As every founder knows, starting and scaling a company is an extremely difficult and multi-faceted undertaking. In addition to the primary goals of developing a viable product, finding (and in some cases building from scratch) a robust market, and raising the capital necessary to sustain their business and operations, founders and their core teams also grapple with the day-to-day management and operations of a growing enterprise, whether that be personnel issues, forecasting cash needs and burn rates or tackling the legal and regulatory hurdles that often go hand-in-hand with the creation of disruptive technologies. Unfortunately, given the size and complexity of the average founder’s workload, it is no surprise that emerging companies of all sizes occasionally neglect to heed the advice of their attorneys and ensure that any and all corporate actions taken by the company and its officers are properly authorized and, if necessary, approved by the company’s Board and stockholders.
Under the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”) otherwise permissible corporate acts that do not satisfy the consent and other procedural requirements of the DGCL, the corporation’s organizational documents or any other agreement to which the corporation is a party, are deemed to be “defective corporate acts” and are generally held to be void and of no legal force and effect.[i] The pre-2014 historical body of Delaware case law held such corporate acts, taken without “scrupulous adherence to the statutory formalities” of the DGCL, to be acts undertaken “without the authority of law” and therefore necessarily void.[ii] Prior to the enactment of Sections 204 and 205 of the DGCL, the relevant line of Delaware case law held that corporate acts, transactions and equity issuances that were void or voidable as a result of the corporation’s failure to comply with the procedural requirements of the DGCL and the corporation’s governing documents could not be retroactively ratified or validated by either (i) unilateral acts of the Corporation intended to cure the procedural misstep or (ii) on equitable grounds in the context of litigation or a formal petition for relief to the Court of Chancery.[iii] In short, there was no legally recognized cure for such defective actions and the company was left forever exposed to future claims by disgruntled shareholders, which could ultimately jeopardize future financings, exits and ultimately the very existence of the company.
The Statutory Cure
Luckily, for those founders who make the potentially serious misstep of failing to obtain the required consents and approvals before taking a particular action (e.g. issuing options to employees or executing a convertible note or SAFE without the prior consent of the Board), in 2014 Delaware enacted Sections 204 and 205 of the DGCL, which served to clarify the state of the law in Delaware and fill a perceived gap in the DGCL by providing new mechanisms for a corporation to unilaterally ratify defective corporate acts or otherwise seek relief from the Court of Chancery.[iv]
While both Sections 204 and 205 were intended to remedy the same underlying issue and provide a clear process for ratifying or validating a defective corporate act, the mechanics set forth in the respective sections take disparate routes to arrive at the intended result:
- Section 205 provides a pathway for ratification that runs through the courts, allowing a corporation, on an ex parte basis, to request that the court determine the validity of any corporate act.
- Section 204, on the other hand, is considered a “self-help statute” in the sense that the procedural mechanic provided for in the statute allows a company to ratify the previously defective act unilaterally, without the time and expense involved with petitioning the court for validation of the corporate act in question.
In the case of early stage companies, the expenditure of the heavy costs and valuable time associated with seeking validation in the Court of Chancery render Section 205 a less than ideal tool for curing defective acts. This post therefore focuses on Section 204, which provides a far less onerous mechanic for ratifying defective corporate acts, allowing a corporation to cure past errors “without disproportionately disruptive consequences.”[v]
Section 204 in Practice
Section 204 provides Delaware corporations with a procedure to remedy otherwise void or voidable corporate acts, providing that “no defective corporate act or putative stock shall be void or voidable solely as a result of a failure of authorization if ratified as provided in [Section 204].”[vi] Pursuant to Section 204, a corporation’s Board may retroactively ratify defective corporate acts by adopting written resolutions setting forth:
- the specific defective corporate act(s) to be ratified;
- the date on which such act(s) occurred;
- the underlying facts that render the act(s) in question defective (e.g., failure to obtain the authorization of the Board or inadequate number of authorized shares); and
- that the Board has approved the ratification of the defective corporate act(s).
Additionally, if a vote of one or more classes of stockholders was initially required to authorize the defective act at the time such act was taken (e.g., the approval of a majority of the Series A preferred stockholders in the case of an act that falls within the purview of the Series A protective provisions), then ratifying resolutions of the relevant class of stockholders are also required in order to cure the prior defect in the corporate act.
In sum, founders and their Boards should, at minimum, undertake the below listed procedural steps* in order to ensure that otherwise defective corporate acts are cured and ratified in the manner prescribed by the DGCL.
- A resolution by the Board setting forth (i) the defective corporate act to be ratified, (ii) the date of the defective act, (iii) if shares or other equity is involved, the number, class and date of the equity issuance, (iv) the reason for the defect, and (v) the approval and ratification by the Board of the defective corporate act.
- Approval of the stockholders or a particular class of stockholders (in the form of a written consent) if such an approval was required at the time of the defective corporate act.
- Proper notice of the ratification sent to all stockholders (including stock that may have been invalidly issued). The notice must include a copy of the ratifying resolution/consent and an explanation that any claim that the ratification in question is not effective must be brought before the Court of Chancery no later than 120 days from the effective date of the ratification.
- In certain circumstances, the filing of a “Certificate of Validation” with the Delaware Department of State to cure the defective corporate act being ratified (e.g., if shares were issued without filing the necessary Certificate of Amendment to increase the authorized shares of a corporation).
*This list should not be considered all-inclusive. Each situation is unique and further actions may be required depending on the underlying facts and the cause of the defect in question.
The potential adverse impact of an uncured defective corporate act cannot be understated. For an early stage company seeking to raise capital from venture investors or other outside parties (or eventually exit through an acquisition), the risks associated with such defective acts are particularly acute. As a practical example, a corporation’s failure to observe the proper procedures in the election of a director can result in the invalidation of such election. In the event of such a defective election, actions taken by, or with the approval of, the improperly elected Board may be void or voidable. This or other defective corporate acts may result in the corporation being in breach of representations and warranties in any number of contracts, including stock purchase agreements executed as part of a financing round or M&A transaction.
Generally speaking, relatively extensive due diligence is typically the first step in all venture financings and other major corporate transactions. As part of this process, counsel for the investor or acquiror will undoubtedly review all material actions of the company along with the corresponding Board and stockholder consents as a means of “tying out” the company’s cap table. Any defective corporate act that was not later ratified by the company in accordance with Section 204 or 205 will at best need to be ratified or validated in advance of the closing of the transaction, and at worst may result in either (i) a reduction in the company’s valuation due to the perceived risk that past actions are ultimately void or unenforceable, or (ii) in extreme situations, the abandonment or termination of the transaction.
In an ideal world, companies of all sizes would always observe the proper procedures in authorizing corporate acts and ensuring that all other necessary steps are taken to ensure the validity of such actions. Unfortunately, in the fast-paced and often frenzied world of a startup, certain “housekeeping” items occasionally fall by the wayside. Upon the discovery of a defective corporate act by a company or its counsel, it is vital that the proper ratification procedures be undertaken in order to ensure that any and all past actions that could potentially be rendered defective are rectified and ratified in accordance with Section 204 (or in some cases Section 205) of the DGCL.
[i] A “defective corporate act” includes any corporate act or transaction that was within the power granted to a corporation by the DGCL but was thereafter determined to have been void or voidable for failure to comply with the applicable provisions of the DGCL, the corporation’s governing documents, or any plan or agreement to which the corporation is a party. See 8 Del. C. § 204(h)(1); See also, e.g., Blades v. Wisehart, C.A. No. 5317-VCS, at 8 (Del. Ch. Nov. 17, 2010) (requiring “scrupulous adherence to statutory formalities when a board takes actions changing a corporation’s capital structure”); STAAR Surgical Co. v. Waggoner, 588 A.2d 1130, 1136 (Del. 1991) (“stock issued without authority of law is void and a nullity”).
[ii] See, e.g., Blades v. Wisehart, C.A. No. 5317-VCS, at 8 (Del. Ch. Nov. 17, 2010) (requiring “scrupulous adherence to statutory formalities when a board takes actions changing a corporation’s capital structure”); STAAR Surgical Co. v. Waggoner, 588 A.2d 1130, 1136 (Del. 1991) (“stock issued without authority of law is void and a nullity”).
[iv] See H.B. 127, 147th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Del. 2013): “Section 204 is intended to overturn the holdings in case law . . . that corporate acts or transactions and stock found to be “void” due to a failure to comply with the applicable provisions of the General Corporation Law or the corporation’s organizational documents may not be ratified or otherwise validated on equitable grounds.”
[v] In re Numoda Corp. S’holders Litig., Consol. C.A. No. 9163-VCN, 2015 WL 402265, at 8 (Del. Ch. Jan. 30, 2015).
[vi] 8 Del. C. § 204(a).