Several recent Delaware decisions, as noted on these pages earlier this week here, and commented on here, have added to the case law that still only amounts to a relatively modest body of law in Delaware, interpreting the phrase: “reasonable efforts” and various permutations on that phrase, often found in post-closing earn out disputes but prevalent in other contract disputes as well. A Delaware Court of Chancery decision two days ago has added again to the jurisprudence on this topic.

In the opinion styled In Re Oxbow Carbon LLC Unitholder Litigation, C.A. No. 12447-VCL (Del. Ch. Feb. 12, 2018), Delaware’s equity court published a 178-page magnum opus that has already been the subject of articles in Bloomberg and other legal publications. Prior Chancery decisions during the course of this hotly litigated case have been highlighted on these pages, and those rulings also provide background color. The opinion provides a comprehensive analysis of a factually complex dispute involving the billionaire William Koch and contractual rights of a minority member of an LLC in which Koch owned a majority. The post-trial tome deserves a robust synopsis, but in this short post I will only focus on the small aspect of the titular topic.

The following bullet points should entice readers to consult the full opinion if they need to know the latest iteration of Delaware law on these issues:

  • The court relied on Delaware Supreme Court precedent (n. 602) applying “commercially reasonable efforts” to “impose an affirmative obligation on the parties to take all reasonable steps to complete a transaction.”
  • Koch testified at trial that the Reasonable Efforts Clause involved required each party to “act in good faith to do what it takes….”
  • The court found support in the record to conclude that Koch spent resources and energy to thwart the sale instead of using reasonable efforts. See Chancery opinion in WaveDivision cited at note 614 and accompanying text.
  • This decision is also notable for its exemplary explanation and application of the following key Delaware concepts often involved in corporate and commercial litigation:
  • (i) the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing;
  • (ii) unclean hands; and
  • (iii) interpreting an LLC Agreement in a manner that avoids an inequitable result.

 

A recent article on The Harvard Law School Corporate Governance Blog collected decisions, mostly based on Delaware law, that address Earn Out disputes, which generally involve agreements for the sale of a company that allow for post-closing payments subject to various milestones or revenue targets being satisfied. Commonly, the buyer of the company is required to use a level of effort to reach those milestones or revenue goals that is variously described as reasonable efforts or diligent efforts or similar “hard to measure” language.

Recent Delaware decisions on those topics have been highlighted on these pages here and here and here, but the above-linked article does a notable job of compiling many recent cases in one place with helpful commentary.

My favorite scholarly commentary on the topic of “commercially reasonable efforts” in general, is provided by friend of the blog, Professor Stephen Bainbridge, whose scholarship is often cited in Delaware court opinions.

This is the 13th year that I have created an annual list of the key corporate and commercial decisions of the Delaware Supreme Court and the Delaware Court of Chancery. I chose the following rulings from among the more than 100 corporate and commercial decisions that have been highlighted on this blog over the past 12 months. There were many more decisions of those two courts in 2017 that are not covered on these pages, but I have selected notable decisions that should be of widespread relevance to those who toil in the corporate and commercial litigation field, as well as others who follow the latest Delaware developments in this area of the law.

Well-versed readers could easily select different decisions for this annual review, and I invite suggestions for additions that might be added to the list, although the challenge is to avoid making the list too long. I have omitted some decisions, such as the Supreme Court’s important Dell appraisal ruling, and others that have already been widely written about in legal publications and other mass media outlets, so additional coverage of them in this list did not seem necessary. (Prior annual reviews are available at the link in the right margin of this blog.) Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2018.

Delaware Supreme Court Decisions

City of Birmingham Retirement and Relief System v. Good, No. 16-2017 (Del. Supr., Dec. 15, 2017).
This split decision of the Delaware Supreme Court is required reading for anyone who seeks to understand the nuanced standards for demand futility in the context of a Caremark claim. In light of the majority of the directors in this case being independent, the court determined that there was an insufficient showing of bad faith. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink. Cf. Oklahoma Firefighters Pension & Retirement System v. Corbat, C.A. No. 12151-VCG (Del. Ch. Dec. 18, 2017) (highlighted on these pages, addressing a nearly identical legal issue).

In re Investors Bancorp, Inc., Stockholder Litigation, No. 169, 2017 (Del. Supr. Dec. 13, 2017; revised Dec. 19, 2017).
The Delaware Supreme Court, for the first time in many decades, explicitly clarifies Delaware law on stockholder ratification of directors’ actions and the prerequisites that must be satisfied. This restatement was in the context of a challenge to the directors’ award to themselves of generous compensation packages pursuant to an Equity Incentive Plan. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Bridgeville Rifle and Pistol Club, Ltd. v. Small, No. 15, 2017 (Del. Supr., Dec. 7, 2017).
Although this decision does not fall within the category of corporate and commercial litigation, the superseding noteworthiness of this ruling is based on a bedrock principle of transcending relevance to any lawyer or student of the law. This 143-page opinion (including the dissent) involves the natural right to self-defense that every person is born with and includes a scholarly analysis of the inseparable right to bear arms under the Delaware Constitution. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Brinckerhoff v. Enbridge Energy Company, No. 273, 2016 (Del. Supr., Mar. 20, 2017; revised Mar. 28, 2017).
This decision of Delaware’s high court is necessary reading for anyone who seeks to understand the latest iteration of Delaware law on contractual fiduciary standards and the requirements for waiving fiduciary duties in the alternative entity context. This opinion also discusses equitable remedies that may be available for breach of contract, and it should also be read in conjunction with the Supreme Court’s 2017 Dieckman opinion, highlighted on these pages. I also wrote an article for Directorship magazine about the Brinckerhoff case. A synopsis of the Brinckerhoff decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

The Williams Companies, Inc. v. Energy Transfer Equity, L.P., No. 330, 2016 (Del. Supr., Mar. 23, 2017).
The Supreme court explains in this opinion the concept of “commercially reasonable efforts,” sometimes compared to “reasonable best efforts,” and the challenging application of those phrases to various fact patterns. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Dieckman v. Regency GP LP, No. 208, 2016 (Del. Supr., Jan. 20, 2017).
The Delaware Supreme Court in this opinion discusses the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in the context of a limited partnership agreement that waives all fiduciary duties. This decision should be read in conjunction with the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Brinckerhoff . A synopsis of the Dieckman decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Delaware Court of Chancery Decisions

Oklahoma Firefighters Pension & Retirement System v. Corbat, C.A. No. 12151-VCG (Del. Ch. Dec. 18, 2017).
This Chancery decision provides a scholarly and practical explanation of the onerous prerequisites that must be satisfied before a Caremark claim will meet the rigors of the demand futility analysis. This decision should be read in conjunction with the 2017 Supreme Court decision, highlighted on these pages, in City of Birmingham Retirement and Relief System v. Good. A synopsis of the Oklahoma decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

HBMA Holdings, LLC v. LSF9 Stardust Holdings LLC, C.A. No. 12806-VCMR (Del. Ch. Dec. 8, 2017).
This Delaware Court of Chancery opinion discusses the general enforceability of a “survival clause” which provides a contractually shortened period of time by which claims referenced in the contract must be made. The court also discusses the general enforceability of statutes of limitation shortened by contract. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Dollar Tree Inc. v. Dollar Express LLC, C.A. No. 2017-0411-AGB (Del. Ch. Nov. 21, 2017).
This Chancery opinion discusses the important standards that apply to a motion to disqualify counsel due to an alleged conflict of interest and an alleged breach of the applicable Rules of Professional Conduct. Importantly, the court applies the well-settled Delaware law that a simple violation of a rule of legal ethics is not, in and of itself, sufficient to disqualify counsel. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

McKenna v. Singer, C.A. No. 11371-VCMR (Del. Ch. July 31, 2017).
This Chancery opinion addresses a not uncommon situation where a co-founder of a start-up entity claims that another co-founder stole the idea for the new company, and launched a separate venture with a different party. This opinion addresses the claim for an interest in the separate start-up venture and related fiduciary duty claims. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Williams v. Ji, C.A. No. 12729-VCMR (Del. Ch. June 28, 2017).
This opinion addresses the statutory requirements for a valid stockholder voting agreement and what the limitations are on “selling a vote.” Standards by which director compensation packages will be reviewed is also analyzed. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Nguyen v. View, Inc., C.A. No. 11138-VCS (Del. Ch. June 6, 2017).
This Chancery decision clarifies the distinction between defective corporate acts and unauthorized corporate acts, as well as the sections of the Delaware General Corporation Law that allow for both a self-help provision in some circumstances, as well as a method to seek judicial imprimatur for certain corporate transactions that did not follow the proper corporate formalities for approval. See DGCL Sections 204 and 205. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Dietrichson v. Knott, C.A. No. 11965-VCMR (Del. Ch. April 19, 2017).
This Court of Chancery opinion explains an important principle that corporate and commercial litigators need to remember: A derivative claim in the LLC context must satisfy the same requirement of pre-suit demand futility as required in the corporate context. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Doctors Pathology Servs., PA v. Gerges, C.A. No. 11457-CB, transcript (Del. Ch. Feb, 15, 2017).
This opinion provides practice tips for the most effective way to present a motion to compel discovery to the court, and the consequences for not following best practices in connection with discovery responses. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Kleinberg v. Aharon, C.A. No. 12719-VCL (Del. Ch. Feb. 13, 2017).
This Chancery opinion discusses the criteria that must be satisfied before the court will appoint a custodian of a company that is deadlocked due to stockholder and director dysfunction as provided in DGCL § 226(a). A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

Dore v. Sweports, Ltd., C.A. No. 10513-VCL (Del. Ch. Jan. 31, 2017).
This opinion addresses a situation where a director conceivably could be indemnified for fees incurred in pursuing an affirmative claim as compared to the more typical situation where indemnification is sought for reimbursement of fees incurred to defend a claim successfully. See DGCL § 145. A synopsis of this decision and a link to the full opinion is available at this hyperlink.

UPDATE: Friend of the blog, Prof. Stephen Bainbridge, a prolific corporate law scholar often cited in Delaware opinions, has linked to this post.

The Delaware Court of Chancery recently addressed a common type of claim in commercial litigation: Post-closing adjustments to the purchase price. Sparton Corporation v. O’Neil, C.A. No. 12403-VCMR (Del. Ch. Aug. 9, 2017).

Basic Facts: The claims in this case involved an assertion that the defendant directors changed the selling company’s accounts receivable after an amount was determined for an escrow account for post-closing adjustments–but the change was made prior to the closing, unbeknownst to the buyers. In essence, the court found that the allegations of fraud did not satisfy the prerequisites for specificity, and, in addition, a robust anti-reliance clause prevented claims based on representations outside the contract.

Key Takeaways

Anti-Reliance Provision and Fraud Claims

The most noteworthy statement of law from this decision, that has the most widespread application, is based on the strong anti-reliance provision in the agreement, and settled Delaware law that prevented claims based on misrepresentations outside the four corners of the agreement. The anti-reliance clause was quoted at length in the opinion and was very specific to the extent that the parties agreed that the sole and exclusive representations were those contained in the  agreement and that no representations outside the agreement were relied upon in connection with the purchase. (See footnote 44 which cited to the well-known Abry case on which the court’s reasoning was based.)

In addition, the court relied on the basic pleading prerequisites for fraud which require much more specificity than non-fraud claims require. In addition, the court distinguished the Osram case which noted that “a mere allegation that a defendant knew or should have known about a false statement is not sufficient to plead the requisite state of mind” for fraud.The court reasoned that in this case, none of the defendants personally represented the accuracy of the financial statements, and that they were not a position to know the veracity of the statements. Also, the plaintiff did not plead any particularized facts about the roles of the defendant in the company or the relationships of the defendants with management. Nor did the plaintiffs allege any facts to show that the defendants would be a position to know that the documents were falsely prepared.

Commercially Reasonable Efforts

Also noteworthy is the court’s treatment of a claim that “commercially reasonable efforts,” as required by the agreement, were not employed. The case law on the “commercially reasonable efforts standard” has been written about on these pages in connection with recent decisions, but because case law about that contractual standard is not fully evolved, I mention it here in passing even though the court’s discussion is not comprehensive. See Slip op. at page 15.The allegation was that it should have been self-evident that because certain actions did not take place by a certain deadline in the agreement, that the reason must have been the lack of an exercise of commercially reasonable efforts. The court rejected this conclusory allegation because it was not self-sufficient and did not satisfy the “reasonably conceivable test” under Rule 12(b)(6).

The Court of Chancery recently explained in a post-trial opinion why a post-closing adjustment claim seeking a milestone payment was rejected in light of a careful examination of the meaning of an ambiguous term in the milestone trigger provision. This opinion is helpful for those who want insights into how a Delaware court applies contract interpretation principles to extrinsic evidence to determine the meaning of a disputed term in a post-closing earn-out dispute. Shareholder Representative Services, LLC v. Gilead Sciences, Inc., C.A. No. 10537-CB (Del. Ch. Mar. 15, 2017).

Basic Background: The background facts of this case involve a merger of two pharmaceutical companies. Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, Inc. was purchased by Gilead Sciences, Inc. in 2011 pursuant to a merger agreement which included milestone payments based on certain triggers.  After considering the evidence presented at trial, the court held that Gilead is not required to pay a $50 million milestone payment under the terms of the merger agreement.  The court provided an extensive discussion of esoteric medical and pharmaceutical terms, and aspects of FDA approval for products that either ameliorate or cure a particular disease.

The core dispute in this case according to the court: “boils down to the meaning of essentially one word – – ‘indication’ – – as used in an 84-page merger agreement.”  The court explained in its 80-page opinion why Gilead’s interpretation of that word prevailed.

Key Principles and Takeaways:

In order to determine the correct meaning of the word in dispute, and the parties’ intent pursuant to the agreement, the court considered extrinsic evidence such as draft merger agreements, emails among the negotiators on opposite sides of the negotiating table, and emails among colleagues for each party, both before and after the closing, which provided an insight into how each party viewed the meaning of the disputed term.

The court includes a recitation of basic contract interpretation principles such as a reminder that Delaware follows the objective theory of contracts. Also useful to commercial litigation practitioners is the court’s discussion of what type of extrinsic evidence is allowed when provisions in an agreement are deemed ambiguous. See slip op. at 43-45.

Especially notable is a contract interpretation principle of Delaware law that is not commonly known, explained by the court as follows: There is no need for a party to convince the court that “its position is supported by every provision or collection of words in the agreement.” See footnote 175.

Although it did not play a role in its decision, the court observed that the phrase “commercially reasonable efforts” was defined in the agreement. Few Delaware opinions have authoritatively discussed commercially reasonable efforts, as explained in a Delaware decision that was highlighted on these pages.

The court explained that “in considering extrinsic evidence, the court should uphold, to the extent possible, the reasonable shared expectations of the parties at the time of contracting. In giving effect to the parties’ intentions, it is generally accepted that the parties’ conduct before any controversy has arisen is given ‘great weight’”

In addition, the court emphasized that “ascertaining the shared intent of the parties does not mandate slavish adherence to every principle of contract interpretation.” Instead, the following instruction was provided: “Contract principles that guide the court – – such as the tenet that all provisions of an agreement should be given meaning – – do not necessarily drive the outcome.  Sometimes apparently conflicting provisions can be reconciled . . ..”

Practical Guidance in Opinion:

The burden of proof that must be satisfied at trial was described, see slip op. at 42, and the decision provides practical guidance for litigators to the extent that it discusses the type of extrinsic evidence that the court found persuasive for purposes of determining the intent of the parties in their use of one word in this case that would have triggered a milestone payment.  The court observed that both parties used the word “indication” as synonymous for “disease” during their negotiations.  An interpretation of the word “indication” was the determining factor in the case.  The court described and relied on emails between the key executives for each side exchanged during the negotiations, as well as emails among executives for each party after the closing took place.

Anecdotally, I often make the observation that any merger agreement or agreement for the sale of companies that includes a post-closing adjustment or other milestone payment will almost invariably lead to litigation. This decision is good evidence supporting that anecdotal observation.  Those litigating such a case will find this opinion a helpful guide for how the court approaches these issues in a post-closing adjustment dispute.