Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Weinberg v. Gold, et al. (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Filed: March 12, 2012
Opinion by Judge James K. Bredar

Held: In a shareholder's derivative suit, the plaintiff shareholder failed to plead sufficient factual allegations to excuse demand on the corporation under the demand futility exception set forth in Werbowsky v. Collomb, 766 A.2d 123 (Md. 2001).

Facts: Plaintiff Arnold Weinberg (the "Shareholder") brought a derivative suit against various officers and directors of Biomed Realty Trust, Inc. (the "Company") alleging, among other things, breach of fiduciary duty for failing to rescind approval of an executive compensation plan rejected in a "say on pay" vote by the shareholders of the Company. The plan was formulated by a three-member compensation committee of directors and approved by the board. The issue before the Court was whether the Shareholder pled sufficient factual allegations to justify filing the suit without first making a demand on the Company.

Analysis: The Court cited Werbowsky v. Collomb, 766 A.2d 123 (Md. 2001) as the most recent, authoritative exposition of Maryland law on the issue of demand futility. Werbowsky affirmed the demand futility exception but limited it to matters in which the "allegations or evidence clearly demonstrate, in a very particular manner, either that (1) a demand, or a delay in awaiting a response to a demand, would cause irreparable harm to the corporation, or (2) a majority of the directors are so personally and directly conflicted or committed to the disputed decision that they cannot reasonably be expected to respond to a demand in good faith and within the ambit of the business judgment rule."

Recognizing the Werbowsky court's clear statement that mere participation in or approval of the challenged transaction by the directors does not excuse demand, the Court dismissed the Shareholder's argument that demand was futile because each director named in the suit was on the board when the compensation plan was approved, three directors were members of the compensation committee and two of the seven directors were officers of the Company and beneficiaries of the compensation plan. The Court recognized that the two directors who were officers of the Company and beneficiaries of the compensation plan were arguably "so personally and directly conflicted" that they could not reasonably be expected to respond to a demand in good faith and within the ambit of the business judgment rule. However, Werbowsky requires that a majority of the board be so personally disqualified before demand is excused. Likewise, the fact that directors are named in the suit does not mean that prior to the suit demand would have been futile. It if did, the Court opined, the demand requirement would be nullified in every suit that named directors are defendants.

The Shareholder also sought to excuse demand on the basis that the directors' actions were not the product of valid business judgment. Werbowsky, however, implicitly disallows consideration of the merits of the case in analyzing demand futility. While recognizing that a "say on pay" vote can arguably provide the board with an opportunity to reconsider its executive compensation decisions, the Court concluded that it is not the equivalent of a pre-suit demand. Such a vote can, however, be reasonably considered as a non-conclusive factor in the demand futility analysis. The Court also rejected the Shareholder's analysis of the "say on pay" vote under Ohio and Delaware standards for demand futility because neither standard is comparable to the standard set forth in Werbowsky.

The full opinion is available in pdf.

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