Sunday, September 17, 2006

Board Turmoil and D & O Risk

Within the last few days, we have witnessed the feuding, dysfunctional H-P Board struggling with the turmoil and adverse publicity arising from its flawed investigation of media leaks. Last week we also saw the forced ouster of Bristol Myers Squibb CEO Peter Dolan. These events follow the removal of the CEOs of some of the country’s largest companies, including Walt Disney, Fannie Mae, Pfizer, American International Group, Merck, and others. These events not only involve the potential for board turmoil, distraction and adverse publicity, but increasingly also present the possibility of D & O litigation.

For example, late last week, Bill Lerach of the Lerach Coughlin firm filed a shareholders’ derivative suit against the H-P Board, accusing the Board (and its general counsel, as well as it purported outside investigative service) of breaches of fiduciary duties, abuse of control and waste of corporate assets, as part of an alleged campaign to entrench themselves and to punish or diminish the power of ousted directors. A copy of the complaint can be found here. The lawsuit not only seeks corporate remediation, but also seeks recovery for the “enormous” costs and burdens the company has sustained to deal with the crisis created by the revelations of the Board’s investigation. Significantly, the complaint against the H-P directors seeks to compel the recovery from the defendants of the company’s costs without their recourse to indemnity or insurance, even for the costs of defending the derivative litigation. A September 15, 2006 Law.com article discussing the H-P complaint can be found here.

Nor is H-P’s situation the only boardroom dispute that has resulted in D & O litigation. For example, at Atmel, five independent board members (representing private equity fund investors) worked together to bring about the August 5 firing of company founder and CEO George Perlegos, as well as three other executives, for alleged misuse of corporate travel funds. Perlegos responded by filing a lawsuit against the board, arguing that his ouster was illegal because he had already called a shareholder meeting in order to remove the five independent directors. His lawsuit argues the directors should be removed because “the hasty, secretive, and precipitous manner in which they acted…will have devastating consequences for the Company, including but not limited to the loss of the [ousted executives’] decades of experience running the company and a significant loss of shareholder value.” News report discussing the Atmel litigation can be found here and here.

These boardroom disputes and the others identified above are a result of a variety of factors. The increased presence and activism of independent directors, who are less inclined to take their cues from company management, is a direct result of Sarbanes-Oxley reforms and is clearly a factor in the newly contentious board environment. Regulatory and investigative pressures are also important factors. For example, the removal of AIG’s and Bristol Myers Squibb’s CEOs were a direct result of investigative pressures. Increased shareholder activism, including the pressure of activist hedge funds and other private equity investors, also is a contributing factor. (For a prior D & O Diary posts discussing the litigation threat of activist hedge funds, click here and here.)

All of these factors are contributing to an increasingly hostile boardroom atmosphere. This atmosphere not only presents a challenge for corporate boards, but also represents an environment where allegations of wrongdoing can more easily arise. These allegations of wrongdoing inevitably will make their way into the courtroom, and so the newly contentious boardroom environment represents a potentially significant source of increased D & O claims exposure.

On Saturday, September 16, 2006, articles appeared in Wall Street Journal (here, subscription required) and in the Washington Post (here, registration required) discussing the new hostile environment for corporate boards.

Silicon Valley Connection: The shareholders’ derivative complaint filed against the H-P Board take particular aim at the Board’s continued reliance on the outside counsel, the Wilson Sonsini law firm, on whose advice the company relied in connection with the investigation, the board disputes arising out of the investigation, and the company’s disclosure of the investigation and the board’s disputes:

[E]ven though they were facing a matter with grave implications for the corporation, [the Board] did not seek independent legal representation or advice. Worse yet, they actually relied on the advice of the law firm that was implicated in the conduct to be evaluated. Because Sonsini of Wilson Sonsini had been intimately involved in advising the Board and its Chair regarding the investigation that had taken place, the law firm knew or should have known of the dubious legality of the investigatory tactics being used and yet had advised the Board …that the investigatory tactics being used were not unlawful and advised HP to not disclose why [Perkins, a Board member who resigned, had actually resigned.]
The Complaint goes on to allege that a demand upon the Board to bring legal action would be futile because “Wilson Sonsini and Sonsini continue to be the primary outside counsel for the Company regarding these matters and obviously, since Wilson Sonsini and Sonsini are conflicted and would be key witnesses and possible defendants in any ultimate legal action, they will advise the Company not to pursue legal action or conduct a vigorous independent investigation into matters that will embarrass the law firm, further implicate the law firm, or expose the law firm to financial liability.”

Nor is the H-P lawsuit the only source of legal scrutiny facing the Wilson Sonsini firm from the H-P board investigation. According to news reports (here and here), Larry Sonsini is among the witnesses requested to appear to testify before a Congressional panel looking into the H-P board’s investigation of media leaks. The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce will be holding September 28, 2006 hearings on the matter. Several witnesses, including Sonsini, have been sent letters requesting them to notify the committee on or before September 19, 2006, whether they will appear voluntarily. The attorney-client privilege and Fifth Amendment privilege issues that this congressional investigation might present are discussed in this post on the White Collar Crime Prof blog, here. The WSJ.com law blog also has an interesting post here discussing the swirl of activity surrounding Sonsini.

The H-P derivative lawsuit is far from the only salvo that Lerach has launched against the Wilson Sonsini firm recently. As noted in a prior D & O Diary post (here), Lerach has opposed efforts to dismiss the shareholders’ derivative suit pending against Mercury Interactive based on an alleged conflict of the Wilson Sonsini firm -- Wilson Sonsini represents one of the defendants in the Mercury Interactive suit, and is also outside counsel for H-P, which is acquiring Mercury Interactive.

When asked who he thinks will defend the H-P Board in the shareholders’ derivative suit he filed, Lerach responded that “I bet it won’t be Wilson Sonsini.”

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