In combination with the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 129 A.3d 884 (Del. Ch. 2016), Judge Posner’s blistering opinion In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation, 2016 WL 4207962 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2016), may well close the door on disclosure-only settlements in shareholder challenges to mergers. That certainly feels just. And it may well go a long way toward discouraging meritless merger litigation. But, as I’ve cautioned, I am concerned that we will regret it. Lost in the cheering over Trulia and Walgreen is a simple and practical reality: the availability of disclosure-only settlements is in the interests of merging companies as much as it is in the interests of shareholder plaintiffs’ lawyers, because disclosure-only settlements are often the most timely and efficient way to resolve shareholder challenges to mergers, even legitimate ones.
I am offended by meritless merger litigation, and have long advocated reforms to fix the system that not only allows it, but encourages and incentivizes it. Certainly, strict scrutiny of disclosure-only settlements will reduce the number of merger claims—it already has. Let’s say shareholder challenges mergers are permanently reduced from 90% to 60% of transactions. That would be great. But how do we then resolve the cases that remain? Unfortunately, there aren’t efficient and generally agreeable alternatives to disclosure-only settlements to dispose of a merger lawsuit before the closing of the challenged transaction. Of course, the parties can increase the merger price, though that is a difficult proposition. The parties can also adjust other deal terms, but few merger partners want to alter the deal unless and until the alteration doesn’t actually matter, and settlements based on meaningless deal-structure changes won’t fare better with courts than meaningless disclosure-only settlements.
If the disclosure-only door to resolving merger cases is shut, then more cases will need to be litigated post-close. That will make settlement more expensive. Plaintiffs lawyers are not going to start to settle for less money, especially when they are forced to litigate for longer and invest more in their cases. And in contrast to adjustments to the merger transaction or disclosures, in which 100% of the cash goes to lawyers for the “benefit” they provided, settlements based on the payment of cash to the class of plaintiffs require a much larger sum to yield the same amount of money to the plaintiffs’ lawyers. For example, a $500,000 fee payment to plaintiffs’ under a disclosure-only settlement would require around $2 million in a settlement payment to the class to yield the same fee for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, assuming a 25% contingent-fee award.
The increase in the cash outlay required for companies and their insurers to deal with post-close merger litigation will actually be much higher than my example indicates. Plaintiffs’ lawyers will spend more time on each case, and demand a higher settlement amount to yield a higher plaintiffs’ fee. Defense costs will skyrocket. And discovery in post-close cases will inevitably unearth problems that the disclosure-only settlement landscape camouflaged, significantly increasing the severity of many cases. It is not hard to imagine that merger cases that could have settled for disclosures and a six-figure plaintiffs’ fee will often become an eight-figure mess. And, beyond these unfortunate economic consequences, the inability to resolve merger litigation quickly and efficiently will increase the burden upon directors and officers by requiring continued service to companies they have sold, as they are forced to produce documents, sit for depositions, and consult with their defense lawyers, while the merger case careens toward trial.
Again, it’s hard to disagree with the logic and sentiment of these decisions, and the result may very well be more just. But this justice will come with a high practical price tag.