Thursday, June 6, 2013

Consortium Atlantic Realty Trust, Inc. v. Plumbers & Pipefitters National Pension Fund, et al. (Cir. Ct. Mont. Co.)

Filed:  February 5, 2013
Opinion by Judge Ronald B. Rubin

Held:  A board of directors is not subject to Revlon duties when shareholders choose to exercise their put rights under a shareholders agreement.

Facts:  Plaintiff, a Maryland corporation, sued Defendants, union pension funds who owned approximately 93% of the stock in Plaintiff, for breach of a shareholders’ agreement entered into between Plaintiff and Defendants.  Under the shareholders’ agreement, each Defendant was granted the unilateral right to withdraw as a shareholder six years after the effective date of the agreement. Defendants gave proper notice of the exercise of their withdrawal right under the shareholders’ agreement, but the parties disputed the valuation of Defendants’ shares under the withdrawal right. The pertinent section of the shareholders’ agreement required Plaintiff to redeem all of the shares held by a withdrawing shareholder at fair market value. Plaintiff set the fair market value of Defendants' shares at $7.93 per share, the price set forth in an appraisal of one share of stock done two years earlier.  Defendants refused to accept any “discounted” value for their shares, insisting on redemption at $10.00 per share, the price initially paid by Defendants for each share.

Plaintiff filed suit for breach of the shareholders’ agreement. Defendants filed a counterclaim raising a number of claims regarding the shareholders’ agreement and its interpretation, the most pertinent of which was Plaintiff’s failure to maximize shareholder value. Plaintiff moved to dismiss the counterclaim.

Analysis:  Defendants alleged a breach of fiduciary by Plaintiff and certain of its directors by failing to sell the company before Defendants exercised their withdrawal rights so that the directors could obtain a “windfall” when Defendants redeemed their shares for a discounted value. Defendants also contended that the exercise of their withdrawal rights, which collectively amounted to 93% of Plaintiff’s shares, constituted a change-in-control transaction under Maryland law. In short, the court stated that Defendants were attempting to impose Revlon duties, as applied to Maryland law in Shenker v. Laureate Education, on Plaintiff and its directors.

The court agreed that Shenker is limited, until the Court of Appeals says otherwise, to a cash-out merger when the decision to sell the corporation is already made, and dismissed Defendants’ claims. Here, it was the shareholders, not the board of directors, who made the decision to “sell”, i.e., to exercise their put rights under the shareholders’ agreement. Much like a tender offer situation, the decision to be made, withdraw as, or remain a shareholder does not implicate the duties or functions of the board of directors. Revlon duties were inapplicable because the board had nothing to do with the decision to “sell.”

The court also rejected Defendants’ change of control argument, stating that shareholders cannot unilaterally “create” a change of control implicating Revlon solely by virture of their own decisions. Revlon duties are premised upon action taken by the board, which results in a change from managing the company to selling the company. Plaintiff’s board made no decision to sell, merge or otherwise re-organize the business of the company.  Shareholders cannot impose additional duties on a board solely by reason of their own economic decisions to involve provisions of a shareholders’ agreement.

The full opinion is available in pdf.

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