Longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedents interpreting the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) coupled with more recent corporate law decisions in Delaware have sparked concerns that public corporations may adopt arbitration provisions precluding shareholder lawsuits, particularly securities fraud class actions. In this Article, we show that these concerns are misplaced. It should be trivially easy for courts to conclude that an arbitration provision set forth in a corporate charter or bylaw is unenforceable against public company shareholders. Simply put, it is a matter of equity and the integral role that a state plays in chartering corporations.
Starting first with the corporate law of Delaware, where most public companies are incorporated, we explain that all corporate charter and bylaw provisions must be “twice tested”: they must be both legal and equitable to be enforceable. Applying the twice-tested framework, we then demonstrate that an arbitration provision precluding class actions would be inequitable because it would deny the vast majority of shareholders a remedy for violations of federal securities law, transfer wealth from smaller shareholders to the largest investors, insulate corporate managers and boards from accountability in a manner inconsistent with established state policy, and rupture the balance between federal and state regulation of public corporations.
Turning next to federal law, we demonstrate that Delaware’s ban on shareholder arbitration is not preempted, despite the Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of the FAA. Here, our analysis starkly departs from prior scholarship. Rather than denying the contractual nature of a corporation’s governing documents, we embrace what the courts have repeatedly stated, that a corporation’s charter and bylaws are a binding contract between the corporation and its shareholders. However, we broaden the aperture to reveal another party to the corporate contract: the state that has chartered the corporation. This insight is critical with regard to interpretation of the FAA. The FAA applies only where there is an agreement to arbitrate, and there can be no such agreement where the chartering state has through its corporate law withheld its assent to arbitration. Thus, without state assent to shareholder arbitration, the essential precondition for application of the FAA is absent.