Law firms that specialize in suing directors will scrutinize nearly every major transaction, public offering, stock drop, restatement, and press release filed by public companies. For instance, according to Cornerstone Research, stockholders file lawsuits challenging the majority of public company transactions valued at more than $100 million, with an average of three lawsuits per transaction. An effective defense of these almost-inevitable lawsuits can begin long before they are filed. With a few simple steps, directors can reduce the burden of these lawsuits and protect themselves from the most common tactics utilized by stockholders’ attorneys.
1. Vet conflicts early and often. Perhaps the easiest way to avoid fiduciary duty liability is to avoid situations where you have conflicting interests in a transaction or other board decision. Due to various protections under Delaware law, directors are rarely held liable for poor or ill-informed decisions if the directors are not self-interested (unless they are grossly negligent), and articles of incorporation almost universally protect directors from monetary damages for such decisions. By contrast, Delaware fiduciary duty law imposes exacting standards for directors who participate in board decisions when they have a material self-interest in that decision. Thus, any major board initiative should begin with a full analysis of each director’s potential self-interests, and this analysis should be updated throughout the initiative. Of course, this analysis requires you to stay organized with your outside business interests (e.g., your employer’s customers, suppliers, and competitors) and personal financial situation (e.g., ownership interests). Recusing yourself can be the stitch in time that saves nine.
2. Treat all board communications formally. The documents that often cause the most trouble in litigation are informal e-mails between two directors. Even if e-mails contain nothing objectively negative regarding the board decision at issue, such e-mails can raise questions about the board’s deliberative process, especially if the issue raised in an e-mail was not discussed with the full board. A skilled plaintiff’s counsel can often interpret a casually written message in an unintended manner. In most instances, if a director raises any concern outside of a board meeting, the full board should resolve that concern and memorialize the process in a contemporaneous document (e.g., the minutes). If you have said anything in an e-mail that is inconsistent with your ultimate vote on an issue—even if you were just playing “devil’s advocate”—you should be prepared to square your communications with your vote. In other words, make sure your concerns are resolved through the deliberative process before making your decision.
3. Maximize efficiency in pressing circumstances. Perhaps underestimating how quickly and diligently directors and their advisors can work in exigent circumstances, plaintiffs’ attorneys often allege that board decisions were too rushed. For instance, in one of the more infamous Delaware fiduciary duty decisions, a financial advisor did not send any valuation materials to a board of directors until 9:42 p.m. on the night that the directors met to vote on a merger. The board met at 11 p.m. and approved the merger that night. Tight deadlines are often unavoidable, but directors can take steps to maximize the efficiency of the process. For instance, request early drafts of meeting materials, make your advisors work around-the-clock when necessary, and don’t wait until the board meeting to ask questions. At the end of the day, you need to be able to honestly state that you had enough time to fully consider any issues or concerns and come to a reasoned decision. Use your resources efficiently to get to that point.
4. Make your advisors an asset, not a liability. The quality and independence of a board’s advisors is a direct reflection on the quality and independence of the board’s process. This scrutiny begins when a board (or committee) selects its outside advisors. Stockholders may cry foul if directors simply accept management’s recommended advisor, especially if any member of management may have a self-interest in the relevant transaction.
To avoid these common allegations, interview multiple advisory firms, thoroughly inspect their potential conflicts, and negotiate for a fee structure that aligns the advisor’s incentivizes with the best interests of the stockholders. Stockholders also regularly allege that advisors are “deal cheerleaders” who bend their analysis to support the board’s wishes. To rebut these allegations, insist that your advisors objectively analyze the relevant issues, and ask them to obtain the board’s approval for any significant assumptions, methodology decisions, and other subjective portions of their analyses. To the extent possible, you should also resist your advisors’ efforts to load their work-product with disclaimers. Above all, carefully analyze your advisors’ work-product, ask questions, and do not rely on their opinions until you understand and approve of the efforts and reasoning underlying those opinions.
5. Ensure that the meeting minutes fully reflect the process. We cannot overstate the importance of minutes in litigation against directors. First, judges and juries typically place more weight on contemporaneous records of a board decision than after-the-fact testimony. Second, depositions often happen several months (if not years) after a challenged board decision, and minutes are an important tool for refreshing directors’ memories. Ask the board secretary to draft minutes promptly after a board meeting so that you can review them while the meeting is still fresh on your mind. When reviewing minutes, make sure that they accurately reflect a summary of the issues discussed, the specifics of any decisions reached, and a list of all attendees (plus mid-meeting arrivals and departures). Not every single statement made during a meeting can or should be part of the minutes, but it is important for the minutes to reflect every topic discussed at the meeting. Ask yourself: “If I’m questioned about this meeting at a deposition next year, will these minutes help me answer questions and show the court that we fulfilled our duties?”
6. Know the boundaries of the attorney-client privilege. The attorney-client privilege is not a guarantee that all correspondences with counsel are shielded from discovery. For instance, contrary to many directors’ (and attorneys’) beliefs, the attorney-client privilege does not protect every e-mail on which an attorney is copied. Rather, an e-mail is generally privileged only if the correspondence is sent in furtherance of requesting or providing legal advice. Parties in litigation are often required to redact the “legal advice” portion of e-mails and produce the remaining portions. Thus, an e-mail (or a portion of an e-mail) concerning purely business issues might not be shielded from production. Additionally, communications with certain persons that would ordinarily be privileged, including in-house and outside counsel, may not be privileged under certain circumstances. Further, even if a document is undisputedly privileged, litigants sometimes waive the attorney-client privilege for strategic reasons, such as when the board asserts that it made a challenged decision in reliance on advice from counsel. While it is vital to have open and honest communications with your counsel, it is also important to remember that those communications may be shown to an opposing party. If there is something you would not write down in a non-privileged e-mail, then consider calling your attorney instead of sending an e-mail.
7. Use a board-specific e-mail address. By exclusively using a non-personal e-mail address for board-related correspondences, you can significantly reduce the odds of personal e-mails (or e-mails concerning your other business endeavors) becoming subject to discovery. Too often, we see directors using their “day job” e-mail addresses for their directorial correspondences; this can lead to situations where your employer’s confidential information must be copied, reviewed by your outside counsel, or (worse yet) produced to the opposing party in litigation. The same holds true for personal e-mail addresses, which some directors use for their family’s bank statements and board-related e-mails. The best way to potentially avoid this situation is to proactively segregate board-related e-mails to a different e-mail account. Some companies create e-mail addresses for their directors. If yours does not, consider creating an e-mail account and conducting board-related business solely from that address.
Craig Zieminski and Andrew Jackson are litigation attorneys at Vinson & Elkins LLP. They specialize in representing companies and their directors in lawsuits alleging breaches of fiduciary duties, partnership agreement duties, merger agreements, and federal securities laws.