Last week, Vice Chancellor Joseph R. Slights III issued a ruling in Tornetta v. Musk that serves as a reminder that the corporate attorney-client privilege is not absolute. Deciding a discovery motion in a stockholder derivative suit challenging the 2018 compensation deal for Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the Court ordered the defendants to produce a limited set of documents that reflected communications between Musk and in-house counsel, though it rejected the plaintiff’s request for additional communications between in-house counsel, the Board’s Compensation Committee, and outside advisors. The decision serves as a reminder to company counsel, both internal and external, that their communications may not always be protected from stockholder plaintiffs in shareholder derivative actions.
Starting last summer, a series of derivative cases were filed against boards of a number of public companies alleging that the boards failed to create meaningful diversity in their board rooms and amongst the ranks of senior management. These cases, filed mostly by one law firm and primarily in the Northern District of California, had the markings of becoming a new genre of claim. Two of these cases have now proceeded through their first motion hearing and neither survived intact. Ocegueda v. Zuckerberg et al., No. 20-cv-04444 (the Facebook case) and Lee v. Fisher et al., No. 20-cv-06163 (the Gap case). Although other cases remain pending and perhaps these two will be refiled, judicial reaction so far suggests that other methods to promote diversity may have greater impact.
Securities class actions against life sciences companies are almost always second-order problems. The first-order problem is a business or regulatory setback that, when disclosed by the company or a third party, triggers a stock price decline. Following the decline, plaintiffs’ class-action attorneys will search the company’s previous public statements and seek to identify inconsistencies between past positive comments and the current negative development. In most cases, plaintiffs’ attorneys will seek to show that any arguable inconsistency amounts to fraud — that is, they will claim that the earlier statement was knowingly or recklessly false or misleading. Where a company makes the challenged statement in a public offering document — a registration statement or prospectus — plaintiffs need only show that the statement was materially false or misleading, not that it was made with scienter.
The Court of Chancery’s March 30 decision in LendingClub is another example of the significant difficulty plaintiffs face in adequately alleging demand futility in the context of a derivative corporate oversight claim governed by Caremark, especially so in the face of an applicable exculpatory provision contained in a corporate charter.
According to Cornerstone’s 2020 review of securities class action settlements, settlements in 2020 generally kept pace with trends seen in recent years, notwithstanding COVID-19 and brief lulls in March and April 2020.
The Court of Chancery provided its latest guidance on so-called Caremark claims in a New Year’s Eve opinion issued by Vice Chancellor Glasscock in Richardson v. Clark, an action brought derivatively by a stockholder of Moneygram International, Inc. The opinion dismissing the claims, in which the Court had some fun with film titles from Tom Cruise’s career, provides an important level-setting because some have questioned whether Delaware’s courts are lowering the bar for claims alleging that a board of directors failed in its oversight duties. Richardson should provide some comfort to directors that the standards have not changed: absent particularized allegations of bad-faith action (or inaction) by a board, such claims should not survive a motion to dismiss.
On August 24, 2020, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III issued a rare denial of a motion to dismiss so-called Caremark claims in a case against directors of AmerisourceBergen Corporation (the Company). Although the decision reiterates the significant pleading burden that such oversight claims must meet, and exemplifies that only extraordinary facts typically permit a plaintiff’s claims to proceed to discovery, it is also a useful reminder that board-level best practices can, among other things, help address and limit any such liability.
The Delaware Chancery Court recently denied a motion to dismiss a shareholder derivative suit against directors and officers of Kandi Technologies Group, Inc., a publicly traded Delaware corporation based in China. Hughes v. Hu (Del. Ch. Apr. 27, 2020). The company had persistent problems with financial reporting and internal controls, encountering particular difficulties with related-party transactions dating back to 2010. In March 2014, the company disclosed material weaknesses in financial reporting and oversight, including a lack of audit committee oversight and a lack of internal controls for related-party transactions. The company pledged to remediate these problems. However, in March 2017, the company disclosed that its preceding three years of financial statements needed to be restated and that it continued to lack sufficient expertise and/or controls relating to accounting and SEC reporting.