ATTORNEY: SAMUEL J. ADAMS
Pomerantz Monitor, May/June 2014
In a dishearteningly familiar scenario, a couple of years ago the chairman of lululemon athletica dumped a large number of company shares he owned, a few hours before the company announced that its CEO was resigning. By trading ahead of the news, the Chairman saved about $10 million. In defending himself from the charge that he traded the shares on inside information, the company’s chairman had publicly claimed that he had sold a big block of his company stock pursuant to his 10b5-1 stock trading plan, and not because he had inside information about impending bad news.
Pomerantz represents a shareholder of lululemon, and we and our client were interested in finding out whether the chairman’s assertions were true. So we brought a “books and records” action, asking to inspect the company’s records relating to the plan and to this particular transaction.
Deciding an issue of first impression in Delaware, the Chancery Court recently granted our request, holding that the circumstances of this transaction raised enough suspicion to warrant inspection. The importance of the inside information was beyond dispute. The company, which is known for its yoga apparel, had recently announced a highly embarrassing recall of approximately 17 percent of its women’s workout pants. News of the recall caused the price of lululemon common stock to drop almost 7% within two days, which, in turn, led to the resignations of several key executives and the termination of the company’s Chief Product Officer.
Then came the big blow: soon afterwards, the company’s Chief Executive Officer announced his resignation. That news caused lululemon’s stock to drop almost 22% in the span of a few days. The same day that the lululemon Board of Directors learned of the CEO’s imminent departure, but prior to any public announcement of it, lululemon’s chairman sold over 600,000 shares of company stock for more than $49.50 million. Had he waited to sell until after the public announcement, he would have received a little more than $39 million—approximately $10 million less. This looks a lot like insider trading.
Delaware law allows stockholders of public companies to inspect certain corporate documents, if the stockholder can assert a proper purpose and satisfy other technical requirements. After lululemon refused our requests, Pomerantz filed a complaint, known as a Section 220 action, to compel lululemon to produce certain documents relating to the stock trading plan. Delaware courts have encouraged stockholders to file Section 220 actions as investigatory tools before commencing other forms of litigation, such as derivative actions.
In response to the Section 220 action, lululemon argued that stockholders had no basis to question the chairman’s stock sales because the trades were executed by the chairman’s broker, who was granted sole discretion under a trading plan to sell shares on behalf of the chairman over a period of time. The plan, known as a 10b5-1 stock trading plan, is implemented by corporate insiders in an attempt to insulate themselves from allegations of insider trading.
Pomerantz, on the other hand, pointed to the fact that the stock sale at issue here was the single largest stock sale conducted on the chairman’s behalf since the establishment of his pre-arranged stock trading plan in late 2012, raising suspicions as to both the timing and the size of the sale.
The Court found that the 10b5-1 stock trading plan did not preclude potential liability for insider trading. The Court also found that there were “legitimate questions as to the propriety” of the sale and ordered the production of certain related documents. In addition to acknowledging that the chairman’s sale was the single largest he had made under the 10b5-1 stock trading plan, the Court also inferred that the number of shares sold was the maximum amount that the chairman could have sold in any one month under the terms of the 10b5-1 plan. These facts allowed the Court to infer a “credible basis” that wrongdoing may have taken place in connection with the June 7, 2013 stock sale. Accordingly, the Court ordered lululemon to produce the 10b5-1 trading plan, as well as certain other documents relating to the stock sale.
The Court’s holding that the mere existence of a 10b5-1 trading plan will not serve as an absolute defense for defendants and will not preclude a finding of a credible basis for an inference of wrongdoing, was an important victory for stockholders of public companies.