Thursday, March 15, 2012

Boland v. Boland; Boland v. Boland Trane Associates, Inc. (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: October 25, 2011
Opinion by Judge Sally D. Adkins.

Held:

Holding 1: After a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment against a derivative plaintiff, Maryland courts must review a special litigation committee's ("SLC") independence, and whether it made a reasonable investigation and principled, factually-based conclusions. In this inquiry, the SLC is not entitled to a presumption that it was sufficiently independent from a corporation's directors.

Holding 2: When a court grants summary judgment in a derivative suit based on an SLC's determination that continuing the lawsuit is not in the corporation’s best interest, that court decision is not a final adjudication on the merits so as to preclude a direct suit under the doctrine of res judicata. The court makes no determination of the merits of the allegations when reviewing an SLC's decision. Moreover, a direct action, which asserts individual rights, is an entirely different cause of action than a derivative action, which is brought on behalf of the corporation.

Facts:
Two lawsuits arose when a family business, consisting of two corporations and owned primarily by eight siblings (collectively, the "Corporation"), attempted to repurchase the stock of one sister upon her death pursuant to a Stock Purchase Agreement. When the sister's estate refused to sell the stock, the Corporation filed a declaratory judgment action seeking enforcement of the Stock Purchase Agreement. Meanwhile, non-director siblings who had learned of earlier stock transactions that resulted in director siblings acquiring additional corporate stock for themselves, sent a demand for litigation to the Corporation and filed a derivative action in the Circuit Court alleging self-dealing and a breach of fiduciary duty. They also filed "direct" claims, as cross-claims in the declaratory judgment action.

In response, the corporations appointed an SLC consisting of two newly hired "independent directors" to examine the claims. The SLC determined that the stock transactions were legitimate and the Stock Purchase Agreement was enforceable.

The Circuit Court, applying the business judgment rule, deferred to the judgment of the SLC and granted summary judgment to the Corporation on the derivative action. The Circuit Court also dismissed the cross-claims relying on res judicata.

Analysis: On appeal in the Court of Appeals, the Court upheld the application of the business judgment rule by the Circuit Court and held that after a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment against a derivative plaintiff, Maryland courts must review the SLC’s independence, and whether it made a reasonable investigation and principled, factually-based conclusions. However, in this inquiry, the SLC is not entitled to a presumption that it was sufficiently independent from the directors. Because the Circuit Court presumed the independence and good faith of the SLC without requiring that the Corporation prove the SLC's independence, the Court of Appeals vacated the Circuit Court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

The Court referred to its holding as an "Auerbach enhanced" standard, in reference to Auerbach v. Bennett, 393 N.E.2d 994 (N.Y. 1979). In so holding, the Court rejected the so-called Zapata standard under which Delaware courts review a SLC’s recommendation on the merits, applying their “independent business judgment.”

The Court reasoned that "a procedural review under the business judgment rule, although clearly the more deferential standard [toward the Corporation], nonetheless provides for a thorough review of an SLC’s independence, good faith, and methodology, and such inquiry gives trial courts the ability to scrutinize SLC decisions and protect shareholders against collusive practices or inadequate investigations."

On the issue of whether the non-director siblings' "direct" claims, brought as cross-claims in the declaratory judgment action were precluded by res judicata, the Court held that the Circuit Court's grant of summary judgment in the derivative action, based on a recommendation of the SLC, does not form a basis for res judicata because it is not a determination on the merits. Accordingly, the Court held that a trial court's resolution of a derivative complaint, when based on the recommendation of an SLC, cannot be said to be a final judicial resolution on the merits of the claims.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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