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Shenker v. Polage

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

February 1, 2016

ROBERT SHENKER, ET AL.
v.
BERNICE POLAGE, ET AL

Page 1172

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, Pamela J. White, JUDGE.

         ARGUED BY Richard S. Gordon (Martin E. Wolf, Gordon, Wolf & Carney Chtd. of Baltimore, MD. James S. Notis, Meagan Farmer, Gardy & Notis, LLP of New York, NY) all on the brief FOR APPELLANT.

         ARGUEDY BY David A. P. Brower (Brian C. Kerr, Brower, Piven of New York, NY. Charles J. Piven, Yelena Trepetin, Brower Piven of Stevenson, MD. Lee D. Rudy, Michael C. Wagner, J. Daniel Albert, Justin O. Reliford, Kessler, Topaz, Metzler & Check, LLP of Radnor, PA.) Adam S. Hobson (William Savitt, Andrew J. H. Cheung, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz of New York, NY. G. Stewart Webb, Jr., Maria E. Rodriguez, Venable, LLP of Baltimore, MD. Scott H. Marder, Laurie B. Goon, Duane Morris, LLP of Baltimore, MD. Rebecca M. Lamberth, Duane Morris LLP of Atlanta, GA) all on the briefs FOR APPELLEE.

         Panel: Wright, Nazarian, Hotten, [*] JJ.

          OPINION

Page 1173

          [226 Md.App. 674] Nazarian, J.

         This appeal arises from the Circuit Court for Baltimore City's approval of a class action settlement of claims against [226 Md.App. 675] Cole Real Estate Investments, Inc. (" CREI" ), American Realty Capital Properties, Inc. (" ARCP" ), and both companies' directors and officers, relating to their February 2014 merger. Certain CREI shareholders brought derivative and class action claims alleging that the CREI board breached its fiduciary duties in negotiating and completing due diligence for the merger. The parties reached a settlement that the circuit court approved preliminarily, but before the circuit court conducted its settlement approval hearing, ARCP announced that certain financial results had

Page 1174

been misstated and that others were not (yet) reliable. After further negotiations, the parties agreed to an amended settlement that, among other things, released CREI's officers and directors from future liability, but carved the officers and directors of ARCP out of the release. Five class members, including Robert Shenker, objected to the amended settlement, arguing that the release was overbroad because it precluded the objecting shareholders from bringing federal securities claims against CREI's officers and directors. The circuit court held a hearing and approved the amended settlement. Mr. Shenker appeals and we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         CREI is incorporated in Maryland and maintains its principal executive offices in Phoenix, Arizona. CREI was previously known as Cole Credit Property Trust III (" CCPT III" ) and operated as a non-traded real estate investment trust that acquired commercial retail properties throughout the country. Christopher H. Cole is chairman of CREI and was CEO of CCPT III until the first merger (which we describe in greater detail below) in April 2013. Mark Nemer became CEO and President of CREI after the first merger.

         ARCP is a Maryland corporation that maintains its principal offices in New York City. It became a public company in September 2011. ARCP acquires and owns single-tenant freestanding commercial real estate, principally subject to medium-term net leases.

         [226 Md.App. 676]A. The First Merger: CCPT III Acquires Its Subsidiary.

         In early 2013, ARCP approached CCPT III with a proposal to merge, but a special committee of CCPT III's board decided not to pursue a merger with ARCP at that time. Instead, on March 6, 2013, CCPT III announced that its board had unanimously approved the acquisition of one of CCPT III's subsidiaries, Cole Holdings Corporation. The combined company would be called CREI. As consideration for the acquisition, CCPT III would make upfront payments of $20 million in cash, subject to adjustment, as well as 10,711,225 shares of CCPT III common stock, plus 2,142,245 shares of common stock after listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Additional shares of common stock were potentially payable in 2017 as an earn-out, contingent on the new company's financial success.

         During March 2013, CCPT III shareholders filed, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, three separate putative derivative and class action lawsuits challenging the proposed acquisition. These suits were ultimately consolidated; two federal securities claims were filed as well in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. Opposing shareholder Bernice Polage also served what came to be known as " The Polage Demand" on CCPT III's board in April 2013. She alleged that CCPT III directors breached their fiduciary duties to shareholders by pursuing the internalization merger rather than merging with ARCP. CCPT III's board formed a special committee to investigate these allegations, as well as the opposing shareholders' demands: disgorgement of the cash and shares that Defendant CEO Mr. Cole received in connection with the transaction; rescission of Mr. Cole and Mr. Nemer's employment agreements entered into in connection with the transaction, and damages to compensate shareholders for losses sustained as a result of the transaction.

Page 1175

         The acquisition ultimately closed in April 2013, and the circuit court dismissed the actions challenging it after the parties reached a settlement that reduced the contingent [226 Md.App. 677] payments to Messrs. Cole, Nemer, and other CREI executives. The shareholders filed a Notice of Appeal in this Court, and the appeal was dismissed on July 31, 2014 after the defendant executives agreed to reimburse $100,000 to the shareholder plaintiffs.

         B. The Second Merger: ARCP Acquires CREI.

         In late August or September 2013, ARCP's CEO again approached Messrs. Cole and Nemer and expressed interest in a potential merger. CREI retained Goldman Sachs to advise the Board about ARCP's business, to review ARCP's financial results and financial projects, and to review the terms of the merger proposal. CREI also retained the law firm Morris Manning & Martin LLP to conduct due diligence on ARCP's real estate investments, including leases and portfolio information, as well as environmental, tax and litigation issues; the law firm Venable to advise the Board on the applicable law in Maryland; and the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP to conduct a financial and accounting due diligence investigation of ARCP. The companies announced a merger agreement on October 23, 2013, under which ARCP would exchange 1.0929 shares of ARCP common stock or $13.82 in cash for each share of CREI common stock (the cash option was available for up to 20% of CREI's outstanding shares). The transaction was valued at $11.2 billion.

         In response to the announcement, eight new class action and derivative complaints--including one action by Ms. Polage--were filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City between October 30, 2013 and November 14, 2013. These lawsuits alleged that CREI's directors breached their fiduciary duties to the stockholders and sought, among other things, an order enjoining the transaction. The court consolidated these actions as Polage v. Cole on December 12, 2013, and a few days later, the Polage plaintiffs filed a consolidated complaint that, again, asserted both derivative and class action claims challenging the merger. Several federal securities class action complaints were also filed in the United States [226 Md.App. 678] District Court for the District of Arizona in October and November 2013.[1]

         The parties also engaged in negotiations regarding a possible settlement, and on January 10, 2014--the day of the injunction hearing--the plaintiff shareholders and CREI directors entered into a Memorandum of Understanding containing the material terms of a settlement. Among other things, the agreement permitted the plaintiff shareholders to engage in additional discovery to confirm that the settlement was fair and adequate. The CREI stockholders voted to go through with the merger at a special meeting on January 23, 2014, and the merger closed in February of that year.

         The parties submitted a settlement agreement for approval to the circuit court on August 18, 2014. As consideration for dismissing the claims against them, the CREI directors and executives agreed to relinquish $50 million in personal payments, and to establish a $14 million settlement fund for distribution to class members. In addition, the CREI executives agreed to provide shareholders with previously undisclosed material information concerning the merger via a Form 8-K they would file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (" SEC" ). The

Page 1176

CREI defendants also agreed not to oppose the plaintiff shareholders' application for $7 million in attorney's fees and reimbursement of expenses, and the settlement released both CREI and ARCP from future liability. The court issued a preliminary approval of the settlement on August 25, 2014, preliminarily certified the class, and ordered that notice be distributed to CREI's shareholders.

         C. The October Surprise.

         On October 29, 2014, ARCP announced that it had overstated the operating funds and understated the net losses it reported in its first and second quarter 2014 financial results. According to ARCP, financial information as far back as 2013 [226 Md.App. 679] could no longer be relied upon. The announcement spurred an investigation by the SEC, and the ...


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