Pomerantz LLP

Delaware Court Raises the Bar in Controlling Shareholder Transactions

Pomerantz Monitor, May/June 2014

It is long-established law that where a transaction involving self-dealing by a controlling shareholder is challenged, the transaction will be reviewed under a standard referred to as “entire fairness.” That standard places the burden on the defendant to prove that the transaction with the controlling shareholder was entirely fair to the minority stockholders, including not only a fair price but a fair process for negotiating the transaction. 

Twenty years ago, the Delaware Supreme Court was presented with the question of whether the business judgment rule might apply to transactions with a controlling shareholder if the transaction was approved either by a special committee of independent directors, or by an informed vote of the majority of the minority shareholders. The Court said no, but that in such cases the burden of proof on the issue of the entire fairness of the transaction would be shifted to the plaintiff shareholders. While this may sound like splitting hairs, in fact the question of which standard — entire fairness or business judgment — will be applied usually determines the outcome of the case.

Now, in Kahn v. M&F Worldwide Corp., the Delaware Supreme Court was presented with a case where the controlling shareholder had used both protective devices: the transaction had to be approved both by an independent special committee and by the minority shareholders. The question was: What is the appropriate standard of review now? 

The Court concluded that those provisions, taken together, neutralized the influence of the controlling shareholder and the highly deferential business judgment standard of review should apply. This creates a much higher barrier for plaintiffs to overcome. They will now have the burden of proving that the challenged transaction was so egregious that it could not have been a result of sound business judgment. 

To demonstrate that the business judgment rule should apply, the controlling shareholder will have to agree at the outset that the completion of the merger will be contingent on the approval of a special committee and approval of the majority of the minority shareholders. Then, defendant must show that: 

  • The special committee was composed of independent directors;
  • The special committee was empowered to reject the controlling shareholder’s proposal, and is free to engage its own legal and financial advisors to evaluate the proposal;
  • The special committee met its duty of care in negotiating a fair price; •    The majority of the minority shareholders was informed; and
  • There was no coercion of the minority. 

The Court reasoned that the dual protections of the special committee and the majority of the minority “optimally protects the minority stockholders in controller buyouts.” It concluded that the controlling shareholder knows from the inception of the deal that s/he will not be able to circumvent the special committee’s ability to say no, and that s/he will not be able to dangle a majority of the minority provision in front of the special committee in order to close the deal late in the process, but will have to make a price move instead. 

While this ruling may serve as a setback to plaintiffs in certain cases, the business judgment standard of review will only apply when all of the above criteria are met. Defendants may be unwilling to condition the completion of the transaction at the outset on the approval of a special committee and a majority of the minority shareholders, as this might create too much uncertainty and risk around the proposed transaction.