Poison Puts and Fiduciary Obligations and the Irrelevance of the Delaware Courts: Pontiac General Employees Retirement v. Healthways (Part 4)

We are discussing Pontiac General Employees Retirement v. Healthways, a case that declined to grant a motion to dismiss that challenged a dead hand poison put.   The primary materials in the case, including the transcript, can be found at the DU Corporate Governance web site. Because the full opinion is in a transcript, this post includes the entire version:


COURT:  Thank you all for your presentations today. I appreciate it. I'm going to go ahead and give you my thoughts now. We are here on a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants. There are two groups of defendants.  The individual defendants and the company have moved to dismiss on ripeness grounds. The lender, SunTrust, has moved to dismiss, in addition, on failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted, primarily based on the assertion that the complaint doesn't contain sufficient allegations to support a claim for aiding and abetting.

The plaintiff, Pontiac General Employees Retirement System, is a stockholder of the nominal defendant, Healthways. Pontiac has sued, principally on a classwide basis, on a putative classwide basis, but alternatively it sues derivatively. The individual defendants are the members of the company's board of directors. 

The background facts are as follows: In 2010, the company entered into a fourth amended and restated revolving credit and term loan agreement. That term loan agreement included what the plaintiffs have described as a proxy put that had a continuing director feature. The proxy put at that time would be triggered when, during any period of 24 consecutive months, a majority of the members of the board of directors ceased to be composed of continuing directors. The proxy provision in the 2010 loan agreement did not contain a dead hand feature.

Subsequently, the company came under, and remains under, pressure from stockholders. It faced,
and continues to face, the risk of a proxy contest. In 2012, the New York State Common Retirement Fund submitted a proposal to declassify the board. On May 31, 2012, the company's stockholders overwhelmingly approved that precatory proposal to declassify the board, despite the board's opposition.

Subsequently, on October 10, 2013, the company did, in fact, amend its articles of incorporation to phase out its classified board structure. By 2016, the entire board will be up for reelection.  On June 8th, 2012, days after the stockholder vote that signaled, to at least some degree -- and certainly it's inferable at the pleadings stage -- some degree of stockholder dissatisfaction with the company, the board entered into a fifth amended and restated revolving credit and term loan agreement. That 2012 agreement has been amended three times since then.

The 2012 loan agreement provided the company with a $200 million revolving credit facility, including a $20 million swing-line subfacility and a 75 million subfacility for letters of credit, which terminates on June 8th, 2017, as well as a $200 million term loan facility, which matures on the same date. The 2012 loan agreement contained a dead hand proxy put.

Subsequently, in 2013, the company issued additional debt. That additional debt, one tranche of 125 million and another tranche of 20 million, was wrapped into the dead hand proxy put by stating that it would be an event of default if the company defaulted on any other loans in excess of $10 million.

Stockholder pressure continued. On December 2nd, 2013, North Tide Capital, an 11 percent stockholder, sent a public letter to the board expressing its concern with the board's leadership and the company's performance and called for the board to remove its CEO.  The board rejected that request.

In January 2014, North Tide sent another fight letter and stated its intent to wage a proxy fight. There was ultimately a resolution, where North Tide gained representation on the board. Those directors are treated as noncontinuing directors for purposes of the dead hand proxy put.

In March 2014, Pontiac served the company with a demand under Section 220, seeking documents and records relating to the dead hand proxy put. According to the complaint, the company failed to produce documents showing that there was substantive negotiation about the proxy put and no documents that suggested, to use the language of Amylin, that the company received "extraordinarily valuable economic benefits" that might justify the proxy put.

In this action the plaintiff asserts a claim for a breach of fiduciary duty against the individual defendants, a claim for aiding and abetting against SunTrust, and it also seeks a declaratory judgment that the dead hand proxy put is unenforceable. 

I'm going to start with the individual defendants and the company who have moved to dismiss on grounds of ripeness. Courts in this country generally, and in Delaware in particular, decline to exercise jurisdiction over cases in which a controversy has not yet matured to a point where judicial action is appropriate, to paraphrase the Stroud case. When considering a declaratory judgment application, for an actual controversy to exist, the issue must be ripe for judicial determination. That's a paraphrase of the XL Specialty Insurance case.

"In determining whether an action is ripe for a judicial determination, a 'practical judgment is required.'" That's the Stroud case quoting this Court's decision in Schick. This practical judgment has been described as a common-sense assessment of whether the interests of the party seeking relief outweigh the concerns of the Court in postponing review until the question arises in some more concrete and final form.

Here, the defendants argue that the dispute is not ripe because a variety of additional events must take place before the proxy put with its dead-hand feature is actually, in fact, triggered and does actually accelerate the debt.  The plaintiffs, however, have cited two different injuries. The first is the deterrent effect of the proxy put. Namely, because the proxy put exists, it necessarily has an effect on people's decision-making about whether to run a proxy contest and how to negotiate with respect to potential board representation.

As with other defensive devices, such as rights plans, one necessarily bargains in the shadow of a defensive measure that has deterrent effect. A truly effective deterrent is never triggered. A really truly effective deterrent is one you don't even have to point the other side to because they know it's there. If the deterrent is actually used, it has failed its purpose.

Delaware courts have consistently recognized that disputes are ripe when challenging defensive measures that have a substantial deterrent effect. For example, we regularly allow stockholder plaintiffs to litigate defensive measures in merger agreements in the absence of an actual topping bid. Why?

Because if truly effective, those defensive measures will deter the topping bid and it won't emerge.  Delaware courts, likewise, have held that a similar deterrent effect is sufficient to establish a ripe dispute when dealing with another classic defensive measure that is adoptable in a quite similar format by a board; namely, a rights plan.

In Moran, it was the deterrent effect on proxy contests that made the dispute ripe. Now, as the defendants point out, the Court in Moran ultimately held post-trial that the rights plan, in fact, did not interfere with the proxy contest in that case, based on the nature of the plan, the level of its trigger, and other evidence that was presented. That was a merits-stage ruling as to whether the rights plan should be permanently enjoined or otherwise invalidated. It was not an analysis of the ripeness issue. The ripeness issue was decided based on the deterrent effect.

The same is true in Leonard Loventhal Account. Most importantly, to my mind, the same is true in Carmody vs. Toll Brothers. I am unable to distinguish Carmody vs. Toll Brothers from this case, and I don't think the defendants have offered any credible justification on which the two cases can be distinguished for ripeness purposes.  The problem in Toll Brothers was that a rights plan containing a dead hand feature in a pill would have a chilling effect on, among other things, potential proxy contests such that the stockholders would be deterred, they would have the Sword of Damocles hanging over them, when they were deciding what to do with respect to a proxy contest. There wasn't a requirement that an actually proxy contest be underway.

That's exactly what the effect is of the dead hand proxy put in this case. The same analysis, in my view, applies. The same reasoning was followed in KLM Royal Dutch Airlines vs. Checchi and, again, I think it's on all fours here. 

The second present injury that the plaintiffs have cited, as Mr. Lebovitch reminded me of, is that the noncontinuing directors currently serving on the board are currently designated as such. And hence,  they are currently suffering an injury in the form of being treated differently than the other directors on the board. And that was another injury of a type that then-Vice Chancellor, later-Justice Jacobs allowed the stockholders to sue for in Toll Brothers. And he ultimately held on the motion to dismiss that, in fact, it stated a claim for a 141(d) violation. So that is another present injury that's happening now.

I do think there is a distinction -- as Mr. Lafferty ably identified -- between the potential future invocation or triggering of the dead hand put, the nonwaiver of the dead hand put, and its adoption now.

What I think is ripe now is a claim that, based on the facts of this case, the board of directors breached its duties in a factually-specific manner by adopting this poison dead hand put arrangement -- however you want to call it -- I guess proxy -- you guys have too much jargon -- dead hand proxy put arrangement in the context of the facts and circumstances here, including the rise of stockholder opposition, the identified insurgency, the change from the historical practice in the company's debt instruments, the lack of any document produced to date suggesting informed consideration of this feature, the lack of any document produced to date suggesting negotiation with respect to this feature, etc.

This is not a per se analysis. No one is suggesting that. Nor does the denial of the motion to dismiss depend on any theory that entering into an agreement that contains a proxy put is a per se breach of fiduciary duty.  Procedurally, that's inaccurate. All we're here on right now is a motion to dismiss. As to one of the motions, we're just asking if the claim is ripe, we're not making any per se adjudication. And as to the other motion to dismiss, all we're asking is has a claim been pled under the Central Mortgage notice pleading standard. We're not asking whether there is some ultimate relief to be granted as a matter of law.

And substantively it's inaccurate as well, because a ruling in this case will be based on the facts of this case; namely, what the board did or didn't do or knew or didn't know and what the back and forth was, if there was any, with SunTrust.

So in my view, I do think that the dispute is sufficiently ripe to state a claim as to the entry into a credit agreement with the proxy put. It may be that there is another claim down the way based on the potential nonwaiver of the proxy put for future directors, just like there might be a potential claim on down the way regarding the use of a rights plan. But that doesn't mean there's not a claim surrounding the adoption of a rights plan or a claim surrounding the entry into the proxy put. So I think that the dispute is ripe.

In terms of whether Pontiac has standing, I think this is a flip side of the ripeness argument. The primary purpose of standing is to ensure the plaintiff has suffered a redressable injury.  Standing is the requisite interest that must exist in the outcome of the litigation at the time the action is commenced. The test of standing is whether there is a claim of injury, in fact; and that the interest sought to be protected is arguably within the zone of the interest to be protected or regulated by the -- and I'm going to say -- the legal protection in question. That's a paraphrase of the Gannett case. The concepts of standing and ripeness are, indeed, related. 

So what I've tried to explain is I think this dispute is ripe as a practical matter because the stockholders of the company are presently suffering a distinct injury in the form of the deterrent effect, the Sword-of-Damocles concept, as well as in the form of the fact that they have directors on the board, some of whom are noncontinuing directors and some of whom are continuing directors.

What we know from those cases that I cited on ripeness grounds -- namely, Moran, Leonard Loventhal, Carmody, KLM -- those were all brought by stockholders. Stockholders had standing to bring those claims. So I think the same is true here. So I'm denying the motion to dismiss that was brought by the individual defendants and the company on ripeness grounds.

I'm now going to turn to the question of whether the complaint adequately states a claim for aiding and abetting. To state a claim for aiding and abetting, the plaintiff must plead the existence of a fiduciary relationship, a breach of a fiduciary duty, knowing participation in the breach, and damages proximately caused by the breach. That's a paraphrase of the Malpiede case. SunTrust has focused its motion to dismiss on the knowing participation element.

It is certainly true, and I agree, that evidence of arm's-length negotiation negates claims of
aiding and abetting. In other words, when you are an arm's-length contractual counterparty, you are permitted, and the law allows you, to negotiate for the best deal that you can get. What it doesn't allow you to do is to propose terms, insist on terms, demand terms, contemplate terms, incorporate terms that take advantage of a conflict of interest that the fiduciary counterparts on the other side of the negotiating table face.

This is the premise that is true in third-party deal cases. The acquirer is perfectly able to negotiate for the best deal it can get, but as soon as it starts offering side benefits, entrenchment benefits, other types of concepts that create a conflict of interest for the fiduciaries with whom it's negotiating, that acquirer is now at risk. Is the acquirer necessarily liable? No. But does that take the acquirer out of the privilege that we afford arm's-length negotiation? It does.

Here, the plaintiffs are not challenging the loan agreement as a whole. They are not challenging the interest rate or other financial terms. They are challenging a proxy put with recognized entrenching effect. There was ample precedent from this Court putting lenders on notice that these provisions were highly suspect and could potentially lead to a breach of duty on the part of the fiduciaries who were the counter-parties to a negotiation over the credit agreement.

Given the facts here, as alleged, including that there was a historic credit agreement that had a proxy put but not a dead hand proxy put, and then that under pressure from stockholders, including the threat of a potential proxy contest, the debt agreements were modified so that the change-in-control provision now included a dead hand proxy put, and considering that all of this happened well after Sandridge and Amylin let everyone know that these provisions were something you ought to really think twice about, I believe that, as pled, this complaint satisfies the requirement to survive a motion to dismiss.

It may well be that there's ultimately no claim and that SunTrust wins. It may well be that they didn't aid and abet anything. But for pleading-stage purposes, what they are is they're a party to an agreement containing an entrenching provision that creates a conflict of interest on the part of the fiduciaries on the other side of the negotiation. And that provision arose in the context of a series of pled events and after decisions of this Court that should have put people on notice that there was a potential problem here such that the inclusion of the provision was, for pleading-stage purposes, knowing.

At the risk of stating what I hope is obvious, I am not making any findings of fact on that, and I do not know if, in fact, these things were responsive to stockholder pressure or if some other driver generated them. All I know is that for pleading-stage purposes, I think that the complaint states a claim. So for that reason I am also denying the SunTrust motion.

J Robert Brown Jr.