Broc Romanek reports:
Here's news from Steven Haas of Hunton & Williams ...: In recent days, shareholders have filed several class action complaints in Delaware .... The litigation will require Delaware courts to review a bylaw that would increase Delaware's market share of corporate litigation. A ruling upholding these bylaws would likely cause numerous other corporations to adopt them.
An exclusive forum provision typically provides as follows:
Unless the Corporation consents in writing to the selection of an alternative forum, the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware shall be the sole and exclusive forum for (i) any derivative action or proceeding brought on behalf of the Corporation, (ii) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty owed by any director, officer or other employee of the Corporation to the Corporation or the Corporation's stockholders, (iii) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the Delaware General Corporation Law, or (iv) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine. Any person or entity purchasing or otherwise acquiring any interest in shares of capital stock of the Corporation shall be deemed to have notice of and consented to the provisions of this Article __.
These provisions gained traction, particularly for IPO companies, ever since Vice Chancellor Laster suggested in a 2010 opinion that they would be enforceable (see In re Revlon S'holders Litig., 990 A.2d 940 (Del. Ch. 2010)). Claudia Allen of Neal Gerber recently updated her study detailing that, as of December 31st, 195 Delaware corporations have adopted or proposed exclusive forum charter or bylaw provisions. Although a California court refused to enforce Oracle's exclusive forum bylaw last year, this is the first time the issue has been squarely presented to the Delaware courts. Steven Davidoff (aka The Deal Professor) previously offered his thoughts on the issue.
Friend of PB.com Francis Pileggi also reports on the issue, explaining that:
These new suits challenge bylaws in several companies that require shareholder suits to be filed exclusively in the Delaware Court of Chancery. If suits are filed elsewhere, the company threatens to sue those shareholders to recoup fees for breach of the bylaw provision. The challenge is based on the alleged violation of due process rights because there was no mutual consent by the shareholders. The suits were filed by the highly-regarded corporate litigator Michael Hanrahan of the Prickett Jones firm in Wilmington. Among the companies sued by shareholders challenging the exclusive forum bylaw provision, in separate lawsuits, are the following Delaware corporations: Navistar International Corp., AutoNation, Inc. Chevron Corp., SPX Corp., Superior Energy Services, Inc., Franklin Resources, Inc., Curtiss-Wright Corp., Danaher Corp., and Solutia Inc.
Thomson Reuter’s Alison Frankel wrote an excellent article about these cases that provides a very helpful overview and also has a link to the actual complaints.
He includes links to many additional analyses of the issues.
Personally, I think these provisions should be upheld. Contracts routinely include exclusive jurisdicton provisions and they are routinely enforced. The corporation's organic documents (i.e., the articles of incorporation and bylaws) represent a contract between the corporation and its shareholders. Hence, like any other contract, an exclusive jurisdiction provision in those documents should be enforced by the courts.
As I wrote the last time this issue was in the news:
Keeping these cases in Delaware courts [via exclusive jurisdiction provisions] strikes me as preferable [to allowing plaintiff to select any forum it wants]. Expert judges. No juries. No home state bias in favor of one side or the other, since usually both sides will have their principal place of business elsewhere. Promotes consistency of outcomes. Delaware courts more rigorous than most in policing plaintiff lawyers bringing suits not in the best interests of the corporation or its shareholders as a whole.
There's a direct analogy here to mandatory arbitration provisions of the sort Carlyle Group was going to include in its articles (until it spinelessly changed its mind). As I wrote about them:
See Charles Nathan's post on the analogous issue of the enforceability of exclusive jurisdiction provisions:
In a recent decision, In re Revlon, Inc. Shareholders Litig., newly-appointed Vice Chancellor Laster suggested a solution. In dicta, he endorsed a Delaware entity’s right to mandate in its governance documents a chosen forum for the resolution of state law-based shareholder class actions, derivative suits and other intra-corporate disputes. Vice Chancellor Laster stated that “if boards of directors and stockholders believe that a particular forum would provide an efficient and value-promoting locus for dispute resolution, then corporations are free to respond with charter provisions selecting an exclusive forum for intra-entity disputes.” Presumably, the Vice Chancellor had Delaware in mind.
Nathan goes on to discuss the legal issues at some length. In any case, assuming Laster wasn't simply trying to build up business for Delaware courts, there's no immediately obvious policy reason why the same result would not apply to mandatory arbitration provisions.