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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Who Evaluates the Chief Audit Executive (CAE)?

At the bottom of this post is a screen shot from the new publication Ethics and Pressure, Balancing the Internal Audit Profession, published primarily from the 2015 global practitioner survey of internal auditors worldwide. This is a really big survey. What do you think of the screen shot? Is it appropriate for management to evaluate the chief audit executive (“CAE”)? I say “yes,” of course.

I note however, that the writer also says “Exhibit 9 indicates that this responsibility [i.e., the responsibility for evaluating the performance of the CAE] is generally split evenly between management and the board. The big exception is in North America, where 61% of CAE’s are formally evaluated by management. Often however, these evaluations are reviewed by an audit committee.”

Let me just say, and I read a fair amount of materials from or relating to the internal audit profession, these sentences from the writer probably speak volumes. Do you mean to say that the audit committee isn’t always also doing its own evaluation of internal audit? I really hope that’s not what the writer is saying.

If you are on an audit committee, do you evaluate the performance of the CAE and of the internal audit function (if you have an internal audit function)? I certainly hope so. I mean, regardless of how internal audit operates with management, as an audit committee member aren’t you interacting with internal audit also, and isn’t internal audit helping you to satisfy your due diligence responsibilities? If not, you really need to sit down and think about how the audit committee is using internal audit.

And, if you are an internal audit CAE or member, if the audit committee isn’t sufficiently interested in you to evaluate your performance and how you help or don’t help the audit committee, then you are really missing the boat with a significant entity (i.e., the audit committee) that you should be helping.

In fact, most of the materials that I read from internal audit miss the boat, in my opinion. Yes, management’s use and interaction with internal audit is very important, but the audit committee really should value and make use of the availability of internal audit to help the audit committee satisfy it’s duties. If this isn’t happening, both the audit committee and internal audit are missing out on a tremendous opportunity. It might also be argued that both are failing to satisfy their responsibilities.

Here’s the screen shot from the survey and discussion:

who-evaluates-the-cae

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

Audit Committee 5 Lines of Defense 07182016

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