SCOTUS Concludes Proof of Materiality is Not a Prerequisite to Certification of a Securities-Fraud Action Alleging Violations of §10(b) and Rule 10(b)–5

Benjamin P. Chapple

On February 27, 2013, the United States Supreme Court, in Amgen, Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, a 6-3 decision, concluded that proof of materiality is not a prerequisite to certification of a securities-fraud action that alleges violations of §10(b) or Rule 10b–5.  Below is a summary of the Court’s decision.

In all private securities-fraud actions brought under §10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rule 10b–5, the plaintiff must prove, inter alia, that it relied on a misrepresentation or omission of material fact that was made by the defendant.  In Basic v. Levinson, the United States Supreme Court concluded “requiring proof of direct evidence ‘would place an unnecessarily unrealistic burden on [a] plaintiff who has traded on an impersonal market.'” Slip Op. at 1 (quoting Basic).  In order to facilitate the certification of securities-fraud class actions, the Court in Basic fashioned the fraud-on-the-market (“FOTM”) theory.  The premise of this theory is that the price of a security that is traded in an efficient market will reflect all publicly available information about a company; therefore, one who purchases a security that trades in an efficient market will be presumed to have relied on that information in purchasing the security.  Additionally, “because immaterial information, by definition, does not affect the market price, it cannot be relied upon indirectly by investors who, as the [FOTM] theory presumes, rely on the market price’s integrity.” Slip Op. at 10.  As a result, the FOTM theory is inapplicable absent a showing that the misrepresentation or omission was in fact material.

Invoking the FOTM theory, Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds (“Plaintiff”) sought certification of a securities-fraud class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) against biotechnology company Amgen Inc. and several of its officers (collectively, “Amgen”).  The Plaintiff claims that Amgen violated §10(b) and Rule 10b–5 when it made material misrepresentations and misleading omissions regarding the safety, efficacy, and marketing of two of Amgen’s flagship drugs.  As a result of these alleged misrepresentations and omissions, the Plaintiff contends that the price of Amgen’s stock was artificially inflated, until “the truth came to light” and the Plaintiff, among others, suffered financial losses.  The district court certified the class, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.  Amgen appealed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari and heard oral argument on November 5, 2013.  The Court issued a 6-3 opinion, with Justices Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy dissenting.

Because Amgen conceded (1) the efficiency of the market for the securities at issue, (2) the public character of the allegedly fraudulent statements on which the Plaintiff’s complaint is based, and (3) that the Plaintiff satisfied all of the class-action prerequisites stated in Rule 23(a), the issue presented to the Court concerned the requirement stated in Rule 23(b)(3) that “the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” Put differently, as the Court stated, “the pivotal inquiry in this case is whether proof of materiality is needed to ensure that the questions of law or fact common to the class ‘will predominate over any questions affecting only individual members’ as the litigation progresses.”  Amgen claimed that to meet the predominance requirement, the Plaintiff must do more than “plausibly plead that Amgen’s alleged misrepresentations and misleading omissions materially affected Amgen’s stock price.”  According to Amgen, certification must be denied unless the Plaintiff proves materiality, because immaterial misrepresentations or omissions, by definition, would have no impact on Amgen’s stock price in an efficient market.  To this end, Amgen claimed the key question in this case was whether materiality is an essential predicate of the FOTM theory.

Although agreeing with Amgen that “materiality is an essential predicate” of the FOTM theory, the Court explained that the “pivotal inquiry” in this case is whether proof of materiality is needed to ensure that the questions of law or fact common to the class will “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members” as the litigation progresses. Slip Op. at 10 (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3)).  The Court answered this question in the negative for two reasons; thereby holding that proof of materiality is not a prerequisite to  class certification.  First, because the question of materiality is judged according to an objective standard, viewing the significance of an omitted or misrepresented fact from the purview of a reasonable investor, materiality can be proved through evidence common to the class.  As a result, the Court concluded, materiality is a common question for Rule 23(b)(3). Slip Op. at 11 (quoting Basic, where the Court listed “materiality” as one of the questions common to the Basic class members).   Second, because materiality is an essential element of a Rule 10b–5 claim, if the Plaintiff fails to present sufficient evidence of materiality, individual reliance questions will not overwhelm the questions common to the class.  Instead, the Court concluded, if the Plaintiff failed to establish materiality, whether upon summary-judgment or at trial, it “would end the case for one and for all; no claim would remain in which individual reliance issues could potentially predominate.” Id.

As is usual with most recent decisions from the United States Supreme Court, the conclusion that proof of materiality is not a prerequisite to class certification was not unanimous.  However, before turning to the dissenting views of Justices Thomas, Kennedy, and Scalia, attention should be paid to Justice Alito’s concurring opinion.  Although brief, Justice Alito explains: “As the dissent observes, more recent evidence suggests that the [FOTM] presumption may rest on a faulty economic promise.  In light of this development, reconsideration of the Basic presumption may be appropriate.” Alito, J. Concurring Op. at 1.

 Justice Thomas dissented, with Justice Kennedy joining fully, and Scalia joining only in part.  Justice Thomas explained:

Without demonstrating materiality at certification, plaintiffs cannot establish Basic‘s fraud-on-the-market presumption.  Without proof of fraud on the market, plaintiffs cannot show the otherwise individualized questions of reliance will predominate, as required by Rule 23(b)(3).  And without satisfying Rule 23(b)(3), class certification is improper.  Fraud on the market is thus a condition precedent to class certification, without which individualized claims of reliance will defeat certification.

Moreover, Justice Thomas stated that the majority opinion “transform[ed] the predicate certification inquiry into a novel either-or inquiry occurring much later on the merits.”  To this end, he explained:

According to the [majority], either (1) plaintiffs will prove materiality on the merits, thus demonstrating ex post that common questions predominated at class certification, or (2) they will fail to prove materiality, at which point they will learn ex post that certification was inappropriate because reliance was not, in fact, a common question.  In the [majority’s] second scenario, fraud on the market was never established, reliance for each class member was inherently individualized, and Rule 23(b)(3) in fact should have barred certification long ago.  The [majority] suggests that the problem created by the second scenario is excusable because the plaintiffs will lose anyway on alternative grounds, and the case will be over.  But nothing in logic or precedent justifies ignoring at certification whether reliance is susceptible to Rule 23(b)(3) classwide proof simply because one predicate of reliance—materiality—will be resolved, if at all, much later in the litigation on an independent merits element.

In addition to joining in Justice Thomas’s dissent, Justice Scalia also wrote a separate dissenting opinion, which in part stated that he views the FOTM theory as governing not only the question of whether class certification is proper, but also the question of substantive liability. But see Thomas, J. Dissenting Op. at 11 (“The result [of the majority’s error] is that [it] effectively equates §10(b) materiality with fraud-on-the-market materiality and elides reliance as a §10(b) element.”).  In accord with Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia wrote that, in his view, “it makes no sense to ‘presume reliance’ on the misrepresentation merely because the plaintiff relied on the market price, unless the alleged misrepresentation would likely have affected the market price—that is, unless it was material.”  Scalia, J. Dissenting Op. at 2.  Finally, recognizing the practical import of the majority’s decision, Justice Scalia explained how “[c]ertification of the class is often, if not usually, the prelude to a substantial settlement by the defendant because the costs and risks of litigating further are so high.”

Whistleblower Speaker Series is Off and Running

We’ve embarked on an interesting new course here: a series of classes led by experts in a variety of aspects of whistleblowing. Our first class featured Jordan Thomas, currently at Labaton Sucharow in New York, and formerly the Assistant Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. Jordan led the students through a terrific exercise in identifying competing policy considerations behind the Dodd-Frank whistleblowing program and the SEC’s implementing rules. [For a recent story on the SEC’s whistleblower program, see this write-up by John Kiernan for CardHub.]

Yesterday’s class was led by Virginia Gibson, currently with Hogan Lovells in Philadelphia, and former director of the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia. She brought her extensive enforcement experience to introduce students to the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, which permit citizens to initiate litigation asserting claims of fraud against the federal government.

Having just released a working paper that sharply criticizes the “first-filed” rule in corporate shareholder representative litigation, I was struck by the fairly strict “first to file rule” in Section 3730(b)(5) of the False Claims Act. That rule apparently has its supporters, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t inappropriately encourage whistleblowers to file claims before developing and maturely evaluating the facts. Ginny Gibson explained that situations with multiple relators (whistleblowers) are becoming increasingly common, but priority (and sharing in a potential recovery) often gets negotiated during the “quiet period” after the complaints are filed but before the Government decides whether to intervene and the complaints become unsealed. Still, I worry that the first to file rule gives the first filer an inappropriate advantage. Hat tip to my student Kerrin Cahill (Widener ’13) whose paper pointed out that the qui tam first to file rule could use a little nuance. (And hat tip to the Ruby R. Vale Foundation for its support of this series of classes).

We’re looking forward to the other speakers in this series, including former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, DuPont General Counsel Thomas Sager, and Prof. Kathleen Clark of Washington University Law School in St. Louis, who also teaches an entire course devoted to whistleblowing.

Freedman vs. Novell — The Latest Adventures of the Business Judgment Rule

Two seemingly disparate recent Delaware court opinions provide an intriguing contrast in the approach to judicial review of fiduciary conduct. In its very brief opinion of January 14, 2013 in Freedman v. Adams,, et al, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of a claim that the directors of XTO Energy breached their fiduciary duty by awarding $130 million in executive bonuses without doing so through a stockholder-approved plan (a Section 162(m) plan) that might have permitted the company to save $40 million by deducting the cost of the bonuses for income tax purposes. The board recited the belief that insistence on granting bonuses through a Section 162(m) plan “would constrain the compensation committee in its determination of appropriate bonuses.” And, according to the Supreme Court’s opinion, “The decision to sacrifice some tax savings in order to retain flexibility in compensation decisions is a classic exercise of business judgment. Even if the decision was a poor one for the reasons alleged by Freedman, it was not unconscionable or irrational.” The opinion does not indicate that XTO provided any explanation of what constraints the stockholder-approved plan would have imposed, or why the company chose not to pay the bonuses through such a plan.

Eleven days earlier the Court of Chancery’s opinion in the Novell shareholder litigation denied a motion to dismiss claims that a disinterested, independent board of directors acted in bad faith in selling the company, because of the absence of explanation for the decision to inform the successful bidder of a sale of a line of patents while not informing a competing bidder of that sale. The court’s opinion noted:

Why the Novell Defendants did not tell Party C about the proceeds of the Patent Sale has no apparent answer in the record before the Court. That conduct, coupled with the fact that Novell kept Attachmate fully informed, is enough for pleading stage purposes to support an inference that the Board’s actions were in bad faith.

So to editorialize a bit, the Delaware Supreme Court in Freedman might have similarly said:

Why the [XTO] Defendants did not [pay the bonuses through a Section 162(m) plan] has no apparent answer in the record before the Court. That conduct, coupled with the fact that [the Board did not explain in any specific way how use of such a plan could have constrained the determination of bonus awards], is enough for pleading stage purposes to support an inference that the Board’s actions were in bad faith.

But of course, the Supreme Court didn’t say that. Were they wrong? Was the Court of Chancery wrong in Novell? Or neither – are the two opinions consistent? In which case should the courts have been more inclined to defer to board judgment?

On a clean slate, I would have thought that the executive compensation decision at issue in Freedman would be more suspect than the conduct of an arm’s length sale of the company to a third party. In Freedman, one of the recipients of the bonuses was the company’s CEO, who was also a member of the Board. Not to put too fine a point on it, the bonus payments to him were a self-dealing transaction – one perhaps well considered and justified by an independent compensation committee, but one in respect of which the motives that implicate the duty of loyalty were present. In contrast, in Novell none of the directors had any direct conflict of interest.

It’s challenging to think of a doctrinal structure in which these two opinions can co-exist.

Celera: New Uncertainty in Settlement in Class Action Deal Litigation?

Professor Lawrence A. Hamermesh

The Delaware Supreme Court handed down an interesting decision on December 27, 2012 in the Celera merger class action litigation.  The underlying litigation was a challenge to a squeeze-out tender offer and merger, and involved some hot button issues (“don’t ask/don’t waive” standstill agreements and a top-up option), but the opinion wasn’t really about them.

The Supreme Court’s opinion instead reviewed a decision by the Court of Chancery to approve a class action settlement without opt-out rights.  The original plaintiff, New Orleans Employee Retirement System (NOERS), had owned 10,000 Celera shares, which it sold in the market (at a price slightly higher than the $8.00/share deal price) before the second-step merger was completed.  The settlement, reached a year or so after that merger, when any possibility of injunctive relief was pretty much history, would as usual have barred all other stockholders from pursuing further litigation challenging the deal.

That bar would have affected BVF Partners, which owned over 5% of the stock when the deal was announced, and 24.5% by the time of the merger. BVF objected to the settlement on a variety of grounds, including the lack of opt-out rights in the settlement.

As is common in Delaware in this sort of litigation, the Court of Chancery certified a class, for settlement purposes, under Court of Chancery Rules 23(b)(1) and (b)(2), under which opt-out rights aren’t required.  The Supreme Court didn’t find fault with that certification; it didn’t reverse the determination to accept the settlement; and it didn’t accept BVF’s arguments that NOERS lacked standing because it sold its shares before the merger, or that NOERS was an inadequate class representative because it was a “frequent filer,” a term that the Supreme Court said it has not yet even recognized.

What the Supreme Court reversed was the determination not to require opt out rights.  In the following short analysis, the Court found that determination to have constituted an abuse of discretion:

The court could not deny a discretionary opt-out right where the policy favoring a global settlement was outweighed by due process concerns. Here, the class representative was “barely” adequate, the objector was a significant shareholder prepared independently to prosecute a clearly identified and supportable claim for substantial money damages, and the only claims realistically being settled at the time of the certification hearing nearly a year after the merger were for money damages. Under these particular facts and circumstances, the Court of Chancery had to provide an opt-out right.

What’s intriguing–and perhaps unsettling–about this brief analysis is whether it has logical limits in future litigation challenging mergers that are consummated after the litigation begins. If there were “due process concerns,” why should it matter that the objector was a “significant shareholder?” Are those concerns less pressing when the objector has only 100 shares? Why so, when even a 100-share holder can hire effective class counsel who could pursue the litigation effectively? Is adequacy a sliding scale? If so, what are the measuring marks on that scale, if, as the Court held, NOERS clearly had standing because it held shares when the merger was approved?

And most important, what do future settlement hearings now have to evaluate? Before denying opt-out rights, will the court have to examine the size of shareholdings of unrepresented class members in order to determine whether any of those stockholders own enough shares so that due process rights are offended?  Or does this responsibility arise only when an objection to the settlement is lodged?

The result in this case may have been the right one:  with the no opt-out condition of the settlement no longer satisfied, I imagine that the case will now proceed, perhaps to a revised settlement with BVF, or perhaps to full-blown litigation.  And there surely was something unseemly about a holder of 10,000 shares that weren’t even directly affected by the challenged transaction being able to achieve preclusion of the claims of a 24.5% stockholder.  But in achieving what may have been a good result, the Court has perhaps created an element of uncertainty over how to handle settlements in common deal litigation.

Court of Chancery Preliminarily Enjoins “Don’t Ask, Don’t Waive” Standstill Provision

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?

Feeley and Default LLC Fiduciary Duties: The Beat Goes On

The November 28, 2012 opinion by Vice Chancellor Laster in Feeley v. NHAOCG, LLC represents the latest round in the ongoing debate about whether those with managerial authority in Delaware LLCs have fiduciary duties as a default matter. We have addressed this issue extensively on this site, most recently in Prof. Luke Scheuer’s post about the Delaware Supreme Court’s (non)decision on this issue in Auriga v. Gatz.

Vice Chancellor Laster’s decision ratchets up one notch the Court of Chancery’s commitment to the proposition that such default duties exist. Although the Chancellor’s opinion to the same effect in Auriga now has no precedential value, Vice Chancellor Laster has now ruled the same way in a case in which the issue was squarely presented. Chancellor Strine’s discounted opinion was relied upon not as precedent, but so as to “afford his views the same weight as a law review article, a form of authority the Delaware Supreme Court often cites.”

Widener Law Students Place Highly in Nationwide Online Transactional Law Competition

Three Widener Law students on the Transactional Law Competition Team recently placed highly in a nationwide online competition hosted by LawMeets.

Over 800 registered participants, ranging from law students at schools such as Berkeley and John Marshall, to practicing attorneys and even a group of investment bankers from one of the big investment banks participated in the LawMeets course, which consisted of four exercises over two intensive weeks. The results of those exercises were then peer-reviewed and ranked.

Second-year student Deniz Uzel placed 9th in “the anatomy of an acquisition agreement” and an astonishing 1st in the “due diligence” assignment, bringing her overall rank to 20th place. Second-year student Randy MacTough placed 13th and 21st in two of the online assignments: “the anatomy of an acquisition agreement” and “indemnification.” Second-year student Amber Marsano placed 4th in the “indemnification” assignment.

LawMeets is an educational program founded by by Professor Karl Okamoto, the Director of the entrepreneurship law program at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law. LawMeets offers students an opportunity to improve their lawyer-client skills by addressing hypothetical client problems with short video responses that are voted on by their peers. Legal experts then offer critiques of the highest rated student responses.

The entire Widener Law community congratulates Deniz, Randy, and Amber on their impressive work!


Delaware Supreme Court’s Latest Non-Pronouncement on Fiduciary Duties in Limited Liability Companies

Professor Luke M. Scheuer

The Delaware Supreme Court’s November 7 opinion in Gatz Properties, LLC v. Auriga Capital Corp. has left open the question of whether the Delaware’s Limited Liability Company Act (the “LLC Act”) imposes default fiduciary obligations on a limited liability company’s (an “LLC”) managers.  In Gatz, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery’s opinion and held that a company’s manager had breached its contractual fiduciary duties to minority members under the company’s LLC agreement.  However, in a blistering rebuke, the Supreme Court rejected as “dictum without any precedential value” the Court of Chancery’s conclusion that the manager had breached default fiduciary duties under the LLC Act.  The Court further “decline[d] to express any view regarding whether default fiduciary duties apply as a matter of statutory construction.”

The decision is problematic for practitioners and investors who have assumed that in the LLC context, fiduciary obligations exist unless they are disclaimed in a company’s LLC agreement.  Going forward, attorneys will undoubtedly inform their business clients (both managers and investors) that any fiduciary obligations should be addressed in an LLC agreement.  However, unrepresented investors may be caught off-guard because fiduciary duties are a basic element of all other business forms.  As the LLC becomes the default form for new businesses (including small businesses that are often formed without legal counsel), many less well advised investors may assume that managers have a minimum level of responsibility and not realize that they are required to include language in the LLC agreement to create such obligations.

The ruling is also part of a line of cases that contrasts the high standard historically required for those managing business entities with the low modern standard.  The great Benjamin Cardozo articulated fiduciary duties in the following high minded terms: “[n]ot honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior . . . the level of conduct for fiduciaries [has] been kept at a level higher than that trodden by the crowd.”  In the intervening 80 years, fiduciary duties have been watered down to the point where they are bare minimal standards that can be waived (or might not even exist as a default) for LLCs.  The Court may be correct that the Delaware legislature is the best group to decide the default fiduciary duty issue.  Until they do, Delaware is placing LLC investors at risk for the benefit of managers, and is encouraging the degradation of business culture.

A blog entry on the oral argument before the Supreme Court was previously posted to this site by Ben Chapple (Widener Law ’13).