It is generally understood that under Delaware law, directors enjoy broad rights of indemnification and advancement. The Delaware statutory regime does allow corporations a great deal of flexibility in how they adapt these provisions to their own circumstances. But while these principles are generally understood, it may nevertheless come as a surprise to many that a corporation’s flexibility to adjust the provisions includes the ability to eliminate former directors’ advancement  rights, at least according to a recent Delaware Chancery Court opinion.

A March 28, 2008 opinion in Schoon v. Troy Corporation (here) by Vice Chancellor Stephen P. Lamb held that as a result of a board approved by-law amendment eliminating advancement rights for former directors, a former company director did not have the right to advancement of attorneys’ fees.

The company’s by-law had originally provided that “the Corporation shall pay the expenses incurred by any present or former director.” After one of the company’s directors left the board but before the director became involved in litigation relating to his prior board service, the company’s board deleted the by-law’s reference to former directors.

The former director argued to the court that his right to advancement had vested when he commenced his board service. The former director also sought to rely on a prior Delaware court decision which had held that a board cannot terminate a former director’s advancement rights while litigation is pending. Vice Chancellor Lamb rejected the former director’s arguments, holding that the director’s advancement rights do not become “vested” until litigation is actually commenced.

As Steven M. Haas of the Hunton & Williams law firm noted on the Harvard Law School Corporate Governance Blog (here), “[t]his holding may surprise some practitioners, given that the purpose of indemnification and advancement is to encourage board service and assure directors that their expenses relating to their official actions will be repaid – even if litigation arises after they resign from the board.”

The possibility that directors could lose their rights to indemnification or advancement after they leave the board may not only “surprise some practitioners,” but it would shock many directors, whom I believe rightly would be appalled to learn that they could be stripped of these rights after they leave the board. At a minimum, this holding strongly reinforces the need for each director to have their own separate indemnification agreement with the company, to reduce the possibility for a later board to eliminate these rights after the director has left board service. Without a separate contractual undertaking, directors may have no assurance that after they leave the board their rights to advancement and indemnification will be preserved.

At the same time, however, it should be emphasized that most directors and officers liability insurance policies include former directors within their definition of insured persons, and that under most circumstances a former director for whom corporate advancement and indemnification has been withheld would still have right to seek defense expense protection and indemnification under the company’s D&O liability policy. There might be some question about which retention would apply under the policy, but that issue aside, the insurance coverage should be available to protect the former director (subject to all of its terms and conditions).

Accordingly, In most circumstances, the company’s D&O insurance program should provide adequate protection even for former directors – assuming that the company has procured and continued to maintain insurance protection, and assuming further that the limits available under the insurance program are not otherwise consumed by other insured persons’ defense expense and indemnity requirements.

For directors who have left board service and who are concerned that events could conspire (whether through by-law revision, or as a result of discontinuance or exhaustion of the D&O insurance) to leave them unprotected, there is another insurance solution available. That is, a director concerned about these circumstances may want to consider a so-called former director and officer liability insurance policy. This kind of coverage, which was described at greater length in a recent article (here) is buyer-specific; that is, it belong exclusively to the individual director or officer, and would not be subject to termination or discontinuance by the action or inaction of others. It is also noncancelable, nonrescindable, and provides coverage for up to 6 years after the director resigns, retires or is fired.

The point that should not be lost here is that the director in the case cited above lost his anticipated rights after he left the board. Directors concerned about their rights following board service will want to fully consider the available insurance alternatives.

The Ropes & Gray law firm has a May 5, 2008 memorandum (here) discussing the ways in which by-laws and indemnification agreements might be modified to protect against retroactive elimination of directors’ rights.

The Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog has a post (here) discussing other aspects of the Schoon v. Troy decision.

Speakers’ Corner: On May 6, 2008, I will be in Montreal, Quebec, participating in a panel sponsored by the Canadian Chapter of the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS). The panel (more information about which can be found here) is entitled “The Subprime Meltdown and its Impact on the Canadian Insurance Landscape” and includes a number of distinguished speakers, included Dr. Faten Sabry of NERA Economic Consulting, David Williams of Chubb, and Denis Durand of Jarislowsky Fraser Limited.

In addition, on May 8, 2008, I will be moderating a panel at a American Bar Association Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section conference in New York. The title of the conference is "Beyond Legal: A Business Approach to Corporate Governance" and the panel is entitled "Identifying, Predicting and Minimizing Securities Litigation Risk." Joining me on the panel will be Nell Minow of the Corporate Library, Professor Eric Talley of the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley, and Patrick McGurn of RiskMetrics. A copy of the conference brochure can be found here.