The Limits of Delaware Corporate Law: Internal Affairs, Federal Forum Provisions, and Sciabacucchi

Joseph A. Grundfest is William A. Franke Professor of Law and Business at Stanford Law School. This post is based on his recent paper, and is part of the Delaware law series; links to other posts in the series are available here. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance includes The Market for Corporate Law by Michal Barzuza, Lucian A. Bebchuk, and Oren Bar-Gill and Federal Corporate Law: Lessons from History by Lucian Bebchuk and Assaf Hamdani.

The Securities Act of 1933 provides for concurrent federal and state jurisdiction. Securities Act claims were historically litigated in federal court, but in 2015 plaintiffs began filing far more frequently in state court where dismissals are less common and weaker claims more likely to survive. D&O insurance costs for IPOs have since increased significantly. Today, approximately 75% of defendants in Section 11 claims face state court actions. Federal Forum Provisions [FFPs] respond by providing that, for Delaware-chartered entities, Securities Act claims must be litigated in federal court or in Delaware state court.

In Sciabacucchi, Chancery applies “first principles” to invalidate FFPs primarily on grounds that charter provisions may only regulate internal affairs, and that Securities Act claims are always external. In so concluding, Sciabacucchi adopts a novel definition of internal affairs that is narrower than precedent, and asserts that plaintiffs have a federal right to bring state court Securities Act claims. It describes all Securities Act plaintiffs as purchasers who are not owed fiduciary duties at the time of purchase. The opinion constrains all actions of the Delaware legislature relating to the DGCL to comply with its novel definition of “internal affairs.”

Sciabacucchi’s logic and conclusion are fragile. The opinion conflicts with controlling U.S. and Delaware Supreme Court precedent and relies critically on assumptions of fact that are demonstrably incorrect. It asserts that FFPs are “contrary to the federal regime” because they preclude state court litigation of Securities Act claims. But the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez holds that there is no immutable right to litigate Securities Act claims in state court, and enforces an agreement that precludes state court Securities Act litigation. Sciabacucchi assumes that Securities Act plaintiffs are never existing stockholders to whom fiduciary duties are owed. But SEC filings and the pervasiveness of order splitting conclusively establish that purchasers are commonly existing holders protected by fiduciary duties. The opinion fears hypothetical extraterritorial application of the DGCL. To prevent this result, it invents a novel definition of “internal affairs” that it applies to constrain all of the Legislature’s past and future activity. But the opinion nowhere addresses the large corpus of U.S. and Delaware Supreme Court precedent that already precludes extraterritorial applications of the DGCL. It thus invents novel doctrine that conflicts with established precedent in an effort to solve a problem that is already solved. The opinion’s novel, divergent definition of “internal affairs” also conflicts with U.S. and Delaware Supreme Court precedent that the opinion nowhere considers.

Sciabacucchi is additionally problematic from a policy perspective. By using Delaware law to preclude a federal practice in federal court under a federal statute that is permissible under federal law, Sciabacucchi veers Delaware law sharply into the federal lane and creates unprecedented tension with the federal regime. Its narrow “internal affairs” definition invites sister states to regulate matters traditionally viewed as internal by Delaware, and advances a position inimical to Delaware’s interests. By propounding its divergent internal affairs constraint as a categorical restriction on the General Assembly’s actions, past and future, the opinion causes the judiciary to intrude into the legislature’s lane. And, data indicate that the opinion in Sciabacucchi caused a statistically and economically significant decline in the stock price of recent IPO issuers with FFPs in their organic documents.

In contrast, a straightforward textualist approach would apply the doctrine of consistent usage and use simple dictionary definitions to preclude any extension of the DGCL beyond its traditional bounds. Textualism avoids all of the concerns that inspire the invention of a divergent “internal affairs” definition. Textualism does not require counter-factual assumptions, conflict with U.S. or Delaware Supreme Court precedent, cause Delaware to constrain federal practice in a manner inconsistent with federal law, or advocate policy positions inimical to Delaware’s interest. Textualism also interprets the DGCL in a manner that profoundly constrains the ability of all Delaware corporations to adopt mandatory arbitration of Securities Act claims. Textualism validates FFPs in a manner that precludes the adverse, hypothetical, collateral consequences that animate Sciabacucchi’s fragile analysis, without generating Sciabacucchi’s challenging sequelae.

The complete paper is available here.

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