Pre-litigation tools and procedure in M&A litigation

Shareholder vote

What impact does a shareholder vote have on M&A litigation in your jurisdiction?

In a transaction that does not involve a controlling shareholder, a fully informed and uncoerced shareholder vote approving the transaction will result in the irrebuttable application of the business judgement rule. Courts conclude that such a vote will ‘cleanse’ any breach of fiduciary duty that took place in connection with the deal approval process.

In transactions involving a controlling shareholder, and absent satisfaction of the other prerequisites, shareholder approval will shift the burden to a plaintiff to prove the unfairness of a transaction.

Insurance

What role does directors’ and officers’ insurance play in shareholder litigation arising from M&A transactions?

Companies typically have insurance for their directors and officers that will cover the types of claims generally asserted in shareholder litigation arising from M&A transactions. The most important role of directors’ and officers’ insurance is minimising the risk that a director or officer will be subject to personal liability in connection with shareholder litigation. Directors’ and officers’ insurance also can influence the parties’ willingness or ability to settle shareholder claims. Insurers generally play a small role in the preliminary phases of litigation, but may become more involved if a matter progresses or enters into formal settlement negotiations, such as mediation.

In recent years, many insurance carriers have substantially increased the deductible or retention applicable to M&A litigation such that a significant part of defence costs and early-stage settlement payments are made by the insured.

Burden of proof

Who has the burden of proof in an M&A litigation – the shareholders or the board members and officers? Does the burden ever shift?

The business judgement rule protects the decisions of officers and directors of a corporation if those decisions are made in good faith, informed and believed to be in the best interests of the corporation. Where the business judgement rule applies, the plaintiff has the burden to rebut the presumption. The plaintiff may do so by showing, for example, that the board of directors failed to consider relevant material information or rushed to a decision without a legitimate business justification. If a plaintiff is able to overcome the business judgement rule presumption, then the burden shifts to the defendants, who must demonstrate ‘entire fairness’, which requires that the transaction be entirely fair to the corporation and its shareholders.

Pre-litigation tools

Are there pre-litigation tools that enable shareholders to investigate potential claims against board members or executives?

Shareholders have a qualified, statutory right to inspect a corporation’s books and records. To do so, a shareholder must make a demand that includes a proper purpose for the inspection. A proper purpose is one reasonably related to an individual’s interest as a shareholder, such as investigating alleged mismanagement or corporate waste. If the shareholder can state a proper purpose, then he or she may seek books and records that are necessary to accomplish that proper purpose. The scope of documents available to a shareholder pursuant to a books-and-records demand is narrower than is available during discovery between litigation parties; although, recent court decisions have taken a broader view and permitted email files, among other things.

Shareholders increasingly are making books-and-records demands in response to M&A transactions (rather than proceeding directly to litigation) for two reasons. First, Delaware courts have encouraged shareholders to obtain books and records to plead more detailed complaints. Second, to successfully proceed with a post-closing damages case, shareholders need to show that a vote or tender was not made on an informed basis or was the product of material conflicts.

Forum

Are there jurisdictional or other rules limiting where shareholders can bring M&A litigation?

A shareholder must bring M&A litigation in a forum that has subject matter jurisdiction over the claims as well as personal jurisdiction over the parties. A federal court, generally, may exercise subject matter jurisdiction over state law claims if a shareholder also asserts valid federal claims or if the parties’ citizenship is diverse. A state court, generally, does not have subject matter jurisdiction over federal claims. Personal jurisdiction over a corporation exists, at a minimum, in its state of incorporation and principal place of business, and may exist elsewhere depending on the corporation’s business contacts with the jurisdiction. Whether a court has personal jurisdiction over a director or officer is a more detailed inquiry, and turns on the contacts between that director or officer and the forum. A corporation also may control where suits can be brought by adopting a forum selection clause in its by-laws or articles of incorporation.

Expedited proceedings and discovery

Does your jurisdiction permit expedited proceedings and discovery in M&A litigation? What are the most common discovery issues that arise?

Shareholders may seek expedited proceedings for the purpose of setting expedited discovery deadlines and the date for an injunction hearing. Generally, the court has broad power to permit expedited proceedings, and the plaintiff’s burden is relatively minimal; that is, the plaintiff need only demonstrate a colourable claim and a sufficient possibility of irreparable harm to obtain expedition. When expedited discovery is allowed, the seller is typically required to produce presentations from its financial adviser, board minutes relating to the transactions, and management projections or forecasts, among other things.

The most common discovery issues concern attorney-client privilege. Some jurisdictions recognise a fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege, which, under certain circumstances, allows shareholders to invade the corporation’s attorney-client privilege to prove fiduciary breaches by officers and directors upon a showing of good cause. In addition, if the corporation is based outside of the United States, issues may arise regarding applicable blocking or privacy statutes.