A Caremark Retrospective: Part II – Holdings and Rationale | Thomas Fox – Compliance Evangelist

Today, I continue my exploration of two of the most significant cases regarding Boards of Directors and corporate compliance; the Caremark and Stone v. Ritter decisions. The former decision was released in 1996 and the latter, some ten years later in 2006. The original Caremark decision laid the foundation for the modern obligations of Boards of Directors in oversight of compliance in general and a company’s risk management profile in particular. Stone v. Ritter confirmed the ongoing vitality of the original Caremark decision. Yesterday, in Part 1, we reviewed the underlying facts of the Caremark decision. Today, in Part II, we consider the holdings and the legal reasoning. Perhaps the most interesting thing about both cases is that even though the Court in Caremark delineated the doctrine and in Stone v. Ritter confirmed it, both Courts ruled against the moving parties and for the defendant corporate Boards.



In Caremark, the Court began by noting that director liability for a breach of the duty to exercise appropriate attention can come up in two distinct contexts. In the first, liability can occur from a board decision that results “in a loss because that decision was ill advised or “negligent””. In the second, board liability for a loss “may be said to arise from an unconsidered failure of the board to act in circumstances in which due attention would, arguably, have prevented the loss.”

However, any decision is tempered by the following, what “may not widely be understood by courts or commentators who are not often required to face such questions, is that compliance with a director’s duty of care can never appropriately be judicially determined by reference to the content of the board decision that leads to a corporate loss, apart from consideration of the good faith or rationality of the process employed.” In other words, if there is a process or protocol in place a board cannot be said to have violated its duty, even with “degrees of wrong extending through “stupid” to “egregious” or “irrational”.” To do so would abrogate the Business Judgment Rule.

The Caremark court went so far as to cite Learned Hand for the following, “They are the general advisors of the business and if they faithfully give such ability as they have to their charge, it would not be lawful to hold them liable. Must a director guarantee that his judgment is good? Can a shareholder call him to account for deficiencies that their votes assured him did not disqualify him for his office? While he may not have been the Cromwell for that Civil War, Andrews did not engage to play any such role.”

However, there is a second type of liability which boards can run afoul of under Caremark, and it is the one which seems to the liability under which most boards are found wanting in successful Caremark claims. It is when “director liability for inattention is theoretically possible entail  circumstances in which a loss eventuates not from a decision but, from unconsidered inaction.” This was a departure from prior Delaware case law which said that a board did not have to look for wrongdoing but only had to investigate if informed about it. That was from an old 1963 decision and the Court relied on the 1992 US Sentencing Guidelines to note how such views were no longer accepted. Board obligations had changed by 1996 with the following, “obligation to be reasonably informed concerning the corporation, without assuring themselves that information and reporting systems exist in the organization that are reasonably designed to provide to senior management and to the board itself timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning both the corporation’s compliance with law and its business performance.”

Stone v. Ritter

This case involved money laundering and a bank’s failure to report suspicious activity which led to an employee running a Ponzi scheme. The bank in question was fined over $40 million. Once again, the plaintiffs were not successful in their claims. The Stone v. Ritter court approved the Caremark Doctrine and went on to further specify thatCaremark required a “lack of good faith as a “necessary condition to liability”.” It is because the Court was not focusing simply on the results but in the board’s overall conduct “of the fundamental duty of loyalty.” It follows that because a showing of bad faith conduct, “is essential to establish director oversight liability, the fiduciary duty violated by that conduct is the duty of loyalty.”

Interestingly, the Court added what it termed as “two additional doctrinal consequences.” First, although good faith is a “part of a “triad” of fiduciary duties that includes the duties of care and loyalty, the obligation to act in good faith does not establish an independent fiduciary duty that stands on the same footing as the duties of care and loyalty.” Violations of the duties of care and loyalty may result in direct liability, whereas a failure to act in good faith may do so, but it would only result in indirect liability. The second consequence is that the “duty of loyalty is not limited to cases involving a financial or other cognizable fiduciary conflict of interest. It also encompasses cases where the fiduciary fails to act in good faith. As the Court of Chancery aptly put it in Guttman, “[a] director cannot act loyally towards the corporation unless she acts in the good faith belief that her actions are in the corporation’s best interest.””

The Stone v. Ritter court ended by further refining the Caremark Doctrine to define the necessary conditions for director liability under Caremark. They are:

  1. Directors utterly failed to implement any reporting or information system or controls;
  2. If they have implemented such a system or controls, consciously failed to monitor or oversee its operations thus disabling themselves from being informed of risks or problems requiring their attention.

In either situation, imposition of liability requires a showing that the directors knew that they were not discharging their fiduciary obligations. Where directors fail to act in the face of a known duty to act, thereby demonstrating a conscious disregard for their responsibilities, they breach their duty of loyalty by failing to discharge that fiduciary obligation in good faith.

As usual, once I get started, I often cannot stop so in my next blog post (or two) I will consider how this has evolved.

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