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Shareholders Cannot Sue Bank One Officers, Appeals Court Decides

 

In a shareholder derivative action related to 2004’s merger between Bank One and J.P. Morgan Chase, the Illinois First District Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal with prejudice of a complaint filed by Bank One shareholders. Shaper v. Bryan, No. 1-05-3849 (March 8, 2007).

The dispute grew out of the high-profile merger of Bank One with J.P. Morgan Chase. As part of the deal, J.P. Morgan agreed to issue stock to each Bank One shareholder worth 14% more than the Bank One shares’ closing price on the day of the merger. In other words, Bank One shareholders received extra value as part of the deal. Bank One CEO James Dimon would serve as president and COO of J.P. Morgan Chase for two years, after which he would take over for the existing CEO. These two men negotiated both the premium and the succession plan themselves.

Media reports soon appeared, suggesting that Bank One shareholders could have gotten a much larger premium from another company or through another negotiator. The media also reported that Dimon was eager to move to New York and take over as the leader of J.P. Morgan Chase, offering to do the deal for no premium at all if he could start as CEO without waiting the two years.

Shareholders for Bank One filed suit, alleging that officers and directors breached their fiduciary duty to shareholders by accepting a lower price than they would likely have gotten by opening bidding to other companies. They also alleged that Dimon had a conflict of interests during the negotiations because he stood to gain higher compensation and CEO status. Finally, they alleged that termination fees that were part of the deal created an insurmountable obstacle to any higher offer. The trial court dismissed their complaint, and the appeals court affirmed.

In its opinion, the justices wrote that Dimon didn’t meet the classic examples of a self-interested officer director — someone on both sides of the transaction or someone who stood to gain a personal benefit. Furthermore, they said, the courts of Delaware, which govern this transaction, have routinely rejected the argument that maintaining an officer position is a debilitating factor in negotiations. Similarly, the board in the transaction didn’t breach its duty of care, they wrote, because it had no special obligation to inform itself of Dimon’s no-premium offer, nor is there anything to suggest it didn’t know about that offer.

Finally, the shareholders argued that termination fees built into the merger made it impossible to entertain another offer, which constituted a breach of the board’s duty of care. Importantly for Illinois business litigators, the justices also wrote that the two-stage test required by the Delaware Supreme Court in Unocal Corporation v. Mesa Petroleum Co., 493 A.2d 946 (Del. 1985), and Omnicare, Inc. v. NCS Healthcare, Inc., 818 A.2d 914 (Del. 2003) didn’t apply. The court pointed out that the board retained a “fiduciary out,” termination fees were reciprocal and the shareholders retained the right to vote against the merger. Thus, the appeals court upheld dismissal of the case with prejudice.