125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), 629, 2014, Corwin v. KKR Fin. Holdings LLC

Docket Nº629, 2014
Citation125 A.3d 304
Opinion JudgeSTRINE, Chief Justice.
Party NameROBERT A. CORWIN, MARGARET DEMAURO, ERIC GREENE, PIPEFITTERS LOCAL UNION NO. 120 PENSION FUND, and POMPANO BEACH POLICE & FIREFIGHTERS' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Plaintiffs Below-Appellants, v. KKR FINANCIAL HOLDINGS LLC, TRACY COLLINS, ROBERT L. EDWARDS, CRAIG J. FARR, VINCENT PAUL FINIGAN, JR., PAUL M. HAZEN, R. GLENN HUBBARD, ROSS J. KARI, ELY L. L...
AttorneyStuart M. Grant, Esquire (Argued), Mary S. Thomas, Esquire, Bernard C. Devieux, Esquire, Grant & Eisenhofer P.A., Wilmington, Delaware; Mark Lebovitch, Esquire, Jeroen van Kwawegen, Esquire, Adam Hollander, Esquire, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP, New York, New York, for Appellants. Ga...
Judge PanelBefore STRINE, Chief Justice; HOLLAND, VALIHURA, VAUGHN, Justices; and RENNIE, Judge,[*] constituting the Court en Banc.
Case DateOctober 02, 2015
CourtSupreme Court of Delaware

Page 304

125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015)

ROBERT A. CORWIN, MARGARET DEMAURO, ERIC GREENE, PIPEFITTERS LOCAL UNION NO. 120 PENSION FUND, and POMPANO BEACH POLICE & FIREFIGHTERS' RETIREMENT SYSTEM, Plaintiffs Below-Appellants,

v.

KKR FINANCIAL HOLDINGS LLC, TRACY COLLINS, ROBERT L. EDWARDS, CRAIG J. FARR, VINCENT PAUL FINIGAN, JR., PAUL M. HAZEN, R. GLENN HUBBARD, ROSS J. KARI, ELY L. LICHT, DEBORAH H. MCANENY, SCOTT C. NUTTALL, SCOTT RYLES, WILLY STROTHOTTE, KKR & CO. L.P., KKR FUND HOLDINGS L.P., and COPAL MERGER SUB LLC, Defendants Below-Appellees

No. 629, 2014

Supreme Court of Delaware

October 2, 2015

Submitted September 16, 2015

Case Closed October 20, 2015.

Editorial Note:

This decision has been designated as "Table of Decisions Without Published Opinions." in the Atlantic Reporter.

Court Below: Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware, in and for New Castle County. Consol. C.A. No. 9210-CB.

Stuart M. Grant, Esquire (Argued), Mary S. Thomas, Esquire, Bernard C. Devieux, Esquire, Grant & Eisenhofer P.A., Wilmington, Delaware; Mark Lebovitch, Esquire, Jeroen van Kwawegen, Esquire, Adam Hollander, Esquire, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP, New York, New York, for Appellants.

Garrett B. Moritz, Esquire, Eric D. Selden, Esquire, Ross Aronstam & Moritz LLP, Wilmington, Delaware; Gregory P. Williams, Esquire, Richards Layton & Finger, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware; William Savitt (Argued), Esquire, Ryan A. McLeod, Esquire, Nicholas Walter, Esquire, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, New York, New York, for Appellees.

Before STRINE, Chief Justice; HOLLAND, VALIHURA, VAUGHN, Justices; and RENNIE, Judge,[*] constituting the Court en Banc.

OPINION

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STRINE, Chief Justice.

In a well-reasoned opinion, the Court of Chancery held that the business judgment rule is invoked as the appropriate standard of review for a post-closing damages action

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when a merger that is not subject to the entire fairness standard of review has been approved by a fully informed, uncoerced majority of the disinterested stockholders.1 For that and other reasons, the Court of Chancery dismissed the plaintiffs' complaint.2 In this decision, we find that the Chancellor was correct in finding that the voluntary judgment of the disinterested stockholders to approve the merger invoked the business judgment rule standard of review and that the plaintiffs' complaint should be dismissed. For sound policy reasons, Delaware corporate law has long been reluctant to second-guess the judgment of a disinterested stockholder majority that determines that a transaction with a party other than a controlling stockholder is in their best interests.

I. The Court Of Chancery Properly Held That The Complaint Did Not Plead Facts Supporting An Inference That KKR Was A Controlling Stockholder of Financial Holdings

The plaintiffs filed a challenge in the Court of Chancery to a stock-for-stock merger between KKR & Co. L.P. (" KKR" ) and KKR Financial Holdings LLC (" Financial Holdings" ) in which KKR acquired each share of Financial Holdings's stock for 0.51 of a share of KKR stock, a 35% premium to the unaffected market price. Below, the plaintiffs' primary argument was that the transaction was presumptively subject to the entire fairness standard of review because Financial Holdings's primary business was financing KKR's leveraged buyout activities, and instead of having employees manage the company's day-to-day operations, Financial Holdings was managed by KKR Financial Advisors, an affiliate of KKR, under a contractual management agreement that could only be terminated by Financial Holdings if it paid a termination fee. As a result, the plaintiffs alleged that KKR was a controlling stockholder of Financial Holdings, which was an LLC, not a corporation.3

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, taking issue with that argument. In a thoughtful and thorough decision, the Chancellor found that the defendants were correct that the plaintiffs' complaint did not plead facts supporting an inference that KKR was Financial Holdings's controlling stockholder.4 Among other things, the Chancellor noted that KKR owned less than 1% of Financial Holdings's stock, had no right to appoint any directors, and had no contractual right to veto any board action.5 Although the Chancellor acknowledged the unusual existential circumstances the plaintiffs cited, he noted that those were known at all relevant times by investors, and that Financial Holdings had real assets its independent board controlled and had the option of pursuing any

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path its directors chose.6

In addressing whether KKR was a controlling stockholder, the Chancellor was focused on the reality that in cases where a party that did not have majority control of the entity's voting stock was found to be a controlling stockholder, the Court of Chancery, consistent with the instructions of this Court, looked for a combination of potent voting power7 and management control such that the stockholder could be deemed to have effective control of the board without actually owning a majority of stock.8 Not finding that combination here, the Chancellor noted:

Plaintiffs' real grievance, as I see it, is that [Financial Holdings] was structured from its inception in a way that limited its value-maximizing options. According to plaintiffs, [Financial Holdings] serves as little more than a public vehicle for financing KKR-sponsored transactions and the terms of the Management Agreement make [Financial Holdings] unattractive as an acquisition target to anyone other than KKR because of [Financial Holdings]'s operational dependence on KKR and because of the significant cost that would be incurred to terminate the Management Agreement. I assume all that is true. But, every contractual obligation of a corporation constrains the corporation's freedom to operate to some degree and, in this particular case, the stockholders cannot claim to be surprised. Every stockholder of [Financial Holdings] knew about the limitations the Management Agreement imposed on [Financial Holdings]'s business when he, she or it acquired shares in [Financial Holdings]. They also knew that the business and affairs of [Financial Holdings] would be managed by a board of directors that would be subject to annual stockholder elections.

At bottom, plaintiffs ask the Court to impose fiduciary obligations on a relatively nominal stockholder, not because of any coercive power that stockholder could wield over the board's ability to independently decide whether or not to approve the merger, but because of pre-existing contractual obligations with that stockholder that constrain the business or strategic options available to the corporation. Plaintiffs have cited no legal authority for that novel proposition, and I decline to create such a rule.9

After carefully analyzing the pled facts and the relevant precedent, the Chancellor held:

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[T]here are no well-pled facts from which it is reasonable to infer that KKR could prevent the [Financial Holdings] board from freely exercising its independent judgment in considering the proposed merger or, put differently, that KKR had the power to exact retribution by removing the [Financial Holdings] directors from their offices if they did not bend to KKR's will in their consideration of the proposed merger.10

Although the plaintiffs reiterate their position on appeal, the Chancellor correctly applied the law and we see no reason to repeat his lucid analysis of this question.

II. The Court of Chancery Correctly Held That The Fully Informed, Uncoerced Vote Of The Disinterested Stockholders Invoked The Business Judgment Rule Standard Of Review

On appeal, the plaintiffs further contend that, even if the Chancellor was correct in determining that KKR was not a controlling stockholder, he was wrong to dismiss the complaint because they contend that if the entire fairness standard did not apply, Revlon 11 did, and the plaintiffs argue that they pled a Revlon claim against the defendant directors. But, as the defendants point out, the plaintiffs did not fairly argue below that Revlon applied and even if they did, they ignore the reality that Financial Holdings had in place an exculpatory charter provision, and that the transaction was approved by an independent board majority and by a fully informed, uncoerced stockholder vote.12 Therefore, the defendants argue, the plaintiffs failed to state a non-exculpated claim for breach of fiduciary duty.

But we need not delve into whether the Court of Chancery's determination that Revlon did not apply to the merger is correct for a single reason: it does not matter. Because the Chancellor was correct in determining that the entire fairness standard did not apply to the merger, the Chancellor's analysis of the effect of the uncoerced, informed stockholder vote is outcome-determinative, even if Revlon applied to the merger.

As to this point, the Court of Chancery noted, and the defendants point out on appeal, that the plaintiffs did not contest the defendants' argument below that if the merger was not subject to the entire fairness standard, the business judgment standard of review was invoked because the merger was approved by a disinterested stockholder majority.13 The Chancellor

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agreed with that argument below, and adhered to precedent supporting the proposition that when a transaction not subject to the entire fairness standard is approved by a fully informed, uncoerced vote of the disinterested stockholders, the business judgment rule applies.14 Although the Chancellor took note of the possible conflict between his ruling and this Court's decision in Gantler v. Stephens,15 he reached the conclusion that Gantler did not alter the effect of legally required stockholder votes on the appropriate standard of review.16 Instead, the Chancellor read Gantler as a decision solely intended to...

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