In Branin v. Stein Roe Inv. Counsel, LLC, C.A. 8481-VCN, 2014 WL 2961084 (Del. Ch. June 30, 2014), the Delaware Court of Chancery held that a vested right to indemnification may not be rescinded by a subsequent amendment to the governing corporate document.

Francis S. Branin Jr. (“Branin”) owned and managed the investment management firm Brundage, Story & Rose, which was sold to Bessemer Trust, N.A. (“Bessemer”) in 2000. Nearly two years later, Branin left Bessemer and was hired by Stein Roe Investment Counsel LLC (“SRIC”), taking former clients with him.  Bessemer proceeded to sue Branin under New York’s Mohawk Doctrine, which refers to an implied covenant imposed on the seller of a business that prevents the seller from approaching former customers and attempting to regain their patronage after the seller has purported to transfer the sold business’ goodwill to the purchaser.  As a result of the legal claim by Bessemer, Branin sought indemnification under the directors and officers indemnification provisions of the operating agreement of SRIC (the “Operating Agreement”).

The Operating Agreement in effect when Branin was hired by SRIC provided that, “each member, manager or employee of [SRIC] shall be entitled to indemnification from [SRIC]for any loss, damage or claim by reason of any act or omission performed or omitted by such Person in good faith on behalf of [SRIC]” (the “Original Indemnification”).  Following the lawsuit by Bessemer, SRIC adopted an amendment to the Operating Agreement to exclude from the indemnification provision claims for damages incurred as a result of a “breach of any agreement, express or implied, entered into by such Person with one or more outside parties prior to such Person’s association with the [SRIC]” (the “Amended Indemnification”).  The issue before the Court hearing Branin’s claim against SRIC was which version of the Operating Agreement should govern.

Under Delaware law, limited liability companies have the ability to indemnify members and managers and have significant freedom to define, limit and amend these rights.  Therefore, the issue is not whether SRIC was within its rights to amend the Original Indemnification to exclude certain types of claims, but rather when Branin’s right to indemnification (pursuant to the Original Indemnification) became a vested interest.  The Court looked to the terms of the Original Indemnification, which covered a “claim” and determined that, without more, the right to indemnification would be triggered by the initial occurrence of a “claim.”  The Court concluded that Branin established the right to pursue a claim for indemnification under the Original Indemnification, agreeing with the examined case law that “generally protects indemnitees and looks to the operating agreement in place when the events giving rise to the claim accrued or when the lawsuit involving the claim was filed.” (emphasis added) See Branin at page 19.  The Court held that once a right to indemnification vests, it may not thereafter be rescinded by an amendment to the operating agreement. See Branin at page 18.

The Court, however, reinforced the concept that the terms of the agreement will govern and chose to not grant Branin’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, as there was a question of fact regarding whether Branin had satisfied all of the requirements of the Original Indemnification clause in the Operating Agreement.  In this case, the full text of the Original Indemnification included the requirements that a potential indemnitee have acted “in good faith on behalf of [SRIC] and, as applicable, in a manner reasonably believed to be within the scope of the authority conferred on [him] by this agreement.”  Therefore, Branin must still prove that he acted in good faith and within the scope of his authority in order to have a successful indemnification claim.

Although this case concerns a limited liability company and not a corporation, the concepts and reasoning behind the Court’s decision will likely be applied to claims under indemnification provisions of by-laws in the same way as it was applied to operating agreements here.  For this reason, it is important for all companies to note that while the specific restrictions and carve-outs of an indemnification provision will be applied to the facts of a claim, such indemnification provision may not be amended in order to avoid liability if the right to indemnification has already vested pursuant to the terms of such indemnification provision.

For questions or additional information, please contact Ariel Yehezkel (212-634-3064), Thomas Michael (212-634-3055) or your usual Sheppard Mullin contact.