A shareholders’ derivative lawsuit that generated the most prominent judicial pronouncements about options "springloading" has been settled. According to the company’s January 18, 2008 press release (here) and its filing on Form 8-K of the same date (here), the parties have settled the consolidated shareholders’ derivative lawsuit that has been been pending since 2005 against Tyson Foods, as nominal defendant, and certain present and former directors and officers of the company.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement (here), Don Tyson (the company’s former CEO) and the Tyson Limited Partnership, the Company’s largest shareholder are jointly and severally liable to pay the company $4.5 million. No other defendant will make any payments. The company also agreed to implement or continue certain governance measures, as detailed in the settlement agreement. The plaintiffs will be seeking a fee award of $3 million from the company, out of the $4.5 million to be paid under the settlement. The Company has said it will contest the fee award, but will not contest any award up to $1 million.
The derivative complaint contained a variety of allegations, only some of them relating to the timing of the company’s stock option grants. Other allegations related to certain consulting contracts, as well as to executive compensation and related-party transactions involving Tyson and his family. But what has drawn notoriety to the case are the complaint’s allegations concerning options "springloading" (that is, the award of options in anticipation of an event expected to trigger an increase in the company’s stock price). The opinions in the case regarding springloading are undoubtedly represent the leading judicial commentary on the practice.
In opinions dated February 6, 2007 (here), and August 15, 2007 (here), Chancellor William B. Chandler III used memorably scathing language in denying the defendants’ motions to dismiss the springloading allegations. Among other things, Chandler said that in the August 15 opinion that the company’s proxy disclosure describing the options grants displayed "an uncanny parsimony with the truth" that "raise an inference that the directors engaged in later dissembling to hide earlier subterfuge."
Chancellor Chandler added that he "may further infer that grants of springloaded options were both inherently unfair to shareholders" and that "the long-term nature of the deceit involved suggests a scheme inherently beyond the bounds of business judgment." He added that the Court "may reasonably infer that a board of directors later concealed the true nature of a stock option," from which it may further infer that the options "were not granted consistent with a fiduciary’s duty of utmost loyalty."
My prior more detailed discussion of Chandler’s August 15 opinion can be found here.
The settlement is of course still subject to court approval, a condition that may be a relevant consideration in this case, given the seeming disparity between the flights of the Court’s rhetoric and the scale of the settlement.
In any event, I have added the Tyson Foods settlement to my list of options backdating lawsuit settlements, dismissals and denials, which can be accessed here.
A January 21, 2008 CFO.com article further discussing the Tyson Foods settlement can be found here.
Supreme Court Rejects Enron Appeal: Less than a week after issuing the Stoneridge decision, the Supreme Court has denied (here) the petition for writ of certiorari in the case Enron investors had brought against a number of investment banks. News coverage of the denial can be found here and here.
As noted in the 10b-5 Daily blog (here), the Supreme Court also vacated and remanded to the Ninth Circuit the "scheme liability" case of Avis Budget Group v. California State Teachers Retirement, "for further consideration" in light of the Stoneridge decision.
While the Enron cert petition denial was probably inevitable after the Stoneridge decision, it is also dicey to read too much into the denial. For example, as the Conglomerate blog points out (here), the Enron case was in an odd procedural posture, having come up to the Supreme Court from the Fifth Circuit where it was on an interlocutory appeal after the denial of class certification. The Supreme Court does not have to explain itself when it declines to act. The lower courts will have to live with the Stoneridge decision and work out its meaning in the context of specific cases without further guidance from the Supreme Court, for now.
Professor Larry Ribstein has further thoughts about the meaning (and limitations on the meaning) of the Enron cert petition denial on his Ideoblog, here. The SEC Actions blog, here, finds greater significance to the Supreme Court’s actions in the wake of Stoneridge. The WSJ.com Law Blog has more "post-game" analysis on the Enron cert petition denial, here.
More About the Subprime Litigation Wave: Way back in July 2007, when I declared (here) that subprime litigation was "this year’s model" (that is, the hot litigation trend driving lawsuit activity), I noted that "subprime litigation is arising in an ever-increasing variety of additional forms" and that "as the concentric rings from asset valuation issues spread outward, an increasing array of companies will become engulfed in the litigation wave."
Sounding similar themes in a January 22, 2008 article entitled "If Everyone’s Finger-Pointing, Who’s To Blame?"(here), the New York Times observed that
a wave of lawsuits is beginning to wash over the troubled mortgage market and the rest of the financial world. Homeowners are suing mortgage lenders. Mortgage lenders are suing Wall Street banks. Wall Street banks are suing loan specialists And investors are suing everyone.
The article mentions a number of different cases, including in particular a case brought last week by the Maher family against Lehman Brothers Holdings. The lawsuit is described in greater detail in the a January 18, 2008 Bloomberg.com article entitled "Lehman Clients Demand $1.1 Billion on Auction Dispute" (here). The allegations have been brought by two brothers, Brian and Basil Mahan, in an arbitration complaint filed with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.
The complaint alleges that the brothers relied on Lehman to invest proceeds from the family’s sale of its ship container company, claiming that the family’s stated investment objectives were to preserve capital and provide liquidity. Lehman allegedly put the money in auction-rate securities, which lost value due to the turmoil in the credit markets. The brothers seek to require Lehman to buy the illiquid securities and pay treble damages of $857 million. The complaint accuses Lehman of negligence, deception, breach of contract, making unsuitable investments, and supervisory failures.
Thanks to the several readers who sent me copies of or links to the New York Times article.
Now This: The turbulence in the financial markets is scary enough in and of itself. Of perhaps even greater concern is what it may signify. George Soros, the Chairman of Soros Fund Management, suggests in a column in the January 23, 2007 Financial Times (here) that we now face "The Worst Market Crisis in 60 Years."