Pomerantz LLP

Delaware Chancery Court Threatens the Future of Mandatory Arbitration Provisions


In March 2018, the United States Supreme Court in Cyan, Inc. et al. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund (“Cyan”) held that state courts continue to have concurrent jurisdiction (along with federal courts) over claims alleging violations of the Securities Act of 1933 (the “1933 Act”). The 1933 Act most notably provides claims based on misrepresentations in initial public offering ma­terials. The holding in Cyan raised the prospect that such claims could be filed by different shareholders in different state and federal courts.

In response, many companies going public adopted provisions in their bylaws or charters designating federal courts as the exclusive forum for the resolution of claims against them under the 1933 Act. For example, twenty of the 241 companies that went public with offering sizes of at least $10 million that began trading between Jan. 1, 2017 and May 3, 2018, had provisions designating federal courts as the only forum for securities law complaints. By doing so, companies hoped to avoid state court litigation of 1933 Act claims, or to prevent concurrent litigation of identical cases in state and federal court. If all the claims were in federal courts, it would be possible to consolidate them in a single multi-district litigation.

In a recent, significant decision in Sciabacucchi v. Salzburg (“Blue Apron”), the Delaware Chancery Court refused to dismiss the action, and in the process refused to enforce three company charters mandating that federal district courts be the sole and exclusive forum for the resolution of complaints asserting violations of the 1933 Act.

Plaintiff, a shareholder of meal delivery service Blue Apron, Inc., streaming device maker Roku Inc., and online personal shopping service Stitch Fix. Inc., filed a complaint seeking declaratory judgment under the 1933 Act against twenty individuals who signed the allegedly misleading registra­tion statements for the companies and who have served as the companies’ directors since their respective public offerings.

The case came before the Chancery Court, a state court, on cross motions for summary judgment. The charters of the three companies, incorporated under the laws of Delaware, contained substantially the same federal forum provisions, which provided, in relevant part, that “the federal district courts of the United States of America shall be the exclusive forum for the resolution of any complaint asserting a cause of action arising under the Securities Act of 1933.”

Defendants argued that the Delaware General Corporation Law, which allows certain provisions for the “management of the business and for the conduct of the affairs of the corporation,” was intended to provide great flexibility in a corporation’s ordering of its affairs, including the adoption of forum selection provisions, so long as the provisions were not unreasonable or contrary to public policy. Ad­ditionally, defendants argued that the law’s provision precluding corporations from adopting provisions that prohibit bringing internal corporate claims in the State of Delaware did not apply, since claims arising under the 1933 Act were not based upon a violation of a duty by a current or former officer, director or stockholder in such capacity.

Relying, in part, on the 2013 Chancery Court’s landmark decision in Boilermakers Local 154 Ret. Fund v. Chevron Corp. (“Boilermakers”), plaintiff argued that exclusive forum provisions must be limited to internal corporate governance claims, which — by definition — excluded claims brought under the 1933 Act. Those, according to plaintiff, “ha[d] nothing to do with the corporation’s internal governance” and nearly always involve false statements made even before the plaintiff became a stockholder.

In a 56-page opinion, Vice Chancellor Laster sided with plaintiff, holding that the companies’ federal forum provi­sions were “ineffective and invalid,” on the grounds that “constitutive documents of a Delaware corporation cannot bind a plaintiff to a particular forum when the claim does not involve rights or relationships that were established by or under Delaware’s corporate law.” In so holding, Vice Chancellor Laster reasoned that although the state of incorporation has the power to regulate the corporation’s internal affairs — including the rights and privileges of shares of stock, the composition and structure of the board of directors, and what powers the board can exercise — the state cannot use corporate law to regulate the corpora­tion’s external relationships. Consequently, since a claim brought under the 1933 Act is external to the corporate contract, “corporate governance documents, regulated by the law of the state of incorporation, can[not] dictate mech­anisms for bringing … claims alleging fraud in connection with a securities sale.”

The Chancery Court’s decision in Blue Apron is one in a series of critical judicial pronouncements relating to the state courts’ jurisdiction over class actions alleging only 1933 Act violations by private plaintiffs.

If companies cannot force certain types of claims into federal court, can they force them into arbitration instead? A critical implication arising from the Chancery Court’s reasoning in Blue Apron is that provisions mandating arbitration of 1933 Act claims could also be deemed invalid. As partner Jennifer Pafiti wrote in the previous issue of The Pomerantz Monitor, “When it came to our attention that the United States Securities and Exchange Com­mission (the “SEC”) hinted that it might consider allowing companies to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their bylaws, Pomerantz acted quickly to express its con­cern that such clauses could eviscerate a shareholder’s ability to hold to account a corporate wrongdoer.” Pomerantz organized a coalition of large institutional investors from around the globe to meet with SEC Chair­man Jay Clayton in D.C. in October 2018, and also met with a number of both Republican and Democratic Senate staffers. Two weeks after these meetings, ten Republican State Treasurers, in a letter co-authored by the State Financial Officers Foundation, urged the SEC to maintain their existing stance against forced arbitration. Pomerantz has been credited by the American Association for Justice for our dedication to this effort.

On the other hand, proponents of mandatory arbitration clauses argue that such provisions are consistent with other litigation management tools that Delaware’s courts have recognized in the past, particularly in the Boilermakers case where the Chancery Court characterized compa­ny bylaw as a “flexible contract.” If the courts side with the consumers — a hypothesis that undoubtedly will be tested in litigation — corporations would be deprived of another vehicle by which they control the forum for resolution of claims arising under the 1933 Act. Most critically, it usually follows that if certain claims must be arbitrated, they cannot proceed as class actions.

If the Delaware Supreme Court affirms the Blue Apron decision, it could become a landmark.