Federal Forum Provisions and the Internal Affairs Doctrine
52 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2019 Last revised: 27 Aug 2020
Date Written: August 26, 2020
A key question at the intersection of state and federal law is whether corporations can use their charters or bylaws to restrict securities litigation to federal court. In December 2018, the Delaware Chancery Court answered this question in the negative in the landmark decision Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg. The court invalidated “federal forum provisions” (“FFPs”) that allow companies to select federal district courts as the exclusive venue for claims brought under the Securities Act of 1933 (“1933 Act”). The decision held that the internal affairs doctrine, which is the bedrock of U.S. corporate law, does not permit charter and bylaw provisions that restrict rights under federal law. In March 2020, the Delaware Supreme Court overturned the Chancery’s decision in Salzberg v. Sciabacucchi, holding, among others, that in addition to “internal” affairs, charters and bylaws can regulate “intra-corporate” affairs, including choosing the forum for Securities Act claims.
This Article presents the first empirical analysis of federal forum provisions. Using a hand-collected data set, we examine the patterns of adoption of such provisions and the characteristics of adopting firms. We show that adoption rates are higher for firms with characteristics, such as belonging to a particular industry, that make them more vulnerable to claims under the 1933 Act. We also show that adoption rates substantially increased after the Supreme Court case Cyan Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, which validated concurrent jurisdiction for both federal and state courts for 1933 Act claims. We also find that the firms that adopt FFPs at the initial public offering (“IPO”) stage tend to share characteristics that have been associated with relatively good corporate governance. To assess the impact of the Sciabacucchi decision, we also conduct an event study. We find that the decision is associated with a large negative stock price effect for companies that had FFPs in their charters or bylaws. The effect is robust even for firms that had better governance features, that underpriced their stock at the IPOs, and whose stock price traded at or above the IPO price prior to the Sciabacucchi decision.
In light of the empirical findings suggesting that federal forum provisions may serve shareholders’ interests by mitigating excessive 1933 Act litigation, we consider alternative legal theories for validating federal forum provisions in corporate charters and bylaws. We suggest two possible approaches: (1) allowing corporate charters and bylaws to address matters that are technically external but deal with the “affairs” of the corporation; and (2) adopting a more “flexible” internal affairs doctrine that could view 1933 Act claims as being “internal” to a corporation’s affairs. The Delaware Supreme Court’s decision can be viewed as being more consistent with the first, rather than the second, approach. We examine the possible implications of adopting either approach, particularly with respect to the existing Delaware statute on exclusive forum provisions and to mandatory arbitration provisions.
Keywords: corporate law, forum selection, securities litigation, internal affairs, Delaware, private ordering
JEL Classification: K22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation