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Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht: Court of Chancery Denies Preliminary Injunction Against Annual Meeting of Sotheby's Stockholders, Applies Unocal Standard of Review to Contested Stockholder Rights Plan

May 5, 2014

In Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, et al., C.A. No. 9469-VCP (Del. Ch. May 2, 2014), the Delaware Court of Chancery denied preliminary injunctive relief against Sotheby’s annual meeting, scheduled for May 6, 2014. Plaintiffs, including Third Point LLC and other stockholders, claimed that the board had violated its fiduciary duties by (1) adopting a stockholder rights plan with a two-tiered trigger, capping stockholders who file Schedule 13Ds at 10% of the outstanding stock, but permitting passive investors who file Schedule 13Gs to acquire up to 20% of the outstanding stock; and (2) refusing to grant Third Point, the company’s largest stockholder, a waiver enabling it to acquire up to 20% of the outstanding stock. Claiming that the board had acted for the primary purpose of inhibiting Third Point’s ability to wage a successful proxy contest, Third Point asked the Court to apply the Blasius standard, and argued alternatively that the board’s actions were impermissible under the Unocal standard. The board argued, among other things, that Third Point’s accumulation of Sotheby’s stock posed a legally cognizable threat to Sotheby’s and that the board’s actions in response were proportionate to the threat.

The Court held on a preliminary basis that Unocal, rather than Blasius, provides the appropriate framework of analysis. Applying the Unocal standard, the Court held on a preliminary basis that the majority-independent board had shown that it acted reasonably in identifying a legally cognizable threat—that Third Point, alone or with others, might acquire a controlling interest in the company without paying Sotheby’s other stockholders a premium—and that its response to the threat was reasonable. The Court wrote that the issue of the board’s refusal of Third Point’s request for a waiver presented “a much closer question” than the original adoption of the rights plan, but determined that the board made a sufficient showing as to the threat that Third Point might be able to exercise “negative control” if permitted to accumulate up to 20% of the outstanding stock. Accordingly, the Court denied the application for preliminary injunction.

On May 5, 2014, Sotheby’s and Third Point announced a resolution of the dispute, under which Third Point will be allowed to increase its ownership to 15% of the outstanding stock, the board will expand from twelve members to fifteen, and Third Point’s three nominees will be appointed to the board and added to the company’s slate of nominees at the 2014 annual meeting, which will be convened and adjourned to allow updated solicitation materials to be distributed.