Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shenker v. Laureate Education, Inc. (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed November 12, 2009
Opinion by Judge Glenn T. Harrell, Jr.

Held: Where corporate directors exercise non-managerial duties outside the scope of §2-405.1(a) of the Maryland Corporations and Associations Article, such as negotiating the price that shareholders will receive for their shares in a cash-merger after the decision to sell the corporation has already been made, they owe their shareholders common law duties of candor and good faith efforts to maximize shareholder value and shareholders may bring direct claims for breach of those fiduciary duties.

In 2006 and 2007, Laureate Education, Inc., a publicly-held Maryland corporation, underwent a private acquisition process whereby several directors ("Board Respondents") and private equity investors ("Investor Respondents") purchased Laureate through a cash-out merger transaction.

In June 2006, Laureate's Chairman and CEO Douglas L. Becker informed the Board of Directors that he intended to make an offer to purchase Laureate, at which time the Board created a Special Committee composed of three independent directors, who retained a law firm and financial advisors. The Special Committee approved Becker's second offer to purchase Laureate for $60.50 per share and unanimously recommended that the Board approve the proposed transaction on January 28, 2007.

On January 30, 2007, various Laureate shareholders ("Petitioners") challenged the proposed merger on the grounds that the Board Respondents breached their fiduciary duty, that they conspired to breach those duties, and that they and the Investor Respondents aided and abetted that breach.

The Circuit Court granted Respondents' motions to dismiss, dismissing the action as an impermissible direct shareholder suit where the Petitioners had "failed to allege a cognizable duty owed them" by Investor Respondents.

In June 2007, Laureate announced that it had accepted an increased offer from Investor Respondents to acquire Laureate at $62 per share by way of a tender offer and second-step merger. The Special Committee's financial advisors again concluded the offer as financially fair, although several of Laureate's institutional shareholders disagreed, and the Board approved the transaction. Petitioners filed a second complaint in the Circuit Court alleging that the Board Respondents breached their fiduciary duties owed to Petitioners and the Circuit Court again dismissed the claims.

The Circuit Court held that a direct action against corporate directors for alleged violations of fiduciary duties is unavailable in Maryland because §2-405.1(g) forecloses exactly these types of claims. Petitioners appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which affirmed the Circuit Court's dismissal, holding that §2-405.1(g) bars all direct shareholder claims and that any claims by shareholders against directors for breach of fiduciary duties must be brought derivatively on behalf of the corporation.

Analysis: The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals that §2-405.1(a) provides the only source of duties owed by corporate directors and that §2-405.1(g) bars all direct shareholder claims against those corporate directors for breach of their fiduciary duties. The Court held that such conclusions are erroneous and shareholders may indeed bring direct suits against corporate directors for breach of common law duties of candor and good faith efforts in particular circumstances, such as in the context of a cash-out merger transaction.

The Court stated that directors and officers owe a duty of care to the corporation and its shareholders under §2-405.1(a). Petitioners conceded that §2-405.1(a) governed the sole source of directorial duties in instances that involve the management of the business and affairs of the corporation. However, Petitioners argued, additional common law duties are triggered once a "threshold decision to sell the corporation has been made and which concern only matters personal to the shareholders." The Court agreed, holding that directors of Maryland corporations owe fiduciary duties of candor and maximization of shareholder value to their shareholders beyond those enumerated in §2-405.1(a) made outside the purely managerial context, such as when faced with an inevitable or highly likely change-of-control situation, and at least in the context of negotiating the amount shareholders will receive in a cash-out merger.

In the context of a cash-out merger, the Court stated, directors assume a different role than solely "managing the business and affairs of the corporation." The Court cited the pivotal Delaware case Revlon, Inc. v. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc., 506 A.2d 173 (Del. 1986) numerous times in support of its holding that duties concerning the management of the corporation's affairs change after the decision is made to sell the corporation. Directors act as fiduciaries on behalf of the shareholders in negotiating a share price that shareholders will receive. The Court also stated that a 1997 opinion by the Maryland Attorney General suggests that the General Assembly did not seek to occupy the entire field of directorial duties owed by corporate directors in enacting §2-405.1(a), but instead intended to codify the duty of care owed by directors in exercising their managerial duties.

In addition to its holding regarding directors' fiduciary duties to shareholders in particular situations, the Court also held that the Court of Special Appeals erred in holding that §2-405.1(g) bars all shareholder direct claims. Claims for breach of common law fiduciary duties of candor and maximization of shareholder value may be brought directly by shareholders despite the language of §2-405.1(g). The Court held that Petitioners in this case were not restricted to derivative claims and could pursue direct claims for breach of fiduciary duty because the shareholders were owed direct fiduciary duties from the Board Respondents. In support of this holding, the Court noted that the injury alleged here, that shareholders received too low a value for their shares in a cash-out merger, was an injury suffered solely by the shareholders and not Laureate as a corporation. Laureate's interests would not be implicated by the price received by shareholders, nor would it suffer harm as a result of the price.

The Court agreed with the Court of Special Appeals and rejected the civil conspiracy claims, holding that "a defendant may not be adjudged liable for civil conspiracy unless that defendant was legally capable of committing the underlying tort alleged."

The Court also affirmed the Court of Special Appeals in rejecting the aiding and abetting claims, holding that the actions of the Investor Respondents were not out of the normal course of business practices.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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