This post was prepared by Frank Reynolds, who has been following Delaware corporate law, and writing about it for various legal publications, for over 30 years.
The Delaware Chancery Court recently allowed a Facebook Inc. shareholder plaintiff to inspect the directors’ electronic communications concerning how the company ended up paying $5 billion for a 2019 board settlement with government regulators that would cover founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s liability in Employees Retirement System of Rhode Island v. Facebook Inc., No. 2020-0085-JRS memorandum opinion (Del. Ch. Feb.10, 2021).
Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slight’s February 10 post-trial opinion granted part of an investor’s motion for access to two remaining groups of board-level documents in one of the long-running books-and-records battles under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law stemming from Facebook’s record-breaking settlement of Federal Trade Commission charges over the company’s data privacy practices.
The Vice Chancellor’s ruling on whether Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island could inspect the directors’ decision to pay $4.9 billion more than the $104 million their defense firm advised was necessary to settle liability for Facebook alone was his second in two years on the scope of discoverable documents on whether the board had overpaid to get a settlement that would shield Zuckerberg.
In Vice Chancellor Slights’ May 2019 ruling, a consolidated set of shareholders in a parallel Section 220 action seeking documents and communications relating to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data privacy debacle won access to other categories of board level documents. In re Facebook, Inc. Section 220 Litig., 2019 WL 2320842, at *19 (Del. Ch. May 31, 2019).
And then there were two
The February ruling is important because the pension fund plaintiff asserted that the communications that would prove the directors breached their duty by wasting corporate assets to insulate their CEO in the settlement could now only be in two remaining categories:
1. Electronic communications from, to, or copied to a member of the board concerning Facebook’s settlement negotiations with the FTC
2. Hard-copy documents exclusively provided to, or generated by, any member of the Board relating to Facebook’s negotiations with the FTC.
Since his February ruling allowed the pension fund to inspect Facebook’s non-privileged electronic communications, if ERSI does not find the proof it seeks there, it could set up a future final Section 220 battle – likely combining all plaintiffs — over access to the final category— consisting of attorney-client privileged and attorney work-product documents.
The plaintiffs have argued that Facebook intended to make the attorney-client/work-product category the vault for all the sensitive communications and documents that exposed the directors’ plan to use corporate assets to shield Zuckerberg from personal liability. However, the Vice Chancellor said in the February ruling that as long as it is still possible that any other category of documents might contain the information the plaintiffs seek, it is too soon to open that vault.
Plaintiff “has not demonstrated good cause under the Garner fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege to justify compelling the company to produce privileged documents for inspection” the Vice Chancellor said in the February opinion, referring to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ Garner decision that plaintiffs could not examine privileged documents until all non-privileged sources had been searched. Garner v. Wolfinbarger 430 F.2d 1093. That Garner decision and its principle were adopted by the Delaware Supreme Court in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW 95 A.3d at 1278–79.
In his February opinion, Vice Chancellor Slights said he granted access to all non-privileged board communications because “the documents already produced provide no insight into why Facebook would pay more than its (apparently) maximum exposure to settle a claim.”
No penalty for confidence
According to Facebook, the documents produced prior to this litigation, coupled with Plaintiff’s own trumpeting of confidence that it could survive a motion to dismiss in a plenary action by pleading the facts it already possesses, reveals that Plaintiff has received more than “sufficient” information to fulfill its stated purposes for inspection.
But the court said, “that a stockholder plaintiff believes it has a basis in facts already known to pursue claims of wrongdoing against company fiduciaries does not mean the stockholder should be denied use of the tools at hand to develop those facts further.”
Too soon for Garner exception
“While the attorney-client privilege may be asserted by a corporation that has sought legal advice, the privilege is not absolute and an oft-invoked exception applies in suits by minority shareholders,” the court said in finding that the availability of the privilege must “be subject to the right of the stockholders to show ‘good cause’ why the privilege should not apply.”
While Garner identifies multiple factors, the court might consider when assessing whether the stockholder has demonstrated “good cause,” which focuses the good cause inquiry on three factors:
(i) whether the claim is colorable,
(ii) the necessity or desirability of information and its availability from other sources and
(iii) the extent to which the information sought is identified as opposed to a blind fishing expedition.
But the Vice Chancellor noted that whether the privileged information sought “is both necessary to prosecute the action and unavailable from other sources” has been described as “the most important” of the Garner factors. ERSRI argued but could not demonstrate the privileged information it seeks is unavailable elsewhere “because it has not seen the responsive, non-privileged electronic communications that Facebook is withholding.”
The court thought it was “likely that non-privileged electronic communications among board members can provide ERSRI insight into why the board decided to enter the 2019 settlement without exposing the advice of counsel upon which, at least in part, that decision was based.”
But there are two other possibilities: the board’s discussions that led to its $5 billion settlement decision are restricted to the “privileged” vault, or they somehow reached a consensus with little or no formal discussions. Either possibility could lead to a novel third Facebook Section 220 ruling in the future.