Submitted by Prof. Paul L. Regan
In a telephonic ruling announced earlier this week in In re Complete Genomics, Inc. Shareholder Litigation, Dec. Ch., Consol. C.A. No. 7888-VCL (Nov. 27, 2012), Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster preliminarily enjoined Complete Genomics, Inc. from enforcing a standstill agreement containing a potentially problematic “don’t ask, don’t waive” provision. This provision purported to contractually preclude the other party to the standstill agreement (identified in the hearing only as “Party J”) from making a request — either publicly or privately — to the board of Genomics that the company waive the restrictions in the standstill that otherwise prevented Party J from making an acquisition proposal for Genomics. Thus under the “don’t ask” terms of the standstill, even a polite request by Party J to Genomics for permission to make a topping bid for Genomics would itself be a breach a contract in violation of Party J’s promise not to ask for such a waiver.
Vice Chancellor Laster concluded (on a preliminary basis involving an assessment of whether the shareholder plaintiff had shown a reasonable probability of success on the merits), that Party J’s “don’t ask, don’t waive” promise was unenforceable as tending to induce a violation of the Genomics directors’ fiduciary duties to be informed in continuing to recommend a sale of control transaction to the shareholders. Said the Court: “by agreeing to this provision, the Genomics board impermissibly limited its ongoing statutory and fiduciary obligations to properly evaluate a competing offer, disclose material information, and make a meaningful merger recommendation to its stockholders.”
Party J was one of a handful of potential suitors with whom Genomics had signed confidentiality and standstill agreements before providing access to the company’s confidential financial and business information. Genomics is a biotech life sciences company that has developed and commercialized an innovative DNA sequencing platform so it made especially good sense to protect its propriety know-how and confidential financial data as part of any auction process. Following due diligence by potential bidders and the ensuing auction, Genomics entered into a merger agreement pursuant to which it agreed to be acquired in a two-step tender offer and merger transaction with a U.S-based subsidiary of Chinese firm BHI-Shenzen.
A few weeks before this most recent, decision Vice Chancellor Laster denied the shareholder plaintiff’s earlier attempt to obtain a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Genomics merger agreement with BHI and that transaction remains pending. The effect of this latest ruling is to free Party J to make a topping bid while the BHI tender offer is outstanding. Whether Party J might make such an offer is unknowable and the Court found irreparable harm, justifying the preliminary injunction against enforcement of the standstill with Party J, in the contract’s prevention of this information from flowing to the Genomics board from Party J as a potential bidder.
In preliminarily enjoining Genomics from enforcing the “don’t ask, don’t waive” standstill with Party J in the context of a pending change of control transaction with BHI, Vice Chancellor Laster relied in significant part on former Chancellor Chandler’s bench ruling in Phelps Dodge Corp. v. Cyprus Amax Minerals Co., 1999 Del. Ch. LEXIS 202 (Sept. 27, 1999). There it will recalled, the Court reasoned that a “no-talk” provision in a merger agreement was improper because it prevented the directors of Cyprus Amax, in advance and under all circumstances, from making an informed decision whether to refuse to negotiate with potential suitor Phelps Dodge. Chancellor Chandler memorably described such a provision as improper because it was “the legal equivalent of willful blindness, a blindness that may constitute a breach of a board’s duty of care….”
In Genomics Vice Chancellor reasoned that the “don’t ask, don’t waive” provision was equivalent to “a bidder-specific no-talk clause” of the type the Court in Phelps Dodge found troublesome. The Genomics directors effectively prevented themselves from being fully informed because the standstill contractually precluded Party J from even requesting a possible waiver of the standstill so as to make a further acquisition proposal. Under those circumstances, the Court reasoned, the Genomics board could not fulfill the fiduciary obligation to be informed in continuing to recommend the BHI transaction to Genomics shareholders.
Vice Chancellor Laster made clear that a “don’t ask, don’t waive” standstill that only precluded public requests for a waiver could pass fiduciary muster so long as the agreement allowed for a private, non-public request. Under such circumstances the potential bidder has a contractually viable path forward to communicating (albeit privately) to the target its interest in making a bid. Likewise the target directors would maintain their ability to fulfill their fiduciary duty to remain fully informed in continuing to recommend an already-approved pending transaction or, if warranted, changing that recommendation in favor of a new superior proposal.
The Court’s decision in Genomics understandably relies on Phelps Dodge and perhaps a visceral aversion to contractual provisions that would seem to handcuff the board of a company undergoing a sale of control from receiving a later topping bid, or even more embryonically, from even receiving a request for permission to make a topping bid.
On the other hand, one could argue that a well-advised board of a corporation undergoing a sale of control might legitimately make use of a “don’t ask, don’t waive” standstill in furthering stockholder welfare. For example, the board of the selling corporation might ask its financial advisor to solicit interest from possible bidders, with due diligence access and subsequent auction participation conditioned on each bidder agreeing to a “don’t ask, don’t waive” standstill. Under the auction rules set out by the board, all bidders would be given a timeline, and contractual permission, for the submission of one bid and one bid only — the highest and best offer each bidder is able and willing to make. Such bids would be made with the understanding (and contractual limitation) that there would be no further rounds of bidding, and topping etc. The standstill thus would prevent any such serial attempts to bid. One could argue that such an auction arrangement could benefit stockholders by shortening the auction process and encouraging the highest and best offers up front. Any other bidder not part of the original auction process, i.e., who had not signed a standstill, could theoretically lob in a topping bid later and the board of would have to consider that new information in keeping with its fiduciary duties.
Of course one might prefer to run an auction differently than in the manner suggested above, but our law makes clear that while the directors have an obligation (in Revlon mode) to act reasonably to seek the highest value for the stockholders, there is no legally required blueprint for how to run an auction. And there’s the rub. Does a “don’t ask, don’t waive” standstill, when used as suggested above, amount to just another one of many legitimate ways to run an auction in good faith? Or, as Genomics suggest, does a “don’t ask, don’t waive” standstill cross the fiduciary line by creating an improper impediment to the realization of that value by preventing the directors from having all information reasonably available in making their continuing recommendation to stockholders?