An interesting question first addressed many years ago has just resurfaced: can a shareholder seek appraisal rights for shares it acquires after the merger is announced and even after the record date that is set for voting on whether to approve the proposed M&A transaction? Historically the Delaware court said yes, subject to certain other conditions being met, but that may not be the last word on the subject. The New York Times recently blogged about a new case currently before the Delaware courts arising from the buyout of Ancestry.com, showing that this issue is timely again.
First, some background: in 2007, the Delaware Chancery Court opened the door to arbitrage possibilities by its ruling in the appraisal rights case of Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc. In that proceeding, the court permitted a shareholder to exercise appraisal rights for shares acquired after the record date but before the merger vote, provided that the record holder had timely notified the issuer, pre-vote, of a sufficient number of “no” votes or abstentions to cover the number of newly acquired shares being put up for appraisal. The court recognized that owners of stock certificates, such as Cede & Co. — which is typically the nominal owner of shares that are on deposit with the Depository Trust Company, hold their shares in an undifferentiated manner in “fungible bulk,” and so no shareholder has ownership rights to any particular share of stock. Accordingly, there is no voting history attached to any particular share of stock or beneficial owner; all that matters is that the record holder vote no or abstain with respect to a sufficient number of shares to cover the newly acquired shares for which a petitioner wants to seek appraisal.
There are limits as to how late a stockholder may acquire shares for purposes of appraisal; naturally, shares bought after the merger vote, even if acquired before the merger consummation or closing date, won’t count toward appraisal, as they are acquired too late and without sufficient notice to the company.
To illustrate the point, let’s assume that a shareholder currently owns five shares in XYZ Company and an announcement is made on June 10 that ABC Company will be acquiring XYZ. XYZ will be conducting a shareholder meeting regarding the proposed merger on July 1, based on a record date of June 20. Now let’s assume that after the deal is announced and before the July 1 shareholder meeting, our shareholder directs Cede to provide notice to XYZ Company that she will be dissenting with respect to her five shares. Cede then follows those instructions, as well as the directions it receives from all the other beneficial owners for whom it holds shares, and Cede goes ahead and provides notice to the company for all the “no” votes that it has been directed to give. Let’s further assume the total of “no” votes is 100, and in addition to those votes, there are 50 abstentions, so the total number of shares “eligible” for an appraisal demand is 150.
If our shareholder later buys five more shares after the June 20 record date but prior to the July 1 merger vote, she can still seek appraisal for her new total of 10 shares out of the 150 eligible shares for which Cede has given notice. If, however, other dissenting beneficial owners for whom Cede also holds have tendered 145 shares for appraisal, then our shareholder can seek appraisal for only five of her shares, not for the other five in excess of the 150 total eligible shares.
The Transkaryotic opinion back in 2007 was issued by the Delaware Chancery Court, and the rule in this case has not yet been affirmed or otherwise opined on by the Delaware Supreme Court; it is indeed the standing principle today but could become more controversial and may well be revisited if it reaches the Supreme Court and they see things differently. And now that Ancestry.com seems to be taking a run at challenging the Transkaryotic ruling, based in part on a change in the appraisal statute since the time that that case was decided, the Delaware courts may take up this issue again. We’ll watch this case as it proceeds and post any new developments here.