If ever there was a corporate board that should have been worried about breach-of-duty accusations, it was the directors of Countrywide in 2007 and 2008, after the collapsing real estate market exposed fatal flaws in the mortgage lender’s business model. Shareholder lawyers, always quick to sense opportunity in corporate scandal, began to file derivative suits accusing Countrywide directors of countenancing fraud in the fall of 2007. By May 2008, the cases had been consolidated in federal court in Los Angeles, and lead counsel at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann and Grant & Eisenhofer had successfully countered most of the defendants’ dismissal arguments. At that point, it appeared that the Countrywide case could turn out to be a true rarity: a derivative suit that actually generated money damages.
Then Bank of America rode in and bought Countrywide for $2.5 billion. Regardless of what you think of that acquisition, which has been dubbed the worst banking deal of all time, the merger offered at least one very distinct benefit for Countrywide board members. Because the deal was structured as a stock-for-stock transaction, the Countrywide shareholders who had brought derivative breach-of-duty claims against the board, and had survived a motion to dismiss most of those claims, no longer held Countrywide stock. That meant they no longer had standing to assert their case on behalf of Countrywide. After the merger was completed in July 2008, Bank of America, not the former Countrywide shareholders, owned claims against Countrywide board members — and BofA certainly wasn’t going to assert them, since the merger agreement specifically indemnified the board.
The merger, in other words, seemed to spell the end of the derivative suit. In December 2008, U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer of Los Angeles said as much when she dismissed the case. The judge quoted from the Delaware Supreme Court’s 1984 ruling in Lewis v. Anderson: “It is well established that a merger which eliminates a derivative plaintiff’s ownership of shares of the corporation for whose benefit she has sued terminates her standing to pursue those derivative claims.” Lewis included an exception for cases in which the entire merger is a fraud engineered to protect the board, but Pfaelzer said the fraud exception doesn’t encompass the BofA deal, in which the directors’ escape from liability was the side effect of a legitimate merger.
Or does it? On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals breathed life into the former Countrywide shareholders’ derivative claims, with an order asking the Delaware Supreme Court to clarify the scope of the fraud exception. The 9th Circuit order frames the question legalistically, but it comes down to this: If shareholders plausibly allege that the board’s fraud made the company vulnerable to an acquisition at fire-sale prices, can they maintain derivative claims?
The Delaware Supreme Court’s answer could have consequences way beyond the Countrywide case. Countrywide, after all, is hardly the only company to end up in an acquirer’s hands after a corporate scandal depresses its share price. (Think of Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual and Massey Energy, for instance.) If the Delaware Supreme Court holds that in order to proceed with derivative claims, it’s enough for shareholders to assert that the board’s wrongful conduct led directly to the acquisition, we could see a spike in significant derivative cases.