Judicial Rewriting of Inspection Rights: Wolst v. Monster Beverage Corp. (Part 3)
We are discussing Wolst v. Monster Beverage, an action brought under DGCL 220.
The case is both inconsistent with the purpose of Section 220 and inconsistent with prior Delaware law.
The Shareholder sought to engage in the inspection to obtain the underlying documentation that addressed the special committee’s recommendation to deny the litigation request. The court, however, recast the purpose as the desire to obtain the information needed to bring a derivative suit.
- In summary, Wolst “has articulated no stated purpose other than to investigate wrongdoing in order to bring [her derivative] suit against [Monster's insiders who traded on nonpublic information], and [Wolst] is time-barred from bringing that suit.” Accordingly, because the derivative action contemplated by Wolst would be time-barred and because no other purpose has been identified, she has failed to prove a proper purpose, an essential element of her case under 8 Del. C. § 220.
There is little doubt, as is often the case, that Shareholder sought books and records to assess the viability of a derivative suit. The requirement of a “proper purpose” does not, however, turn on the ultimate use of the documents but on the purpose of the inspection. For that, shareholders need only have a purpose that is “reasonably related to such person's interest as a stockholder.”
Obtaining insight into the special committee's investigation regarding allegations of insider trading and the reasons for the denial of the litigation request could have provided useful information in a number of respects. The information may have resulted in Shareholder deciding not file a suit but instead negotiating with management over a stronger policy concerning insider trading. The actions of the special committee and the board could have cast light on the competency of directors, influencing future voting decisions by Shareholder. In other words, the information was potentially useful to Shareholder irrespective of the filing of a derivative suit.
None of these possible uses mattered in the court's analysis. Instead, the court essentially found the documents sought in the inspection request had only a single purpose: use in a possible derivative suit. While it is true that Shareholder indicated this as a goal, the reality is that only after completion of the inspection could Shareholder decide on the the appropriate next step, only one of which would have been the filing of a derivative suit. The idea that the inspection might have resulted in no litigation and generated useful dialogue between Shareholder and management was not something the court even considered (or encouraged).
Moreover, the analysis effectively whipsaws shareholders in inspection rights cases. In other instances, shareholders have seen their requests to inspect dismissed because they wanted to use the documents in a derivative suit. In Central Laborers Pension Fund v. News Corporation, No. 6287-VCN, 2011 WL 6224538 (Del. Ch. Nov. 30, 2011) (aff'd on other grounds), the Chancery Court effectively found that shareholders lacked a proper purpose because shareholders had sought to inspect only after filing a derivative suit. The court viewed the use of inspection rights as a substitute for discovery as not a proper purpose.
So if shareholders want documents to advance a derivative claim, they risk dismissal. This encourages the invocation of a purpose that is broader than simply promoting a derivative suit. Yet as Wolst shows, even where a broader purpose is alleged, courts are open to simply recharacterizing the purpose as promoting a derivative suit and using that as a basis for dismissal.
Primary materials on this case, including the opinion of the Vice Chancellor, can be found at the DU Corporate Governance web site.