litigation management bylaws

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 2018 decision in the Cyan case that state courts retain concurrent jurisdiction for ’33 Act liability actions, one idea that circulated was that companies could avoid securities class action lawsuits in state court by adopting a charter provision designating a federal forum for these kinds of suits. Unfortunately, in December 2018, Delaware Chancery Court Vice Chancellor Travis Laster held in Sciabacucchi v. Salzburg that under Delaware law federal forum provisions are invalid and ineffective, as discussed here. The Sciabacucchi decision, which is now on appeal, is the subject of a comprehensive critique in a recent article by Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest, entitled “The Limits of Delaware Corporate Law: Internal Affairs, Federal Forum Provisions, and Sciabacucchi” (here). Professor Grundfest argues that Sciabacucchi was wrongly decided and that a under a “straightforward” application of applicable Delaware statutory law, federal forum provisions are valid and permitted.
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One idea circulating since the U.S. Supreme Court held in Cyan that state court Section 11 actions are not removable to federal court is that companies could avoid state court actions by adopting a federal forum bylaw or charter provision. Indeed, a number of companies recently have adopted these provisions prior to going public. Late last year, a shareholder of several IPO companies filed an action in Delaware Chancery Court seeking a judicial declaration that the companies’ Federal Forum Provisions are invalid. On December 19, 2018, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster issued a memorandum opinion agreeing with the plaintiff and holding that under Delaware law, Federal Forum Provisions are invalid and ineffective. A copy of Laster’s opinion can be found here.
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One idea that resurfaces from time to time is the suggestion that companies ought to adopt bylaw or charter provisions mandating the arbitration of shareholder claims, including claims under the federal securities laws. The current SEC Chair, Jay Clayton, has said that he does not consider the issue to be a top priority, seemingly shelving the idea for the time being. But various contending parties have continued to agitate on the issue.

In a recent white paper issued by a consumer advocacy group and signed by a number of prominent securities law professors, the professors state their view that Delaware law does not permit federal securities law claims to be resolved in arbitration or in any specific forum. The white paper is sure to stir the pot. As discussed below, it could also have an impact on a case currently pending in Delaware state court that could dictate whether or not Delaware companies may designate a federal court forum for the resolution of claims under the federal securities laws.
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As I have noted in prior posts, a number of commentators have proposed that companies filing with the SEC to complete IPOs ought to be able to include in their bylaws a mandatory arbitration provision requiring shareholder claimants to submit claims – including even claims under the federal securities laws – to arbitration. This idea, which has been percolating for years, received a significant boost in a statement last summer from outgoing SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar, in which he suggested that the SEC would favorably view submissions by IPO companies that included bylaw provisions requiring mandatory arbitration of securities claims. As detailed in an April 23, 2018 paper from Elisa Mendoza of ISS Securities Class Action Services entitled “The Uncertain Role of IPOs in Future Class Actions” (here), this idea has its critics. But what might this kind of mandatory arbitration proposal, if put into action, actually mean for securities class action litigation going forward? Mendoza’s paper helpfully takes a statistical look at this question in light of historical securities litigation involving IPO companies.
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One of the trendy concepts in certain circles in recent years has been the idea of litigation management bylaws – that is, the adoption by company of bylaw provisions that help manage the company’s litigation risks. For example, one bylaw provision that has been widely adopted by publicly traded companies is a forum selection provision specifying a particular jurisdiction as the preferred forum for litigating shareholder disputes.

Another one of the proposed litigation management bylaws that has proven more controversial is the idea of a mandatory arbitration clause, requiring shareholder claimants to submit claims – including even claims under the federal securities laws – to arbitration. This idea, which has been percolating for years, received a significant boost in a statement from SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar. In a recent letter to a member of Congress, SEC Chair Jay Clayton weighed in with his views on the topic, suggesting that the idea is not a particular priority for him. But aspects of his communication and of the current state of debate on the issue suggest that the idea is probably not going to just go away.
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SEC Commission Michael Piwowar caused quite a stir last summer when he suggested that the SEC would favorably view submissions by IPO companies that included bylaw provisions requiring mandatory arbitration of securities claims. The idea of mandatory arbitration for shareholder claims has continued to circulate in the intervening months. In the past few days, several current and former SEC Commissioners and SEC representatives have weighed in on the issue, mostly to pour cold water on the idea. Because I believe this idea will continue to percolate, I survey the latest statements below. Even though the most recent statements strongly suggest a lack of support for the idea in many circles, I suspect we will continue to hear more about this issue.
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For a time a few years ago, litigation management bylaws were all the rage. Driven by concerns about multi-forum merger-related litigation, commentators proposed company adoption of forum selection bylaws for internal corporate disputes. The debate widened when reformers suggested that companies adopt fee-shifting bylaws. The debate subsided in 2015 when the Delaware legislature adopted legislation authorizing the adopting of bylaws designating Delaware’s courts as the preferred forum for disputes under Delaware, but prohibiting fee-shifting bylaws.

The topic of litigation management bylaws resurfaced in recent months in connection with the debate about plaintiffs lawyers’ resorting to state court (primarily in California) to assert securities class action claims, in reliance on the concurrent jurisdiction provisions under the Section 22 of the Securities Act of 1933. Concerns about this kind of litigation has in turn precipitated various self-help measures companies could adopt to try to avoid getting hauled into state court for these kinds of suits.
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Shareholder derivative lawsuits are notoriously difficult for claimants. In order to pursue a derivative suit, a shareholder plaintiff must overcome numerous procedural and pleading hurdles. Even when cases survive the initial obstacles, the ultimate outcome often consists of little more than the payment of the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees with slight benefit to the company in whose name the claim was ostensibly was pursued. In light of these considerations, UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge has a modest proposal: Eliminate derivative litigation altogether. In a brief October 3, 2017 post on his ProfessorBainbridge.com blog (here), Bainbridge suggests that we just do away with the whole inefficient process. Bainbridge raises a number of interesting points, but, as discussed below, while I agree with some of his concerns, I am not sure I agree with his proposed solution.
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delawareMany readers will recall that just a short time ago companies were actively experimenting to try to incorporate litigation management measures into their corporate bylaws. These efforts led to decisions by Delaware courts upholding both forum selection bylaws (about which refer here) and fee-shifting bylaws (refer here). Delaware’s legislature ultimately addressed these bylaw experimentation efforts by adopting statutory provisions allowing forum selection bylaws but prohibiting fee-shifting bylaws.

Following the enactment of this legislation, the payroll software services firm Paylocity adopted a bylaw provision designating Delaware as the forum for any shareholder disputes and holding any shareholder who filed an action outside Delaware and who did not prevail on the merits liable for the company’s attorneys’ fees. A Paylocity shareholder filed an action in Delaware Chancery Court challenging the bylaw’s fee-shifting provision. In an interesting December 27, 2016 opinion (here), Chancellor Andre Bouchard held that the Paylocity bylaw’s penalty provisions violated the Delaware statutory fee-shifting bylaw prohibitions, but dismissed the claims that company’s board had violated its fiduciary duties in enacting the bylaw.
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