On December 5, the Delaware Supreme Court decided that certain directors of successful on-line gaming company Zynga were not “independent” as a matter of Delaware law, and thus were not eligible to approve a transaction which benefited the majority stockholder and another director, while allegedly detrimental to the company itself.
Most interesting was the disqualification of two directors who were partners in the Kleiner Perkins venture firm which owned 9.2 % of the equity in Zynga.
The Court noted that the company itself, in its NASDAQ exchange listing, did not designate these disqualified directors as “independent.” However, independence in Delaware is not exactly congruent with NASDAQ listing standards. The Court seemed primarily to premise its holding on the fact that Kleiner Perkins’ equity stake evidenced a “mutually ongoing business relationship. . . which [might] have a material effect on the parties’ ability to act adversely toward each other.” Although acknowledging that a personal or business relationship with a major stockholder does not necessarily compromise director independence, Strine then claimed that venture firms compete with each other to finance talented entrepreneurs, and thus partners in the venture firm might not be willing to make decisions that might disadvantage the entrepreneur.
The result is analytically somewhat anomalous. One could equally argue that, holding a 9.2% stake, the VC would be economically motivated to vote against anything that might hurt the company or its stock price. Here, the directors sold stock immediately prior to a substantial dip in its price, a result which presumably might have been apparent to a VC. Would not the economic interest of the VC in fact be adverse to the interests of two directors (one a controlling stockholder) selling a large amount of stock and possibly leading to a drop in stock price, particularly when as it appears that the sold shares were released from “lock-up”?
The takeaways: independence is in the eye of the beholder, each case is fact-dependent, and the tendency of CEOs to name marginally independent buddies to the board, while attractive in a common sense way, is not necessarily a great idea. Finally, the case should not be read as a categorical statement that directors representing capital investors can never be independent under Delaware law; there were numerous ancillary factoids that may have led Strine to this conclusion in this particular case.
NOTE: Only for the lawyers reading this, the context has been somewhat altered to focus clearly the point. This was an appeal from a holding that a demand on the board, prior to a derivative action, was necessary as there was an independent majority of directors; the Supreme Court here reversed, declaring demand prior to suit unnecessary, because there was not a majority of independent directors available, based on the findings set forth above. (If you are not a lawyer and you read this note anyway, hopefully you were not confused– but I warned you!)