Attorney: Gustavo F. Bruckner
Pomerantz Monitor September/October 2015
Delaware is the state of incorporation for over 50% of all publicly traded corporations in the United States and 60% of the Fortune 500 companies. Delaware court decisions on issues of corporate law thus have far-reaching ramifications. A series of cases involving the rights of corporate directors for advancement and indemnification of legal fees shows just how important these rights are considered, even when they involve corporate wrongdoers. When a director is sued for his actions as a director, he may be entitled not only to be reimbursed for his defense costs after the case is over, but to have these costs paid immediately, even before there is a determination as to whether the case has merit and before it is decided whether or not he should be indemnified.
Although a seat on a corporate Board of Directors can be prestigious and often lucrative, it carries with it certain risks -- including the risk of liability for breaching fiduciary duties. Yet, because directors are not usually executives, they don’t always have the same level of involvement and awareness of the affairs of a company that day-to-day management has. Generally, the Business Judgment Rule protects a director from personal liability to the corporation and its stockholders for an unwise corporate decision so long as the director acted in good faith, was reasonably informed and believed the action taken was in the best interests of the corporation. Delaware General Corporation Law section 145 provides that corporations shall indemnify officers and directors (that is, pick up their defense costs incurred in successfully defending claims of corporate governance breaches). The Delaware courts have previously held that “the statute requires a corporation to indemnify a person who was made a party to a proceeding by reason of his service to the corporation and has achieved success on the merits or otherwise in that proceeding [mandatory indemnification]. At the other end of the spectrum, the statute prohibits a corporation from indemnifying a corporate official who was not successful in the underlying proceeding and has acted, essentially, in bad faith.” In between, a corporation has the flexibility to indemnify its officers and directors, if they acted in good faith and without a reasonable belief that their conduct was criminal (permissive indemnification).
Since these costs cannot be determined until after the case is over, Delaware has also allowed corporations to agree to advance defense costs to officers and directors who find themselves defendants in such cases. This is seen as a way to attract top talent otherwise frightened of potential litigation. The advancement is usually subject to an “undertaking” by the director to repay any advancement if the director is ultimately not found to be entitled to indemnification. The law allows a corporation more latitude to provide advancement to current officers, but allows more conditions to be imposed on the benefit granted to former directors and officers, thus making an important distinction between current and former officers.
In Holley v. Nipro Diagnostics, Inc., the Delaware Chancery Court affirmed last year how seriously it takes these obligations to advance defense costs. Holley was the founder and Chairman of a medical device manufacturer, Home Diagnostics, that was acquired by Nipro in 2010. Pursuant to the acquisition, Nipro assumed Home Diagnostics’ advancement obligations to Holley “to the maximum extent permitted under the General Corporate Law of Delaware” for the costs of defending claims asserted against Holley “by reason of the fact” that he was a director of the Company. Soon after the merger closed, the SEC began an investigation into insider trading and initiated a civil enforcement action against Holley for disclosing non-public information to friends and family. Holley sought and received advancement of defense costs related to the SEC investigation. A month later, Holley was indicted on charges of criminal securities fraud. The SEC civil action was stayed pending resolution of the criminal action. After successfully getting the court to dismiss two of the criminal counts, Holley pled guilty to two additional counts and in exchange the government agreed to dismiss the three remaining counts. Thereafter the SEC civil enforcement action resumed and Holley sought advancement of his costs of defending that action. When Nipro refused, Holley brought suit.
Nipro argued that Holley was not entitled to advancement for the following reasons: he was not a party to the SEC enforcement action “by reason of the fact” that he was a director, but rather due to personal misconduct; since he pled guilty to insider trading he could not be indemnified and thus advancement would not be permissible; and public policy grounds. The Court rejected Nipro’s arguments. First, the Court found that the SEC investigation focused on the breadth and depth of inside information Holley possessed as a result of his position. The Court also held that “in advancement cases, the line between being sued in one’s personal capacity and one’s corporate capacity generally is drawn in favor of advancement with disputes as to the ultimate entitlement to retain advanced funds being resolved later at the indemnification stage.” The Court made clear that the right to advancement is separate and apart from the right to indemnification, with the right to advancement not dependent on the right to indemnification. Nevertheless, the Court held that notwithstanding the guilty plea, Holley might be entitled to indemnification since the guilty plea did not necessarily preclude success on the SEC claims, which alleged misconduct beyond that encompassed in his guilty plea. The Court rejected the public policy arguments on the same grounds. To emphasize the importance of this issue, the Court also awarded Holley the fees incurred in litigating his advancement claims.
A few months later the Chancery Court once again reached the same conclusion in Blankenship v. Alpha Appalachia Holdings, Inc. Blankenship was CEO and Chairman of Massey Energy Company when a massive explosion at one of Massey’s mines killed twenty-nine miners. Blankenship retired soon thereafter and Massey was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources. As part of the merger, Massey asked Blankenship to sign a new undertaking which added language that Massey’s advancement of expenses was contingent upon Blankenship’s representation that he “had no reasonable cause to believe that his conduct was ever unlawful.” After the merger, Blankenship incurred legal expenses, which Massey paid, arising out of the government’s investigation of the mine explosion. When the government later criminally indicted Blankenship, Massey and Alpha determined that Blankenship breached his undertaking and ceased advancing the costs of his defense. Blankenship brought suit and, in a post-trial opinion, the Court found in his favor. Emphasizing the importance of advancement, the first sentence of the opinion states, “this advancement action involves some unusual facts but an all too common scenario: the termination of mandatory advancement to a former director and officer when trial is approaching and it is needed most.” The Court went on to find that the revised undertaking could not justify terminating advancement in the middle of Blankenship’s defense. Massey’s advancement obligations to Blankenship under its charter survived Alpha’s acquisition of Massey under the terms of the Merger Agreement between those parties. Because Massey’s charter required it to advance costs to the maximum extent provided by Delaware law, Massey could not then condition its advancement obligations on anything other than an undertaking to repay the expenses if it is later determined that indemnification is not appropriate. The Court also awarded Blankenship his reasonable expenses incurred in litigating the advancement action. These results comport with a spate of cases since Holley involving claims for advancement that have ended with similar results.
Most recently the court did find there are limits to advancement, in two cases over two consecutive weeks. In Lieberman v. Electrolytic Ozone, the Chancery court found that post-employment conduct did not entitle former officers to advancement. Lieberman and Lutz were the CEO and VP Engineering, respectively, of Electrolytic Ozone. They had signed non-disclosure and non-compete agreements. In December 2013 they were terminated as part of a consolidation of operations. Electrolytic also terminated a 10-year supply contract with Franke Foodservice Systems two years into the contract. Franke initiated arbitration against Electrolytic for breach of the supply agreement. Lieberman and Lutz went to work for Franke in February 2014. In June 2014, Electrolytic raised third-party claims against Lieberman and Lutz for breach of their employment, non-disclosure and non-compete agreements.
Lieberman and Lutz brought suit after Electrolytic refused to provide them advancement. The Court held that Lieberman and Lutz could only be entitled to advancement of fees for litigation brought “by reason of the fact” that they served as EOI directors, officers or employees. Although the Court said the test is broadly construed, it found that the “arbitration claims are confined to post-termination actions and do not depend on [Lieberman and Lutz’s] use of corporate authority or position.” The Court went on to note that Electrolytic’s contractual claims were derived from specific contractual obligations that were allegedly breached post-termination. Thus Lieberman and Lutz were not entitled to advancement.
In Charney v. American Apparel, Inc., the Court held that the permissive indemnification written into a post-employment standstill agreement was not as broad as the indemnification
granted under the law. Charney, founder and former CEO/chairman of American Apparel, was forced out of the company after revelations of sexual harassment and initiation of lawsuits emanating from such allegations. He was suspended as the company’s chief executive officer in June 2014, resigned as a director of the company in July 2014 and was terminated for cause as CEO in December 2014. Thereafter, the company brought suit against Charney, alleging that after he was no longer CEO he violated the nomination, standstill and support agreement under which he agreed to not disparage the company or to run a proxy contest for the company’s board of directors. Charney sought advancement of his legal expenses in defending against the case under an indemnification agreement he had with American Apparel, which mandates the advancement of legal costs “related to the fact” that Charney was a director or officer of the company.
The Court concluded that these claims did not involve any alleged “use or abuse of corporate power as a fiduciary of American Apparel,” and thus Charney could not be entitled to indemnification under the terms of the contract. Additionally, the company’s charter only mandates advancement for current officers and directors. Therefore, the Court found that Charney could not receive advancement.
However, the facts in Charney and Lieberman differ from most advancement cases in that the questionable conduct occurred when those seeking advancement were no longer directly employed by the company. In contrast, Blankenship sought advancement when he was no longer employed by the company but it was to defend conduct that occurred while he was still employed. And as Holley v. Nipro shows, even criminal behavior may not be sufficient to preclude advancement.