Attorney: H. Adam Prussin
Pomerantz Monitor July/August 2016
In 2013, Michael Dell, the founder and CEO of computer manufacturer Dell, Inc., offered to take the company private at a price of $13.75 per share. Many investors were dissatisfied with the offer, but it was approved by a majority vote of the shareholders.
Many shareholders who voted against the deal elected to pursue an appraisal remedy, which allows dissenters to ask the court to determine the “fair value” of their shares. Appraisal petitions are representative actions brought on behalf of all investors pursuing appraisal, meaning only one dissenting shareholder needs to file a petition and prosecute the appraisal case on behalf of others. An appraisal differs significantly from typical shareholder lawsuits challenging mergers. Most notably, they don’t involve claims of wrongdoing. It is not necessary, for example, to show that the directors who negotiated and approved the transaction were conflicted, were negligent, or in some other way breached their fiduciary duties to investors. In fact, in the Dell case the court determined that no such violation had occurred and that the directors did everything they could to seek competitive bids for the company. Here, no competing bidder could be found who could challenge Michael Dell’s bid.
Nevertheless, dozens of shareholders were convinced that the price Dell paid was not “fair value,” as defined by Delaware law, and sought appraisal of their shares. Several of them were declared ineligible to pursue this remedy because they had failed, for one reason or another, to comply with Delaware’s byzantine rules for pursuing appraisal. In the end, 20 institutional investors were allowed to pursue their claims.
This spring, the Delaware Chancery Court issued a bombshell ruling in the appraisal case, finding that the “fair value” of Dell’s shares was $17.62 each, about 22 percent above the merger price of $13.75. Put another way, the court found that the $22.9 billion paid in the merger undervalued the company by about $6 billion. However, because only 20 investors were deemed qualified to pursue their appraisal remedy, they will get only about $35 million as a result of the decision, leaving almost $6 billion “on the table.”
Embarrassingly, among the disqualified shareholders were clients of T. Rowe Price, a mutual fund manager that had vociferously opposed the merger. Price accidently voted its clients’ shares in favor of the transaction and thereby disqualified them from pursuing an appraisal remedy. As an act of contrition Price reimbursed its clients $194 million – a pretty costly mistake.
The Dell appraisal decision may well add fuel to a recent upsurge in appraisal cases resulting from going private mergers. Increasingly, hedge funds and other aggressive investors have been snatching up shares of companies that are the subject of a takeover or going private proposals, in the expectation that they will file an appraisal case and make a killing in the transaction. From January 2015 to date, appraisal petitions were filed in about 15% of transactions eligible for appraisal. The results in these cases have been pretty good: an article in a trade journal, Securities Law 360, surveyed appraisal cases during the past 6 years, and found that the courts awarded large judgments to investors, above the merger price, much of the time. For example, in the Dole Food deal, it awarded a 20% premium; In the Safeway deal, 26%; Canon, 17.6%; Hesco, 75.5%; Orchard Enterprises, 127.8%; 3M Cogent, 8.5%; Cox Radio, 19.8%; Am. Commercial Lines, 15.6%; Golden Telecom, 19.5%; and Sunbelt Beverage, 148.8%. On top of these large premiums, the courts also awarded hefty interest on these awards. The appraisal statute requires the court to award interest on the award at a relatively high rate.