After Corwin: Down the Controlling Shareholder Rabbit Hole
As Delaware has developed its doctrine with respect to controlling shareholders, its view of their relationship to directors has evolved. This evolution has produced some pronounced inconsistencies with respect to the weight placed on director approval of controlling shareholder action. The recent Delaware Supreme Court decisions in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, Kahn v. M & F Worldwide Corp., and C & J Energy Services, Inc. v. City of Miami General Employees’ and Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust introduced further uncertainty into the mix by making the determination as to whether a transaction involves a controlling shareholder practically outcome-determinative of many shareholder disputes. If a controlling shareholder is present, there is the potential for close court examination to ensure fairness to the minority; if not, any shareholder challenge is likely to be dismissed without even the chance for discovery.
Yet even as the presence or absence of a controlling shareholder takes on heightened importance, changes in the business landscape have made controllers more difficult to identify. More companies are adopting multiclass capital structures both in public and private markets, and the popularity of management buyouts means that shareholders with significant stakes, ties to directors, and informational advantages are often placed across the bargaining table from companies themselves. The upshot is that courts are called upon to make early, critical judgments regarding levels of control in an increasingly complex corporate ecosystem.
This Essay, prepared for the Institute for Law & Economic Policy’s 25th Annual Symposium, maps the points of doctrinal divergence and proposes changes to the law that better align the concerns posed by controlling shareholders with the law’s treatment of them. In particular, this Essay argues that courts do not pay sufficient attention to the most salient fact about controlling shareholders: their immunity to the ordinary mechanisms of market discipline. To ensure that the presence of a controller is accurately identified and the appropriate level of scrutiny applied to its self-interested transactions, courts should focus not merely on the putative controller’s influence over the board, but on the mechanisms of self-help realistically available to the unaffiliated shareholders.
Ann M. Lipton