The Court first turned to Section 115, which provides that a corporation’s bylaws, “consistent with applicable jurisdictional requirements,” may require that internal corporate claims be brought “in any or all of the courts in this State.” The Court focused on two aspects of Section 115: the requirement that a forum selection clause be “consistent with applicable jurisdictional requirements” and the reference to “the courts in this State” (emphasis supplied). The Court determined that Boeing’s forum selection clause was inconsistent with exclusive federal jurisdiction for claims brought under the Exchange Act. As the Court explained, by requiring that such actions must be brought in the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware, the Boeing forum selection clause effectively barred plaintiffs from bringing a derivative claim under Section 14(a). Additionally, the Court emphasized that Section 115 refers to “the courts in this State,” rather than “the courts of this State,” which indicates that Section 115 contemplates forum selection clauses encompassing both federal and state courts located in Delaware.
While the Court did not look to the legislative history of Section 115, the synopsis for Senate Bill No. 75, the legislation which enacted the 2015 amendments to the DGCL, including Section 115, states in pertinent part: “Section 115 also is not intended to authorize a provision that purports to foreclose suit in a federal court based on federal jurisdiction.”
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Easterbrook questioned whether a federal right to pursue a derivative claim under §14(a) exists, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court “has never held or even intimated” that there is such a right. Judge Easterbrook also questioned the notion of exclusive federal jurisdiction in the context of a derivative action, since state law defines how and when such actions can be brought.
Impact of Decision
Given the Court’s reliance on Delaware law to provide a rationale for its holding, the most obvious question arising from this decision is whether Delaware courts will agree with the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of Section 115. Considering the legislative history of Section 115, which neither the majority—nor Judge Easterbrook’s dissent—mentioned, it is likely that the Delaware courts will conclude that Section 115 cannot be used to deprive shareholders of the ability to bring claims arising under federal law in Delaware federal courts. The Delaware Chancery Court will have an opportunity to address this very question in a class action brought by Seafarers in Delaware under the same facts. In the Chancery Court action, stayed pending the outcome of the Seventh Circuit appeal, Seafarers challenges the legality of the forum-selection clause under Sections 115 and 109(b) of the Delaware General Corporation Law.
The Ninth Circuit also will have a chance to weigh in on this issue, where a decision of the district court for the Northern District of California in Lee v. Fisher is currently under appeal. The forum-selection clause in Fisher is identical to the one at issue in Seafarers: it requires that actions be brought in the Delaware Chancery Court. Similar to the district court in Seafarers, the Fisher Court enforced the forum-selection clause and dismissed the action. Notably, the Fisher Court explained that, under Ninth Circuit precedent, strong federal policy favors enforcing forum-selection clauses over anti-waiver provisions in state or federal statutes. If the Ninth Circuit agrees, a Circuit split would exist, ripe for resolution by the U.S. Supreme Court.