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United BioSource LLC v. Bracket Holding Corp.

Court of Chancery of Delaware

May 23, 2017

United BioSource LLC
Bracket Holding Corp.

          Date Submitted: March 21, 2017

          Edward B. Micheletti, Esquire Cliff C. Gardner, Esquire Matthew P. Majarian Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

          David E. Ross, Esquire Eric D. Selden, Esquire Nicholas D. Mozal, Esquire Ross Aronstam & Moritz LLP

         Dear Counsel:

         This letter constitutes the Court's decision on plaintiff United BioSource LLC's motion for summary judgment on its Verified Complaint for Specific Performance (the "Complaint") and defendant Bracket Holding Corp.'s motion to dismiss the Complaint. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted and defendant's motion to dismiss is denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff United BioSource LLC ("UBC") is a Delaware limited liability company with its primary place of business in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Its ultimate parent company is Express Scripts, Inc., a major healthcare company.

          Defendant Bracket Holding Corp. ("Bracket") is a Delaware corporation with its headquarters in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Bracket provides scientific, technical and operational support to pharmaceutical firms in connection with clinical trials and other research.[1]

         On July 12, 2013, UBC and Bracket entered into a Securities Purchase Agreement ("SPA"), pursuant to which Bracket purchased all "equity interests and ownership interests" in three subsidiaries of UBC (as defined in the SPA, the "Companies") and three subsidiaries of the Companies (as defined in the SPA, the "Company Subsidiaries").[2] One of the Company Subsidiaries that Bracket purchased as part of the transaction (the "Transaction") is P-Star Acquisition Co., Inc. ("P-Star").[3]

         Section 2.6(e) of the SPA governs the handling of certain tax refunds relating to pre-closing periods that may be received after the Transaction's closing. It states, in relevant part, that:

Except to the extent included as a current asset on the Final Statement pursuant to Section 2.5, any cash Tax refunds (or a credit in lieu of a cash refund) and interest paid thereon by a Governmental Authority received by the Buyer, any of the Companies or any of the Company Subsidiaries, or to which the Buyer, any of the Companies or any of the Company Subsidiaries become entitled, that relate to Pre-Closing Periods or the portion of the Straddle Period ending at the Effective Time shall be for the account of Parent, and the Buyer shall pay over to Parent any such Tax refund and interest or the amount of any such credit within fifteen (15) days after receipt or entitlement thereto, net of (1) any reasonable costs associated with obtaining such refund, (2) any applicable withholding Taxes required to be withheld on such payment, and (3) any Taxes incurred in respect of the receipt or payment of such refund. . . . In the event the Buyer or Parent, as applicable fails to pay to the other party any such amounts due under this Section 2.6(e) within the time period specified, the Buyer or Parent, as applicable, shall pay, in addition to the amounts due, interest on such amount, compounded annually, calculated using a 365 day year from the date of receipt or entitlement thereto through the date prior to the date of payment at the prime lending rate of Bank of America, N.A. as in effect as of the date of receipt or entitlement thereto.[4]

         On August 5, 2016, P-Star received a tax refund in the amount of $4, 566, 646.88 from the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (the "Tax Refund").[5]

         On September 22, 2016, Bracket sent a letter to UBC notifying it that P-Star had received the Tax Refund, which was "for the periods of April 1, 2012 through December 31, 2012 and January 1, 2013 through August 14, 2013."[6] The letter further stated that: "Bracket (through P-Star) is holding these funds in a separate interest bearing account during the pendency of its lawsuit against UBC and [Express Scripts, Inc.] currently pending in the Delaware Superior Court."[7]

         On October 18, 2016, UBC sent Bracket a "Notice of Claim and Intent to Seek Specific Performance." It demanded that Bracket "pay over to [UBC] the Tax Refund and all additional funds, including interest, "[8] but Bracket refused to do so.[9]

         On November 8, 2016, UBC filed the Complaint in this action, asserting a single claim for specific performance. Specifically, the Complaint asserts that Bracket "breached Section 2.6(e) of the SPA by failing to forward the Pennsylvania Tax Refund to UBC within fifteen days of P-Star's receipt thereof, " and seeks "an order of specific performance compelling Bracket to immediately forward the Pennsylvania Tax Refund to UBC pursuant to the terms of Section 2.6(e) of the SPA."[10]

         On December 6, 2016, UBC filed a motion for summary judgment seeking entry of an order to require Bracket to immediately forward the Tax Refund to UBC. That same day, Bracket filed a motion to dismiss under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim for relief. Oral argument on both motions was heard on March 7, 2017, during which the Court requested supplemental submissions, which were provided on March 21, 2017.

         II. Analysis

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         The Court of Chancery is a court of limited jurisdiction and "[w]henever it appears by suggestion of the parties or otherwise that the Court lacks jurisdiction of the subject matter, the Court shall dismiss the action."[11] The Court "can acquire subject matter jurisdiction over a cause in only three ways, namely, if: (1) one or more of the plaintiff's claims for relief is equitable in character, (2) the plaintiff requests relief that is equitable in nature, or (3) subject matter jurisdiction is conferred by statute."[12] "Equitable jurisdiction must be determined from the face of the complaint as of the time of filing, with all material factual allegations viewed as true."[13] In determining jurisdiction, this Court

will take a practical view of the complaint, and will not permit a suit to be brought in Chancery where a complete legal remedy otherwise exists but where the plaintiff has prayed for some type of traditional equitable relief as a kind of formulaic "open sesame" to the Court of Chancery. A practical analysis of the adequacy of any legal remedy, then, must be the point of departure for each matter which comes before this Court.[14]

         Bracket argues that UBC has an adequate remedy at law because what UBC really seeks to gain from this action is the payment of a monetary sum, and thus this Court does not have equitable jurisdiction over UBC's claim.[15] In response, UBC first points to the parties' stipulation in Section 10.14 of the SPA that:

(a) The Parties hereto agree that irreparable damage would occur if any provision of this Agreement were not performed in accordance with the terms hereof and that, . . . the Parties shall be entitled, without posting a bond or similar indemnity, to an injunction or injunctions to prevent breaches of this Agreement or to enforce specifically the performance of the terms and provisions hereof in any court as specified in Section 10.10, in addition to any other remedy to which they are entitled at law or equity.
(c) Each of the parties agrees that it will not oppose the granting of an injunction, specific performance and other equitable relief (if the applicable conditions with respect thereto have been satisfied hereunder) on the basis that (x) the other party has an adequate remedy at law or (y) an award of specific performance is not an appropriate remedy for any reason at law or equity.[16]

         Bracket counters that the "irreparable damage" stipulation in Section 10.14 is not as broad as UBC argues because Section 9.8 of the SPA allegedly limits the kind of equitable relief that UBC could seek to that which is "non-monetary" in nature. According to Bracket, the specific performance remedy that UBC seeks here is "monetary" and thus should be subject to the "exclusive remedy" provision of Section 9.8.[17] The relevant part of Section 9.8 states:

after the Closing, the indemnification provisions set forth in this Article IX shall provide the exclusive remedy for breach of any covenant, agreement or representation or warranty set forth in this Agreement . . .; provided however, such limitation shall not impair the rights of any of the Parties to seek non-monetary equitable relief, including specific performance or injunctive relief to redress any default or breach of this Agreement (subject to the terms and conditions set forth in Section 10.14). In connection with the seeking of any non-monetary equitable relief, each of the Parties acknowledges and agrees that the other Party hereto would be damaged irreparably in the event any of the provisions of this Agreement are not performed in accordance with their specific terms or otherwise are breached.[18]

         As curious as the nomenclature "non-monetary equitable relief" is, the text of Section 9.8 reflects that the parties contemplated that it would include "specific performance."[19] Thus, the inquiry before the Court remains the appropriateness of specific performance as a form of relief in this action. In conducting this inquiry, the parties' "irreparable damage" stipulation in Section 10.14 of the SPA, quoted above, is not controlling. "It is a cardinal principle of the law that jurisdiction of a court over the subject matter cannot be conferred by consent or agreement."[20]Rather, the Court must engage in a practical analysis of the adequacy of a legal remedy.[21]

         To be adequate, "a legal remedy must be available as a matter of right, be full, fair and complete, and be as practical to the ends of justice and to prompt administration as the remedy in equity."[22] UBC argues that a damages award in this action "would not be as certain, prompt, complete, or efficient" as an order of specific performance because a non-party to this action, P-Star, is currently holding the Tax Refund in a separate account.[23] The primary authority on which UBC relies for support is East Balt LLC v. East Balt US, LLC.

         In East Balt, plaintiffs sought an order compelling defendants to direct an escrow agent to release certain escrow funds. Defendants moved to dismiss under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that a legal remedy of money damages would be adequate.[24] Although noting that defendants' arguments for dismissal "are not without merit, " the Court ultimately held "it is capable of providing a more certain, prompt, complete, and efficient remedy than is available at law."[25] In reaching this conclusion, the Court adopted this Court's reasoning in SecNet Holding, LLC v. Potash and Xlete, Inc. v. Willey, both of which also involved funds held by non-party escrow agents. In SecNet and Xlete, the Court observed that even if plaintiff could obtain a judgment for damages in a law court, "defendants have failed to show how plaintiff could then enforce its judgment as to the sum held in escrow."[26]

         The facts here are analogous. The Tax Refund is currently being held by P-Star, a non-party to this action, in a separate account. Although P-Star is a subsidiary of Bracket, Bracket has failed to demonstrate how UBC could "enforce its judgment as to the sum held" by P-Star. In this regard, it is notable that in both East Balt and SecNet, the Court concluded that a legal remedy would be inadequate despite the fact that, under the relevant escrow agreement, the escrow agent was "required to release disputed funds upon receipt of a certified copy of a final, non-appealable order or judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction as to the proper distribution of all or a portion of such Disputed Amount."[27] Bracket does not contend that P-Star is under any obligation to release the Tax Refund once a court of competent jurisdiction enters a damages award against Bracket, and indeed, it is not apparent how a damages award against Bracket would have any legal effect on P-Star, which is a separate legal entity.

         Furthermore, UBC alleges-and I must assume the allegation to be true for purposes of the subject matter jurisdiction analysis[28]-that Bracket's parent company is currently planning to sell Bracket and the Companies.[29] The prospect of such a sale could inject uncertainty into Bracket's ability to fulfill a $4.6 million money judgment. Under these circumstances, an order of specific performance compelling Bracket to direct P-Star to forward the Tax Refund to UBC immediately along with the accrued interest would be more "certain, prompt, complete, and efficient" than a damages award. Therefore, UBC has established that specific performance is a proper form of relief for its contract claim and thus that the Court has equitable jurisdiction over this action.[30]

         B.Bracket's Motion ...

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