Recently the Delaware Chancery Court rejected an interested executive’s defense of a breach of fiduciary duty claim, reminding us of the importance of making full and accurate disclosures when seeking shareholder approval for a merger or acquisition transaction. In particular, in the case of In re Xura, Inc. Stockholder Litigation the Delaware Chancery Court denied a motion to dismiss brought against a merger target company’s CEO, alleging that he had orchestrated the company’s sale to a particular bidder based on his self-interest in the outcome of the transaction.
The CEO argued that his actions should have been judged by the deferential business judgement rule and not a higher entire fairness standard because the transaction was approved by a majority of the disinterested shareholders. The CEO relied on the 2015 Delaware Supreme Court case of Corwin v. KKR Financing Holdings which held that a transaction that would be subject to enhanced scrutiny would instead be reviewed under the deferential business judgment rule after it was approved by a majority of fully informed stockholders. However, the Court found that the stockholder’s vote was not fully informed as the proxy statement failed to make numerous material disclosures and, as such, could not be used as the usual defense for officers and directors with a stake in the outcome of a transaction.
Board of Directors’ and Key Officers Fiduciary Duties in the Merger Process
State corporate law generally provides that the business and affairs of a corporation shall be managed under the direction of its board of directors. Members of the board of directors have a fiduciary relationship to the corporation, which requires that they act in the best interest of the corporation, as opposed to their own. Key executive officers have a similar duty. Generally a court will not second-guess directors’ decisions as long as the executives have conducted an appropriate process in reaching its decisions. This is referred to as the “business judgment rule.” The business judgment rule creates a rebuttable presumption that “in making a business decision the directors of a corporation acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action taken was in the best interests of the company” (as quoted in multiple Delaware cases including Smith vs. Van Gorkom, 488 A.2d 858 (Del. 1985)).
However, in certain instances, such as in a merger and acquisition transaction, where a board or top executives may have a conflict of interest (i.e., get the most money for the corporation and its shareholders vs. getting the most for themselves via either cash or job security), the board of directors’ and executives actions face a higher level of scrutiny. This is referred to as the “enhanced scrutiny business judgment rule” and stems from the Unocal and Revlon cases discussed below, both of which involved hostile takeovers.
A third standard, referred to as the “entire fairness standard,” is only triggered where there is a conflict of interest involving officers, directors and/or shareholders such as where directors are on both sides of the transaction. Under the entire fairness standard, the executives must establish that the entire transaction is fair to the shareholders, including both the process and dealings and price and terms. The entire fairness standard is a difficult bar to reach and generally results in in a finding in favor of complaining shareholders.
In all matters, directors’ and executive officers’ fiduciary duties to a corporation include honesty and good faith as well as the duty of care, duty of loyalty and a duty of disclosure. In short, the duty of care requires the director/officer to perform their duty with the same care a reasonable person would use, to further the best interest of the corporation and to exercise good faith, under the facts and circumstances of that particular corporation. The duty of loyalty requires that there be no conflict between duty and self-interest. The duty of disclosure requires the director/officer to provide complete and materially accurate information to a corporation. Where a director’s duty is to the shareholders, an executive officer can have duties to both the board of directors and the shareholders.
As with many aspects of securities law, and the law in general, a director’s or officer’s responsibilities and obligations in the face of a merger or acquisition transaction depend on the facts and circumstances. From a high level, if a transaction is not material or only marginally material to the company, the level of involvement and scrutiny facing the board of directors or key executives is reduced and only the basic business judgment rule will apply. For instance, in instances where a company’s growth strategy is acquisition-based, the board of directors may set out the strategy and parameters for potential target acquisitions but leave the completion of the acquisitions largely with the C-suite executives and officers who, in turn, will be able to exercise their business judgment in implementing the transactions.
Moreover, the director’s responsibilities must take into account whether they are on the buy or sell side of a transaction. When on the buy side, the considerations include getting the best price deal for the company and integration of products, services, staff, and processes. On the other hand, when on the sell side, the primary objective is maximizing the return to shareholders, though social interests and considerations (such as the loss of jobs) may also be considered in the process.
The law focuses on the process, steps and considerations made by the board of directors and executive officers, as opposed to the actual final decision. The greater the diligence and effort put into the process, the better, both for the company and its shareholders, and the protection of the directors and officers in the face of scrutiny. Courts will consider facts such as attendance at meetings; the number and frequency of meetings; knowledge of the subject matter; time spent deliberating; advice and counsel sought by third-party experts; requests for information from management; and requests for and review of documents and contracts.
In the performance of their obligations and fiduciary responsibilities, a board of directors and executive officers may, and should, seek the advice and counsel of third parties, such as attorneys, investment bankers, and valuation experts. Moreover, it is generally good practice to obtain a third-party fairness opinion on a transaction. Most investment banking houses that do M&A work also provide fairness opinions on transactions. Furthermore, most firms will prepare a fairness opinion even if they are not otherwise engaged or involved in the transaction. In addition to adding a layer of protection to the board of directors and executives, the fairness opinion is utilized by the accountant and auditor in determining or supporting valuations in a transaction, especially where a related party is involved. This firm has relationships with many firms that provide such opinions and encourage our clients to utilize these services.
Delaware Case Law
As with all standards of corporate law, practitioners and state courts look to both Delaware statutes and court rulings to lead the way.
Stemming from Revlon, Inc. vs. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc., 506 A.2d 173 (Del. 1986), once a board of directors has made the decision to sell or merge the company, it triggers additional duties and responsibilities, commonly referred to as the “Revlon Duties.” The Revlon Duties provide that once a board has made a decision to sell, it must consider all available alternatives and focus on obtaining the highest value and return for the shareholders. The Revlon case focuses on duties in a sale or breakup of a company rather than a forward growth acquisition. A board of directors in a Revlon situation is, in essence, acting as an auctioneer seeking the best return. However, although the premise of Revlon remains, later decisions take into account the reality that the highest return for shareholders is not strictly limited to dollars received.
Company executives do not have to decide to sell just because an offer has been made. Prior to Revlon, in the case of Unocal vs. Mesa Petroleum, 493 A.2d 946 (Del. 1985), the court found that a board of directors may take defensive measures in the face of a hostile takeover attempt and may consider the preservation of corporate policy and effectiveness of business operations in defending against a takeover. However, once the board has made the decision that a sale or breakup is imminent, the Revlon Duties are invoked and preservation of corporate policy and operations is no longer a deciding factor.
In the case of Smith vs. Van Gorkom, 488 A.2d 858 (Del. 1985), the Court found that the board was grossly negligent where it approved the sale of the company after only a few hours of deliberation, failed to inform itself of the chairman’s role and benefits in the sale, and did not seek the advice of outside counsel. Similarly in Cede & Co. vs. Technicolor, Inc., 634 A.2d 345 (Del. 1993), the court found that the board was negligent in approving the sale of a company where it did not search for real alternatives, did not attempt to find a better offer, and had insufficient knowledge of the terms of the proposed merger agreement.
On the other hand, the court in In re CompuCom Sys., Inc. Shareholders Litigation, 2005 Del. Ch. LEXIS 145 (Del. Ch. Sept. 29, 2005), upheld the board of directors’ business judgment even though the transaction price per share was less than market value, as the board showed it was adequately informed, acted rationally and sought better deals.
In Family Dollar Stores, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, C.A. No. 9985-CB (Del. Ch. Dec. 19, 2014), the court continued to apply the Revlon Duties but supported Family Dollar Stores’ decision to reject Dollar General Corp.’s higher dollar offer in favor of seeking a shareholder vote on Dollar Tree, Inc.’s offer. The court found that the board properly considered all factors, including an evaluation of the relative antitrust risks of selling to either suitor. The court upheld the board’s process in determining maximum value for shareholders, and that such determination is not solely based on a price per share value.
Cleansing Through Shareholder Approval
In 2015 the Delaware Supreme Court case of Corwin v. KKR Financing Holdings held that a transaction that would be subject to enhanced scrutiny under Revlon would instead be reviewed under the deferential business judgment rule after it was approved by a majority of disinterested, fully informed and uncoerced stockholders. In addition to federal securities law requirements imposed on public companies, Delaware law requires disclosure of all material facts when stockholders are requested to vote on a merger. (For more on materiality and the duty to disclose, see HERE and HERE . Corwin provides a strong incentive for companies to ensure full disclosure and as discussed below, based on the new case of In re Xura, Inc. Stockholder Litigation the failure to provide such disclosure may nullify the otherwise strong Corwin defense.
Following the Corwin decision, several Delaware courts enhanced the ruling, finding that the business judgment rule becomes irrebuttable if invoked as a result of a stockholder vote; Corwin is not limited to one-step mergers and thus also applies where a majority of shares tender into a two-step transaction; the ability of plaintiffs to pursue a “waste” claim is exceedingly difficult; even interested officers and directors can rely on the business judgement rule following Corwin doctrine stockholder approval; and if directors are protected under Corwin, aiding and abetting claims against their advisors will also be dismissed.
Once the business judgment rule is invoked, a shareholder generally only has a claim for waste, which is a difficult claim to prove. Corwin makes it difficult for plaintiffs to pursue post-closing claims (including those that would have nuisance value) because defendants will frequently be able to dismiss the complaint at the pleading stage based on the stockholder vote. It is thought that Corwin will help reduce M&A-based litigation which has become increasingly abusive over the years and imposes costs on companies, its stockholders and the marketplace.
Corwin should also be considered in conjunction with the Delaware Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Cornerstone Therapeutics Inc. Shareholder Litigation in which the Supreme Court held that directors can seek dismissal even in an entire fairness case unless the plaintiff sufficiently alleges that those directors engaged in non-exculpated conduct (i.e., disloyal conduct or bad faith). Cornerstone generally allows an outside, independent director to be dismissed from litigation challenging an interested transaction unless the plaintiff alleges a breach of the duty of loyalty against that director individually. The Corwin case goes further by providing that if there is an informed stockholder vote, then directors who are interested or lack independence can obtain dismissal without having to defend the fairness of the transaction.
Although following Corwin a string of cases strengthened and expanded its doctrine, the recent (December 2018) case of In re Xura, Inc. Stockholder Litigation reminded the marketplace that in order for Corwin to provide its protections, the stockholder approval must be fully informed. In Xura the court found that the disclosures made by the CEO to the board of directors and shareholders and that ultimately were included in the company’s proxy statement were so deficient as to preclude a fully informed, uncoerced decision. The takeaway from Xura is that despite growing officer/director protections in an M&A transaction, process and disclosure remain the bedrock of any defense.
Conflicts of Interest – the Entire Fairness Standard
The duty of loyalty requires that there be no conflict between duty and self-interest. Basically, an officer or director may not act for a personal or non-corporate purpose, including to preserve their job or position. Where a transaction is not cleansed using the Corwin doctrine, where an officer or director is interested in a transaction, the entire fairness standard of review will apply. It is very difficult for an officer or director to defeat a claim where a transaction is being reviewed under the entire fairness standard.
Some states, including Delaware, statutorily codify the duty of loyalty, or at least the impact on certain transactions. Delaware’s General Corporations Law Section 144 provides that a contract or transaction in which a director has interest is not void or voidable if: (i) a director discloses any personal interest in a timely matter; (ii) a majority of the shareholders approve the transaction after being aware of the director’s involvement; or (iii) the transaction is entirely fair to the corporation and was approved by the disinterested board members.
The third element listed by the Delaware statute has become the crux of review by courts. That is, where an executive is interested, the transaction must be entirely fair to the corporation (not just the part dealing with the director). In determining whether a transaction is fair, courts consider both the process (i.e., fair dealing) and the price of the transaction. Moreover, courts look at all aspects of the transaction and the transaction as a whole in determining fairness, not just the portion or portions of the transaction involving a conflict with the executive. The entire fairness standard can be a difficult hurdle and is often used by minority shareholders to challenge a transaction where there is a potential breach of loyalty and where such minority shareholders do not think the transaction is fair to them or where controlling shareholders have received a premium.
To protect a transaction involving an interested executive, it is vital that all officers and directors take a very active role in the merger or acquisition transaction; that the interested executive inform both the directors or other directors, and ultimately the shareholders, of the conflict; that the transaction resemble an arm’s-length transaction; that it be entirely fair; and that negotiations be diligent and active and that the advice and counsel of independent third parties, including attorneys and accountants, be actively sought.
Delaware courts have emphasized that involvement by disinterested, independent directors increases the probability that a board’s decisions will receive the benefits of the business judgment rule and helps a board justify its action under the more stringent standards of review such as the entire fairness standard. Independence is determined by all the facts and circumstances; however, a director is definitely not independent where they have a personal financial interest in the decision or if they have domination or motive other than the merits of the transaction. The greater the degree of independence, the greater the protection. As mentioned, many companies obtain third-party fairness opinions as to the transaction.
Exculpation and Indemnification
Many states’ corporate laws allow entities to include provisions in their corporate charters allowing for the exculpation and/or indemnification of directors. Exculpation refers to a complete elimination of liability, whereas indemnification allows for the reimbursement of expenses incurred by an officer or director. Delaware, for example, allows for the inclusion of a provision in the certificate of incorporation eliminating personal liability for directors in stockholder actions for breaches of fiduciary duty, except for breaches of the duty of loyalty that result in personal benefit for the director to the detriment of the shareholders. Indemnification generally is only available where the director has acted in good faith. Exculpation is generally only available to directors, whereas indemnification is available to both officers and directors.
To show that a director acted in good faith, the director must meet the same general test of showing that they met their duties of care, loyalty and disclosure. The best way to do this is to be fully informed and to participate in the process, whether that process involves a merger or acquisition or some other business transaction. As mentioned above, courts will consider facts such as attendance at meetings; the number and frequency of meetings; knowledge of the subject matter; time spent deliberating; advice and counsel sought by third-party experts; requests for information from management; and requests for, and review of, documents and contracts.
In advising the board of directors and executive officers, counsel should stress that the executive be actively involved in the business decision-making process, review the documents and files, ask questions and become fully informed. The higher the level of diligence, the greater the protection. Furthermore, an executive must fully and completely inform its fellow executives, board members and shareholders of all facts and circumstances and any potential self-interest.
Significantly, it is not important whether the decision ultimately turns out to be good or bad. Hindsight is 20/20. The important factor in seeking protection (via the business judgment rule, and through exculpation and indemnification) is that best efforts are made.