Most states allow stockholders to demand access to a corporation’s books and records, and a stockholder list, as long as the stockholder has a proper purpose and meets certain procedural requirements.
Delaware General Corporation Law Section 220(b) provides that “Any stockholder, in person or by attorney or other agent, shall, upon written demand under oath stating the purpose thereof, have the right during the usual hours for business to inspect for any proper purpose, and to make copies and extracts from … [t]he corporation’s stock ledger, a list of its stockholders, and its other books and records …”
A stockholder that wants to exercise inspection rights should probably engage an experienced attorney because a corporation can reject the request for failure to comply with procedural requirements.
If the corporation refuses to permit an inspection or does not reply to the demand within 5 business days, the stockholder may apply to the Delaware Court of Chancery for an order to compel such inspection.
One requirement for exercising inspection rights is a proper purpose for the demand. Section 220(b) provides that “[a] proper purpose shall mean a purpose reasonably related to such person’s interest as a stockholder.”
Delaware courts have held that the following purposes, among others, are proper: gather information prior to filing a stockholder derivative suit, communication with other stockholders regarding a solicitation of proxies, communication with other stockholders regarding a stockholder class action against the corporation, communication with other stockholders for the purpose of influencing management to change its policies, communication with other stockholders to encourage them to dissent from merger and seek appraisal, valuation of one’s stockholdings, and investigation of suspected mismanagement where some credible basis for the stockholder’s suspicions is shown to exist.
Courts have rejected inspections for purposes such as: gaining information to facilitate a tender offer when the stockholder has already been enjoined from pursuing a tender offer, valuing the company as a whole in order to determine whether to increase one’s bid in a tender offer, gathering information for use in a stockholder’s individual employment-related claims against the corporation, obtaining information to use to exert economic pressure upon a third party in connection with a labor union’s strike, or satisfying idle curiosity.
If a stockholder seeks to inspect only the corporation’s stock ledger or list of stockholders, the burden of proof is on the corporation to establish that the inspection if for an improper purpose. If the stockholder seeks to inspect the corporation’s books and records, other than its stock ledger or list of stockholders, then the burden of proof is on the stockholder to show a proper purpose.
A stockholder will be entitled to inspect documents that are essential and sufficient to the accomplishment of the proper purpose. The Court of Chancery may “prescribe any limitations or conditions with reference to the inspection, or award such other or further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.” A stockholder may be required to execute a confidentiality agreement in order to exercise inspection rights.
Given that disgruntled stockholders can create problems by exercising inspection rights, companies should be careful about their stockholder base.