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Mills v. Electric Auto-Lite Co.

decided: April 7, 1977.

ELMER E. MILLS AND LOUIS SUSMAN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, CROSS-APPELLEES,
v.
THE ELECTRIC AUTO-LITE COMPANY, MERGENTHALER LINOTYPE COMPANY, AND AMERICAN MANUFACTURING COMPANY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES, CROSS-APPELLANTS



Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 63 C 1138 - James B. Parsons, Judge.

Swygert and Cummings, Circuit Judges, and William J. Jameson, Senior District Judge.*fn1

Author: Swygert

SWYGERT, Circuit Judge.

The principal issue in this appeal is whether the terms of a merger between Mergenthaler Linotype Company ("Mergenthaler") and the Electric Auto-Lite Company ("Auto-Lite") were fair to Auto-Lite's minority shareholders. We hold that the merger terms were fair and reverse the judgment of the district court.

I

This is the second time that this case has come before us. In order to place this appeal in its proper perspective, we will briefly review the case's history.

Prior to 1960 Auto-Lite primarily manufactured automotive parts and equipment. Because of changes in the automobile industry in the late 1950's, the continuation of its traditional business was threatened and it began a program of diversification into other industries. Nonetheless, in 1963 a substantial percentage of its sales remained tied to the automobile industry.

Mergenthaler produced and distributed typesetting equipment. It began to purchase Auto-Lite stock in 1957 and by March 1962 had acquired 54.2 percent of Auto-Lite. At that point Auto-Lite became a subsidiary of Mergenthaler and Mergenthaler obtained control of the Auto-Lite Board of Directors.

In early 1963 Mergenthaler decided to attempt a merger of itself and Auto-Lite into a new company to be called "Eltra Corporation." The Auto-Lite Board voted to accept the proposed merger on May 28, 1963 and on May 29 a request for proxies was sent to shareholders accompanied by a statement in which the Board endorsed the merger. The holders of approximately thirteen percent of the minority shares had to approve the merger in order to secure the two-thirds vote necessary for ratification. The merger was approved at a shareholders' meeting on June 27, 1963 and became effective on June 28, 1963.

Plaintiffs, who were Auto-Lite shareholders representing themselves and all other minority Auto-Lite shareholders, filed suit on June 26, 1963 in the district court for the Northern District of Illinois. They sought to set aside the merger on the ground that the proxy statement was deceptive because it endorsed the merger without clearly disclosing that the Auto-Lite Board was controlled by Mergenthaler. The district court agreed with plaintiffs' theory and held that the proxy statement violated section 14(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. It also held that the plaintiffs had shown a causal relationship between the proxy statement and the consummation of the merger. 281 F. Supp. 826 (N.D. Ill. 1967).

This court affirmed the district court's holding that the proxy statement was illegally deceptive but reversed on the causality issue, holding that no relief could be appropriate if the defendants could show "by a preponderance of probabilities" that the merger would have been approved even if the proxy statement had not been deceptive. 403 F.2d 429, 436 (7th Cir. 1968).

The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the judgment of the district court. It held that "where there has been a finding of materiality, a shareholder has made a sufficient showing of causal relationship between the violation and the injury for which he seeks redress if, as here, he proves that the proxy solicitation itself, rather than the particular defect in the solicitation materials, was an essential link in the accomplishment of the transaction." 396 U.S. 375, 385, 90 S. Ct. 616, 24 L. Ed. 2d 593 (1970).

The Court went on to consider the relief to which plaintiffs were entitled. It noted that the merger did not need to be set aside because of the deception in the proxy statement, though a court could order such action if it were warranted by equitable considerations. It then discussed the possibility of monetary relief and stated:

Where, as here, the misleading aspect of the solicitation did not relate to terms of the merger, monetary relief might be afforded to the shareholders only if the merger resulted in a reduction of the earnings or earnings potential of their holdings. In short, damages should be recoverable only to the extent that they can be shown. If commingling of the assets and operations of the merged companies makes it impossible to establish direct injury from the merger, relief might be predicated on a determination of the fairness of the terms of the merger at the time it was approved. These questions, of course, are for decision in the first instance by the District Court on remand, and our singling out of some of the possibilities is not intended to exclude others. 396 U.S. at 388-89.

Finally, the Court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to be reimbursed by the corporation for litigation expenses and reasonable attorneys' fees.

The case then moved back to the district court for a determination of the appropriate relief. The court first held that the merger should not be rescinded. It then determined that the merger terms were unfair to plaintiffs and awarded the class they represent $1,233,918.35, as well as approximately $740,000 in prejudgment interest. It further held that plaintiffs' attorneys should be compensated out of this award.

Both parties now appeal from the district court's judgment. Plaintiffs contend that the amount of damages was too low and that their attorneys' fees should be assessed against defendants rather than against the damages awarded. Defendants assert that no damages ...


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