Business Court Warns of Enhanced Scrutiny for Disclosure-Only Merger Settlements

We have previously commented about “disclosure only” settlements in class action merger cases, and the increasing scrutiny provided to them by courts here and in Delaware. Judge Bledsoe entered the fray yesterday, approving a settlement of litigation involving the merger of Yadkin Financial Corporation and NewBridge Bancorp in a 44-page order. In a stark preamble to his findings, Judge Bledsoe gave warning that the Business Court would likely be joining their brethren in Delaware in strictly reviewing such settlements in the future. The Court characterized such a shift as a “marked departure from [the Business Court’s] past practices in connection with the consideration of such motions,” and therefore “decline[d] to apply enhanced scrutiny to its consideration of the Motions” in the case before it.

But that reprieve is likely short-lived. In the next sentence, Judge Bledsoe “expressly advises the practicing bar that judges of the North Carolina Business Court, including the undersigned, may be prepared to apply enhanced scrutiny of the sort exercised in In re Trulia Stockholder Litigation, to the approval of disclosure-based settlements and attendant motions for attorneys’ fees hereafter.” We characterized this Delaware authority as “sound[ing] a trumpet of skepticism concerning ‘disclosure only’ settlements.”

The Settlement Agreement reviewed by the Business Court in the NewBridge Bancorp case provided that the Defendants would not object to a fee petition up to $300,000, and—to a penny—that’s what Plaintiffs’ counsel sought in the case. In this space, we have observed that the entry into a disclosure-only settlement “is a ‘kumbayah’ occasion for plaintiffs’ and defense counsel,” and Judge Bledsoe reiterates this point, albeit it in a less colloquial manner, agreeing with the Delaware courts that “the trial court’s assessment typically occurs, as it does here, without the benefit of an adversarial process.”

The Court, after reviewing applicable authority, cut the requested fee award from $300,000 to about $160,000. There were two principal reasons for the reduction. First, the Court concluded that “collectively, the Supplemental Disclosures were only of marginal benefit to the Class.” Indeed, the Court found no “substantial evidence that any of the Supplemental Disclosures were significant to a reasonable shareholder’s decision in voting on the Proposed Transaction.” Second, the Court observed that the average hourly rate charged by Plaintiffs’ counsel was “above the hourly rate customarily charged in North Carolina for similar services” and that “the demands of the Consolidated Action did not require Plaintiffs to retain counsel from outside North Carolina in order to prosecute” the case.

The Court, in contrast to Delaware decisions like Trulia, did not closely scrutinize the claims released by class members as part of the settlement. Judge Bledsoe, in two footnotes, indicated that future requests for approval of disclosure-based settlements will involve such consideration. He stated that the scope of the release needs to be an express factor in the Court’s analysis in future cases, but that the Court was “reluctant to set aside the settlement in light of the approval of prior similar settlements by the Business Court.” In this regard, Judge Bledsoe’s Newbridge Bancorp decision is similar to the Chancery Court’s ruling in In re Riverbed Technology, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, where Chancellor Glasscock explained that, “given the past practice of this Court in examining settlements of this type, the parties in good faith negotiated a remedy—additional disclosures—that has been consummated, with the reasonable expectation that the very broad, but hardly unprecedented, release negotiated in return would be approved by this Court.”

In Delaware, the Chancery Court—having apparently concluded that counsel and the parties were sufficiently on notice following its warning in Riverbed—refused to approve a settlement outright in Trulia, just four months later. Merger challenges in Delaware have significantly declined in the months since that decision.

The effect of Judge Bledsoe’s decision on merger litigation in North Carolina remains to be seen, but this admonition from the Business Court must be reckoned with by shareholders considering class filings in future North Carolina merger litigation.

(Adam Doerr and Tommy Holderness of our firm represented the members of the NewBridge Bancorp Board of Directors in this litigation.)