The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reported today that Philadelphia-based (but Delaware-incorporated) biotechnology company Hemispherx BioPharm Inc. has injected itself into the middle of a growing dispute over attorneys’ fees in shareholder class action lawsuits. (A hat-tip to the Institute for Legal Reform, whose must-read daily email referenced the WSJ Law Blog piece) Prompted by a May 14 Delaware Supreme Court decision, ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund, et al., Hemispherx earlier this month adopted a provision in its corporate bylaws that shareholder plaintiffs must pay the company’s legal fees if Hemispherx prevails in a shareholder-initiated lawsuit. The provision applies retroactively to pending suits, and lawyers for shareholders in a class action against Hemispherx have asked the Delaware Chancery Court to invalidate the bylaws.
A July 11 Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder, Is Delaware High Court Ruling an Ace for Merging Companies Served with Shareholder Suits?, discussed the ATP Tour decision and assessed how it could be applied to deter frivolous shareholder class actions. Authored by Snell & Wilmer LLP attorneys Greg Brower and Casey Perkins, the paper explains that ATP Tour involved not a public company, but a private membership corporation which included in its bylaws a fee-shifting provision. The Delaware Supreme Court, answering a question certified to it by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, held that the fee-shifting provision was a matter of private contract, and nothing in the state’s corporate law prohibited its inclusion in ATP’s bylaws.
The authors went on to examine whether Delaware statutory or common law would permit public companies to include such a fee-shifting mechanism in their bylaws. They found that a recent Delaware Chancery Court case, Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund, et al. v. Chevron Corporation, et al., strongly supported the legality of fee-shifting through bylaws. Brower and Perkins concluded:
Chevron and ATP Tour together make it clear that Delaware law is intended to give broad leeway to corporations, private and public, to adopt bylaws not otherwise prohibited by law, and that duly adopted bylaws are presumed to be part of the contract between the company and the member or shareholder. This means that publicly-traded companies and their shareholders ought to be able to freely contract for the details of their relationship, including details such as where disputes between them will be litigated, and whether the losing party in such litigation should have to pay the legal fees of the prevailing party. Such contracts are part of the fundamental structure of the corporate law of Delaware—or, it seems, of any other state for that matter.
Given the financial implications for the securities fraud class action bar and the promise such provisions hold for public companies, the Hemispherx case is likely just the first skirmish in what will be a drawn-out, intense battle over fee-shifting through corporate bylaws.