Proxy advisory firms Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis & Co. (Glass Lewis) have updated their proxy voting policies for shareholder meetings held on or after February 1, 2023 (ISS) or January 1, 2023 (Glass Lewis). This Sidley Update summarizes the changes in proxy voting policies that apply to U.S. companies and provides some practical considerations.
In 1996, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued its seminal decision in In re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation, which establishes the framework for director oversight liability under Delaware law. Over time, Delaware courts frequently observed that this type of claim was “possibly the most difficult theory in corporation law upon which a plaintiff might hope to win a judgment,” and these claims rarely advanced beyond the motion-to-dismiss stage. However, in a three-year span beginning in 2019, Delaware courts denied motions to dismiss Caremark claims in five cases, leading some to question whether the Caremark standard has been relaxed. A recent Court of Chancery decision issued earlier this summer provides an important counterpoint to this recent commentary, while underscoring that boards must exercise rigorous oversight over “mission critical” risks.
The Delaware Court of Chancery recently denied a motion to dismiss stockholder derivative claims against Carvana Co. arising out of a stock offering Carvana announced in March 2020. The Court found that, based on the plaintiff’s allegations, it was reasonably conceivable that the stock offering had been orchestrated to take advantage of pandemic-related market volatility to benefit investors hand-selected by Carvana’s controlling stockholders. In doing so, the Court rejected the defendants’ arguments of demand futility and provided useful guidance regarding the types of allegations necessary to establish a director’s lack of independence.
The Delaware Court of Chancery recently issued another decision regarding the statutory right to inspection of corporate books and records under Delaware General Corporation Law Section 220. In Melvin Gross v. Biogen Inc., the plaintiff-stockholder was permitted to obtain certain books and records, but the court limited inspection in key respects, and offered words of caution regarding confidentiality agreements. Companies facing Section 220 demands should review this decision and consider its lessons regarding the appropriate scope of inspection.
A short decision issued in January by the Delaware Supreme Court provides helpful insight into an issue of practical import in the context of Section 220 demands: when does a stockholder have a right to go beyond formal communications, such as board minutes, presentations, and resolutions, to conduct a more invasive and burdensome search of informal methods of communication, such as text messages and emails?
Alex Bäcker did not like to wait in line. Nor did he want to give up control of the company he co-founded and led, QLess, which produces a “virtual queue management system that reduces the time that retail customers must wait in line for services.” The Delaware Supreme Court’s rejection of Bäcker’s apparent subterfuge in an effort to maintain that control is a reminder that director actions are subject to equitable review.
The above-referenced turn of phrase was penned by Benjamin Franklin in admonishing his fellow Philadelphians to take heed of fire prevention strategies. Although the benefits discussed here are short of life-saving, attention to implementation and periodic review of your practices for the preparation and maintenance of board minutes and related materials can yield significant dividends in managing and mitigating litigation risk, including the risk of personal liability for directors. In addition to providing an accurate record of board decisions, to the extent that minutes evidence directors’ good faith, diligence, and absence of conflict (or appropriate handling of conflict), minutes can help support early termination of stockholder suits for breach of duty. Attention to board (and board committee) minutes is especially important given the increase in demands by would-be stockholder plaintiffs for corporate books and records to assist them in assessing potential claims and constructing their allegations.