Delaware Chancery Court weighs in on option backdating controversy

This month the Delaware Chancery Court wrote a very strong opinion indicating that its position on option backdating is not likely to be a light one. In Ryan v. Gifford (which may soon be available online for on Delaware’s court site, but for now just on WESTLAW (2007 WL 416162), the Court refused to dismiss a case brought against the Board of Maxim Integrated for backdating options. The decision provides very strong language that suggests that the Delaware courts are going to be very critical of this once-widely accepted practice.

  • For example, the opinion provides that backdating options qualifies as one of those “rare cases [in which] a transaction may be so egregious on its face that board approval cannot meet the test of business judgment, and a substantial likelihood of director liability therefore exists.”
  • In a footnote, the Court reminded that backdating may expose Boards not only to potential civil liability, but also to potential criminal liability for securities fraud, tax fraud, and mail and wire fraud.

While this decision takes place at a juncture of a motion to dismiss, where courts are generally wary to throw out a case when there has not been sufficient opportunity to explore the facts, the tone of this decision is grave. It will be interesting to watch as this and other cases evolve.

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