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 were “facially valid.” (See this PubCo post.) Given that Sciabacucchi involved a facial challenge, the Supreme 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, in light of the perceived benefits for defendants of litigating Securities Act claims in federal court, many Delaware companies that did not have FFPs adopted them, and companies with FFPs involved in ’33 Act litigation tried to enforce them by moving to dismiss state court actions. In 2020, in an apparent case of first impression, Wong v. Restoration Robotics, the San Mateo Superior Court in California upheld application of the FFP, declining “jurisdiction over the claims alleged against Restoration Robotics and its officers and directors only, pursuant to the FFP.” (See this PubCo post.) Plaintiff appealed. The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, has just affirmed the lower court’s decision, upholding enforcement of the FFP.
The Council of the Corporation Law Section of the Delaware State Bar Association has provided recommendations to the Delaware General Assembly for a number of changes to the Delaware General Corporation Law, some of them significant, such as an amendment authorizing charter provisions that would eliminate the personal liability of specified officers for breaches of the duty of care—basically, an extension of DGCL Section 102(b)(7). Typically, the Delaware legislature follows the Council’s recommendations. If adopted and signed into law, the amendments would become effective on August 1, 2022, and generally would apply to actions taken on or after August 1. Several of the recommended changes are discussed below.
Board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities” held unconstitutional under California’s equal protection provisions
On April 1, the L.A. County Superior Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in Crest v. Padilla, the taxpayer litigation challenging AB 979, California’s board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities.” (See this PubCo post.) Unfortunately, at the time, only a minute order was released, which did not offer any explanation of the Court’s reasoning. Now, a new 24-page Court Order, which provides the Court’s reasoning, has been made available, and, in it, the Court concludes that the statute, Corporations Code § 301.4, violates the equal protection clause of the California Constitution on its face. Why? Because, in the Court’s view, § 301.4 treats similarly situated individuals differently based on suspect racial and other categories that are not justified by a compelling interest, nor is the statute narrowly tailored to address the interests identified. Will this case have a spillover effect on the decision currently pending of plaintiffs’ taxpayer challenge to California’s board gender diversity statute, SB 826? According to Reuters, the California State Senator who authored SB 826 said that “the case involved a ‘very different set of facts and distinctly different legal issues.’”
Court grants summary judgment to plaintiffs challenging California’s board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities”
As you may recall, SB 826, the California board gender diversity statute, is not the only California board diversity statute facing legal challenges. In 2020, AB 979, California’s board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities,” patterned after the board gender diversity statute, was signed into law, and it too has been facing legal challenges—in fact litigation brought by the same plaintiffs on the same legal basis. (See this PubCo post.) Framed as a “taxpayer suit” much like Crest v. Padilla I, the sequel, Crest v. Padilla II, sought to enjoin Alex Padilla, the then-California Secretary of State, from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources to enforce or implement the law and a judgment declaring the diversity mandate to be unlawful in violation of the California constitution. As Crest v. Padilla I is awaiting a court decision following a bench trial (see this PubCo post), what’s happening in the sequel? After a hearing on motions by both parties for summary judgment in March, the Los Angeles Superior Court took the matter under submission and, on April Fool’s Day, the Court issued its order. But it was no joke—the Court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment. The state has not yet indicated whether it will appeal the decision. In a statement, the president of Judicial Watch, which represented the plaintiffs, said that “[t]his historic California court decision declared unconstitutional one of the most blatant and significant attacks in the modern era on constitutional prohibitions against discrimination.”
In the folklore of corporate governance, is there a governance structure that is more anathema to corporate governance mavens and shareholder democracy activists than the staggered board? (Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point.) Proxy advisory firms and activists oppose them, institutional investors vote against them and shareholders proposals to eliminate them are unusually successful. Staggered boards, where subsets of board members are elected in separate classes every three years—and therefore cannot be easily or quickly voted out—are often viewed as the archetypal technique to prevent hostile takeovers. Opponents also argue that staggered boards entrench boards and managements by insulating them from the shareholders and making it tough for shareholders to dethrone the CEO. That has to be bad for the company, right? Not so fast, says this study co-authored by a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Stanford Law School. According to the author, quoted in Insights by Stanford Business, “[f]rom Adam Smith on, the concern of corporate governance has been how to mind the managers….Corporate governance has been about building up checks and monitors on the managers. The idea is that if we can fire them, and they know we can fire them, then maybe they will do the right thing.” But for some companies—in this case, early-life-cycle technology companies facing more Wall Street scrutiny—the evidence showed that, by allowing managers to focus on long-term—perhaps bolder and riskier—investments and innovations, staggered boards can actually be a benefit.
Recent legislation expected to be signed into law by Delaware’s governor amends the state’s General Corporation Law to expressly allow the use of captive insurance companies to fund a Delaware corporation’s directors and officers insurance coverage. What are the implications?
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.
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.]
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.”
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.