The implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was recently addressed by Vice Chancellor Glasscock in the decision of Miller v. HCP & Co., C.A. No. 2017-0291-SG (Del. Ch. Feb. 1, 2018).  The implied covenant applies only when one party “proves that the other party has acted arbitrarily or unreasonably, thereby frustrating the fruits of the bargain that the asserting party reasonably expected.  (Slip op., at 22.)

In this decision, a minority member of an LLC alleged that the controller breached the implied covenant in an LLC operating agreement by selling the company for $43 million to a third party in a private sale, as opposed to conducting an open-market sale or auction to ensure maximum value for members under the operating agreement’s waterfall.  The waterfall provided the controller with the majority of the first $30 million before sale proceeds would be provided to holders of other classes of membership units. The operating agreement also gave the majority-controlled board sole discretion as to the manner of any sale to an unaffiliated third party, waived all fiduciary duties owed by the managers, and required that each member consent to such board-approved sale.

Plaintiffs argued that defendants breached the implied covenant and “pushed through a below-market sale” that “allowed them to achieve a quick exit and a 200% return on their capital investment” but left the plaintiffs and other investors “with little to nothing.”

Vice Chancellor Glasscock disagreed.  The Court held that the operating agreement was not silent as to how the company could be marketed and sold. Taking note of the parties’ waiver of fiduciary duties, the Court found that the operating agreement vested the board with sole discretion as to the type and manner of the sale process subject only to the condition that the LLC be sold to an independent third party. “[I]f the scope of the discretion is specified, there is no gap in the contract as to the scope of the discretion, and there is no reason for the court to look to the implied covenant to determine how the discretion should be exercised.”

Here, the operating agreement only required that sales be made to unaffiliated third parties. Had the plaintiffs “wanted protection from self-interested conduct by the Defendants, they could easily have drafted language requiring the Board to implement a sales process designed to achieve the highest value reasonably available for all of [the LLC’s] members.”

Key Takeaway:

This decision demonstrates the difficulty in asserting a claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, a doctrine that is “rarely invoked successfully.”  (Slip op. at 22.)  Parties to a contract in which fiduciary duties are waived should ensure that all reasonable safeguards are contained in the contract itself, rather than assuming that they will be protected through the implied covenant.

Carl D. Neff is a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP.  Carl is admitted in the State of Delaware and regularly practices before the Delaware Court of Chancery, with an emphasis on shareholder disputes. You can reach Carl at (302) 622-4272 or at cneff@foxrothschild.com.