The Delaware Court of Chancery rejected a lawsuit by a Walt Disney Company stockholder to compel inspection of Disney’s books and records relating to the company’s opposition to Florida’s “don’t say gay” law – a stance that allegedly caused the Governor and legislature to retaliate against Disney. The decision in Simeone v. The Walt Disney Company (Del. Ch. June 27, 2023) holds that inspection of corporate books and records is not available under Delaware law unless the requesting stockholder – not his or her attorneys, who might have their own agenda – has stated a proper purpose for making such a demand. It also emphasizes the role that a corporation’s board of directors must play in making business decisions about controversial social and political issues. In addition, the ruling confirms that a board may exercise its business judgment to consider the interests of “corporate stakeholders” – such as “the workforce that drives a company’s profits” – when making decisions related to building the enterprise’s long-term value.
The Delaware Supreme Court held yesterday that a stockholder seeking to inspect corporate books and records may use “reliable” hearsay to establish the propriety of the purpose of the inspection demand. The decision in NVIDIA Corp. v. City of Westland Police and Fire Retirement System (July 19, 2022) does not appear to break new ground on this issue, inasmuch as the Court concluded that it “appeared” to have allowed the use of sufficiently reliable hearsay in a 26-year-old decision, which neither party here asked the Court to revisit or overrule.
While we are growing accustomed to pandemic-based shareholder actions relating to improper health and safety disclosures or misrepresentations relating to COVID-19 treatments and tests, this month brings a novel variant of the COVID-19 lawsuit. A Universal Health Services Inc. investor has filed a derivative suit against company officers and directors, claiming they took advantage of a pandemic-related drop in the company’s stock price to grant and receive certain stock options that were unfair to the company and its stockholders. The plaintiff investor claims that “company insiders took advantage of the temporary drop in the company’s stock price to grant and receive options to buy the company’s stock at rock bottom prices, thereby showering themselves in excessive compensation.” The complaint alleges that the drop in stock price was “not caused by any changes in the company’s fundamentals or business prospects,” but instead was entirely attributable to the effect of the pandemic on the markets writ large.
The spate of shareholder actions against biotech companies relating to COVID-19 treatments shows no signs of stopping, and now, derivative lawsuits are following the initial wave of securities class actions. For example, late last week, a shareholder of CytoDyn, Inc., brought a derivative action against certain officers and directors of the company. CytoDyn is a biotechnology company that has focused on the development and commercialization for a drug called “Leronlimab,” what was promoted as a potential therapy for HIV. According to the complaint, in 2020, CytoDyn began promoting Leronlimab as a treatment for COVID-19, causing its stock price to rise. But when it came out that marketing Leronlimab as a COVID-19 treatment was not a commercially viable development for the company, the complaint alleges CytoDyn’s shares dropped significantly.