In an August 15, 2007 opinion (here), Delaware Chancery Court Chancellor William B. Chandler III reexamined his February 6, 2007 refusal to dismiss plaintiffs’ claim involving stock option springloading against directors and officers of Tyson Foods, Inc. In his earlier opinion (here), Chandler had held, in response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss, that the board’s authorization of springloaded options may, in certain circumstances, constitute a breach of a director’s fiduciary duties.
In his August 15 opinion, Chandler considered defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, in which the defendants argued that the supposedly springloaded options were in fact authorized under the company’s shareholder approved stock option plan.
The defendants probably sensed that their motion’s prospects for success were dim when they read how Chandler characterized the circumstance that could be inferred from the consolidated complaint:
On three separate occasions between 2001 and 2003, defendants suspected that Tyson’s share price would climb once the market learned what the board already knew. Armed with this knowledge, members of the Compensation Committee granted non-qualified stock options to select Tyson employees, ensuring that these options would shortly be in the money. When the option grants were later revealed to shareholders, however, defendants did not straightforwardly describe such strike-price prestidigitation. Rather, they provided minimal assurances to investors that these options rested within the limits of the shareholder-approved plan. The crux of defendants’ argument is that a scheme that relies upon bare formalism concealed by a poverty of communication somehow sits within the scope of reasonable, good faith business judgment.
Loyalty. Good faith. Independence. Candor. These are words pregnant with obligation. The Supreme Court did not adorn them with half-hearted adjectives. Directors should not take a seat at the board table prepared to offer only conditional loyalty, tolerable good faith, reasonable disinterest or formalistic candor. It is against these standards, and in this spirit, that the alleged actions of spring-loading or backdating should be judged.
In summarizing the reasons for his denial of the defendant’s motion, Chandler stated that:
What the defendants here fail to confront is that their disclosures regarding the options under attack do nothing to rebut the pleading stage inference that the defendants intended to conceal a pattern of unfairly stocking up insiders’ larders with option grants shortly before the announcement of events likely to increase the Company’s stock price. In fact, the magnitude and timing of the grants, when accompanied with no disclosure of the reasons motivating the grants, is suggestive, at the pleading stage, of a purposeful subterfuge. Put simply, the pleadings support an inference not only that the defendants engaged in self-dealing, but that they attempted to hide their conduct from the stockholders.