Delaware Supreme Court Blasts Chancery Court's Controversial Refusal to Recognize California Court Judgment
One of the more vexing litigation problems to emerge recently has been the proliferation of multi-jurisdiction litigation, where corporate defendants are forced to litigate essentially the same claim in multiple courts at the same time. This problem is a particular issue in the context of M&A litigation, although not contained to those kinds of lawsuits. In the midst of what has become essentially a jurisdictional competition, Delaware’s courts have tried to establish themselves as the preferred and presumptive court for corporate litigation.
As discussed here, in June 2012, in a high-profile and controversial example of the efforts of Delaware courts to control litigation involving Delaware corporations, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster refused to give effect to the judgment of a California federal court dismissing a derivative suit parallel to the case pending in Delaware.
However, in a harsh rebuke to Laster, on April 4, 2013, the Delaware Supreme Court entered an opinion reversing the Chancery Court ruling and recognizing the California federal court’s prior dismissal. The Supreme Court’s opinion represents a recognition that principles of federalism and comity require Delaware’s courts to respect the preclusive effects of the California court’s judgment.
In September 2010, Allergan pled guilty to a criminal misdemeanor for misbranding its Botox product and paid a total of $600 million in civil and criminal fines. Various plaintiffs’ firms filed multiple derivative suits both in federal court in California and in Delaware Chancery Court. The California cases went forward more quickly, while in Delaware, at least one of the plaintiffs sought to pursue a books and records action against the company, in order to obtain further information pertinent to the company’s board’s actions. The Delaware plaintiff used the information and documentation to amend its complaint. The California plaintiffs ultimately also obtained the same information and documentation and supplemented their complaint as well.
The defendants moved to dismiss the California action on the ground that the plaintiffs had not made a demand on the Allergan board to pursue the claims, nor had they established demand futility. The California court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The defendants then sought to have the Delaware action dismissed, arguing that the collateral estoppel effect of the California dismissal was preclusive of the demand futility issue.
In an extensive June 11, 2012 opinion (here), Vice Chancellor Laster firmly rejected the suggestion that the California court’s prior ruling compelled him to dismiss the Delaware action. He relied on two grounds in rejecting the argument that the California judgment is preclusive; first, he found that the California judgment was preclusive only as to the individual California shareholder plaintiffs, and second, he found that the California plaintiff did not adequately represent Allergan. The defendants pursued an interlocutory appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court.
The April 3, 2013 Opinion
In an April 4, 2013 opinion written by Justice Carolyn Berger for the full Court, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Chancery Court’s ruling, holding that the Vice Chancellor had erred with respect to both aspects of his ruling. The Supreme Court concluded that the California judgment was preclusive of the Delaware case and also rejected Vice Chancellor Laster’s conclusion that the California plaintiffs were inadequate representatives.
In rejecting the Chancery Court’s conclusion that the California judgment was not preclusive, the Supreme Court noted that the U.S. Constitution’s full faith and credit clause requires courts to give full force and effect to the judgments of other jurisdiction’s courts, including the judgments of federal courts. Vice Chancellor Laster’s refusal to give effect to the California judgment was based on a “mistaken premise” that the question of the effect of the California judgment was controlled by “demand futility” law controlled by Delaware legal principles.
The Supreme Court stated that “once a court of competent jurisdiction has issued a final judgment … a successive case is governed by principles of collateral estoppel, under the full faith and credit doctrine, and not by demand futility law,” adding that “in the Court of Chancery, the motion to dismiss based on collateral estoppel was about federalism, comity, and finality. It should have been addressed exclusively on that basis.’ Delaware’s “undisputed interest” in governing the internal affairs of its corporations “must yield to the stronger national interests that all state and federal courts have in respecting each other’s judgments.”
The Supreme Court also rejected the Chancery Court’s conclusion that the California plaintiffs were inadequate plaintiffs. The Supreme Court noted that Vice Chancellor Laster had “sua sponte announced and applied an irrebutable presumption that derivative plaintiffs who file their complaints without seeking books and records very shortly after the announcement of a ‘corporate trauma’ are inadequate representatives.” The Supreme Court said that “we reject the ‘fast filer’ irrebutable presumption of inadequacy.” The Court noted that “undoubtedly there will be cases where a fast filing stockholder also is an inadequate representative” but that “there is no record support for the trial court’s premise that stockholders who filed quickly, without bringing a Section 220 books and records action, are a priori acting on behalf of their law firms instead of the corporation.” The Court added that although it “understands the trial court’s concerns about fast filers,” the remedies “for the problems they create should be directed at the lawyers, not the stockholder plaintiffs or their complaints.”
As I discussed at the time, Vice Chancellor Laster’s opinion in this case was a broadside against certain segments of the plaintiffs’ bar, who, in his view, rush to file actions in other jurisdictions’ courts, to the detriment of litigants that proceeded more deliberately by first pursuing a books and records action in Delaware court and then in due course filing an action in Delaware based on the results of the books and records search.
While Laster’s effort to create a Delaware-centric solution to the chaos of multi-jurisdiction litigation is understandable, it put the defendants in the unacceptable position not only have having to face a multi-front war, but also having to fight the war in piecemeal fashion, rather than trying to move toward a single, comprehensive solution.
The Supreme Court’s opinion does not directly take on the problems arising from multi-jurisdiction litigation, but merely recognizes that basic principles of “federalism, comity and finality” required that the judgment of California court be given full force and effect. However, the Supreme Court did reject the Chancery Court’s suggestion that the plaintiffs in the California case were inadequate representatives simply because they failed to first pursue a books and records action before launching their suit. As Alison Frankel noted in an April 5, 2013 post on her On the Case blog (here), the Supreme Court Opinion “puts an end to Chancery’s recent insistence that shareholder lawyers seek corporate books and records before filing derivative complaints.”
In effect, Laster’s Chancery Court opinion seemingly embodied a belief that both that Delaware’s courts should be in charge, and that if the Delaware courts were in charge, an orderly process would replace the unseemly spectacle of multi-jurisdiction litigation. There is no doubt that the curse of multi-jurisdiction litigation imposes enormous, duplicative costs on the litigation targets. But Vice Chancellor’s Delaware-centric manifesto threatened to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it, presenting as it did the prospect for multiple conflicting rulings in different jurisdictions on identical issues. The Supreme Court’s opinion suggests a recognition that the curse of multiple-jurisdiction litigation won’t be resolved by Delaware’s courts grabbing authority or disdaining other courts.
In its April 4, 2013 client alert (here), the Wachtell Lipton law firm noted that the Delaware Supreme Court’s ruling “makes clear that Delaware is sensitive to the unfairness that multiple parallel lawsuits can work on corporations and their directors and is prepared to enforce scrupulously rules of interstate comity that limit this mischief.”
The Delaware Supreme Court's decision is a welcome outcome for corporate litigants. As the Wilson Sonsini law firm noted in its April 2013 client alert about the decision, the ruling "may calm the concerns of those facing multi-forum shareholder litigation that a resolution on the merits in one forum will be given preclusive effect in Delaware (and presumably other jurisdictions)."
Just the same, though defendants undoubtedly will welcome the Delaware Supreme Court’s ruling, it will not eliminate the problem of multiple-jurisdiction litigation. The unseemly scramble of competing claimants to pursue claims against companies experiencing adverse developments or involved in corporate transactions will continue. The solution to the problem of multi-jurisdiction litigation has been and remains particularly elusive.