There are probably some of you who lie awake at night wondering whether Leagalzoom’s offering of do it yourself lawyering products will be found to be the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) in North Carolina.

For those few of you, that uncertainty will continue.  At the end of last week, Judge Gale issued an opinion in Bergenstock v. Legalzoom.com, Inc., 2015 NCBC 49, dismissing a putative class action by Plaintiffs seeking to represent all North Carolina residents who purchased Legalzoom products or services.  The claims were for UPL, unjust enrichment, and violations of the North Carolina Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.  Op. ¶28.

The Judge dismissed the complaint, but he did not make a ruling as to Legalzoom’s business model, nor did he address the question whether its services constitute UPL.  The resolution of that issue will have to come in the still pending case brought by LegalZoom against the NC State Bar: LegalZoom.com, Inc. v. North Carolina State Bar.  See here for my last update on that case.

The reason for the dismissal in the Bergenstock case was the full faith and credit given to the settlement of a similar class action in 2012 in California (known as the Webster case).  Webster had sued Legalzoom on behalf of a nationwide class.

The Webster Settlement

The Webster settlement covered all claims:

asserted or that could have been asserted [in that case] arising out of the LegalZoom website, any materials available on or through the LegalZoom website . . . the unauthorized practice of law, or the purchase or use of documents prepared through LegalZoom.

Op. ¶17.

In consideration for the settlement, LegalZoom agreed to provide sixty days of free enrollment in its prepaid legal services Programs.  As Judge Gale described those Programs (known as the LegalZoom Legal Advantage Plus Program [for individuals] and the Business Advantage Pro Program [for businesses]), they involve:

services provided by licensed attorneys, including telephone consultations; review and written summary of legal documents; an annual legal checkup (which would be provided to Webster class members in the free sixty-day period), including a written summary and recommendations for legal documents and strategies; a ten percent discount on all LegalZoom products; access to the LegalZoom form library; electronic document storage; and a twenty-five percent discount on legal services not included under the Programs, but provided by a participating firm.

Op. ¶18.

The challenge presented by the Bergenstock putative class was that those Programs were not available in North Carolina.  (That is true, as the NC State Bar has refused to approve the Programs.  That refusal is the subject of litigation between the State Bar and LegalZoom.  Op. ¶20).  The Settlement dealt with members who did not live in states where those Programs were available by providing them with the lesser of (i) $75.00, or (ii) half of the current base price of the document that the class member had purchased from LegalZoom.  Op. ¶19.

The Bergenstock Plaintiffs said that they had not received due process in the Webster settlement because there was no counsel representing their interests and there was no named class representative who had interests in common with them.  They further argued that the California Court approving the settlement had not considered the adequacy of the alternative payment to the class members who did not have the LegalZoom payments available to them.  They asserted that the settlement was not entitled to full faith and credit as to them.

Full Faith And Credit To Class Action Settlements

The main road block faced by the Plaintiffs challenging the effect of the Webster settlement lies in a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that:

a judgment entered in a class action, like any other judgment entered in a state judicial proceeding, is presumptively entitled to full faith and credit.

Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Epstein, 516 U.S. 367, 374 (1996), under 28 U.S.C. § 1738 (2014).

The North Carolina appellate courts have accordingly held that courts should:

apply only a “very limited” scope of review when determining whether a foreign judgment is entitled to full faith and credit, with the inquiry limited to whether jurisdictional and due process considerations were “fully and fairly litigated and finally decided” by the court rendering judgment.

Op. Par. 32 (citing Boyles v. Boyles, 308 N.C. 488, 491, 302 S.E.2d 790, 793 (1983); Moody v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 191 N.C. App. 256, 275–76, 664 S.E.2d 569, 581–82 (2008).

If the out-of-state court found  jurisdiction and due process to have been "fully and fairly litigated" and they were finally decided, a "North Carolina court extends full faith and credit without further inquiry."  Op. ¶32.

The Bergenstock Plaintiffs argued that the California court had not specifically considered the adequacy of the settlement amount paid to persons living in states where LegalZoom’s programs were not offered and that they therefore had not been afforded due process.

Judge Gale refused to accept that argument, holding that:

the record does not allow for this parsing of the settlement consideration. The full settlement consideration, including the consideration provided to the Alternative Payment Plaintiffs, was before Judge Highberger [the California Judge approving the settlement] for his review. The Court cannot infer that Judge Highberger failed to consider the adequacy of representation of or the adequacy of consideration for the Alternative Payment Plaintiffs merely because he did not make express findings in that regard. He made findings that the overall settlement was fair and reasonable and that the Settlement Class had been adequately represented. The Court then must conclude that the issues Plaintiffs now seek to litigate in this Court were fully and fairly litigated and finally decided by Judge Highberger.

Op. ¶41.

I hadn’t written anything yet about the multiple shareholder actions challenging the merger of PokerTek — a developer and distributor of electronic table (gambling) games — with Multimedia Games — another developer and distributor of gambling technology.

The transaction was valued at $12.6 million, making it one of the lowest value mergers ever attacked in the Business Court.  But the transaction generated five cases filed last year, shortly after the announcement of the transaction, by six shareholders named Simmer, Weber, Dabord, Lobo, Stephens, and Sandler (Weber and Dabord paired up as co-plaintiffs in their case).

Each case asserted various claimed violations of fiduciary duty by the PokerTek board, and alleged that PokerTek had made inadequate disclosures in its description of the transaction.  PokerTek and Multimedia were alleged to have aided and abetted the directors’ claimed breaches of fiduciary duty.  The case was settled in July of 2014.  The settlement focused on the disclosure-based claims, and PokerTek made supplemental disclosures in a Form 8-K filing per the settlement.

PokerTek’s shareholders voted overwhelmingly (96% to 4%)  to approve the merger ten days after the supplemental disclosures were filed.

The Plaintiffs Had No Viable Claims, Except Perhaps Their Disclosure Claims

The decision of counsel for the class (which was certified by Judge Bledsoe in the Order and Final Judgment, 2015 NCBC 8), to settle the case for the additional disclosures was deemed by the Court to be "prudent and reasonable."  Order ¶42.  That was kind, and the Judge was equally kind in not saying outright that the other claims brought by the shareholders were likely to be losers.

Even so, he expressed serious uncertainty whether they had any chance of succeeding.  He said that "there is nothing in the record to suggest that Plaintiffs’ claims are strong enough to justify further litigation."  Order ¶38. 

He then ticked through the relatively valueless claims.  He said that if the Plaintiffs’ claims were deemed to be derivative, that the Plaintiffs "faced a significant standing hurdle in light of [their] failure to make statutory demand on PokerTek."  Order ¶39.  He also expressed doubt over whether the claims against PokerTek’s directors "could overcome the evidentiary presumption afforded by the business judgment rule."  Order Par. 40.  And to the extent that the Plaintiffs took a run at holding the corporate defendants liable on an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty theory, Judge Bledsoe said that those claims faced "substantial risk . . .  because it is unclear whether North Carolina recognizes this cause of action."  Order ¶41.  I’ve written at least a couple of times on this blog about the questionable viability of such a claim.  See here, and here.

When Are Disclosures "Material"?

So, the only claim with any value on which to base a settlement was the disclosure claims.  And all the preamble in this post leads up to whether Plaintiffs’ counsel were entitled to any fees for obtaining this settlement.

Well, were the disclosures obtained by the Plaintiffs "material" to the transaction?  The standard for this is that "a disclosed fact is material if there is a substantial likelihood that the disclosure of the omitted fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information made available."  Order ¶43.

Judge Bledsoe, relying on precedent from the Delaware Court of Chancery, found the supplemental disclosures to fall into "the sort of information that the Delaware Chancery Court has recognized may be material."  Order ¶44.  This included:

  • information necessary for discounted cash flow analyses;
  • comparative financial information, including enterprise value/EBITDA and enterprise/revenue multiples for companies selected as comparable by PokerTek’s financial advisor; and
  • information regarding PokerTek’s engagement of a financial advisor and of the business relationship between PokerTek, Multimedia, and the financial advisor.

Order ¶44.

Would this type of information be significant to a "reasonable investor"?  Well, you might have read about the recent hoopla surrounding Jonathan Gruber’s statements with regard to the Affordable Care Act, when he said that the ACA passed due to the "stupidity of the American voter."  I don’t think that the mythical "reasonable investor" is stupid, but I doubt that he or she cares very much about the matters that Judge Bledsoe referenced.  Of course, there is the possibility that the "reasonable investor" is an institutional investor which might attach more importance to matters like a discounted cash flow analysis and enterprise/revenue multiples.  But even so, the supplemental disclosure about the relationship between PokerTek, Multimedia, and the financial advisor which was obtained as a price of the settlement was that the financial advisor had never previously performed services for either company.

The Award Of Attorneys’ Fees

So, if you are with me on the lack of value of these disclosures, how much were Plaintiffs’ counsel entitled to for their arduous efforts in obtaining them?  The Court awarded $140,000 in fees and expenses, the amount which the Defendants agreed to pay in the settlement agreement.

How did the parties arrive at that figure?  Plaintiffs’ counsel collectively devoted about 500 hours to the case.  What did they do in that time?  They "retained an expert, reviewed and analyzed approximately 3,100 documents, prepared a motion for preliminary injunction with supporting briefs, and undertook confirmatory discovery after" entering into a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the settlement.  Order ¶57.

The hourly fee awarded counsel broke down to $226.83 per hour, which the Court found to be in line for rates for North Carolina counsel.  Judge Bledsoe noted that Plaintiffs’ counsel, several of whom were from major metropolitan centers, usually charged substantially more for similar work and were taking a sizeable haircut off their usual attorney rate of $553.26 per hour.

That really wasn’t a very rich recovery for the six law firms representing the Plaintiffs.  If the $140,000 is divided equally, that’s only about $23,000 per firm.  It seems hardly worth the effort.  An agreement reflecting the division of the fees among the law firms is buried in the filing for the fee award (the percentages range from 45% to 5%).  That makes the work even less lucrative.

This award of $140,000 is in line with — and actually a fair amount less than — other fee awards by the Business Court in disclosure-only class action settlements. See, e.g. In re Progress Energy S’holder Litig., 2011 NCBC 45 ($550,000); In re PPDI Litigation, 2012 NCBC 33 ($450,000); In re Harris Teeter Merger Litig., 2014 NCBC 44 ($325,000).

The glaring outlier in the history of these fee awards in the Business Court is the $1 million plus awarded by the Court in the litigation over the Wachovia/Wells Fargo merger litigation, which is now before the NC Court of Appeals.  Perhaps the COA will undertake the analysis of the materiality of the disclosures obtained by the Plaintiff in that case.  I’ve previously written about my dismal opinion of the quality of those disclosures, and my disappointment at the Court’s approval of a more than a million dollar fee.

I’m not the only one complaining about the fees obtained by the lawyers for the class plaintiffs in these merger related actions.  Judge Tennille, before he retired, wrote about what he condemned as "stinky fees."

Still, these types of lawsuits are certainly good for the legal economy and for the North Carolina lawyers called upon to defend them.

And there will be one more merger class action fee decision coming down this year from the Business Court in which there will undoubtedly be a large application for a fee award.  That’s the merger of R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard, in which a disclosure only settlement was recently announced.

If deal value is a factor in a fee award in a disclosure-only settlement, which it appears to be, then the Reynolds/Lorillard deal, valued at $25 billion, will spin off substantially larger fees than the PokerTek class actions (in which the deal was worth, by comparison, a paltry 12.5 million).

But should deal value be a factor?  Shouldn’t it be the value of the disclosures?

Three interesting discovery issues were resolved last week by Judge Bledsoe’s Order in Gay v. Peoples Bank.  First, can you obtain in discovery in a class action the fee arrangement between the plaintiff and his  lawyers?  Second, can you obtain (in any kind of case) a protective order against the deposition of your client’s top executives?  And third, can you refuse to respond to an interrogatory asking you to identify the witnesses you intend to call at trial?

The answers to those very questions are contained in the Order.

Discoverability Of Engagement Letters In Class Actions

Gay is a purported class action against Peoples Bank regarding overdraft charges.  Peoples asked Gay to produce "letters or other forms of agreement concerning the terms of [Plaintiff’s] representation by [his] lawyers in the case."  Order ¶2.

Gay responded that the engagement letter was privileged and not relevant to the subject matter of the litigation.

Judge Bledsoe observed that this was a case of first impression in North Carolina, stating that "[t]he North Carolina appellate courts do not appear to have addressed the production of an attorney fee agreement in a purported class action."  Order  ¶13.

But multiple federal courts have ruled on this issue and have generally held that fee agreements are not relevant to the issue of class certification.  See, e.g., Stanich v. Travelers Indem. Co., 259 F.R.D. 294, 322 (N.D. Ohio 2009)("Most courts . . . find [discovery of fee agreements] irrelevant to the issue of class certification, except perhaps to determine whether the named plaintiffs and class counsel have the resources to pursue the class action.").

Fee agreements can become relevant later in a case, however, if the class obtains a judgment or a settlement in its favor.  See, e.g., Porter v. NationsCredit Consumer Disc. Co., 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13641, *7 (E.D. Pa. 2004)(‘[f]ee agreements may be relevant . . . to the question of awarding attorney’s fees upon settlement or judgment.").

Judge Bledsoe said that he found the federal cases persuasive, and ruled that the fee arrangement between Gay and his counsel was not relevant to the subject matter of the case and therefore not subject to discovery.  He denied the Bank’s Motion to Compel without prejudice to its renewal at a later stage in the case.

But the Bank was successful at this point on a couple of separate issues: to prevent two of its top executives (its CFO and its Chief Administrative Officer) from being deposed, and to avoid having to respond to an interrogatory asking it to identify its witnesses for trial.

Protective Order Against Discovery Of Top Executives

The Bank said that five of its Officers had already been deposed and that further depositions of its C-level officers would be unduly burdensome, unnecessary and repetitive.

The Court gave a passing nod to something known as the "apex doctrine."  Judge Bledsoe wrote that:

[u]nder the apex doctrine, ‘before a plaintiff may depose a corporate defendant’s high ranking officer, the plaintiff must show how "(1) the executive has unique or special knowledge of the facts at issue and (2) other less burdensome avenues for obtaining the information sought have been exhausted."’

Order ¶18 & n.4 (quoting Smithfield Business Park, LLC v. SLR Int’l Corp., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16338, *6 (E.D.N.C. 2014)).

But the Judge didn’t go down the road of accepting the apex doctrine.  He accepted the Bank’s argument that the additional depositions of the chief officers were unnecessary and that they would disrupt the Defendant’s operations. He ordered that the depositions not be taken.

You Don’t Have To Identify Your Trial Witnesses Before Trial

The Court also dealt with the issue whether the Bank was obligated to identify the witnesses it would be calling at trial so that the Plaintiff could decide whether to depose them before the end of discovery.  Apparently the Plaintiff’s counsel raised this issue at a hearing, and had not served an interrogatory asking for this information. 

Judge Bledsoe observed that "[i]t is axiomatic that Defendant is not obligated to provide answers to interrogatories that Plaintiff has not yet served."  Order ¶23.

But even if an interrogatory requesting that information had been served, it would have been denied.  Judge Bledsoe stated that:

North Carolina law is clear that ‘a party is not entitled to find out, by discovery, which witnesses his opponent intends to call at the trial.’

Order ¶24 (quoting King v. Koucouliotes, 108 N.C. App. 751, 755, 425 S.E.2d 462, 464 (1993)).

The Bank is represented by Reid Phillips and Dan Smith of Brooks Pierce.

 

 

 

When I first looked at Judge Murphy’s (unpublished) Order in Ehrenhaus v. Baker earlier this month awarding attorneys’ fees to the class action attorneys who sued Wachovia and Wells Fargo over their merger in 2008,  I was disappointed, though the Judge was following a mandate from the Court of Appeals.

He awarded $1 million in fees and expenses ($1,056,067.57 to be exact) to the NY lawyers representing the class.  That ruling came following a decision from the NC Court of Appeals reversing a previous award of fees in that case (by Judge Diaz) and remanding the fee determination to the Business Court.

Judge Murphy had assessed that his "sole directive" on remand was "to determine whether Plaintiff’s attorney’s fee award request of $1.5 million is reasonable in light of Rule 1.5 of the RPPC."  (the Revised Rules of Professional Conduct).  Order ¶14.

The Lawyers Got Much Less Than They Had Requested

My disappointment stems from my perspective that the Ehrenhaus lawsuit achieved absolutely nothing of value for Wachovia’s shareholders, except for obtaining a more detailed proxy statement containing additional (and to me, pointless) disclosures about the merger transaction.  So why did the lawyers deserve anything at all, let alone a million dollars? 

But after shedding a few tears for the widows and orphans who were holding Wachovia stock and their undoubtable anger at a million dollars for lawyers who obtained nothing of value for them , I came to the conclusion that this was a pretty good shellacking of the lawyers for the class.   After all, they had asked for almost twice that amount ($1,975,000) to start with and had to wait for years to get paid (though there’s no telling whether they will have to wait longer as there might be another appeal of this fee award).

And in this most recent round, they had asked for $1.5 million, requesting that a "contingency multiplier" be applied to the fee generated by the hours (over 3,000 hours) they spent on the case at their hourly rate.  Judge Murphy rejected that request because there was no contingent fee agreement signed by the class representative.  RRPC 1.5(c) says that "[a] contingent fee agreement shall be in a writing signed by the client."  Given the mandatory nature of the Rule, Judge Murphy saw this as "a prerequisite in order to create an effective contingent fee agreement."  Order ¶29.  He ruled that "in the absence of a valid contingent fee agreement between Plaintiff and his attorneys, as required by Rule 1.5(c), any award using a contingency multiplier is unreasonable."  Order ¶30.

If you are wondering about the hourly rates proposed to the Business Court by class counsel, they had previously asked Judge Diaz  for a $750/hour rate, which he had said in 2010 was "far in excess of those normally charged by attorneys in North Carolina."  In their new application for fees, class counsel backed down to a maximum hourly rate of $450, which Judge Murphy ruled "was not excessive when compared with the hourly rates of attorneys engaged in complex business litigation in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina."  Order ¶22.

Oh, and there was very bad news in this Order for Mr. Ehrenhaus’ local counsel.  The Court awarded not a dollar to him even though there was a valid fee sharing agreement between him and Ehrenhaus’ out of state counsel.  The agreement specified that local counsel would receive five percent of the total fee, but local counsel offered no evidence of the time expended or his hourly rate so the Court could not determine whether the five percent (which would have been more than $50,000) was reasonable.

If you are despondent over the lack of recovery by the North Carolina counsel, Judge Murphy seemed willing to consider the submission of further evidence on the services rendered by him. Order ¶38.

"Disclosure Only" Settlements Should Be Closely Examined For Their Value

Turning back to the reasonableness of the Ehrenhaus fee, there has been quite a bit of judicial discussion recently  about the fees appropriate in "disclosure only" settlements.  In the case of Kazman v. Frontier Airlines, 398 S.W.2d 377 (Texas App. 2013), the Texas Court of Appeals refused to award any attorneys’ fees where the only relief for the plaintiff was additional disclosures in SEC filings.

Delaware courts have ruled that they should scrutinize these types of settlements.  The Judges there have taken to asking the attorneys requesting fees in disclosure only settlements to identify which of the disclosures obtained are the most material and thereby evaluating their value.  (See In re PAETEC Holding Corp. Shareholders Litigation (letter opinion).

What would Ehrenhaus’ lawyers say about the value of the additional disclosures that they obtained?  What could they have said?  If you want to make that evaluation yourself, you can find the "enhanced" disclosures here.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on the minimal value of this lawsuit for Wachovia’s shareholders.  The class did obtain the invalidation of the 18 month "tail" in the merger agreement between Wachovia and Wells Fargo.  That gave Wells Fargo the right to keep its 40% voting interest in Wachovia’s stock for 18 months if the shareholders voted against the merger.

But really, what other entity was likely to be deterred from making a better bid for Wachovia as a result of the tail?  Remember that Wachovia was literally hours away from a receivership when Wells Fargo made its offer.  And Judge Diaz ruled in his 2008 opinion that "the sobering reality is that there are few (if any) entities in a position to make a credible bid for Wachovia that would be superior to the Merger Agreement."  2008 NCBC 20 at ¶151.

So was a $1 million fee warranted?  I don’t know, but In the old days of the Business Court, Judge Tennille might have condemned these fees as "stinky fees."

Don’t get me wrong on my feelings about fees paid to class action counsel.  Sometimes they are well-earned.  For example, just  the other day, Amazon.com notified me that I was getting $13.00 or so in the settlement of the price-fixing class action against it over the pricing of e-books.  (though my Dad pointed out that he only got $3.00)  But what was the award for fees and expenses for the lawyers for the class in that case?  More than $11 million.  I have no problem with that.  They can buy a lot of books.  And they deserve them.

As for the prospects of an appeal of this fee award, that is unlikely to be warmly welcomed by the Court of Appeals.  The Fourth Circuit said yesterday, in a completely unrelated case, that:

[A]ppeals from awards of attorneys fees, after the merits of a case have been concluded,. . .must be one of the least socially productive types of litigation imaginable.

Best Medical Int’l, Inc.  v. Eckert & Ziegler Nuclitec GMBH at 10 (quoting Daly v. Hill, 790 F.2d 1071, 1079 n.10 (4th Cir. 1986).
 

 

Last week’s Order in Gusinsky v. Flanders Corp., 2013 NCBC 46, should be required reading for lawyers thinking of suing the directors of a corporation in North Carolina over a merger transaction.  It provides guidance on the duties of directors in those transactions, whether the claims are derivative or direct, and lays down some heightened pleading requirements for some of those types of claims. 

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to have never heard of Flanders Corporation.  Flanders, based in Washington, NC, says it is the largest United States manufacturer of air filters.  It was publicly traded until its shareholders approved a sale of the company via a merger in May 2012.

That approval by the shareholders came nearly a year and a half ago, but it was only last week that the NC Business Court dismissed a shareholder class action challenging the merger.  In its Order, the Court dismissed the  claims by the Plaintiff (a trust) for breach of fiduciary duty and for aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty.

One claim of breach of fiduciary duty was an alleged failure to "maximize shareholder value" in the sale of the company, which Plaintiff claimed was a duty owed by the directors of Flanders to all shareholders.  The other was an alleged failure to disclose information material to the deal.

There Is Rarely A Fiduciary Duty Owed Directly From A Corporation’s Directors To Its Shareholders

In dismissing the claim, the Business Court underscored the principle that directors virtually never owe a fiduciary duty directly to shareholders.  The duty is owed to the corporation, not shareholders. Those claims therefore must be made derivatively, unless the circumstances of the "Barger rule" are met. (I’ve written about the Barger rule before).

It seems so obvious that this type of claim is derivative that you might be wondering how this class action plaintiff even argued its position.  All it made was a couple of pretty anemic arguments which Judge Jolly shot down.

One was that the General Statutes contemplate fiduciary duties owed directly to shareholders.  Plaintiff said that G.S. Section 55-8-30, which delineates the duties of directors, contains only one reference to a duty to the corporation and that the other duties prescribed therefore must be owed directly to shareholders.

That’s so wrong.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals held last year that:

The drafters [of the Business Corporation Act] recognized that directors have a duty to act for the benefit of all shareholders of the corporation, but they intended to avoid stating a duty owed directly by the directors to the shareholders that might be construed to give shareholders a direct right of action on claims that should be asserted derivatively.

Estate of Browne v. Thompson. __ N.C. App. __, 727 S.E.2d 573, 576 (2012)(quoting Russell M. Robinson, II, Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law § 14.01[2] (7th ed.) (citing Official Commentary, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 55-8-30 (1989)).

The Plaintiff also failed in its argument that it met the requirements of the "Barger rule." Plaintiff struck out on that score because the Flanders directors owed no duty to the class Plaintiff that was personal to the Plaintiff.  The cases that the Plaintiff relied on were cases involving closely held corporations controlled by a majority shareholder.  Judge Jolly found them not to be apposite.

Judge Jolly also ruled that a claim alleging inadequate consideration in a merger transaction was a harm to the corporation itsself, not to shareholders individually.  He said that:

[t]his is so because a claim for inadequate consideration is, functionally, a claim for the diminution of the value of shares held by all Flanders shareholdrs.  Without more, the ‘lost value’ of all shares of Flanders’ stock does not describe an injury peculiar and personal to Plaintiffs.

Op. Par. 32.

You can probably guess the rest of this story.  If you can’t, remember that derivative claims require the prospective Plaintiff to make a demand on the corporation to pursue the claim before being allowed to file a complaint.  This Plaintiff made no demand.  As the Court observed, "A plaintiff’s failure to fulfill the statuory requirements for bringing a shareholder derivative action [is an] . . insurmountable bar [to recovery]." (quoting Allen v. Ferrera, 141 N.C. App. 284, 287, 546 S.E.2d 761, 764 (2000)).

So the first claim for breach of fiduciary duty for "failure to maxinize shareholder value" was dismissed.

 

 

Continue Reading Don’t Sue A North Carolina Board Of Directors Over A Merger Without Reading This Case

Maybe one day North Carolina will be the center of the business litigation universe, but for now the center of that universe remains in  Delaware.  

The Order last week in Justewicz v. Sealy Corp., 2012 NCBC 57 — in which the Business Court stayed a North Carolina class action in favor of parallel Delaware class actions — illustrates that.

The Justewicz case challenges the validity of the sale of Sealy (the mattress company) to Tempur-Pedic, asserting that the sale is overly preferential to Tempur-Pedic and tp Sealy’s board members.  Five similar class actions were filed in Delaware, one before the Justewicz case and the other four shortly thereafter.

The defendants in Justewicz moved to stay the case per N.C. Gen. Stat. §1-75.12, which says that: 

If, in any action pending in any court of this State, the judge shall find that it would work substantial injustice for the action to be tried in a court of this State, the judge on motion of any party may enter an order to stay further proceedings in the action in this State. A moving party under this subsection must stipulate his consent to suit in another jurisdiction found by the judge to provide a convenient, reasonable and fair place of trial.

G.S. §1-75.12(a).

In deciding to stay the North Carolina case, Judge Gale looked to several of the twelve factors identified by Judge Tennille in a 2007 decision, Levy Investors v. James River Group, Inc. (unpublished).

He ruled that the case presented an unsettled issue of Delaware law: whether a party could obtain a pre-closing injunction of a consent merger based on a defective process claim, and that this issue was better decided by a Delaware court.  

Also supporting the ruling was a finding that Delaware was at least as convenient a forum with an "equal or greater nexus to the controversy."  That was so even though Sealy is headquartered in North Carolina.  Judge Gale held that "[w]hile North Carolina does have an interest in the takeover of a business located in North Carolina, Delaware also has an interest in a corporation incorporated there and in the application of Delaware law."  Op. ¶34.

Judge Gale also found significant that the Defendants said that they would not protest Justewicz’s right to participate in the Delaware cases, and that the Justewicz case had not advanced further than the Delaware cases.

Next, he noted that Delaware has a procedural mechanism allowing for direct review by the Delaware Supreme Court  He said that this "expedited appeal process could be useful."  If you aren’t familiar with that expedited process (I wasn’t), it is contained in Rule 25 of the Delaware Supreme Court Rules.

Substantial Injustice.  And finally, Judge Gale held that:

 requiring Defendants to defend essentially the same lawsuit in two different states will work a substantial injustice on Defendants and unnecessarily raises the possibility of inconsistent decisions.

Op. Par. 48.

You probably remember the earlier opinion in Elliott v. KB Home, Inc., in which Judge Jolly certified a class action against the homebuilder KB Home over the improper installation of HardiePlank siding.

Last week, the Business Court ruled in another opinion in the case (2012 NCBC 55) that KB Home had waived its right to seek arbitration of those claims.  The waiver resulted from KB Homes’  delay in asserting its arbitration rights and the expense incurred by the Plaintiffs in litigating in court.

The standard for waiver was set out by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Servomation Corp. v. Hickory Constr. Co., 316 N.C. 543, 544 (1986).  Waiver of the right to compel arbitration occurs when the party with the arbitration right "acts inconsistently with arbitration, and the party opposing arbitration can show it has been prejudiced as a result."  Op. 35.

As for prejudice, that results: 

if [the plaintiff] [a] is forced to bear the expense of a long trial, [b] it loses helpful evidence, [c] it takes steps in litigation to its detriment or expends significant amounts of money on the litigation, or [d] its opponent makes use of judicial discovery procedures not available in arbitration.

Op. 35 (quoting Servomation Corp., supra, at 544).

The Plaintiffs in the KB Homes case had incurred fees and expenses of approximately $100,000 in litigating their claim by participating in four hearings and taking twenty depositions.  Judge Jolly said that:

KB Home’s delayed attempt to enforce the arbitration provisions only after Plaintiffs have expended material amounts of time and resources in pursuing their Claims would be prejudicial to Plaintiffs.  Such time and resources were expended after KB Home’s right to arbitrate accrued and could have been avoided through an earlier demand for arbitration. KB Home could have demanded arbitration as early as 2008, well before the named Plaintiffs actively litigated the Claims. Permitting KB Home to enforce its arbitration rights now would be inconsistent with the principles of waiver outlined in Servomation.

Op. 39.

The interesting issue from a class action perspective was whether the waiver of the right to arbitration ran to the unnamed class members.  KB Homes said that it couldn’t have asserted its arbitration rights against the unnamed class members until the class was certified and that it hadn’t delayed in moving to compel arbitration as to them.  

Judge Jolly rejected that argument, saying that it reeked of "gamesmanship."  Op. 41 & n.37.  He ruled that  ruling otherwise would give the Defendant a "second bite at the apple" chance to relitigate the class certification decision with the unnamed plaintiffs.  He relied on an unpublished decision on the point, Kingsbury v. U.S. Greenfiber, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94854 (C.D. Cal. 2012).  In Kingsbury, the court stated:

[T]o accept [defendant’s arguments and compel arbitration] would be to condone gamesmanship in the class certification process. A defendant could wait in the weeds and delay asserting its arbitration rights. It could file motions to dismiss, litigate the named plaintiff’s legal theories, and oppose class certification motions. If and when a class is finally certified, the defendant could simply assert its arbitration rights and defeat certification of the previously-certified class. In the interests of the fair and efficient administration of justice, the Court cannot accept [defendant’s] position.

The Business Court adopted the Kingsbury holding "for the same considerations of fairness and the efficient administration of justice."  Op. 41 & n.37.

This isn’t the first time that the Business Court has considered a waiver of arbitration issue. Judge Tennille did so ten years ago, in  Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. v. Gulf Insurance Co., 2001 NCBC 3 (N.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 31, 2001) and found that a party had not waived its right to arbitration by pursuing discovery in the court proceeding.

 

 If you think that tailors have nothing to do with class actions, you are wrong.  Judge Jolly denied a motion for class certification last week because the proposed class was not "tailored" as was "practicable under the circumstances." Op.  ¶37 & n.34    The case is Lee v. Coastal Agrobusiness, Inc., 2012 NCBC 49.

Here’s the story: Plaintiffs bought an inoculant called N-TAKE from the Defendant to use on their peanut crop.  Instead of enhancing their crop of peanuts, the N-TAKE application resulted in the loss of Plaintiffs’ entire peanut crop.  Twenty of the 87 other purchasers of N-TAKE had similar problems and settled their claims with the Defendant.  Plaintiffs didn’t settle and sought to represent a class of the remaining 67 purchasers of N-TAKE.  

Plaintiffs alleged that all the other N-TAKE purchasers had suffered similar harm to their peanut  crops,  and were therefore proper members of the proposed class.  But Judge Jolly was not willing to accept that assertion without "at least some demonstration of a causal connection between the purchase and use of N-TAKE by proposed class members and some harm suffered by them as a result."  Op.  36.  He said there was no evidence in the record of losses to the proposed class members.

What led in part to this ruling was the advanced stage of the case.  It was well past the pleadings, and there had been substantial discovery and therefore an opportunity to contact the members of the [proposed class and to confirm their actual losses.  Judge Jolly held:

Our courts have made a distinction between a plaintiff’s burden of demonstrating the existence of a class at the pleading stage and the same burden following discovery and a hearing on class certification.  [Crow v. Citicorp Acceptance Co., 319 N.C. 274, 282, 354 S.E.2d 459, 465 (1987)]  Where, as here, there have been ample opportunities  for discovery and a hearing on class certification, Plaintiffs must establish, to the satisfaction of this court, "the actual existence of a class, the existence of other for prerequisites to utilizing the class action procedure, and the propriety of their proceeding on behalf of the class." Id. (emphasis added). At the current stage of these proceedings it is insufficient for Plaintiffs merely to allege the existence of a class. Id. Instead, Plaintiffs must demonstrate the actual existence of a class. Id.

Op.  32 (emphasis in original).

He remarked (in 34) that plaintiffs’ counsel had not done anything to contact the potential class members, although the names of all the N-TAKE purchasers had been disclosed by the defendants during discovery.

Further daunting the request for class certification was the Court’s perspective that it would "be required to conduct sixty-seven separate trials in order to reach an appropriate damages award as to the class plaintiffs."  Op.  42.

So where does this "tailoring" business come from?  The NC Court of Appeals said in Blitz v. Agean,, Inc., 197 N.C. App. 296, 311, 677 S.E.2d 1 (2009) that a class plaintiff has the burden to "show that he has, through thorough discovery and investigation, presented the trial court with as tailored a proposed class as practicable."  Op.  37 & n.34.

 

 

It’s about junk faxes and class certification again (and even again) in the Business Court.  Wednesday’s decision in Blitz v. Agean, Inc., 2012 NCBC 20 marks the third time the Court has refused to certify a class action under the Federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act.  (The TCPA, 42 U.S.C. §227, prohibits the transmission of "unsolicited advertisements" to fax machines)

The same Agean case had already been the subject of a dismissal by Judge Diaz, five years ago, but which was reversed by the Court of Appeals in a 2009 decision.  Judge Diaz had hung up on  another putative TCPA class action by Mr. Blitz in Blitz v. Xpress Image, Inc., 2006 NCBC 10.  That one wasn’t appealed.

So why couldn’t the Plaintiff in Agean connect, even after the COA ruling?  Judge Murphy said that even if a common question predominates in a class action, that this isn’t the end of the analysis.  He held "a common question is not enough when the answer may vary with each class member and is determinative of whether the member is properly part of the class."  (quoting Carnett’s, Inc. v. Hammond, 610 S.E.2d 529, 532 (Ga. 2005).

It was getting the answer to the question of whether each of the proposed class members had received unsolicited faxes was the problem.  Blitz said the class members were all persons whose fax numbers were on a list purchased by the Defendants, but some of those on the list had requested that the Defendants send them faxes.  So those persons weren’t entitled to be class members.

Judge Murphy said that the Court’s time, at trial, would be consumed with determining whether those included in the proposed class definition were entitled to be members of the class.  Judge Murphy said that "[t]his would have the Court conducting individual inquiries into each [fax] number and result in the type of mini-trials that class actions are designed to avoid." Op. ¶36.

But that wasn’t the only flaw in Plaintiff’s case seen by Judge Murphy.  He was concerned that the class action was being used by Blitz as "inappropriate leverage" to settle his own claims, which were worth only about $2500 (the statute authorizes $500 in damages for each unsolicited fax).  Judge Murphy quoted an early Judge Tennille opinion, Lupton v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield, 1999 NCBC 3, for the proposition that:

Class actions can involve amounts that threaten to cripple or bankrupt the defendant. This creates a potential for abuse that is readily apparent: the use of the class action complaint to put greater financial pressure on defendants to settle with the individual plaintiff.

Id. ¶10.

Judge Murphy, sensing that type of financial pressure at work, said that in his discretion certification "would be unjust on equitable grounds."  Op. ¶39.

Sometimes it takes longer to find the picture for the post than it takes to write the post. Today was one of those days.   I scoured the Internet for a picture of Yogi Berra sending a fax, which would have been ideal, but there are none to be found.  But I was surprised to find that Yogi can be faxed at his family company, LTD Enterprises (the number is 973-655-6788).  So with Yogi’s unavailability,  a dinosaur is what you get.  That’s what the fax machine has become.  There also were no pictures available of dinosaurs sending faxes (come on, look at those little hands on the tyrannosaurus!) and not even a fax number for a dinosaur.