Evaluating Director Independence – Zynga Shareholder Derivative Suit

Thomas Sandys Derivatively on Behalf of Zynga, Inc. v. Pincus, et al., Delaware Supreme Court, Case No. 157,2016, December 5, 2016, highlights the sometimes difficulty, and the importance of evaluating director independence in the circumstance of a shareholder derivative suit.

In Zynga the plaintiff filed his shareholder derivative suit without first making a demand upon the board that the Company sue Company insiders that were alleged to have improperly sold Company stock. Instead of first making the demand upon the board, plaintiff argued that such a demand would have been futile because a majority of the nine person board members lacked independence.

In summary, the plaintiff alleged two derivative claims based on allegations that certain top managers and directors at Zynga were given an exemption to the Company’s standing rule preventing sales of stock by insiders until three days after an earnings announcement, and that the insiders who participated in the sale breached their fiduciary duties by misusing confidential information when they sold their shares while in possession of adverse, material non-public information. And plaintiff also asserted a duty of loyalty claim against the directors who approved the sale.

The holding in Zynga is that at the pleading stage there was sufficient evidence to suggest that a majority of the board did lack independence so as to excuse not making the demand upon the board. The holding is primarily interesting for the Court’s discussion about three particular board members, and the reasons why the Court determined that there was evidence to sufficiently suggest that those three directors did in fact lack independence to impartially consider a demand that the Company bring suit against the selling insiders, which resulted in a majority of the board also lacking independence, so as to excuse making the pre-suit demand upon the board.

To plead demand excusal the plaintiff must plead particularized factual allegations that create a reasonable doubt that, as of the time the complaint was filed, the board of directors could have properly exercised its independent and disinterested business judgment in responding to a demand. At the pleading stage, a lack of independence turns on whether the plaintiff has pleaded facts from which the director‘s ability to act impartially on a matter important to the interested party can be doubted because that director may feel subject to the interested party‘s dominion or beholden to that interested party.
With respect to one of the directors in question, the Court found troubling for the purpose of independence or lack thereof that the particular board member and her husband co-owned an unusual asset, an airplane, with Zynga’s former CEO and controlling stockholder, which the Court found was suggestive of an “extremely intimate personal friendship between their families.”

And with respect to the other two directors, the Court found troubling for the purpose of independence or lack thereof that the directors are partners at a prominent venture capital firm and that they and their firm not only controlled 9.2% of Zynga‘s equity as a result of being early-stage investors, but have other interlocking relationships with the controller and another selling stockholder outside of Zynga. More specifically the Court stated “Although it is true that entrepreneurs like the controller need access to venture capital, it is also true that venture capitalists compete to fund the best entrepreneurs and that these relationships can generate ongoing economic opportunities. There is nothing wrong with that, as that is how commerce often proceeds, but these relationships can give rise to human motivations compromising the participants’ ability to act impartially toward each other on a matter of material importance. Perhaps for that reason, the Zynga board itself determined that these two directors did not qualify as independent under the NASDAQ rules, which have a bottom line standard that a director is not independent if she has ―a relationship which, in the opinion of the Company‘s board of directors, would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment . . . .[Footnote #1: NASDAQ Marketplace Rule 5605(a)(2)] Although the plaintiff’s lack of diligence made the determination as to these directors perhaps closer than necessary, in our view, the combination of these facts creates a pleading stage reasonable doubt as to the ability of these directors to act independently on a demand adverse to the controller‘s interests. When these three directors are considered incapable of impartially considering a demand, a majority of the nine member Zynga board is compromised for Rule 23.1 purposes and demand is excused. Thus, the dismissal of the complaint is reversed.”

As you might correctly assume, board member independence can arise as an issue in several different corporate and governance related circumstances.

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Updated Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide – Attached – Use It – Pass It Along – Free

Below is a link to my updated Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (updated October 20, 2016). Please use it, and pass it to other people who would be interested, such as audit committee members, directors, officers, accountants, internal and external auditors, in-house counsel, compliance professionals, and other people.

I do note that as I was updating these materials, and going through the entire Guide, it definitely hit me that all of the specifically enacted statutes, regulations, rules and pronouncements definitely could cause an audit committee member to not be able to see the forest for the tress. So let’s also not forget to look at the situation as a whole.

Although the Guide is 186 pages, I do expect some significant updates soon, and perhaps prior to the end of 2016. Many of the updates will be posted to this blog first, and then to the Guide. I am looking forward to the COSO enterprise risk management (ERM) updated framework.

Best to you. Dave Tate, Esq., San Francisco and California.

Here is a link to the updated Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (updated October 20, 2016), tates-excellent-audit-committee-guide-10202016-final-with-appendix-a

Audit Committee 5 Lines of Defense 07182016

The business judgment rule – an animated video:

 

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Sustainability Disclosures – From PWC – Audit Committee Need to Know?

I’m forwarding this along – sustainability disclosure guidance from PWC – click on the following link for the materials and the discussion, CLICK HERE

And I am thinking that there could be a need for increasing audit committee member expertise in the sustainability disclosure area.

Below is a snapshot from the PWC website, followed by a link to Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide (updated January 2016), followed by the Audit Committee 5 Lines of Diligence and Defense. Thank you. Dave Tate, Esq., San Francisco and California.

PWC Sustainability Disclosure Guidance

 

See also my Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide, updated January 2016, Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide 01032016 with Appendix A Final

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New PCAOB Guidance On Form AP – Yes, To My Surprise, Some Of This Is Interesting

I have previously commented briefly about the new audit partner disclosure requirement – essentially, my comment was that I did not really see what the big deal is about this. But on June 28, 2016, the PCAOB issued staff guidance for Form AP, and as a result, I have to step back a little my initial comments. The following is a link to the PCAOB guidance, and Form AP, CLICK HERE

I still don’t believe in the broad view that it is a big deal to name the audit partner, however, I am now seeing that it might be possible to do a tally on how many audits a particular person (identified by a specific numeric code for that particular person) is listed as the audit partner, and it would not surprise me if someone in the future, or even the PCAOB, or the SEC, or plaintiffs’ counsel in a litigation case for auditor liability, questions the number of audits on which someone can effectively perform as the primary audit partner?

Further, if my reading of the Form AP, and the guidance, are correct, it appears that the Form requires the auditor/auditing firm to provide the numbers of hours spent performing the audit, and it appears that to some extent those hours need to be further divided or broken down into some of the different important audit areas or programs.  This information could be useful for a number of purposes. It would allow a comparison of audit fee to hours spent between different entities and industries (and how much is being charged per hour). It gives the regulatory entities, such as the PCAOB and the SEC useful information to evaluate audit effectiveness. If admissible in court, it could be used to argue in particular cases whether the auditor spent enough time on a particular audit area or program. And the information about the different audit firms involved in the audit and their time spent might be similarly interesting.

And all of this might be of interest to the audit committee in its hiring, evaluation and retention of the audit firm, assuming, of course, that someone or some entity compiles and reports this information in a useful format.

Best, Dave Tate, Esq., San Francisco and California

Click on the following for my Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide, Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide 01032016 with Appendix A Final

See also my trust, estate, conservatorship, power of attorney, and elder abuse litigation blog at http://californiaestatetrust.com

Audit Committee 5 Lines of Defense 07182016

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Really Massive Changes in Accounting, Auditing, Reporting and Communicating – The End Of Accounting?

Although I practice as an attorney, I previously practiced as a CPA and I have experienced several times over the years when there were significant changes occurring in the accounting practice and profession. But right now, I believe that I am witnessing multiple massive changes that have been long in the making. The following is a link to an Accounting Today article which does a pretty good job of discussing some of the changes, and also includes a question whether this is the end of accounting – click on the following link, CLICK HERE

It’s not like these changes are screaming at you in the headlines, but the cumulative effect is significant, new changes are continuing and will continue, and perhaps more important, the reasons for the changes are permanent.

For a long, long time the value of the audit and of the audit report have been questioned.

For a long, long time, the value of the information provided by an accounting that is prepared in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles has been questioned.

Different stakeholders also have different needs, and speed at which the flow of information is needed and expected is ever-increasing. Audited financial statements, for example, don’t tell you very much about the future investment or business generating value of the entity or of the transactions reported, or of the risks that are associated.

So now, for example, in addition to GAAP accounting we have non-GAAP accounting and reporting, we are seeing an increased ability to audit all transactions by computer software, GAAP is moving from the more detailed and specific rules based approach back to the more principles based approach that was in place when I first became a CPA, and non-GAAP measurements or criteria are becoming or should become more important such as some of the governance criteria (integrity, tone-at-the-top, culture, etc.), sustainability, transparency, risk management, and more emphasis on internal controls such as COSO.

However, I don’t agree with the suggestion or question in the title to the above linked article – it’s not the end of accounting. Traditional accounting serves a useful purpose – can you imagine what a free for all it would be without traditional accounting? There would be absolutely no checks or balances. There would be a “zero” reliability factor, and no comparability between different entities or industries.

But there is no question that the changes that have occurred and that continue to occur in accounting and auditing create both opportunities and risks for investors, financial institutions and other stakeholders, executive, financial, accounting and audit officers and professionals, boards, and audit and risk committees. The people who will excel are the people who will embrace and become expert in these changes. It’s a lifetime of learning to stay ahead and relevant.

Best to you. Dave Tate, Esq.

The following is a link to my Tate’s Excellent Audit Committee Guide, updated January 2016, CLICK HERE