The Twilight of Enhanced Scrutiny in Delaware M&A Jurisprudence
27 Pages Posted: 12 Sep 2018 Last revised: 6 Jun 2021
Merger and Acquisition (M&A) transactions create the potential for self-interested behavior by the boards of directors of acquired, or target, corporations because target boards may have self-interested reasons for preferring one acquirer over any other. The preferred acquirer may, for example, be more likely to retain the services of certain board members or to employ them in some other capacity after the completion of the transaction. In recognition of these potential conflicts of interest, the courts have recognized that target boards of directors may not always be incentivized to exercise their business judgment in M&A transactions in the best interests of shareholders and have therefore held them to the heightened standard of review of enhanced scrutiny. Enhanced scrutiny contemplates substantive judicial review of the reasonableness of the target board’s conduct in the sale of the company. Until recently, enhanced scrutiny review was not susceptible to being adjusted downward to business judgment-level review through procedural safeguards, such as the constitution of a special committee of the board or shareholder ratification. A special committee was not considered to be an effective means of cleansing an inherent conflict, and shareholder approval of the transaction was deemed to approve only the board’s decision to sell, as opposed to the board’s conduct of the sale process. The Delaware Supreme Court revisited the issue, holding that the shareholder ratification doctrine applies to a shareholder approval of an M&A transaction on the rationale that shareholders, particularly institutions, are at least as well-positioned as judges to evaluate the merits of a sale. As a result, approval of an M&A deal by target shareholders displaces enhanced scrutiny of the board of directors’ conduct in managing the sale in favor of the business judgment rule, effectively making the target board’s decision unreviewable. This Article argues that recent Delaware jurisprudence on shareholder ratification constitutes a fundamental shift in M&A jurisprudence, predicts that, while it will reduce deal litigation, it will have unnecessary detrimental effects on deal process, and proposes a procedural mechanism for mitigating those effects in the form of a bifurcated shareholder vote on each of the deal process and the sale transaction.
Keywords: Delaware corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, boards of directors, fiduciary duties, business judgment rule, enhanced scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, heightened scrutiny, shareholder ratification, institutional shareholders, Corwin doctrine
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