This opinion on attorneys’ fees was issued in tandem with the opinion in In re Wachovia Shareholders Litigation. Lawsuits had filed over a tender offer for the company, which led the Board of Directors to conduct an auction process which led to a higher price per share. Thereafter, class counsel and the defendant had agreed to permit the Court to set the fee, not to exceed $450,000, and the defendant had agreed not to object.
The Court considered, as it would have if there had been an objection: (1) whether the action was meritorious at the time it was filed, (2) whether there was an ascertainable benefit received by the class, and (3) whether there was a causal connection between the action and the benefit. The Court approved a fee of $450,000, although it found that there were some "close questions," particularly whether the filing of the lawsuit had been a direct cause of the increase in price paid for the company.
The Court noted that an award of fees acts as a check on management. The Court has an obligation "to balance the need for incentives for shareholders to protect their interest with the need to keep litigation costs at a level which does not inhibit merger activity."
The Court discussed, on a prospective basis, whether the law firm which did not become appointed as lead counsel could be compensated for its work. It noted that the decision of the law firm to be lead counsel would not ordinarily turn on which firm was the first to file.
It discussed the importance of making a shareholder inspection request under the North Carolina statute before rushing to the courthouse, cited substantial Delaware precedent on this point, and held that "failure to use inspection of books and records may result in a finding that the suit was not meritorious when filed."