Being Litigated! Tesla’s Colossal CEO Comp In The Crosshairs
Last year, the Tesla board – and shareholders – signed-off on a pay deal that would provide Musk with a potentially gargantuan payout if its stock hit some very aggressive market cap & operational goals. How gargantuan? Try more than $50 billion. A shareholder subsequently filed a lawsuit against Musk and the Tesla board alleging that the comp award was a breach of fiduciary duty.
By way of background, the Chancery Court decided last year that Musk was a “controlling shareholder” of Tesla in an unrelated case, despite the fact that he owned only around 20% of the stock. So, for purposes of the motion to dismiss filed in this case, the parties treated him as if he was a controller. That complicates things considerably, because the default standard for reviewing for transactions between a company and its controlling shareholder – even comp decisions – is the demanding “entire fairness” standard and not the deferential business judgment rule.
Delaware has laid out a path to the business judgment rule for these transactions, but in his 40-page opinion denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss, Vice Chancellor Slights found that despite the approval of the comp award by Tesla’s shareholders, the process wasn’t good enough to allow this award to make the cut:
Had the Board ensured from the outset of “substantive economic negotiations” that both of Tesla’s qualified decision makers—an independent, fully functioning Compensation Committee and the minority stockholders—were able to engage in an informed review of the Award, followed by meaningful (i.e., otherwise uncoerced) approval, the Court’s reflexive suspicion of Musk’s coercive influence over the outcome would be abated. Business judgment deference at the pleadings stage would then be justified. Plaintiff has well pled, however, that the Board level review was not divorced from Musk’s influence. Entire fairness, therefore, must abide.
The Vice Chancellor held that the defendants were unable to establish that the award was entirely fair at the pleading stage, so he declined to dismiss the plaintiff’s breach of fiduciary duty & unjust enrichment claims. That probably means I’ll be talking about Musk again at some point in the not-too-distant future.
-John Jenkins, TheCorporateCounsel.net September 26, 2019
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