Director and Officer Liability Issues

March 5, 2021

这篇文章讨论了一些最近的发展,突出了潜在的风险和陷阱的董事和高级管理公司如果没有遵循良好的公司治理.

Under the internal affairs doctrine, 公司治理由公司注册所在地的国家法律决定,无论其主要营业地点或活动发生的地点.  See Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws, §§302, 309 (1971).   A corporate fiduciary generally owes duties of care and loyalty to the entity, requiring adherence to the best interests of the entity and its owners.  The duty of care requires a fiduciary to act in an informed and reasonable way.  The duty of loyalty requires a fiduciary to act in good faith, again with emphasis on the best interest of the entity and its owners.

对董事和高级管理人员的决策进行监督的一般标准是商业判断规则, 哪个假设公司的董事(和高级职员)在做出商业决策时是在知情的基础上采取行动的, in good faith, and in the honest belief that the action taken is in the best interests of the company.  Stream TV Networks, Inc. v. SeeCubic, Inc., C.A. No. 2020-0310 (Del. Ch. Dec. 8, 2020).   当董事未能进行充分的调查时,往往会产生对董事的责任, thereby failing to satisfy the presumption of the business judgment standard, 或者从事涉及个人利益的交易,从而超出商业判断标准的范围.

在对西九会计师事务所的杠杆收购中,潜在董事因未能恰当调查一笔交易而负有责任.  See In re Nine West LBO Securities Litigation, C.A. No. 20-MD-2941 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 4, 2020).[1]  That case involved a merger of Jones Group, the distressed owner of various footwear and apparel brands, into Nine West Holdings (NWH).  As part of the transaction, Sycamore Partners intended to contribute $395 million into NWH after the merger.  此次合并进一步考虑,除了资产负债表上已经存在的10亿美元之外,新洲国际还将承担2亿美元的债务.

The terms of the transaction changed prior to closing.  Sycamore’s equity contribution decreased from $395 million to $120 million.  Sycamore arranged for additional debt that would increase Nine West’s debt load from $1.2 billion to $1.55 billion.  盈利的业务线将在关闭Sycamore子公司后以低于公平价值出售.  卖方的董事们意识到这笔交易可能带来额外的债务负担,以及剥离某些业务部门.  While the directors approved the merger, 他们试图将对潜在额外债务的影响的考虑排除在其核准的范围之外.

The directors were sued for breaching their fiduciary duties.  董事们认为,他们批准这笔交易排除了某些潜在成分, 在实施可疑交易时,他们已不再是董事, was not sufficient to obtain dismissal of the case.  董事们没有对这些协调交易进行充分的调查, including the late change in deal terms, would render NWH insolvent.  Because the directors failed to fulfill their investigatory obligations, the business judgment rule did not apply and could not shield them from potential liability.

当董事们在交易中有个人利益时,也会提高对交易的审查标准.   For example, in a transaction where at least half of the directors are not disinterested or independent, the business judgment rule may not be applicable, 而责任将转移到有冲突的受托人身上,以证明交易满足更高的“整体公平”审查标准.  When the entire fairness doctrine is applicable, the defendants will bear the burden to demonstrate that their actions were appropriate.

尽管董事之间存在冲突,但公司实体仍然可以从交易中获益.  However, 在这种情况下,为了使有冲突的委员会恢复审查的商业判断标准, the board must implement the value-enhancing structure of an arm’s length transaction.  特拉华州法院采用了两种方法来“治愈”涉及有冲突董事会的交易的缺陷:该交易可能受到无冲突董事会持有的多数股份的知情非强制性投票, 或者,董事会可以任命一个不存在冲突的委员会,该委员会有充分的能力进行谈判和参与任何交易.  If a controlling stockholder is conflicted, 董事会将需要设立一个特别委员会,并由知情且不受强迫的少数股东进行投票.  Corwin v. KKR Fin. Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015); Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635, 644 (Del. 2014); Salladay v. Lev et al, C.A. No. 2019-0048 (Del. Ch. Feb 27, 2020).

In Salladay, 在卖方的六名董事会成员中,有三人被发现在交易中有买方利益, creating a conflict.  The plaintiff did not allege the existence of a controlling conflicted shareholder, and thus either a vote of informed and uncoerced stockholders, or the installation of a special committee, 是否可以实现“清理”事务,从而恢复业务判断标准.

董事会打算成立一个特别独立委员会来评估这笔交易.  The Court ultimately determined, however, 特别委员会的设立太迟了,无法避免强加整个公正的审查标准.  Specifically, 法院认为,公正委员会需要从交易开始就设立,而且, in this instance, 特别委员会在这一过程中成立得太晚,无法积极地保持一定的距离, unconflicted transaction.  In effect, 董事会在委员会前的参与设立了价格限制,“为即将到来的经济谈判奠定了基础”.董事会对无私股东投票的依赖同样是徒劳的.  法院的结论是,对股东的通知提供了不充分的信息,拒绝合并的后果,控制的实体. Accordingly, the Court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

The recent decisions in Nine West, and Salladay are reminders of the duties of directors to be diligent in fulfilling their obligations, 包括在交易完成前不久对可能改变交易评估的交易条款的任何变更进行审查, 并积极采取措施,确保关联方交易受到适当的独立保障措施的约束.  These concerns extend to officers as well.  特拉华州法律规定,在其职权范围内行事和履行职责时,高级管理人员应与董事承担相同的受托责任.  Gantler v. Stephens, 965 A.2d 695 (Del. 2009).

[1] Nine West was governed by Pennsylvania law which, for these purposes, is consistent with the applicable law in Delaware.