Delaware Court of Chancery Identifies Fiduciary Duty Constraints on Preferred Equity
A recent decision of the Delaware Court of Chancery (the “Court”) places certain fiduciary constraints on a company’s ability to satisfy its obligations to its preferred equity holders. While investors often seek to acquire preferred stock in return for their investments, the Court’s decision in The Frederick HSU Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation (“ODN”) et al., makes it clear that actions taken by a company in connection with the payment of such preference will be subject to the fiduciary duties that a company’s board owes to its holders of common stock.
Plaintiff, a founding stockholder of ODN Holding Corporation (the “Company”), brought an action against the Company’s board of directors (the “Board”) alleging, among other things, breach of fiduciary duty in connection with the redemption of preferred shares owned by the Company’s controlling stockholder, the venture capital firm Oak Hill Capital Partners (“Oak Hill”). As consideration for Oak Hills’s investment in the Company, Oak Hill received shares of preferred stock in the Company, carrying a mandatory redemption right exercisable by Oak Hill five (5) years after the investment (See id. at 6). In the event that the Company did not have sufficient funds to redeem the preferred stock at the time of exercise, the Company agreed to make redemption payments to Oak Hill as funds became available (See id. at 6-7). Plaintiff claimed that Oak Hill caused the Company to alter its business strategy prior to the time that the redemption right was able to be exercised, prioritizing the hoarding of cash to satisfy Oak Hill’s redemption demand rather than fostering the growth and development of the Company for the benefit of the common holders (See id. at 10-14). This included selling two (2) of the Company’s primary lines of business in an effort to raise capital to fund such redemption, and failing to use funds to pursue acquisitions, as was the Company’s prior practice (See id.). As a result of the foregoing, Plaintiff brought several claims against the Company, Oak Hill, and individual members of the Board, among which was a claim for contravention of the Board’s fiduciary duty of loyalty to the holders of the Company’s common stock (See id. at 21).
With respect to the fiduciary duty claim, the Court held in favor of Plaintiff, denying Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. The Court’s rationale centered on the premise that a company’s board of directors has a fiduciary obligation to maximize the long-term value of the company for the benefit of holders of its “undifferentiated equity” (i.e. its common stock) (See id. at 36-37). The Court distinguished the rights of preferred holders as contractual in nature, entitling them to fiduciary duty protection only to the extent their interests align with the interests of the common holders (See id. at 41 and 44). While the Court readily acknowledged the contractual obligation to redeem the preferred shares held by Oak Hill, it emphasized that the Board took actions to satisfy the redemption obligation before there was any contractual obligation to redeem. In other words, the Board took actions to maximize the value of the redemption right rather than the value of the common stock, which the Court ultimately held to be a direct breach of the Board’s fiduciary duty of loyalty to the shareholders of the Company.
The Court’s holding in this case reminds investors that, at the end of the day, a board’s primary directive is to maximize the company’s value to its common stockholders, not its preferred holders. Because the rights of the preferred are contractually founded, they must ultimately be subject to the overall interests of the “undifferentiated equity” of a company. From an investor’s perspective, the Court’s decision will likely spur efforts to structure preferred equity obligations in a way that gives the preferred holders the ability to take direct action rather than going through the board, thereby making the fiduciary duty issue a moot point. This may be preferable from a company’s perspective as well, especially in the case of board members who are appointed by holders of preferred stock.
However, in structuring the rights of preferred holders, care should be taken to ensure that the protections do not inadvertently lead to other issues. For example, affording preferred stock too many protections could cause it to fall under the definition of “disqualified preferred stock,” or a similar term contained in a company’s senior credit agreement, if applicable, which could have adverse consequences on the company and all of its equity holders.
The full text of the case, The Frederick HSU Living Trust v. ODN Holding Corporation (“ODN”) et al., can be found here.
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