When a derivative lawsuit is brought on behalf of a company, the derivative plaintiff will often times attempt to argue that demand upon the board would be “futile” in order to excuse the demand requirement under Delaware Court of Chancery Rule 23.1.  The reason is that when a demand is in fact made upon the board, the propriety of the board’s refusal of the demand is governed by the “business judgment rule” — which is very unfavorable to the demanding shareholder, and generally leads to the dismissal of the claim.

In order to properly plead demand futility, a derivative plaintiff must allege with particularity that the board members are not disinterested in the subject matter of the demand.  This is almost certainly the case when the demand would ask directors to sue themselves. In order to allege demand futility, a stockholder must meet the heightened pleading standards under Delaware Court of Chancery Rule 23.1.

One way in which to assert that demand is excused is under the progeny of either Aronson or Rales, by asserting that a majority of the Board faces a substantial likelihood of liability for breaching the duty of loyalty by causing the company to violate law. This issue was addressed recently in the Delaware Court of Chancery decision of Wilkin v. Narachi, C.A. No. 12412-VCMR (Del. Ch. Feb. 28, 2018).  There, Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves wrote that: “[B]ecause sophisticated and well-advised individuals do not customarily confess knowing violations of law, a plaintiff following this route effectively must plead facts and circumstances sufficient for a court to infer that the directors knowingly violated positive law.”  (Slip. op. at 27).

Wilkin addressed whether failure to follow not the law, but “best practices”, resulted in demand excusal in a derivative suit.  There, Plaintiff argued that demand should be excused because seven of the eight directors on the board knowingly and/or intentionally caused the Company to violate regulations and breach its confidentiality obligations. In rejecting Plaintiff’s demand futility argument, Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves stated:

A review of Plaintiff’s allegations shows the main deficiency in the entirety of Plaintiff’s demand futility analysis. Plaintiff attempts to plead knowing and intentional violations of the law without any violation of the law. Instead, Plaintiff paints a picture of directors who, at worst, failed to follow best practices. But, a failure to follow best practices does not create a substantial likelihood of liability.

Accordingly, the Court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s derivative complaint.

Carl D. Neff is a lawyer 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.