Pomerantz LLP

Delaware Court Refuses to Apply Fee-Shifting Bylaw

ATTORNEY: Alla Zayenckik

Pomerantz achieved an important corporate governance victory for stockholders in March when Chancellor Bouchard of the Delaware Court of Chancery refused to apply a fee-shifting bylaw to plaintiff and the class in Strougo v. Hollander. Fee shifting bylaws impose on plaintiff shareholders and their counsel the defendants’ entire litigation costs, unless the action achieves a complete victory, including an award of the entire remedy sought in the action. Such bylaws, if widely adopted, would foreclose virtually all shareholder litigation, regardless of the merits. Last year, in a case called ATP, the Delaware Supreme Court held that such bylaws can be legally enforceable, at least in some circumstances.

In Strougo v. Hollander, a closely-watched test case, Chancellor Bouchard issued the first Delaware opinion to address fee-shifting bylaws since the Supreme Court’s ATP decision last year. The Chancellor found that defendants cannot bind plaintiff and the class to a fee-shifting bylaw adopted after plaintiff had been forcibly cashed out through a reverse stock split.

Accepting the arguments proffered by Pomerantz partner Gustavo F. Bruckner, head of Pomerantz’s corporate governance practice, the Court found the bylaw inapplicable as to plaintiff and the Class under both Delaware contract and corporate law. Chancellor Bouchard explained that the Bylaw does not apply for two related reasons: (i) the Board adopted the bylaw after plaintiff’s interest in the company was eliminated by the reverse stock split; and (ii) Delaware law does not authorize a bylaw that regulates the rights or powers of former stockholders who were no longer stockholders when the bylaw was adopted.

The Chancellor found that “[A] stockholder whose equity interest in the corporation is eliminated in a cash-out transaction is, after the effective time of that transaction, no longer a party to [the] flexible [corporate] contract. Instead, a stockholder whose equity is eliminated is equivalent to a non-party to the corporate contract, meaning that former stockholder is not subject to, or bound by, any bylaw amendments adopted after one’s interest in the corporation has been eliminated.”

The Chancellor also commented on the underlying merits of the case and the effect of fee-shifting bylaws. He wrote “the Bylaw in this case would have the effect of immunizing the Reverse Stock Split from judicial review because, in my view, no rational stockholder—and no rational plaintiff’s lawyer—would risk having to pay the Defendants’ uncapped attorneys’ fees to vindicate the rights of the Company’s minority stockholders, even though the Reverse Stock Split appears to be precisely the type of transaction that should be subject to Delaware’s most exacting standard of review to protect against fiduciary misconduct.”

Prior to the Chancellor’s ruling, on March 6, 2015, the Council of the Corporation Law Section of Delaware State Bar Association issued proposed amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law that would ban fee-shifting provisions from a company’s bylaws or charter. If enacted, the amendments will become effective on August 1, 2015.