D&O Coverage for Subpeona Response Costs

I found this article both interesting and an easy read of a important topic.  It’s something that corporate executives and board members should know.

In summary, insurers may challenge whether the cost of responding to a subpoena is a covered cost under a company’s D&O policy.  This article (click here) by Benjamin Tievsky on Law360 describes the risk and how to reduce it by careful drafting of your policy.

Court Finds Conflicts in Rural/Metro Sale

WarningSignThe Delaware Court of Chancery has found the Board of Directors of Rural/Metro Corporation breached its fiduciary duties to its shareholders in its 2011 sale.  The Court also found the company’s lead adviser liable for aiding and abetting the breach.

The Rural Board was subject to undisclosed conflicts and failed to probe the company’s lead adviser for additional potential conflicts.

This case and prior high profile cases of conflict, such as the Del Monte and El Paso cases, should alert boards to be vigilant.

Click here to go to an article by White & Case, the law firm on JDSupra, the online legal magazine or click on the download button below.

Take Privates with Control Shareholder Rules Clarified

Taking a public company private when this involves a control shareholder has always been fraught with potential conflicts and litigation risk.

Recently, the Delaware Supreme Court upheld a Chancery Court decision setting the conditions under which a board of directors’ decision on a take private transaction with a control shareholder would be evaluated using the business judgement rule.

Katten Muchin Rosenman, the law firm, posted an article on JDSupra, the online legal magazine on this case.  Article excerpt:

In upholding the Chancery Court’s decision, the Delaware Supreme Court held that the business judgment standard of review would apply to a going private acquisition by a controlling stockholder if, but only if, the following facts were established: (1) the controlling stockholder conditioned the transaction on the approval of both a special committee, and a majority-of-the-minority stockholders; (2) the special committee was independent; (3) the special committee was empowered to freely select its own advisors and to say no definitively; (4) the special committee acted with care; (5) the minority vote was informed; and (6) there was no coercion of the minority.

Click here to read the article on JDSupra, by attorneys at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

Click here to read an article on JDSupra by attorneys at Perkins Coie.

Click here to read an article on JDSupra by attorneys at Fenwick & West.

Also, another recent case in the Delaware Chancery Court spells out procedural rules and implications for the parties if there are any defects in the process.

Lathm & Watkins, the law firm, offers the following helpful analysis and recap of the case.  Additional articles from Latham & Watkins are available on its website, www.lw.com.

 

March 2014

 

 

In re Orchard Enterprises, Inc. Stockholder Litigation,
C.A. No. 7840 (Del. Ch. Feb. 28, 2014)

 

 

 

Delaware Court of Chancery applies entire fairness review to a take-private merger with a controlling stockholder, despite approval by a special committee and a majority-of-the-minority, and holds that disclosure claims may give rise to post-closing money damages where the duty of loyalty is at issue.

 

Summary

The Delaware Court of Chancery largely denied summary judgment, thereby paving the way for trial on the merits of a take-private merger in which the common stockholders of The Orchard Enterprises Inc. were cashed out by Orchard’s controlling stockholder. In a 90-page opinion, Vice Chancellor Laster found “evidence of substantive and procedural” unfairness in the process and price negotiated by a five-member special committee of directors and approved by holders of a majority-of-the-minority of the stock. The Court declined to apply business judgment review — or even shift the burden of persuasion under entire fairness review — in light of evidence that the structural protections outlined in In re MFW and CNX Gas may have failed to operate effectively to protect the interests of the minority stockholders.

The controlling stockholder, Dimensional Associates, LLC, held 53 percent of the voting power of Orchard through ownership of 42 percent of the common stock and 99 percent of the Series A convertible preferred stock. In October 2009, Dimensional made a proposal to buy out Orchard’s minority stockholders for $1.68 per share in cash. Orchard’s Board formed a five-member Special Committee, which was fully authorized to negotiate with Dimensional and potential third-party bidders and to hire independent legal and financial advisors. The Court of Chancery found evidence that the lead Special Committee director was neither independent nor disinterested in light of his long-standing relationships with family members of Dimensional’s founder and his solicitation of a post-closing consulting engagement with Dimensional.

Valuation of Dimensional’s Series A was a pivotal fact in the Court’s analysis. The Special Committee’s financial advisor preliminarily valued the common stock at $4.84, based on total equity value divided by the outstanding common stock — and assuming that the Series A would be converted to common stock and participate on a pro rata basis. This assumption effectively valued the Series A at about $7 million. Allegedly at the direction of the Special Committee, the financial advisor later changed its approach and valued the Series A based on a $25 million liquidation preference. The Court of Chancery found that, although Orchard’s charter entitled the Series A to a $25 million liquidation preference in a dissolution, asset sale or sale to third-party, none of these circumstances applied to a take-private transaction with Dimensional. Nonetheless, the price negotiation reflected Dimensional’s bargaining leverage given the unlikely scenario that any third party would value Orchard high enough to pay the $25 million Series A preference and pay a price for the common stock that would be undiminished by the preference payment.

Orchard’s public announcement of Dimensional’s initial proposal of $1.68 per share led to third party interest and generated a higher offer by a third party. Dimensional assured the Special Committee that Dimensional would be willing to support a sale to a third party if it received the full liquidation preference. The Special Committee allowed Dimensional to negotiate directly with the third party and at least one other bidder — but no deal was reached. The Court of Chancery found evidence that Dimensional may have misled the Special Committee by negotiating with the third parties for a premium above the Series A liquidation preference.

Meanwhile, in the negotiations between the Special Committee and Dimensional, Dimensional offered $2.10 per share without a majority-of-the-minority approval condition, but eventually agreed on a price of $2.05 per share with a go-shop and a majority-of-the-minority condition. The Special Committee’s financial advisor issued an opinion that the price was fair from a financial point of view to Orchard’s common stockholders — but the advisor assumed that the Series A should be allocated $25 million of the equity value of Orchard with the rest allocated to the common stock.

Orchard’s proxy statement recommended approval of the merger and of an amendment to the Series A Certificate to enable the merger (which otherwise would have prohibited a change of control via a take-private transaction with Dimensional). In July 2010, holders of a majority of the common stock not controlled by Dimensional approved the merger and the transaction closed. After closing, certain stockholders brought an appraisal action. In 2012, then-Chancellor Strine of the Court of Chancery (now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court) ruled that the merger did not trigger the Series A liquidation preference and appraised the common stock at $4.67 based on an assumed pro rata participation by the Series A on an as-converted basis. Two months later, other stockholders brought a class action challenging the process and price of the transaction.

Vice Chancellor Laster issued a 90-page opinion analyzing issues presented in dueling motions for summary judgment brought by plaintiffs and defendants.

The Court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs on their claim that the proxy statement contained materially misleading disclosures regarding whether the merger triggered the Series A liquidation preference. The Court found that the proxy statement incorrectly stated in two places that the liquidation preference would be triggered unless the amendment was approved. One of those incorrect disclosures was material as a matter of law because the inaccuracy appeared in the description of the amendment to the Series A Certificate, which is a statutorily required disclosure under Section 242(b)(1) of the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL).

The Court also granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs on their arguments that the entire fairness standard of review should apply at trial, finding that Dimensional’s failure to agree at the outset to approval by both the Special Committee and a majority-of-the-minority precluded review under the business judgment rule. Furthermore, the Court held that neither of those protective measures, even though ultimately deployed, warranted shifting the burden of persuasion from defendants to plaintiffs because (a) the stockholder vote was tainted by the disclosure violation and (b) plaintiffs had raised triable issues of fact as to the integrity of the Special Committee process, including the issues with the chairman described above.

The Court of Chancery rejected the Special Committee members’ argument that they were automatically shielded from liability by the DGCL § 102(b)(7) exculpation clause in Orchard’s certificate of incorporation. That provision only immunizes directors for breach of the duty of care. Given the context of a controlling stockholder transaction subject to entire fairness review, where there was evidence of both procedural and substantive unfairness, the Court was unable to conclude, as a matter of law, that the evidence did not also implicate the duty of loyalty for all directors. Therefore, the four members of the Special Committee whose independence and disinterestedness had not been challenged by the plaintiffs were also required to prove at trial that they did not breach their duty of loyalty and were entitled to exculpation.

Finally, the Court of Chancery denied defendants’ argument that rescissory damages and quasi-appraisal damages were unavailable, finding that both measurements were possible given the failure to fully inform the stockholder electorate. (Rescissory damages is the monetary equivalent of rescission; quasi-appraisal damages is essentially monetary damages tied to the difference in equity value resulting from the non-disclosure.) The Court also rejected the defendants’ argument that In re Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc., 954 A.2d 346 (Del. Ch. 2008) barred any post-closing claim for money damages for a disclosure violation, finding that a money damages claim is possible where the disclosure violation implicates the duty of loyalty, or where plaintiffs can otherwise prove reliance, causation, and calculable damages.

 

Implications for our Clients

 

·         To obtain business judgment review of a transaction with a controlling stockholder, it is critically important that procedural safeguards be established before substantive negotiations begin.

o    The controlling stockholder must agree at the outset to condition any transaction on approval by an independent special committee and the affirmative vote of a majority-of-the-minority of stockholders (these cannot be “deal points” to be negotiated).

o    Unless both of these procedural safeguards are implemented at the outset (even if both are implemented ultimately), the most the parties can obtain is entire fairness review with a shift in the burden of persuasion to the plaintiffs (business judgment review will not be available).

·         Where entire fairness review applies, if there is “evidence of procedural and substantive unfairness,” the exculpatory provision in a company’s charter does not automatically protect even facially independent and disinterested special committee directors from potential liability for breach of the duty of loyalty; rather, each director must establish at trial that he or she is entitled to exculpation.

·         Evidence that the special committee chairman was not independent and acted in self-interest may require other facially independent and disinterested special committee members to defend their own conduct.

o    Special committee membership must be vetted carefully for potential conflicts of interest and lack of independence; if warranted, the special committee should be re-constituted.

o    Directors considering special committee service should pay careful attention to the conflicts and independence of other possible committee members when considering whether to accept the committee appointment.

·         Under entire fairness review, post-closing damages may be awarded if disclosures to stockholders in the solicitation of majority-of-the-minority approval contain material inaccuracies.

o    Further, even in arms-length third-party merger cases, post-closing damages may be available for materially misleading disclosures, subject to plaintiff’s proof of reliance, causation and quantifiable damages.

o    This may lead to a reduction in pre-closing settlement of merger cases based on disclosures, or an increase in the cost of those settlements.

·         The decision may be appealed eventually, and it is possible that certain of the holdings, particularly those concerning the availability of exculpation for facially conflict-free and independent directors and of money damages for disclosure claims post-closing, may be considered further.

 

Discussion

Delaware Court of Chancery precedent has established that the business judgment rule can apply to squeeze-out mergers by controlling stockholders where certain procedural safeguards are adopted. In re CNX Gas Corporation Shareholders Litigation, 4 A.3d 397 (Del. Ch. 2010), established that a transaction with a controlling stockholder may be subject to deferential business judgment review if the transaction is conditioned on approval by an independent special committee and by a majority of the minority stockholder vote. In re MFW Shareholders Litigation, 67 A.3d 496, 502 (Del. Ch. 2013), clarified that, to obtain business judgment review, the special committee must have authorization to negotiate and the controlling stockholder must agree to the dual independent approval process up front, before beginning negotiations.

 

In re Orchard reiterates this timing requirement when attempting to secure business judgment protection for a transaction with a controlling stockholder. Although the transaction ultimately was approved by a special committee vested with the authority to negotiate, and by a majority–of-the-minority stockholder vote, the Court of Chancery declined to apply the business judgment rule because the controller did not agree up-front to both of those protections (and, indeed, used the majority–of-the-minority approval as a deal point to reduce the purchase price). In re Orchard confirms (resolving a question left open by CNX Gas and In re MFW), however, that the burden of persuasion may be shifted from the defendants to the plaintiff under the entire fairness standard if a controller agrees to one but not both protections. While a shift in the burden of persuasion is commonly viewed as an inferior procedural benefit because it does not obviate a potentially costly and time-consuming post-closing trial on the merits, a shift in the burden still may be valuable to defendants by incentivizing plaintiffs to settle before trial.

 

The decision also concludes that, in a controlling stockholder transaction subject to entire fairness review, an exculpatory clause in the company’s charter under DGCL § 102(b)(7) does not automatically shield even facially independent and disinterested directors from potential liability where there is evidence of procedural and substantive unfairness indicating a breach of the duty of loyalty. A trial is required to determine whether the transaction was entirely fair, and, if it was not, then an analysis on a director-by-director basis at trial is required to determine whether they committed any breach of loyalty. In re Orchard thus diminishes the opportunity for dismissal of facially independent and disinterested directors at an early stage in merger litigation (and increases the potential cost and hassle of service on a special committee). While DGCL § 102(b)(7) remains a strong substantive protection for directors who can reap the benefits of its protection at trial—even when the transaction was not entirely fair — In re Orchard meaningfully increases the risk that otherwise “clean” Special Committee members may need to bear the burden of preparation for and participation in a trial, as well as the associated reputational risks.

 

Finally, the Court held that monetary damages for alleged disclosure deficiencies in soliciting stockholder approval may continue to be available even after a merger closes. Although injunctive relief to correct disclosure deficiencies may be granted before a merger vote in order to prevent “irreparable harm” the Court rejected defendants’ inference that there can be no post-closing “remedy” in the form of monetary damages. However, plaintiffs who assert post-closing disclosure-based claims must still prove reliance, causation and quantifiable damages.

 

If you have any questions about this M&A Client Alert, please contact one of the authors listed below
or the Latham attorney with whom you normally consult:

 

Stephen B. Amdur

Mark G. Gerstein

Rachel J. Rodriguez

Blair Connelly

Pamela S. Palmer

Bradley C. Faris

Sarah M. Lightdale

 

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European High Yield Bond Spreads Return to Lows

SpreadsChart

 If your company qualifies for raising high yield debt, the European market may be a receptive market.

The spreads on European high yield debt are approaching the lows seen before the financial turmoil in 2008.

This may prompt European companies which had pursued a conservative strategy over the last 5 years to become more expansive with the availability of lower cost capital.

Similarly, low cost capital may spark an increase in acquisitions by both companies and private equity groups.

Click here to go to the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis for background on the BofA Merrill Lynch data.

Securities Fraud Ruling Under Review By US Supreme Court

A case currently before the US Supreme Court sets the stage for a review of a key tenet of US securities fraud cases, the “fraud on the market” or “efficient market” theory.

If the US Supreme Court materially changes the way courts apply this key tenet or, overturns its use entirely, securities fraud plaintiff’s attorneys will lose a valuable tool to obtain class certification and, therefore, lose the leverage they currently enjoy against public companies.

I addressed the history and issues at stake in prior posts:

It appears from questions posed by several Justices that some are considering a modification of the ruling, not the elimination of the ruling preferred by corporations and their counsels.

In a now famous 1988 court case, the US Supreme Court ruled that fraudulent information was reflected in the stock price under the efficient market theory.  Therefore, all parties who bought and sold stock were impacted whether they read and relied on the fraudulent information.  This has made obtaining class action certification relatively easy.

Several law professors filed a “friend of the court” brief which proposed what has been characterized as a “midpoint” modification.  In this modification, plaintiffs would be required to show that fraudulent information had a significant effect on the stock price.

One of the professors commented that the proposed modification would make it more difficult to obtain class certification but would not prevent it.

If this modification makes it more difficult for securities fraud plaintiff’s attorneys to qualify for class action status, I believe it will have a dramatic effect.  It will eliminate key leverage enjoyed by the plaintiff’s attorneys.  Statistics show that once a securities fraud class has been certified, companies commonly settle.

We will share developments in this case as it progresses.

Click here to read a Reuters article on the US Supreme Court proceedings.

Click here to read an article on JD Supra, the online legal magazine by Sutherland, a law firm on the proceedings. Plus another article by Akin Gump, the law firm.

Last but not least, click here to read an article on SECActions about this case.

Three Steps to Prepare for Shareholder Activism

Latham & Watkins, the law firm, provides this easy to read series of recommendations for dealing with increasing shareholder activism.  Other valuable articles for corporate executives and board members may be viewed at www.lw.com.

Three Practical Steps to Stay Ahead of Shareholder Activism

by Steven B. Stokdyk, Joel H. Trotter & Patricia Judge

Activist investors continue to shape corporate governance. Last year saw more than 300 activist proxy campaigns, proposals and contests. Activism-focused funds manage over $100 billion in assets.

In this climate, no company is too large to avoid activists’ influence. There is no guaranteed safety — not corporate governance, share price appreciation or outperforming peers. All companies should remain prepared for engagement.

Experience shows that preparation can make a decisive difference. Companies that establish and maintain a good reputation with institutional investors will have an advantage when interacting with activists.

To prepare effectively, we recommend three broad ongoing practices:

  • monitoring exposure to activists;
  • communicating with shareholders and analysts; and
  • planning for activist campaigns.

Monitoring exposure to activists

Companies should continually monitor available information to assess their exposure to activists:

  • Monitor outside groups, including the company’s peer group, sell-side analysts, proxy advisors, pension funds, activist investors, print media and online sources.
  • Understand institutional holdings and the relationships among the holders, especially those who may team up with others, by monitoring Schedule 13G, 13D, 13F and Hart-Scott-Rodino filings, parallel (wolf pack) trading and debt trading patterns.
  • Watch the proxy advisory firms and institutional investor groups, such as Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), Glass, Lewis & Co., the Council of Institutional Investors  and TIAA-CREF. Although ISS can influence up to 30% of the vote, some investors use ISS’s position only as a starting point. For example, institutional investors such as Fidelity and BlackRock have their own internal proxy departments.
  • Review corporate governance ratings, correct any inaccuracies and identify potential changes that could improve the company’s governance rating.
  • Maintain a feedback loop by monitoring earnings call participants, conference attendees, follow-up requests and other investor contacts, always seeking candid feedback and facilitating open communication.

Communicating with shareholders and analysts

Use inbound and outbound communication to build key relationships:

  • Use relationship building to keep your friends close and your major institutional investors closer. Engage regularly with both portfolio managers and proxy departments. Know institutional investors’ guidelines, key decision makers and how to reach them. Establish credibility with shareholders and analysts in advance.
  • Seek out inbound communication and candid feedback. Use ongoing dialogue to ensure that management and the board of directors understand investor sentiment.
  • Use outbound communication as part of a concerted communications strategy. Ensure that communications consistently describe the basic strategic message. Focus especially on relative performance, proactively addressing any shortfalls as compared to peers.

Planning for activist campaigns

Formulate a plan to prepare for an activism crisis:

  • Evaluate protections in the company’s charter, bylaws and applicable laws for potential measures that could be used in response to an activist campaign.
  • Develop and maintain a public communications plan, which should include steps for strategic outreach to the media, regulators, political groups and others. Keep these relationships current to facilitate public messaging.
  • Identify team members and have key players ready in advance to assist quickly in response to emergencies. Identify your lineup of counsel, investment bankers, proxy solicitors and public relations specialists.

Taken together, these three steps — monitoring, communicating and planning — offer concrete actions that companies can use to ensure their preparedness for an activist campaign.

Steven B. Stokdyk
steven.stokdyk@lw.com
+1.213.891.7421

Joel H. Trotter
joel.trotter@lw.com
+1.202.637.2165

Patricia Judge
patricia.judge@lw.com
+1.202.637.3352

Smaller Company Reg A Offering Rules Get Update

Lance Kimmel, a well-regarded attorney and head of SEC Law Firm, provides us with this helpful summary of key developments that should make Reg A offerings more useful again.

To refresh your memory, the current Reg A rules are available by clicking here.

LanceImageFollowing the mandate of the Jumpstart Our Business Start-Up (JOBS) Act, on December 18, 2013 the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rules to amend largely forgotten and little-used Regulation A.

Having received far less attention than either of the other two major equity raising initiatives under the JOBS Act, general solicitation of accredited investors and equity crowdfunding, the revisions to Regulation A may well be the most far-reaching of the JOBS Act reforms. Informally known as “Regulation A+”.

The new proposal – expected to be adopted by the SEC in the first half of 2014 following a 60-day public comment period – has the potential to become a dramatically less expensive path to going public for many smaller companies whose investors seek an exit strategy or liquidity for their investment.

The SEC’s proposal builds upon existing Regulation A, which is an existing exemption from registration for small offerings of securities up to $5 million within a 12-month period.

The two major drawbacks to Regulation A are the small dollar limit (thereby resulting in high transaction costs as a percentage of the offering) and the fact that Regulation A offerings are not exempt from state blue sky laws, adding additional levels of complexity and cost to completing a Regulation A transaction.

For these reasons, Regulation A receded into relative obscurity over the last few decades. Regulation A, in its current form, will continue as so-called Tier 1 of Regulation A, and we expect reliance on Tier 1 to continue to remain in obscurity.

As proposed, “Regulation A+” will enable companies to publicly offer and sell up to $50 million of securities within a 12-month period under a so-called Tier 2 within Regulation A.

In addition, and crucially, Tier II-registered securities will be exempt from state blue sky laws, something that the state securities administrators strongly oppose. Finally, ongoing reporting obligations will be less burdensome than those for traditional reporting companies.

Proposal
As proposed, both Tier 1 and Tier 2 offerings under Regulation A will:

  • permit companies to submit draft offering statements for non-public SEC review prior to filing;
  • permit the use of “testing the waters” solicitation materials both before and after filing of the offering statement;
  • modernize the qualification, communications and offering process in Regulation A to reflect analogous provisions of the Securities Act registration process; and
  • require electronic filing of offering materials.

In addition, in Tier 2 offerings:

  • investors would be limited to purchasing no more than 10 percent of the greater of the investor’s annual income or net worth.
  • the financial statements (two years in most cases) included in the offering circular would be required to be audited; and
  • the company would be required to file annual and semi-annual periodic reports and current event updates that are similar to the current requirements for public company reporting under the Exchange Act.

The main eligibility requirements to use Regulation A (both Tier 1 or Tier 2) include that the company:

  • must be organized in the United States or Canada;
  • cannot have no specific business plan or purpose or have indicated that its business plan is to engage in a merger or acquisition with an unidentified company;
  • is not or has not been subject to an SEC order revoking the company’s registration under the Exchange Act during the preceding five years; and
  • is not disqualified under the recently adopted “bad actor” disqualification rules.

If you have questions regarding the new SEC proposal, other capital raising initiatives under the JOBS Act, strategic planning to take advantage of the new initiatives or specific fact patterns, please contact:

Lance Jon Kimmel
SEC Law Firm
11693 San Vicente Boulevard
Suite 357
Los Angeles, California 90049
tel. 310/557-3059
lkimmel@seclawfirm.com

New Tender Offer Rules Working

Companies are taking advantage of the new tender offer rules to avoid a time-consuming and costly second step merger.  As Brad Farris, attorney with Latham & Watkins, described on a panel reviewing tender offers done since the new rules were permitted.

For background on the issue, please click here to review my prior post.

For a summary of the recent panel including Brad Farris’ remarks, click here.

 

 

Proxy Advisors’s Success Draws Attention

It’s no surprise that as proxy advisory firms have had greater impact on corporate America (view my prior post), companies would mount a counter-offensive.

The NY Times “Dealbook” describes a recent encounter hosted by the SEC.

Click here to read the NY Times “Dealbook” article.

Post by Dennis McCarthy

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US Supreme Court To Address Key Fraud Ruling

The first hurdle has been met.  The US Supreme Court will address the issue of the use of the efficient market theory as the basis for determining securities class action cases.

I describe the issue in my post,Key Securities Fraud Ruling Challenged.

Click here to read a helpful Forbes article for background.

Hit the Download button to read an article by Latham & Watkins, the law firm, discussing the ramifications of the case and potential outcomes.


Post by Dennis McCarthy
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