Does a Director Qua Director Have Standing to Sue Derivatively?

Editor’s Note: This post is from Steven M. Haas of Hunton & Williams LLP. This post is part of the Delaware law series, which is cosponsored by the Forum and Corporation Service Company; links to other posts in the series are available here.

Does a Director Qua Director Have Standing to Sue Derivatively? No, so said the Delaware Supreme Court yesterday in Schoon v. Smith. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery’s little-noticed ruling last year that dismissed a derivative claim brought by a director against the company’s other directors, including its controlling stockholder. The plaintiff-director, who was not a stockholder of the company, charged his fellow directors with, among other things, breach of fiduciary duty and unjust enrichment. The court held that, notwithstanding the equitable origins of derivative suits, the issue of director standing today is best left to the legislature. “Although the Delaware General Assembly has the prerogative to confer standing upon directors by statute,” the court wrote, “it has not chosen to do so.” Rejecting the American Law Institute Principles that give individual directors standing to sue on behalf of their corporations, the court continued that, “[b]ecause a stockholder derivative action is available to redress any breach of fiduciary duty, we decline to extend the doctrine of equitable standing to allow a director to bring a similar action.” The court concluded, however, by leaving itself a little room to permit directors to bring derivative suits, but only where the failure to do so would result in a “complete failure of justice”—a seemingly high standard.

As a practical matter, the decision is unlikely to have much significance because most directors are also stockholders. But the decision is still significant and may draw criticism with respect to its implications for corporate governance and director duties. In particular, the court noted that the concept of being an “independent director” does not mandate “a duty to sue on behalf of the corporation.”

The opinion is available here.

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One Comment

  1. Stephen Bainbridge
    Posted Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ve waffled on this issue for years. Although director standing remains very much the minority position, it has a certain attraction. Recall that shareholders do not own the corporation. Instead, they are merely one of many corporate constituencies bound together by a complex web of explicit and implicit contracts. To be sure, by virtue of their contractual status as residual claimants, shareholders ought to have standing to pursue suits that lower the value of that claim. If we view the directors as the corporation’s Platonic guardians, however, perhaps the directors ought to have prior standing to litigate injuries to the corporation. On the other hand, given the strong efficiency justifications for corporate law’s emphasis on the board as a collective, perhaps we ought to discourage directors from acting as lone rangers.