Category: Corporate law

Fiduciary duty claims against SPAC sponsor survive dismissal in Delaware under entire fairness standard

Is everything securities fraud, as Bloomberg’s Matt Levine frequently maintains? (See this PubCo post.) Or perhaps, in the SPAC environment, will all claims of fraudulent misrepresentation and omission now become claims of breach of fiduciary duty under Delaware law—and reviewed under the entire fairness standard? Is that a possible takeaway from the Delaware Chancery Court’s refusal last week to dismiss the complaint in In Re Multiplan Corp. Stockholders Litigation? In that case, the plaintiffs, purchasers of securities in a SPAC IPO, claimed that the defendant SPAC sponsor and SPAC board members disloyally impaired the plaintiffs’ rights to redeem their SPAC shares prior to consummation of the de-SPAC transaction by breaching their fiduciary duty to disclose to the plaintiffs material information about the de-SPAC target company. According to the Court, the “Delaware courts have not previously had an opportunity to consider the application of our law in the SPAC context. In this decision, well-worn fiduciary principles are applied to the plaintiffs’ claims despite the novel issues presented. Doing so leads to several conclusions.” In particular, one of those conclusions was that, due to inherent conflicts between the SPAC’s fiduciaries and the public stockholders, the entire fairness standard of review applied, establishing a very high bar for dismissal of the complaint. 

NYSE proposes to amend calculation of “votes cast” [updated]

Currently, where a matter requires shareholder approval under NYSE rules, the minimum vote required is a majority of the votes cast on the matter. But how do you count votes cast?  Do you count abstentions?  What about broker non-votes? The NYSE has historically advised that broker non-votes do not count as votes cast, but abstentions do.  That means that, under the NYSE rules, approval requires that the votes in favor exceed the aggregate of the votes cast against the proposal plus abstentions. Unfortunately, that’s not how “votes cast” is typically defined for Delaware corporations.  If Delaware corporations elect in their charter or bylaws to use a “votes cast” standard, abstentions are generally not counted as “votes cast”—because an abstention reflects a decision not to vote on the matter and the holder has not cast those votes—with the result that, for a proposal to be approved, the votes in favor of the proposal must exceed the votes cast against. Confused? You’re not alone. The NYSE has “observed that this approach has caused confusion among listed companies.” That’s why the NYSE has just filed with the SEC a proposal to amend that provision of the NYSE Listed Company Manual. [Update: This proposal has been approved.]

Commissioner Lee discusses board’s role in ESG oversight

On Monday, in a keynote address before the Society for Corporate Governance 2021 National Conference, SEC Commissioner Allison Herren Lee discussed the challenges boards face in oversight of ESG matters, including “climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality, and numerous other issues that are fundamental to the success and sustainability of companies, financial markets, and our economy.”  Shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders are now all looking to corporations to adopt policies that “support growth and address the environmental and social impacts these companies have.” Why is that? Because actions or inactions by our largest corporations can have a tremendous impact.  According to Lee, a 2018 study showed that, of the top 100 revenue generators across the globe, only 29 were countries—the rest were corporations, that is, corporations “often operate on a level or higher economic footing than some of the largest governments in the world.”

Tackling the underrepresentation of women of color on boards

With the passage of SB 826 in 2018, California became the first state to mandate board gender diversity (see this PubCo post). In 2020, the California Partners Project, which was founded by California’s current First Lady, released a progress report on women’s representation on boards of California public companies, tracking the changes in gender diversity on California boards since enactment of the law.  That same year,  AB 979 was signed into law in California.  That bill was designed to do for “underrepresented communities” on boards of directors what SB 826 did for board gender diversity. (See this PubCo post.) The CPP has just released a new report that not only updates its 2020 progress report on board gender diversity, but also provides data on women of color on California’s public company boards.  The takeaway is that, while there has been tremendous progress in increasing the number of women on boards, nevertheless, much work remains “to tap all of our talent and achieve racial and cultural equity. Most women on California’s corporate boards are white, while women of color—especially Latinas—remain severely underrepresented.”  In addition to new data, the report offers some strategies for overcoming these deficits in diversity.

California posts new report on board gender diversity—what does it tell us?

On March 1, the new California Secretary of State, Dr. Shirley N. Weber (who replaced Alex Padilla, newly appointed Senator) issued the Secretary’s 2021 report required by SB 826, California’s board gender diversity law, on the status of compliance with the law. The report counts 647 publicly held corporations that identified principal executive offices in California in their 2020 10-Ks, and indicates that 318 of these “impacted corporations” had filed a 2020 California Publicly Traded Corporate Disclosure Statement, which would reflect their compliance with the board gender diversity requirement (slightly fewer than the 330 filed last year). Of the 318 companies that had filed, 311 reported that they were in compliance with the board gender diversity mandate, slightly more than the 282 reported last year, but still less than half of the companies subject to the law. (See this PubCo post.) But is that data from the report really meaningful?

ISS proposes voting policy changes for 2021

Last week, ISS released for public comment a number of proposed voting policy changes to be applied for shareholder meetings taking place on or after February 1, 2021. The proposed changes for U.S. companies relate to board racial/ethnic diversity, director accountability for governance failures related to environmental or social issues and shareholder litigation rights, i.e., exclusive forum provisions. Comments may be submitted on the proposals through October 26, 2020.

California court enforces Delaware exclusive federal forum provision

In Salzberg v. Sciabacucchi (pronounced Shabacookie), the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously held that charter provisions designating the federal courts as the exclusive forum for ’33 Act claims are “facially valid.” (See this PubCo post.) Given that Sciabacucchi involved a facial challenge, the Court had viewed the question of enforceability as a “separate, subsequent analysis” that depended “on the manner in which it was adopted and the circumstances under which it [is] invoked.” With regard to the question of enforceability of exclusive federal forum provisions if challenged in the courts of other states, the Delaware Supreme Court said that there were “persuasive arguments,” such as due process and the need for uniformity and predictability, that “could be made to our sister states that a provision in a Delaware corporation’s certificate of incorporation requiring Section 11 claims to be brought in a federal court does not offend principles of horizontal sovereignty,” and should be enforced. But would they be? Following Sciabacucchi, many Delaware companies that did not have FFPs adopted them, and companies with FFPs involved in current ’33 Act litigation tried to enforce them by moving to dismiss state court actions. In an apparent case of first impression, one such case was just decided in the San Mateo Superior Court in California, Wong v. Restoration Robotics (18CIV02609, Sept. 1, 2020).

Delaware bill to update emergency powers, revise PBC provisions and amend indemnification provisions signed into law

Delaware Assembly Bill 341 has finally been signed into law.  Among other things, the bill confirms the availability of specific powers relating to stockholders’ meetings that may be exercised by the board during an emergency condition, such as the current pandemic. These powers include changing the date, time and place of meetings (including to virtual formats) and, for public companies, providing notice of these changes through an SEC filing. These provisions are effective retroactively as of January 1, 2020. (See this PubCo post.) The bill also makes it easier to convert a traditional corporation to a public benefit corporation or a PBC to a traditional corporation and amps up the protections for directors of a PBC. (See this PubCo post.) Another provision of the bill, less widely discussed, relates to indemnification, discussed below. 

Will the California courts enforce a Delaware exclusive federal forum provision?

In Salzberg v. Sciabacucchi (pronounced Shabacookie), the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously held that charter provisions designating the federal courts as the exclusive forum for ’33 Act claims are “facially valid.” (See this PubCo post.) Given that Sciabacucchi involved a facial challenge, the Court had viewed the question of enforceability as a “separate, subsequent analysis” that depended “on the manner in which it was adopted and the circumstances under which it [is] invoked.” With regard to the question of enforceability of exclusive federal forum provisions if challenged in the courts of other states, the Court said that there were “persuasive arguments,” such as due process and the need for uniformity and predictability, that “could be made to our sister states that a provision in a Delaware corporation’s certificate of incorporation requiring Section 11 claims to be brought in a federal court does not offend principles of horizontal sovereignty,” and should be enforced. But would they be? Following Sciabacucchi, many Delaware companies that did not have FFPs adopted them, and companies with FFPs involved in current ’33 Act litigation tried to enforce them by moving to dismiss state court actions. One such case is currently being fought in California state court involving ’33 Act claims against Dropbox, and, as noted in this column in Reuters, a group of former Delaware jurists and a former SEC Commissioner have filed an amicus brief in support of the company’s effort to enforce the FFP in that case.

A couple of quick updates

Just a couple of quick updates regarding proposed Delaware legislation and previous SEC relief: