime.
    • The exclusive forum selection clause in the charter was addressed, and the court explained that but for this provision, the California court would be able to apply DGCL section 220.
    • Importantly, the court emphasized that is was not deciding whether a waiver of DGCL section 220 rights would be enforceable. Although at footnote 14 the court provides citations to many Delaware cases that sowed doubt about the viability of that position–but then the court also cited cases at footnote 15 that more generally recognized the ability to waive even constitutional rights.
    • Footnote 16 cites to many scholarly articles, and muses about the public policy aspects of the unilateral adoption of provisions in constitutive documents, such as forum selection clauses in Bylaws. Early in the opinion, at footnote 7, by comparison the court waxes philosophical about the concept of the corporation as a nexus of contracts–as compared to it being viewed as a creature of the state. The latter view has implications about the exercise of one state’s power in relation to other states, especially when private ordering may be seen as private parties exercising state power by proxy.
    • By coincidence or otherwise, this decision was published the same week that a California court in another case refused to enforce a Delaware forum selection clause because the California court ruled that forcing a California resident to litigate in the Delaware Court of Chancery would deprive that resident of a constitutional right to a jury trial.
    • The foregoing hyperlink leads to an article in Delaware Business Court Insider of Aug. 7, 2020, that describes an apparent settlement to allow the case to proceed in Delaware Superior Court, a trial court of general jurisdiction with juries available. The counterpart suit in Delaware has its own procedural history. See William West v. Access Control Related Enterprises, LLC, et al., C.A. No. N17C-11-137-MMJ-CCLD, opinion (Del. Super. June 5, 2019).

Delaware law allows for non-signatories to be bound by a forum selection clause if a three-part test is met, and a recent Delaware Court of Chancery opinion provides an analysis of those factors while granting a motion to dismiss in Highway to Health, Inc. v. Bohn, No. 2018-0707-AGB (Del. Ch. April 15, 2020).

The most noteworthy aspects of this pithy decision are: (i) a reminder that Delaware enforces forum selection clauses; and (ii) that a non-signatory can be bound by a forum selection clause if a three-part test is satisfied. See footnotes 46-47 and accompanying text. The directors of a Delaware company sought a declaratory judgment against non-residents of Delaware regarding a dispute about stock-appreciation-rights (SAR) that, by contract, required the board to fulfill fiduciary duties towards the SAR holders.

Three-Part Test for Binding Non-signatories

The three-part test requires one to demonstrate that: (i) the forum selection clause is valid; (ii) the non-signatories are third-party beneficiaries; and (iii) the claims arise from their standing relating to the agreement. Slip op. at 15. The third element of the test was not satisfied based on the facts of this case because the agreement containing the forum selection clause was not the same agreement that gave rise to the substantive claims brought by or against the non-signatories.

Long-Arm Statute and Specific Personal Jurisdiction

This decision also features an analysis of the Delaware long-arm statute, and explains why the “specific jurisdiction” requirements under Section 3104(c)(1) of Title 10 of the Delaware Code were not satisfied because there was no relevant act that actually occurred in Delaware. The Court factually distinguished a case that found specific jurisdiction based on an amalgamation of factors that included: Delaware lawyers drafting the agreement at issue; a Delaware choice-of-law provision; and issues related to the sale of capital stock in a Delaware company. See NRG Barriers, Inc. v. Jelin, 1996 WL 377014 (Del. Ch. July 1, 1996).

Although the plaintiffs in this case did not avail themselves of the opportunity, the Court observed that limited discovery may be allowed in connection with the plaintiff satisfying its burden of proof to establish personal jurisdiction over defendants.

A recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision entertained a request for expedited relief in Delaware despite a New York forum selection clause, in part due to the unavailability of the New York Courts that were not fully operational due to the coronavirus shutdown. Francis Pileggi and Chauna Abner co-authored an article with an overview of the ruling in Conduent Business Services v. Skyview Capital, C.A. No. 2020-0232-JTL, Transcript Ruling at **33-34 (Del. Ch. Mar. 30, 2020), for the Delaware Business Court Insider in its recent edition. The full article appears below.

“While New York Court System is ‘Unavailable’ Delaware Court of Chancery Permits Parties to Seek Relief in Delaware Despite a New York Forum Selection Clause”

by: Francis G.X. Pileggi and Chauna A. Abner

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Delaware Court of Chancery recently held that despite a forum selection clause designating New York as the appropriate venue to litigate disputes arising under an agreement, the parties could seek relief in the Court of Chancery because New York courts were unavailable.  Conduent Bus. Servs., LLC v. Skyview Capital, LLC, C.A. No. 2020-0232-JTL, Transcript Ruling, at **33-34 (Del. Ch. Mar. 30, 2020).

In Conduent Business Services, the complaint asserted an anticipatory breach of an asset purchase agreement and sought a declaratory judgment interpreting the terms of the agreement. Id. at 10. That agreement had a forum selection clause designating New York as the forum to litigate disputes arising from the contract. Id. at *19. Before the Court was plaintiff’s motion for expedited proceedings.

The defendant argued that plaintiff’s claim for relief was not colorable because venue was not appropriate. Id. at *20. The defendant contended that the applicable law under the contract is New York law, and the Court should not impose “an exception to what remains New York law for which the parties bargained.” Id. at *18. The defendant argued that “part of the corpus of New York law right now is how the New York courts are handling commercial cases. And that includes, as both sides have briefed, that right now they are not handling this.” Id. at **17-18. Finally, the defendant noted that the New York courts provided for emergency applications and the plaintiff did not make that application. Id. at **18-19.

In response, the plaintiff urged that it was not “trying to stomp on the venue clause” and that it was “just trying to make sure that [it] can protect [it]sel[f] from irreparable harm while the New York courts are closed.” Id. at *32.

In ruling on whether venue was appropriate, Vice Chancellor Laster stated: “frankly, I think the fact that the New York Court is unavailable is pretty dispositive.” Id. *10. He explained that there is no dispute that “under normal circumstances, the forum selection clause in New York would be binding.” Id. at *33. Thus, he phrased the issue as “whether the circumstances, where New York — for understandable reasons given, the current crisis that the city is facing — has decided not to accept expedited commercial matters constitutes a situation that allows the parties to resort to other tribunals that are potentially capable of granting emergent or expedited relief.” Id.

In holding that venue was proper in the Court of Chancery to resolve the motion to expedite, the Court reasoned that “case law holds that where a forum selection clause specifies a forum that is unavailable, parties can resort to a different forum, where appropriate jurisdiction exists” and that case law applies here. Id. The Court explained that this ruling was not intended to disrespect the courts of New York, but it acknowledges that “[t]he reality is that [New York courts] face an extraordinary situation right now, and so it’s understandable that they’d be in a position where they can’t handle disputes.” Id. at **33-34.

Given the uncertain times that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in, including the unknown long-term effects, if any, that it will have on courts throughout the country, the Court’s ruling that “people can go to other courts, if the jurisdictional bases are met, and seek relief in those courts” is of paramount importance. Id. at *34. Although this is a transcript ruling, in Delaware, parties may cite transcript rulings in briefs as authority.

A recent Court of Chancery decision is noteworthy for its analysis of the interfacing between a forum selection clause requiring Delaware jurisdiction and the law of a foreign country ostensibly granting exclusive jurisdiction to the courts of that foreign country. In AlixPartners, LLP v. Mori, No. 2019-0392-KSJM (Del. Ch. Nov. 26, 2019), the court explained, relying on Delaware Supreme Court decisions, that in only very limited circumstances will the law of a foreign country that provides for exclusive jurisdiction in that foreign country, divest Delaware courts of subject matter jurisdiction–especially when a forum selection clause between the parties before it provided for exclusive Delaware jurisdiction. (A graphic of the Roman forum seemed appropriate for this case.)

Brief Overview:

The facts of this case involve an intricate web of connected and overlapping agreements and related Delaware and foreign entities. For purposes of this short overview, the key facts are that an employee of an Italian subsidiary of a Delaware entity, who had an employment contract governed by Italian law, also signed a partnership agreement with the Delaware entity that had a non-solicitation clause and a Delaware forum selection clause. The employee was accused of downloading confidential information and related activity in violation of the Delaware agreement. However, Italian law required the claims under the employment agreement governed by Italian law to be pursued exclusively in the courts of the country of Italy, even without a forum clause in that agreement.

This case features an unusual twist on the many cases highlighted on these pages over the last 15 years involving the enforceability of forum selection clauses.

Key Takeaways:

  • The court rejected defenses based on the applicable law of Italy and the law of the European Union–which required that certain claims be pursued in Italy–and explained that such foreign laws did not divest the Delaware court of subject matter jurisdiction, especially in light of an applicable forum selection clause providing for Delaware courts to address the majority of the disputes at issue.
  • The court relied on two Delaware Supreme Court cases that addressed the very limited circumstances where a foreign country’s exclusive jurisdictions statute will divest the Delaware courts of jurisdiction. See Slip op. at 14 and footnotes 44 and 45.
  • The court also explained, relying on prior Delaware court decisions, that even a non-signatory can be bound to a forum selection clause–which is also considered to constitute consent to personal jurisdiction that satisfies a due process analysis. See pages 25 to 29.
  • The court explained that a forum selection clause supersedes any defense based on forum non conveniens as well as an argument based on international comity.
  • Nonetheless, the court found that the employment agreement involved in this case, that had an Italian choice of law clause (but no forum selection clause), supported the entry of a stay of the claims related to that employment agreement based on forum non conveniens, and that result is also supported by the fact that Italy had the most substantial relationship to all the facts, the issues and the witnesses, who likely would not be subject to compulsory process in Delaware.
  • But see footnote 138, in which the court requires the parties to meet and confer to determine if there is a way to stay the proceedings “in Delaware or Italy to avoid having both courts determine overlapping issues.” The court reserved its right to reconsider its ruling on the stay depending on the outcome of the parties’ efforts to determine whether duplication of efforts can be avoided by the courts of Delaware and Italy.

For readers who follow the law regarding forum selection clauses, a recent article by Professor Joseph Grundfest should be of interest. The good professor addresses the December 2018 Court of Chancery decision in Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg (highlighted on these pages), and the intersection of Delaware law and Federal law in the context of forum selection clauses and the internal affairs doctrine. The abstract follows to his article titled: The Limits of Delaware Corporate Law: Internal Affairs, Federal Forum Provisions, and Sciabacucchi

Abstract

The Securities Act of 1933 provides for concurrent federal and state jurisdiction. Securities Act claims were historically litigated in federal court, but in 2015 plaintiffs began filing far more frequently in state court where dismissals are less common and weaker claims more likely to survive. D&O insurance costs for IPOs have since increased significantly. Today, approximately 75% of defendants in Section 11 claims face state court actions. Federal Forum Provisions [FFPs] respond by providing that, for Delaware-chartered entities, Securities Act claims must be litigated in federal court or in Delaware state court.

In Sciabacucchi, Chancery applies “first principles” to invalidate FFPs primarily on grounds that charter provisions may only regulate internal affairs, and that Securities Act claims are always external. In so concluding, Sciabacucchi adopts a novel definition of internal affairs that is narrower than precedent, and asserts that plaintiffs have a federal right to bring state court Securities Act claims. It describes all Securities Act plaintiffs as purchasers who are not owed fiduciary duties at the time of purchase. The opinion constrains all actions of the Delaware legislature relating to the DGCL to comply with its novel definition of “internal affairs.”

Sciabacucchi’s logic and conclusion are fragile. The opinion conflicts with controlling U.S. and Delaware Supreme Court precedent and relies critically on assumptions of fact that are demonstrably incorrect. It asserts that FFPs are “contrary to the federal regime” because they preclude state court litigation of Securities Act claims. But the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez holds that there is no immutable right to litigate Securities Act claims in state court, and enforces an agreement that precludes state court Securities Act litigation. Sciabacucchi assumes that Securities Act plaintiffs are never existing stockholders to whom fiduciary duties are owed. But SEC filings and the pervasiveness of order splitting conclusively establish that purchasers are commonly existing holders protected by fiduciary duties. The opinion fears hypothetical extraterritorial application of the DGCL. To prevent this result, it invents a novel definition of “internal affairs” that it applies to constrain all of the Legislature’s past and future activity. But the opinion nowhere addresses the large corpus of U.S. and Delaware Supreme Court precedent that already precludes extraterritorial applications of the DGCL. It thus invents novel doctrine that conflicts with established precedent in an effort to solve a problem that is already solved. The opinion’s novel, divergent definition of “internal affairs” also conflicts with U.S. and Delaware Supreme Court precedent that the opinion nowhere considers.

Sciabacucchi is additionally problematic from a policy perspective. By using Delaware law to preclude a federal practice in federal court under a federal statute that is permissible under federal law, Sciabacucchi veers Delaware law sharply into the federal lane and creates unprecedented tension with the federal regime. Its narrow “internal affairs” definition invites sister states to regulate matters traditionally viewed as internal by Delaware, and advances a position inimical to Delaware’s interests. By propounding its divergent internal affairs constraint as a categorical restriction on the General Assembly’s actions, past and future, the opinion causes the judiciary to intrude into the legislature’s lane. And, data indicate that the opinion in Sciabacucchi caused a statistically and economically significant decline in the stock price of recent IPO issuers with FFPs in their organic documents.

In contrast, a straightforward textualist approach would apply the doctrine of consistent usage and use simple dictionary definitions to preclude any extension of the DGCL beyond its traditional bounds. Textualism avoids all of the concerns that inspire the invention of a divergent “internal affairs” definition. Textualism does not require counter-factual assumptions, conflict with U.S. or Delaware Supreme Court precedent, cause Delaware to constrain federal practice in a manner inconsistent with federal law, or advocate policy positions inimical to Delaware’s interest. Textualism also interprets the DGCL in a manner that profoundly constrains the ability of all Delaware corporations to adopt mandatory arbitration of Securities Act claims. Textualism validates FFPs in a manner that precludes the adverse, hypothetical, collateral consequences that animate Sciabacucchi’s fragile analysis, without generating Sciabacucchi’s challenging sequelae.

Keywords: Securities Act, forum selection, Delaware, jurisdiction, litigation, Section 11, charters, by-laws, internal affairs, federal forum provisions

JEL Classification: K22, K41

Suggested Citation

Grundfest, Joseph A., The Limits of Delaware Corporate Law: Internal Affairs, Federal Forum Provisions, and Sciabacucchi (September 12, 2019). Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University Working Paper No. 241. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3448651 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3448651

 

There are many decisions highlighted on these pages ordering the enforcement of forum selection clauses. A recent transcript ruling is notable for granting expedited proceedings, without ruling on the merits, for a plaintiff who sought to enforce a forum selection clause even though the plaintiff was not a signatory to the agreement with the forum selection clause.

The plaintiff in this case is a law firm seeking to enforce a forum selection clause in a release and settlement agreement that released the attorneys of the signatory. See Dentons US LLP, v. Platt, C.A. No. 2019-0177-MTZ, transcript (Del. Ch. March 20, 2019). Regular readers are aware that transcript rulings may be cited in Delaware briefs.

A forum selection clause, controlled by Austrian law, was recently interpreted by the Delaware Court of Chancery as a mandatory forum selection clause requiring the dispute to be litigated in Vienna.  In Germaninvestments A.G. v. Allomet Corporation, C.A. No. 2018-0666-JRS (Del. Ch. May 23, 2019), the court also determined that the choice of law provision designating Austrian law and the forum selection clause requiring litigation in Vienna were both enforceable.

N.B. The Delaware Supreme Court reversed this decision in an opinion dated Jan. 27, 2020.

Procedural Background:

The court observed that Rule 12(b)(3), which addresses improper venue, was “the proper procedural rubric” for addressing a motion to dismiss based on a forum selection clause.  The court also explained that a motion under Rule 12(b)(3) does not “shackle” the court to the plaintiff’s complaint, but rather the court is permitted to consider extrinsic evidence from the outset.  See footnote 63. 

The court also noted that Chancery Rule 44.1 provides the procedure for presenting foreign law to the court to allow the court to interpret a document governed by foreign law.  The rule provides that a party is required to give notice in the pleadings or other reasonable written notice that the law of a foreign country will control.  Prior decisions have recognized that expert affidavits may be considered along with expert testimony.

Key Statements of Law:

·     The court explained the well-settled rule that Delaware courts will give effect to the terms of private agreements providing for forum selection clauses.  See footnote 64 and accompanying text.

·     In order for a forum selection clause to be considered exclusive under Delaware law, the “contractual language must be crystalline in stating the parties’ intent to litigate only in the designated forum.”  See footnote 66.

·     The Delaware courts also generally honor contractually-designated choice of law provisions as long as the jurisdiction selected “bears some material relationship to the transaction.”  See footnote 70.

·     A key issue is whether the forum selection clause states that it is exclusive, or whether the language will be construed as merely permissive. See footnote 80 (citing Delaware cases holding that a mandatory forum selection clause must make clear that the litigation is required to proceed in the designated forum).

·     In this instance, the applicable Austrian law applied to require litigation only in Vienna.

·     The court also rejected the argument that DGCL Section 168 applied because the statute relates to replacements for lost stock certificates, and in this instance the issue was whether the original stock certificate should have been issued.

The Delaware Court of Chancery found that a forum selection clause that was merely permissive rather than exclusive, did not justify enforcing one forum only. In the case styled In re Bay Hills Emerging Partners, I, L.P., C.A. No. 2018-0234- JRS (Del. Ch. July 2, 2018), the court was presented with a case challenging the removal of general partners of a Delaware limited partnership. Many prior decisions upholding (mostly) exclusive forum selection clauses have been highlighted on these pages over the last 13 years.

Brief Background Facts:

Shortly after the Delaware action was filed, the limited partner initiated litigation in the Commonwealth of Kentucky in which it sought judicial declarations that its removal of the general partners was proper, along with other legal and equitable relief.

The defendants in Delaware moved to dismiss the action primarily on the basis of the forum selection clause in the relevant agreements that required the plaintiff in the Delaware case to litigate the dispute in Kentucky. The court disagreed, primarily because the applicable forum selection clause was only permissive, and not a mandatory, exclusive forum selection clause. This is recurring issue in corporate and commercial litigation.

The applicable clause stated that Franklin County Circuit Court in Kentucky is “a proper venue” but it did not designate that court as the “exclusive” forum.

Procedural Posture:

Even though the Kentucky action was filed eight days after the Delaware action, and the claims were nearly identical, the court sua sponte decided to stay the Delaware action in favor of the Kentucky action.

The court reviewed the motion under Rule 12(b)(3), which does not limit the court to the complaint but allows the court to consider extrinsic evidence. In addition to the forum selection clause, the motion to dismiss the Delaware action was based on forum non conveniens as well as “the interests of comity” and the doctrine of sovereign immunity because the Commonwealth of Kentucky was one of the interested parties.

Analysis of the Court:

One of the more interesting aspects of this decision was the analysis of 6 Del. C. § 17-109(d) which prohibits limited partners from waiving the right to litigate matters relating to the internal affairs of the limited partnership in the courts of Delaware.

Forum Selection Clauses:

The court recognized the well-settled rule in Delaware that courts generally should give effect to the selection in a private agreement to resolve disputes in a particular forum.

The Delaware courts often grant motions to dismiss where the parties use express language clearly indicating that the forum selection clause excludes the court where a party improperly filed an action. See footnotes 33 and 34.

Choice of Law Clauses:

There was a choice of law provision in this agreement which provided that the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky apply regardless of choice of law principles.

Delaware courts generally honor contractually-designated choice of law provisions, as long as the jurisdiction bears some material relationship to the transaction. See footnote 36.  In this case there is little doubt about the material relationship to Kentucky because the limited partner in each of the limited partnerships involved was a statutorily created entity that manages the retirement systems for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Notably, the court referred to the cases where there is a “false conflict” meaning that there is no material difference between the laws of competing jurisdictions–in which case the “court should avoid the choice of law analysis all together.” See footnote 38.  The court applied that principle in this case to decline to undertake a choice of law analysis.

Key Takeaways:

The key rulings with the most widespread applicability that can be gleaned from this case are the following:

1)         Where two cases are filed within a short time of each other, the court will treat them as being filed contemporaneously, and a forum non conveniens analysis will apply.  In this case it applied to favor a stay of the Delaware case and an application of Kentucky law because there were no unique issues of Delaware law presented.

2)         The court recognized the general enforceability of forum selection clauses, as well as choice of law provisions.  Many forum selection clause cases have been highlighted on these pages.

3)         The court observed that both the Delaware LLC Act and the Delaware LP Act prevent non-managers of LLCs and non-general partners of LPs from waiving their right to litigate internal affairs issues in Delaware, but those provisions do not require them to litigate in Delaware; nor do those provisions require LLC managers or general partners of limited partnerships to litigate in Delaware.

The Delaware Supreme Court recently clarified for the first time the test to be used in Delaware to determine whether a contract’s terms are sufficiently definite to create an enforceable contract. In Eagle Force Holdings, LLC v. Campbell, No. 399, 2017 (Del. Supr., May 24, 2018), the court addressed whether various documents signed by the parties met the minimum requirements for enforceable agreements, and the court also observed that personal jurisdiction is established when one is a party to an agreement with a forum selection clause.

Basic Background Facts

The facts presented in this decision by Delaware’s high court present a cautionary tale about the problems that arise when parties sign an agreement despite the first page being marked “draft” at the top and having schedules attached that are blank. The key facts include the following:

  • Two people, Kay and Campbell, agreed to form entities in connection with starting a new business that each would own 50% each of, at least initially. Campbell, for his part, was to contribute intellectual property and Kay would provide about $2 million.
  • Kay contributed the money before final and comprehensive documents were in place and before several key issues, including clear ownership to the IP, were resolved.
  • Although the parties initially signed signature pages for their attorneys to hold in escrow until the deal was consummated, the parties later met–without their attorneys–and signed a Contribution Agreement and an LLC Agreement that were revised after the parties had submitted signature pages to their attorneys. The version the parties signed (without their attorneys present) was marked on the first page as a “draft”. At least one of the attorneys for one of the parties was not aware of the signing, and when he returned from vacation, the attorney sent additional proposed edits to the agreements.
  • After signing the agreements marked “draft” with blank schedules, the parties later acknowledged that there were several open issues that were still not yet resolved. Soon the parties took different positions about whether the agreements they signed were binding or not, in light of the open issues, for example.
  • Kay filed a complaint in the Court of Chancery and obtained expedited injunctive relief, including a status quo order.
  • Campbell appeared initially at an evidentiary hearing but then failed to appear for the second day of the hearing, and other allegations of contempt for his failure to comply with the court’s orders were also presented on appeal.
  • Related to the contract formation issues and the contempt allegations, Campbell argued that the court did not have personal jurisdiction over him.

Key Legal Principles in the Court’s Decision

  • Regarding the issue of personal jurisdiction, the court explained that the parties’ agreements both contained a forum selection clause. If a party consents to jurisdiction by contract, such as through a forum selection clause, that is sufficient to impose personal jurisdiction and the normal personal jurisdiction analysis involving the long-arm statute and the Due Process analysis of “minimum contacts” is not necessary. See footnotes 137 and 138.
  • The court recited the three basic requirements for a valid contract: (i) the parties intended that the instrument would bind them, demonstrated at least in part by its inclusion of all material terms; (ii) these terms are sufficiently definite; and (iii) the putative agreement is supported by legal consideration. This formulation subsumes the concept of an offer and acceptance.
  • Delaware law applies an objective test for determining whether the parties intended to be bound–not subjective intent. Citing Professor Williston, the court observed that a signature is the natural indication of assent in the absence of an invalidating cause such as fraud, duress, mutual mistake or unconscionability. See footnote 153.
  • For the first time, the Delaware Supreme Court announced a standard to determine whether the terms of a contract are sufficiently definite, as follows:   “A contract is sufficiently definite and certain to be enforceable if the court can–based upon the agreement’s terms and applying proper rules of construction and principles of equity–ascertain what the parties have agreed to do.”
  • Quoting from the Corbin treatise on contracts, the court noted that: “The courts must take cognizance of the fact that the argument that a particular agreement is too indefinite to constitute a contract frequently is an afterthought excuse for attacking an agreement that failed for reasons other than the indefiniteness.” See footnote 190.
  • There was an ancillary issue of whether the Court of Chancery could impose sanctions for violation of a court order prior to establishing that it had personal jurisdiction over the person who violated the order. The Supreme Court ruled that: “when a Delaware court issues a status quo order pending its adjudication of questions concerning its own jurisdiction, it may punish violations of those orders with contempt and for sanctions, no matter whether it ultimately finds that it lacked jurisdiction.” The court reasoned that this principle was especially applicable in this case because the party involved appeared in person and litigated the merits of the case.