Pomerantz LLP

Threat to Shareholder Protections in Transactions with Controlling Parties

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2014 

A recent Delaware Chancery Court decision, now on appeal before the Delaware Supreme Court, may dramatically lessen the customary safeguards for minority shareholders in controlling party transactions, such as going private mergers. 

In M&F Worldwide(“MFW”), Chairman Ronald Perelman offered to acquire the remaining 57% of MFW common stock he did not already own. As part of his proposal, Perelman indicated that he expected that the “board of Directors will appoint a special committee of independent directors to consider [the] proposal and make a recommendation to the Board of Directors,” and also noted that the “transaction will be subject to a non-waivable condition requiring the approval of a majority of the shares of the Company not owned by M&F or its affiliates.” 

Controlling shareholder transactions normally trigger the enhanced “entire fairness” standard of judicial review. This enhanced standard places a burden on the corporate board, and the controlling shareholder, to demonstrate that the transaction is inherently fair to the shareholders, by both demonstrating fair dealing and fair price. This is a very difficult standard for the company to meet. 

However, Delaware courts have held that the burden of proof on the issue of “entire fairness” can be shifted to the plaintiff challenger if the transaction has been approved either by an independent special committee of directors or by a positive vote of a majority of the minority shareholders. Independent committee and “majority of the minority” provisions are an attempt to assure that the company and its shareholders can exercise independent judgment in deciding to accept or reject the transaction. Although shifting of the burden of proof creates a higher hurdle for minority shareholders to surmount, it is not an impossible one, because the ultimate inquiry remains the same: the “entire fairness” of the transaction. 

Critically, even if these devices are used, Delaware courts have consistently held, up to now, that the business judgment rule does not protect the transaction. That rule, which protects most ordinary business decisions from shareholder challenge, is almost impossible for shareholders to overcome, because it provides that in making a business decision the directors of a corporation are presumed to have “acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action taken was in the best interests of the company.” 

In his decision, Chancellor Strine (who was just nominated to become the next Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court), ruled that where a transaction with a controlling person is conditioned on both negotiation and approval by an independent, special committee and a fully-informed, un-coerced vote of the majority of the minority, the proper standard of review is that of business judgment. According to Chancellor Strine, because Perelman conditioned the deal on implementation of procedural protections that essentially neutralized his controlling influence, the transaction is no different from routine corporate transactions in which the deferential business judgment standard is applicable. 

At oral argument, the Supreme Court seemed interested in the policy arguments both for accepting and rejecting the Chancellor’s reasoning. Chancellor Strine’s ruling, if adopted by the Supreme Court, could provide a roadmap for corporate boards to forestall litigation on even the most one-sided controlling shareholder transactions. Though too early to predict fully the repercussions of such a ruling, there is fear that institutional investors will use the power of the purse to reduce their holdings in controlled corporations over time, if their assets lose the valuable protections they are currently afforded.