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Salberg v. Genworth Financial, Inc.

Court of Chancery of Delaware

July 27, 2017


          Submitted: May 1, 2017

          Jessica Zeldin, Esquire and P. Bradford deLeeuw, Esquire of Rosenthal, Monhait & Goddess, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware; Judith S. Scolnick, Esquire, Thomas L. Laughlin IV, Esquire and Donald A. Broggi, Esquire of Scott䧊, Attorneys At Law, LLP, New York, New York; David R. Scott, Esquire of Scott䧊, Attorneys at Law, LLP, Colchester, Connecticut; Robert C. Schubert, Esquire, Willem F. Jonckheer, Esquire and Dustin L Schubert Esquire of Schubert Jonckheer & Kolbe LLP, San Francisco, California; Robert B. Weiser, Esquire, Brett D. Stecker, Esquire and James M. Ficaro, Esquire of The Weiser Law Firm P.C., Berwyn, Pennsylvania; Michael I. Fistel, Jr., Esquire of Johnson & Weaver, LLP, Marietta, Georgia; and Corey D. Holzer, Esquire of Holzer & Holzer, LLC, Atlanta, Georgia, Attorneys for Plaintiffs.

          Daniel A. Dreisbach, Esquire, Srinivas M. Raju, Esquire and Sarah A. Clark, Esquire of Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, and Greg A Danilow, Esquire, Caroline Hickey Zalka, Esquire and Evert J. Christensen, Esquire of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, New York, New York, Attorneys for Defendant.


          SLIGHTS, Vice Chancellor

          Plaintiffs, Richard L. Salberg, M.D. and David Pinkoski, filed a Verified Complaint Pursuant to 8 Del C. § 220 (the "Complaint") to compel Defendant, Genworth Financial, Inc. ("Genworth" or the "Company"), to produce unredacted copies of documents that Genworth claims are subject to the attorney-client privilege. These same Plaintiffs, represented by the same counsel, previously filed derivative claims in this Court alleging breaches of fiduciary duties by Genworth's board of directors and several of its officers (the "Derivative Action"). The derivative claims are still pending.[1]

         On October 23, 2016, after the Derivative Action was filed, Genworth announced that it had agreed to be acquired by China Oceanwide Holdings Group, Co., Ltd. ("China Oceanwide") (the "Merger"). Shortly after the announcement of the Merger, Plaintiffs made a demand on the Company to produce documents they believed would reflect whether Genworth's board of directors considered the value of the derivative claims in negotiating the merger consideration with China Oceanwide. Genworth responded to the demand and produced hundreds of pages of responsive documents. Many of these documents, however, were heavily redacted in keeping with Genworth's assertion that their contents were protected by the attorney-client privilege.

         Plaintiffs do not dispute that the Company likely has produced all documents responsive to their demand. The difficulty, of course, is that the documents are of little value to Plaintiffs given their heavily redacted state. To address this impasse, Plaintiffs invoke the well-known Garner fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege to argue that Genworth must produce unredacted documents.[2] The dispute between the parties, therefore, raises only the narrow legal issue of whether the Garner exception applies in these circumstances.

         This is my decision after "trial" on a stipulated paper record. For the reasons that follow, I conclude that Garner does not aid the Plaintiffs in this instance to overcome Genworth's invocation of the attorney-client privilege. I agree with Plaintiff that most of the factors identified by Garner as relevant when assessing whether a fiduciary exception to the privilege should apply favor their position here. Even so, these factors are neither all-inclusive nor dispositive in every case. The attorney-client privilege does not lend itself to mechanistic analysis; the court's assessment and enforcement of the privilege must take into account the relevant and unique circumstances of each case. Given that Plaintiff's demand for books and records seeks information directly related to separate claims they are actively litigating against the parties who have invoked the privilege, I am satisfied that they have failed to show good cause, at least for now, to overcome the privilege.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The limited issue joined for decision in this action has enabled the parties to stipulate to most of the relevant facts. These are my findings based on the stipulated paper record submitted as evidence at trial.[3]

         A. Parties

         Plaintiffs, Richard L. Salberg, M.D. and David Pinkoski, hold and have continuously held shares of Genworth common stock since October 2008 and April 2009, respectively. Defendant, Genworth, is a Delaware corporation with its principal executive offices in Richmond, Virginia. The Company offers a variety of financial services but specializes in writing several lines of insurance, including life, long-term care and mortgage insurance. The Company's common stock trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol "GNW."

         B. The Derivative Action

         Almost a year before making their Section 220 demand, the Plaintiffs in this action, represented by the same counsel, filed a Verified Stockholder Derivative Complaint in this Court on January 13, 2016. The complaint contained two counts for breach of fiduciary duty against the Genworth board of directors and several of its officers relating to alleged false and misleading statements made about the Company's Long-Term Care insurance business and related insurance reserves as well as its Australian mortgage insurance business. After amending their complaint twice, the operative complaint became the Verified Second Amended Stockholder Derivative Complaint filed on August 17, 2016.

         Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on September 16, 2016. Briefing on the motion was scheduled to be completed on December 2, 2016. A little more than three weeks before that date, Plaintiffs filed a motion to stay. Their basis for seeking a stay was that the Company had announced just a few weeks earlier that it would be acquired by China Oceanwide in an all-cash transaction. The concern was that Plaintiffs' standing to pursue the Derivative Action would be extinguished by the Merger prior to the adjudication of the motion to dismiss. Defendants opposed the requested stay and urged the Court to take up their motion to dismiss. Ultimately, I denied the motion to stay both because the serious allegations against the Genworth officers and directors had been looming for quite some time and because the parties had already substantially completed briefing on the motion to dismiss. After an amendment to the case scheduling order, oral argument on the motion to dismiss was held on February 20, 2017.

         C. The Section 220 Action

         Shortly after the announcement of the Merger in October 2016, and while the parties were briefing the motion to dismiss the Derivative Action, Plaintiffs made a Section 220 demand on Genworth by letter dated November 2, 2016. Plaintiffs sought books and records that would allow them to investigate the manner in which the Genworth board of directors valued the claims asserted in the Derivative Action in connection with the Merger. In response, the Company did not contest that Plaintiffs had satisfied the form and manner requirements of Section 220 and had stated a proper purpose. The Company did object to the scope of the demand but agreed to produce the minutes of certain meetings where the Genworth board discussed the value of the derivative claims in the context of the Merger.

         The parties engaged in several meet-and-confer sessions in November 2016 during which the Company agreed to produce additional board and subcommittee meeting minutes as well as all materials presented to the board concerning the value of the claims asserted in the Derivative Action. In total, Genworth produced approximately 700 pages of documents to Plaintiffs. These documents, however, were heavily redacted based on assertions of attorney-client privilege. After discussions between counsel regarding the redactions were not productive, the Company maintained its assertion of privilege and provided Plaintiffs with a privilege log on January 11, 2017.

         D. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed their Section 220 Complaint on January 12, 2017, seeking an order compelling Genworth to permit Plaintiffs to inspect unredacted copies of the books and records, or portions thereof, withheld on privilege grounds. The parties' pretrial briefs presented a single issue for decision: whether the Garner fiduciary exception should preclude Genworth from redacting documents for privilege. The trial was held on May 1, 2017.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. The Attorney-Client Privilege and the Garner Fiduciary Exception

         It is well settled in our law that the attorney-client privilege is "critical to encourage full and frank communication between attorneys and their clients and thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and administration of justice . . ."[4] This rationale holds true in cases where the client is a corporation.[5] The attorney-client privilege, rooted ...

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