Corwin as Trustee for Beatrice Corwin Living Irrevocable Trust v. British American Tobacco PLC

Decision Date07 December 2018
Docket NumberNo. 56PA17,56PA17
Citation821 S.E.2d 729,371 N.C. 605
Parties Dr. Robert CORWIN AS TRUSTEE FOR the BEATRICE CORWIN LIVING IRREVOCABLE TRUST, on Behalf of a Class of Those Similarly Situated v. BRITISH AMERICAN TOBACCO PLC, Reynolds American, Inc., Susan M. Cameron, John P. Daly, Neil R. Withington, Luc Jobin, Sir Nicholas Scheele, Martin D. Feinstein, Ronald S. Rolfe, Richard E. Thornburgh, Holly K. Koeppel, Nana Mensah, Lionel L. Nowell, III, John J. Zillmer, and Thomas C. Wajnert
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Mullins Duncan Harrell & Russell PLLC, by Alan W. Duncan and Stephen M. Russell, Jr. ; and Block & Leviton LLP, by Jason M. Leviton, pro hac vice, for plaintiff-appellee.

Robinson & Lawing, LLP, by H. Brent Helms ; and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, by Gary A. Bornstein, pro hac vice, for defendant-appellant British American Tobacco PLC.

Bell Davis & Pitt, P.A., by Alan M. Ruley and William K. Davis, for North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, amicus curiae.

MARTIN, Chief Justice.

This appeal arises from the agreement of Reynolds American, Inc. to purchase Lorillard, Inc. Defendant British American Tobacco PLC (BAT) owned 42% of the stock in Reynolds and agreed to fund part of the Lorillard transaction by purchasing enough of the newly acquired shares to maintain that 42% ownership interest. The terms of this agreement diluted the voting power of Reynolds' other minority shareholders, including plaintiff Dr. Robert Corwin. Plaintiff then filed a putative class action suit on behalf of similarly situated stockholders asserting a claim for breach of fiduciary duty against, among others, BAT.

In this appeal, we consider whether BAT owed fiduciary duties to those other shareholders in the context of the Lorillard acquisition. The Business Court concluded that BAT did not owe fiduciary duties to the other shareholders and granted BAT's motion to dismiss. We agree with the Business Court and therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.

I. Background

The matter before us is an appeal of a determination under Rule 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, so we accept all of the facts pleaded in plaintiff's First Amended Class Action Complaint (the operative pleading here, which we will hereinafter refer to as the Complaint) as true. See Arnesen v. Rivers Edge Golf Club & Plantation, Inc. , 368 N.C. 440, 448, 781 S.E.2d 1, 7 (2015) (quoting Sutton v. Duke , 277 N.C. 94, 98, 176 S.E.2d 161, 163 (1970) ). Our statement of the facts of this case is derived from the Complaint, as well as from other documents that the Complaint incorporates by reference.

Reynolds, an American tobacco company, was created after Reynolds' predecessor entity acquired Brown & Williamson (B&W), another tobacco company. B&W was a subsidiary of BAT, a tobacco holding company that is headquartered in London. As a result of the transaction, BAT became a 42% stockholder of Reynolds, and BAT and Reynolds entered into a governance agreement dated 30 July 2004 (the Governance Agreement).

The Governance Agreement contained specific limitations on BAT's power.1 BAT could effectively nominate only five members to Reynolds' thirteen-member Board of Directors, and three of those nominees had to be "Independent Directors." The Governance Agreement defined the term "Independent Director" to mean a director who was considered independent of Reynolds under the New York Stock Exchange Rules2 and who had not been a director, officer, or employee of BAT or its subsidiaries within the past three years. Reynolds' Corporate Governance and Nominating Committee (the Committee) had the right to nominate the remaining eight directors, seven of whom had to be Independent Directors. All members of the Committee itself had to be Independent Directors, and, provided that the Reynolds board was fully staffed, the majority of those directors had to be non-BAT-nominated Independent Directors. During a standstill period imposed by the Governance Agreement,3 BAT could not seek removal of any of the directors that it did not nominate, unless the Reynolds board amended or waived that limitation. Further, a majority of the Independent Directors who were not nominated by BAT had to approve any material transaction between, or involving, Reynolds and BAT (with certain narrow exceptions that no party asserts as being relevant here). These restrictions, along with the rest of the Governance Agreement, would continue until BAT's ownership interest reached 100% or fell below 15% (or until a person or group other than BAT, with some other exceptions not relevant here, owned or controlled more than 50% of the voting power of all voting stock), at which point the Governance Agreement would terminate by its own terms.

Alongside these restrictions, the Governance Agreement conveyed certain contractual rights to BAT. The Governance Agreement required the approval of a majority of the BAT-nominated directors for certain actions such as stock issuances if that stock would have voting power greater than or equal to 5% of the voting power outstanding before that issuance. It also required the approval of BAT as a stockholder for certain actions such as the sale of specified intellectual property.

In September 2012, Reynolds, the second-largest tobacco company in the United States, began considering a merger with Lorillard, the third-largest tobacco company in the United States. Reynolds met with BAT before entering negotiations with Lorillard. BAT indicated that it would support the Lorillard merger only on terms that it approved of and expressed its desire to maintain its 42% ownership interest in Reynolds. BAT was willing to provide financing for the transaction through purchasing enough of the newly acquired shares to maintain its ownership interest, and the parties agreed to a term sheet regarding that financing. BAT insisted that this term sheet contain a provision that prevented BAT or Reynolds from seeking to change the Governance Agreement in connection with the proposed transaction. BAT also indicated that it was not willing to extend the standstill period specified in the Governance Agreement.

Initially, discussions proceeded toward what Lorillard hoped would be a merger of equals. The Other Directors—a term that the Governance Agreement defined (in its singular form) to mean an Independent Director of the Reynolds board who was not nominated by BAT—even discussed reducing BAT's ownership percentage after the merger to allow a greater ownership level for Lorillard's stockholders. But this change ultimately did not happen. Eventually, Lorillard terminated negotiations after concluding that the transaction was not truly a merger of equals given the power that BAT would wield over the combined company. Reynolds then decided to pursue an acquisition of Lorillard instead.

During subsequent negotiations, the Other Directors requested the removal of a provision in the proposed merger agreement that required BAT to vote its shares of Reynolds stock in favor of the transaction regardless of whether the Reynolds board changed its recommendation in favor of the transaction. Lorillard, however, insisted that this provision remain in the agreement. BAT said that it would consider Lorillard's demand but would not commit over the objections of the Other Directors. The Other Directors agreed to allow the provision to remain in the proposed merger agreement, so it did, in fact, remain there.

On 15 July 2014, the companies announced that they had reached a final agreement. Reynolds would purchase Lorillard and pay the Lorillard stockholders a combination of 0.2909 shares of Reynolds common stock plus $50.50 for each share of Lorillard stock that they owned. At the time, this price corresponded to a value of $68.88 per Lorillard share based on the closing price of Reynolds stock on 14 July 2014.

To help finance the acquisition, Reynolds would divest a package of assets, including several cigarette brands, to Imperial Tobacco Group PLC. Additionally, BAT would help finance the acquisition by purchasing enough additional shares of Reynolds for it to maintain its 42% ownership of Reynolds after the completion of the transaction. BAT would be permitted to purchase these additional Reynolds shares for $60.16 per share—the price of Reynolds stock on 2 July 2014, which was also used to determine the stock component of the Lorillard shareholders' consideration. This price was $3.02 less than the closing price of Reynolds stock on 14 July 2014, the day before the transaction was executed. Reynolds and BAT also agreed to pursue a technology-sharing initiative for next-generation tobacco products such as digital vapor cigarettes. The entire Reynolds board, including the Other Directors, unanimously approved these transactions.4

In response to the announcement of these transactions, plaintiff Dr. Robert Corwin filed a class action complaint against BAT, Reynolds, and a group of Reynolds' directors (director defendants) in his capacity as trustee for the Beatrice Corwin Living Irrevocable Trust and on behalf of other stockholders similarly situated. The case was designated as a mandatory complex business case to be heard by the Business Court. The Complaint (which, again, is the operative pleading here) alleges, among other things, that BAT was a controlling stockholder of Reynolds, that BAT therefore owed fiduciary duties to plaintiff, and that BAT breached those fiduciary duties through its conduct in connection with the Lorillard transaction. Although BAT was not a majority stockholder of Reynolds, plaintiff bases his claim that BAT was nevertheless a controlling stockholder on various aspects of the Reynolds-BAT Governance Agreement and BAT's involvement in the Lorillard transaction. Plaintiff claims that BAT's control over Reynolds allowed BAT to negotiate benefits for itself that were not shared with other Reynolds stockholders.

BAT, Reynolds, and director defendants moved to...

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