NJ Appellate Division Rules Shareholders Can Inspect Board Minutes

An August 17, 2010 New Jersey decision may be negative for businesses in New Jersey despite what on the surface is  a win for a large corporation.   In Cain v. Merck & Co., Inc., the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed whether the New Jersey Business Corporation Act entitles shareholders to inspect the minutes of the board of directors and the minutes of executive committees, and if so, the breadth of that right of inspection.  According to the court, resolution of these questions:  centers on the proper construction of N.J.S.A. 14A:5-28(4) of the Act. In pertinent part, that statute allows shareholders, upon proof of a “proper purpose,” to examine “the books and records of account, minutes, and record of shareholders of a corporation.” N.J.S.A. 14A:5-28(4).

In what appears to be a case of first impression in New Jersey, the Appellate Division concluded that the qualified right of inspection under the statute extends to the minutes of the board of directors and the executive committee – and not just to the minutes of the shareholder meeting.   The court, however, limited this right of inspection to only those portions of the board minutes that address their “proper purpose.”  In other words, shareholders are “not entitled to examine the minutes in order to explore unsubstantiated allegations of general mismanagement.”

It is not clear whether Merck will appeal given that it, in effect, won its alternative argument, namely that the review should be limited to discussions related to a study conducted by Merck rather than a broader review that on its face does not have such a  “proper purpose.”  According to a Merck spokesman, “we’re evaluating our next steps.” 

If left as binding authority, this decision may have huge ramifications for large and public businesses in New Jersey.   As it stands, the decision extends the reach of the statute – which appears on its face to be limited to shareholder meetings – to the much more deliberative board meetings of a corporation.  It gives litigants a new tool and may cause directors to be more restrained when providing advice given their decision-making process may now be opened up to a much greater extent.  Moreover, this obviously potentially increases the liability of directors and officers so there may be a potential increase in claims – with a resulting increase in D&O insurance premiums.   Although the lower court did recognize that the minutes should be redacted for privileged material, now that the door is open, future judges will have free reign to decide what is deemed “a proper purpose” or privileged material.   In other words, there is no guarantee a future judge won’t allow the fishing expedition rejected by the Appellate Division in this case.