July 10, 2008

The Delaware Supreme Court's AFSCME/CA Hearing: All the News Fit to Post

With a hearty thanks to J.W. Verret, our man on the ground during yesterday's Delaware Supreme Court hearing about the important issue certified from the SEC regarding AFSCME's "reimbursement of expenses" binding bylaw proposal. J.W. is a rising star and Assistant Professor at George Mason University School of Law. Here is J.W.'s report:

Background

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal ("AFSCME") Employees Pension Plan submitted a shareholder proposal for inclusion in CA's (formerly known as Computer Associates) proxy materials for their annual meeting scheduled to be held on September 9, 2008. That proposal sought to amend CA's bylaws to require that the company reimburse the reasonable expenses incurred by a dissident nominating a rival slate of directors, provided that at least one nominee from the dissident slate was victorious. CA sought no-action relief from the SEC permitting it to exclude that proposal under Rule 14a-8 as illegal under Delaware law, and the SEC certified the question to the Delaware Supreme Court a few weeks ago (here is Broc's blog on that development).

Part of the SEC's submission read ominously: "[N]o-action requests regarding substantially similar proposals have been submitted in the past....The extent to which the Division can expect to receive future requests to exclude proposals similar to the AFSCME Proposal will necessarily be affected by the outcome (of these proceedings)."

My essay on this issue - published in the March edition of the Corporate Governance Advisor - predicted that the SEC would certify the bylaw question to Delaware soon. Broc and I also had an interesting discussion during a podcast regarding this question back in February. For more on the growing trend of shareholder democracy behind this challenge, see my article "Pandora's Ballot Box, or a Proxy with Moxie: Majority Voting, Corporate Ballot Access, and the Legend of Martin Lipton Re-Examined."

Anticipating that the opinion in this difficult case might make use of dicta guidance, see also my article with Chief Justice Steele on the "Delaware Guidance Function." Also, a shorter posting on this case is available here.

The Overriding Question

Section 109 of the Delaware General Corporation Law grants shareholders the right to adopt bylaws. Section 141(a) reads that "the business and affairs of every corporation...shall be managed by...a board of directors." To what extent do shareholder-adopted bylaws conflict with the Board's discretion under 141? And to what extent does this election bylaw limit that discretion? Indeed, is it really an election bylaw at all?

The Briefing

CA argues that:

1. This bylaw mandates a payment of expenses, rather than relates to an election, and control over corporate expenditures is part of the business and affairs of the corporation described in Section 141 and Paramount v. QVC and JANA v. CNET;

2. Any limits on the board's authority under 141 must be contained in the Certificate of Incorporation. A bylaw in conflict with the certificate of incorporation is a nullity. Since CA has a provision in its Certificate of Incorporation that mirrors 141, a bylaw in conflict with 141 would therefore be a nullity. The practical result of this argument is that, since CA's certificate of incorporation provides that it may only be amended by the Board, a common provision, the shareholders have no way to mandate proxy reimbursement;

3. CA distinguishes bylaws that regulate the process by which Boards act, which they argue describe the majority of bylaws constraining directors which the Delaware Courts have upheld, from bylaws mandating a specific policy, which CA argues describes the bylaw at issue;

4. CA argues that since Delaware law permits reimbursement of proxy expenses only where contests benefit all shareholders, rather than a mere subset, mandatory reimbursement may cause directors to violate Delaware law and their fiduciary duties. This is especially likely in short slates, because of their assumption that minority interests would be the only aim of the dissident slate, and thus the Board may be constrained from preventing this threat to the other shareholders;

5. An affirmative decision in this case would lead to a host of new contests, and could lead to corporate waste of assets causing directors to violate their fiduciary duties;

6. CA distinguishes cases cited by AFSCME, such as Unisuper, relating to board-approved limitations on board authority as permitting shareholder limitations, by arguing that contractual and equity principles were applied to board action to justify those self-imposed limitations that make them irrelevant to a determination of whether shareholder approved limitations are permissible.

AFSCME's argument:

1. In response to CA, AFSCME argues that the language in 109 which permits shareholder bylaws "not inconsistent with law" would be a redundant phrase if the legislature's intent were to only permit bylaws authorized by other statutory provisions;

2. The validity of bylaws are not judged based on who adopted them;

3. In response to claims that mandating expenditure of funds would interfere with Director's authority under Section 141, or may leave the corporation open to payments that flow from fiduciary violations, AFSCME points to prior cases upholding the validity of bylaws requiring indemnification of directors despite the Board's wish to withhold indemnification. Further, they argue that the mandated payment does not implicate fiduciary concerns precisely because the payment would be mandatory, and thus could not be based on a director or manager's self-dealing motives;

4. The Blasius, Unitrin, and MM Companies cases also evidence a dim view of attempts to thwart the shareholder franchise, which is the underpinning of the business judgment rule. Also, Harrah's v. JCC provides that the shareholder franchise includes a meaningful right to nominate an opposing slate, and not simply vote in an election. Thus, AFSCME essentially argues that this amounts to a heightened standard of review, or a presumption in favor of the shareholder, in cases resolving shareholder bylaw validity;

5. AFSCME skillfully leaves a trail for the Court to limit its holding, arguing that even if there is a tension between 141 and 109, and 141 limits the types of bylaws shareholders may adopt (this is the area in which poison pill bylaw fights would come up), that limitation does not extend to election bylaws;

6. They respond to a number of CA's examples of specific bylaws determined to be inconsistent with the DGCL as irrelevant, because all of them related to Board bylaws, also noting that the Court has never struck down a shareholder adopted bylaw for being inconsistent with the DGCL or restricting the Board's ability to fulfill their fiduciary duties.

Here is CA's brief - and here is AFSCME's brief (and appendix).

Oral Argument

Arguing on behalf of Computer Associates was Robert Guiffra of Sullivan & Cromwell. Arguing on behalf of AFSCME was Michael Barry of Grant & Eisenhofer. The issues from the briefs central to the oral argument were whether this bylaw relates to an election, or control over the corporate treasury, and then whether a mandatory reimbursement requirement could cause directors to violate their fiduciary duties to the company. The mix of questions from the Court during oral argument make any predictions difficult.

The Justices pushed counsel for CA over whether the prospect of reimbursement was inextricably linked to the success of an election, and whether the bylaw would be legal if adopted by the board. The Justices pushed counsel for AFSCME over whether there might be any circumstances under which a bylaw could force inequitable reimbursement and whether the board's authority to adopt bylaws was co-extensive with that of shareholders.

Interestingly, Justice Berger, when she served as a Vice Chancellor on the Court of Chancery, suggested in dicta that stockholders create a bylaw limiting the board's power to amend a stockholder adopted by-law in American Int'l Rent a Car, an opinion from 1984, which may indicate her view on whether the right to adopt bylaws is co-extensive. The Court also questioned whether the "reasonable" qualifier in this bylaw left enough room for board discretion not to reimburse wasteful expenses.

One open thread that may not be resolved: If this bylaw is included in the corporation's proxy, and if it passes, can the board simply amend that bylaw? Meaning the Court could conceivably rule that the bylaw was legal, and thus the SEC would have no basis to allow the company to exclude it, but in a subsequent challenge to the board's decision to amend the shareholder bylaw would the company get business judgment protection?

Conclusion

This is a particularly controversial and intricate case, and the Delaware Supreme Court has only a week and a half to craft a decision. It is probably best to save substantive practice advice until the opinion is issued. See you then...

SEC Releases Credit Rating Agency Study

Two days ago, the SEC issued this study that summarizes issues identified during the Staff's examinations of credit rating agencies. Not good news for the rating agencies (here is a WSJ article). Here is the related press release - and a statement from SEC Chairman Cox.

The "Swearing In" Press Release

I'm excited about Elisse Walter being named as a SEC Commissioner, but I can't help but note that yesterday's press release about her being sworn in is a "first." It contains the nitty-gritty about who attended.

I know I've said it before, but it seems the SEC does a press release at the drop of a hat now. It's probably to show that a Democrat is now on the job at the SEC, but we already had the press release about Elisse and the other new Commissioners being confirmed by the US Senate. Anyways, I'm looking forward to the details of who attends the swearing in of the other two new Commissioners...

- Broc Romanek

Posted by broc at 06:51 AM
Permalink: The Delaware Supreme Court's AFSCME/CA Hearing: All the News Fit to Post