In two recent decisions, the judges of Delaware’s Court of Chancery have demonstrated their intent to carefully review fee applications made by counsel for stockholder plaintiffs where the litigation has been rendered moot by actions of the company, and the litigation has been dismissed.
In In re Xoom Corp. Stockholder Litigation, C.A. No. 11263-VCG (Aug. 4, 2016), Vice Chancellor Glasscock awarded plaintiff’s counsel fees of $50,000 (of a requested $275,000) after the company rendered the litigation moot by making supplemental disclosures in advance of a transaction, and which were only marginally beneficial to the stockholders. A few weeks earlier, in In re Keurig Green Mountain, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, C.A. No. 11815-CB (July 22,2016)(trans. ruling), Chancellor Bouchard refused to award any fees to plaintiff’s counsel (of a requested $300,000) where he found the additional disclosures by the company in advance of the transaction were of no additional value to the company’s stockholders.
A “mootness” fee application is typically filed by counsel for class or derivative plaintiffs where their litigation has arguably caused the company to take action that renders the pending litigation moot. In the two cases discussed here, that action took the form of supplemental disclosures in advance of a stockholder vote to approve a transaction. Once it has been determined (or conceded) that the actions of the stockholder plaintiff caused the company to take the mooting action, the court will apply “a subspecies of the common-benefit doctrine, which recognizes that, where a litigation provides a benefit to a class or group, costs necessary to the generation of that benefit should also be shared by the group or its successor.” See In re Xoom, at p. 8.
In the Xoom matter, Vice Chancellor Glasscock declined to apply the “plainly material” standard for reviewing the value of disclosures to stockholders in advance of a stockholder vote that was announced in the Court’s earlier decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 129 A.3d 884 (Del. Ch. 2016). He held that where the court is reviewing a proposed settlement that includes a broad release of claims by the stockholders, the “plainly material” standard would be appropriate. Where, however, no such release is being sought (as in Xoom, where the litigation had been dismissed, with prejudice, as to the named plaintiff only), the Vice Chancellor found that a fee could be awarded where the disclosures have provided “some benefit to stockholders.” To determine the fee that might be appropriate in the circumstances, the court will look to the five factors announced in Sugarland Indus., Inc. v. Thomas: (1) the benefit achieved; (2) the contingent nature of the undertaking; (3) the difficulty of the litigation and the efforts of counsel; (4) the quality of the work performed; and (5) the standing and ability of counsel.
Looking primarily at the benefit achieved, in Xoom the court found that the requested fee of $275, 000 was not warranted where the benefit achieved was marginal and where the effort expended by counsel (63 hours) on the matter would result in an implied hourly rate of $4,000/hr. Instead, he awarded counsel for the plaintiff a fee of $50,000, which reflects an implied hourly rate of $794.00/hr.
In the Keurig matter, Chancellor Bouchard also looked primarily at the benefit achieved by the litigation efforts of the stockholder plaintiff and found that the supplemental disclosures made by the company to moot the litigation did not “confer any benefit on the corporation because they did not correct a materially misleading disclosure” in the original proxy materials. Because he found no benefit at all had been achieved, the Chancellor rejected, in whole, the request by plaintiff’s counsel for a fee of $300,000.