A recent seminal decision of the Delaware Court of Chancery must be included in the lexicon of every lawyer who wants to understand the boundaries of Delaware law on forum-selection clauses in corporate documents. In the case of Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg, C.A. No. 2017-0931-JTL (Del. Ch. Dec. 19, 2018), the Court determined that a forum-selection clause in a certificate of incorporation was invalid and ineffective to the extent that it purported to “require any claim under the Securities Act of 1933 to be brought in federal court” (the “Federal Forum Provisions”).
Why this Case is Noteworthy: The court reasoned in its holding that: “The constitutive documents of a Delaware corporation cannot bind a plaintiff to a particular forum when the claim does not involve rights or relationships that were established by or under Delaware’s corporate law. In this case, the Federal Forum Provisions attempt to accomplish that feat. They are therefore ineffective and invalid.”
Overview of Key Points:
This opinion is destined to form part of the bedrock of foundational Delaware corporate decisions and could rightly be the subject of a lengthy law review article, but for purposes of this quick blog post, I will merely highlight a few of the more notable excerpts in bullet points.
- A substantial basis for the court’s reasoning was a prior decision from the Court of Chancery which upheld the validity of corporate bylaws that required claims based on the internal affairs doctrine and related claims to be brought exclusively in the Court of Chancery. That decision by the current Chief Justice of Delaware, writing at the time as the Chancellor, was Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund v. Chevron Corp., 73 A.3d 934 (Del. Ch. June 25, 2018).
- Although the Boilermakers case involved bylaws, the Sciabacucchi decision explained why that same reasoning applied to a certificate of incorporation which is governed by similar provisions in the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL). The court in Sciabacucchi explained that the reasoning in Boilermakers focused on the ability to enforce forum-selection clauses that related to the internal corporate matters of a Delaware corporation as opposed to external matters, such as claims arising under the Securities Act of 1933.
- The Court buttressed its reasoning by referring to the codification of the Boilermakers decision, shortly after its publication, by means of the adoption of a new Section 115 of the DGCL. In connection with that new DGCL section, the Delaware General Assembly also passed new amendments to Sections 102 and 109 of the DGCL which prohibit fee-shifting provisions in the certificate of incorporation or bylaws particularly in connection with claims related to the internal affairs of a corporation as defined by DGCL Section 115.
- The Court’s reasoning was also supported by reference to what the court referred to as “first principles.” Those first principles included several basic tenets of corporate law such as the following: (i) Although the document filed with the state that gives rise to an artificial entity such as a corporation, and confers powers on it, is a contract, it is not an ordinary private contract among private actors; (ii) The certificate of incorporation is a multi-party contract that includes the State of Delaware. Unlike an ordinary contract, it also includes terms by reference that are imposed by the DGCL; (iii) Unlike an ordinary contract, a charter can only be amended to the extent that it complies with the DGCL; (iv) The DGCL specifies what provisions a charter may or may not include; and (v) Although the courts enforce both types of contracts, when enforcing relationships created by the corporate contract, the courts use an overlay of fiduciary duty. See pages 38 to 42 and footnotes 111 to 125.
- A thorough analysis of the contours and policy behind the internal affairs doctrine is an important feature of this opinion. See, e.g., pages 41-46.
In sum, the court reasoned that the “constitutive documents of a Delaware corporation cannot bind the plaintiff to a particular forum when the claim does not involve rights or relationships that were established by or under Delaware’s corporate law.” The opinion provides extensive citations to substantial scholarship, case law and statutes.
Prof. Ann Lipton provides extensive insights in her blog post about this case with links to her articles on the topic. The good professor’s scholarship on this issue was also cited by the court in the above opinion.
Many cases have been highlighted on this blog regarding forum-selection clauses in private agreements. See, e.g., here and here. In some of the posts on these pages about cases involving forum-selection clauses, a graphic of the Roman Forum adds color as well as an etymological connection.
SUPPLEMENT: Professor Stephen Bainbridge, a prolific corporate law scholar, kindly links to this post on his blog.