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).