Friday, February 16, 2018

Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era

This may be obsolete by the time you read this post, but here are my thoughts on Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era. Thank you, Joan Heminway and the wonderful law review editors of Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law. The abstract is below:

With Republicans controlling Congress, a Republican CEO as President, a “czar” appointed to oversee deregulation, and billionaires leading key Cabinet posts, corporate America had reason for optimism following President Trump’s unexpected election in 2016. However, the first year of the Trump Administration has not yielded the kinds of results that many business people had originally anticipated. This Essay will thus outline how general counsel, boards, compliance officers, and institutional investors should think about risk during this increasingly volatile administration. 

Specifically, I will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility issues facing U.S. public companies, although some of the remarks will also apply to the smaller companies that serve as their vendors, suppliers, and customers. In Part I, I will discuss the importance of enterprise risk management and some of the prevailing standards that govern it. In Part II, I will focus on the changing role of counsel and compliance officers as risk managers and will discuss recent surveys on the key risk factors that companies face under any political administration, but particularly under President Trump. Part III will outline some of the substantive issues related to compliance, specifically the enforcement priorities of various regulatory agencies. Part IV will discuss an issue that may pose a dilemma for companies under Trump— environmental issues, and specifically shareholder proposals and climate change disclosures in light of the conflict between the current EPA’s position regarding climate change, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and corporate commitments to sustainability. Part V will conclude by posing questions and proposing recommendations using the COSO ERM framework and adopting a stakeholder rather than a shareholder maximization perspective. I submit that companies that choose to pull back on CSR or sustainability programs in response to the President’s purported pro-business agenda will actually hurt both shareholders and stakeholders.

February 16, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

These Reasons Social Benefit Entities Hurt Business and Philanthropy Will Blow Your Mind

I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.

To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals.  I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale.  Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look.  Here's the abstract: 

Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.

The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.

February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Time's Up for Board Members: Sexual Misconduct Allegations Against CEOs of Wynn and the Humane Society Should Send a Message

Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I have to admit that I was stunned when the news of hotelier  Steve Wynn's harassment allegations at the end of January caused a double-digit drop in stock price.  What began as an unseemly story of a $7.5 million settlement to a manicurist at one his of his resorts later morphed into a story about his resignation as head of the finance chair of the Republican National Committee. Not only did he lose that job, he also lost at least $412 million (the company at one point lost over $3 billion in value). His actions have also led regulators in two states to scrutinize his business dealings and settlements to determine whether he has violated "suitability standards."  Nonetheless, Wynn has asked his 25,000 employees to stand by him and think of him as their father. The question is, will the board stand by him as it faces potential liability for breach of fiduciary duty?

The Wynn board members should take a close look at what happened with the Humane Society yesterday. That board chose to retain the CEO after ending an investigation into harassment allegations. A swift backlash ensued. Major donors threatened to pull funding, causing the CEO to resign. A number of board members also reportedly resigned. However, not all of the board members resigned out of principle. One female director resigned after stating, " Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody? ... [w]omen should be able to take care of themselves.” Unfortunately, the reaction of this board member did not surprise me. She's in her 80s and in my twenty years practicing employment law on the defense side, I've heard similar sentiments from many (but not all) men and women of that generation. Indeed, French actress Catherine Deneuve initially joined other women in denouncing the #MeToo movement before bowing to public pressure to apologize. We have five generations of people in the workplace now, and as I have explained here, companies need to reexamine the boundaries. What may seem harmless or "normal" for some may be traumatic or legally actionable to someone else. 

As the Wynn and the Humane Society situations illustrate, the sexual harassment issue is now front and center for boards so general counsels need to put the issue on the next board agenda. As I wrote here, boards must scrutinize current executives as well as those they are reviewing as part of their succession planning roles to ensure that the executives have not committed inappropriate conduct. Because definitions differ, companies must clarify the gray areas and ensure everyone knows what's acceptable and what's terminable (even if it's not per se illegal).This means having the head of human resources report to the board that company policies and training don't just check a box. In fact, board members need to ask about the effectiveness of policies and training in the same way that they ask about training on bribery, money laundering, and other highly regulated compliance areas. Boards as part of their oversight obligation must also ensure that there are no uninvestigated allegations against senior executives. Prudent companies will review the adequacy of investigations into misconduct that were closed prematurely or without corroboration.Companies must spend the time and the money with qualified, credible legal counsel to investigate claims that they may not have taken seriously in the past. Because the #MeToo movement shows no signs of abating, boards need to engage in these uncomfortable, messy conversations. If they don't, regulators, plaintiffs' counsel, and shareholders will make sure that they do. 

February 3, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Stemler and Edelman on Federal Limitations on Regulating Online Marketplace

Indiana University legal studies professor Abbey Stemler sent along this description of an article she co-wrote with Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman. They recently posted the article to SSRN and would love any feedback you may have, in the comments or via e-mail. 

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Perhaps the most beloved twenty-six words in tech law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 has been heralded as a “masterpiece” and the “law that gave us the modern Internet.” While it was originally designed to protect online companies from defamation claims for third-party speech (think message boards and AOL chat rooms), over the years Section 230 has been used to protect online firms from all kinds of regulation—including civil rights and consumer protection laws.  As a result, it is now the first line of defense used by online marketplaces to shield them from state and local regulation.

In our article recently posted to SSRN, From the Digital to the Physical: Federal Limitations on Regulating Online Marketplaces, we challenge existing interpretations of Section 230 and highlight how it and other federal laws interfere with state and local government’s ability to regulate online marketplaces—particularly those that dramatically shape our physical realities such as Uber and Airbnb.  We realize that the CDA is sacred to many, but as Congress pays renewed attention to this law, we hope our paper will support a richer discussion about what the CDA should and should not be expected to do. 

January 29, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Research/Scholarhip, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 26, 2018

Should a Board Have Access To A CEO's Health Information?

On Wednesday, I spoke with Kimberly Adams, a reporter for NPR Marketplace regarding CSX's decision to require its CEO to disclose health information to the board. I don't have a link to post, sorry. As you may know, CSX suffered a significant stock drop in December when its former CEO died shortly after taking a medical leave of absence and after refusing to disclose information about his health issues. CSX has chosen the drastic step of requiring an annual CEO physical in response to a shareholder proposal filed on December 21st stating, “RESOLVED, that the CEO of the CSX Corporation will be required to have an annual comprehensive physical, performed by a medical provider chosen by the CSX Board, and that results of said physical(s) will be provided to the Board of Directors of the CSX Corporation by the medical provider.” Adams asked my thoughts about a Wall Street Journal article that outlined the company's plans. 

I'm not aware of any other company that asks a CEO to provide the results of an annual physical to the board. As I informed Adams, I hope the board has good counsel to avoid running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, HIPAA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, and other state and federal health and privacy laws. While I believe that the board must ensure that it takes its role of succession planning seriously, I question whether this is the best means to achieve that. I also remarked that although a CEO would know in advance that this is a condition of employment and would negotiate with the aid of counsel what the parameters would be, I was concerned about the potential slippery slope. How often would the CEO have to update the board on his/her health condition? Who else would have access to the information? Will this deter talented executives from seeking the top spot at a corporation?

One could argue that the health of the CEO is material information. But if that's the case, why haven't more shareholders made similar proposals? Perhaps there haven't been more of these proposals because the CSX situation was extreme. Shareholders were asked to bless the $84 million compensation package of a man who was so ill that he required a portable oxygen tank but who refused to disclose his condition or prognosis. Hopefully, other companies won't take the same approach. 

 

 

January 26, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Comment Responses, Benefit Corps., and Planned Obsolescence

On a previous post about Etsy dropping its B corp. certification, because of the B Lab requirement to convert to a public benefit corporation, I received the following comments:

  • "I simply believe that, in most ways, being a public benefit entity is more about a marketing strategy than a business plan." (Tom N.)
  • "I had my students read the NY Times articles on Etsy as a part of their last class in my clinic this semester (thanks to my fellow Joe Pileri who alerted me to the article). We represent social enterprises in the clinic so this was a perfect wrap-up. The questions that I posed to my students: what social enterprise isn't a soft target like Etsy? Won't they all eventually cave to profit maximization?" (Alicia Plerhopes)
  • "I agree with To[m] N ... Also, no theory of CSR actually requires an explicit weighting of the various stakeholders of a firm, so in reality, if the interests of shareholders are receiving the greatest weight, then Milton Friedman was right all along!" (Enrique)

I wanted to respond to these thoughtful comments, briefly, above the line.

Tom, I think the marketing benefits of becoming a PBC, currently, are weak. How many of your non-lawyer friends know what a public benefit corporation is? Even among lawyers, if they know what the form is, their knowledge is usually limited, and they are usually quite skeptical. But I agree, that simply becoming a PBC, without more, does not get you very far and will not substitute for a good business plan. Becoming a PBC, however, may help in takeover situations and it may help change the shareholder wealth maximization norm among directors.

Alicia, You are right, I think, that publicly traded benefit corporations would often be soft targets. That said, their PBC status, in connection with other takeover defenses, could help them fend off unwanted advances. Given the history of social enterprise sell-outs, however, one does wonder how long these companies, public or private, can stay on mission.

Enrique, You may be correct on most theories of CSR not requiring an explicit weighting of stakeholder interests, but the benefit corporation statutes do generally require “consideration” or “balancing” of stakeholder interests. You are right, however, that the statutes do not give instructions on how much weight is to be given to each stakeholder group. The benefit corporation statutes do generally say that the purpose of benefit corporations must be to materially benefit “society and the environment;” and some of the statutes say/suggest that shareholders can not be the predominant interest.

While I am not a big proponent of the current benefit corporation statutes, I do commend the drafters for moving the conversation forward and taking action. And hopefully we can agree that something needs to be done about the current state and focus of many American businesses. This holiday season confirmed to me how cheaply most things are made these days and how poor customer service has become. Toys from my childhood era are outlasting most of the toys my wife and I buy our children. Appliances now seem to last 1/5 of the time they lasted a generation ago. Ignoring or mistreating the customer has become the rule. Even Apple, which I think of as one of the positive exceptions, is now being accused on planned obsolescence, and their customer service has declined over the years, in my view. Maybe the above makes sense from a purely financial perspective; maybe customers buy mainly on price. But I would argue that what made Apple great was holding themselves to an even higher standard of quality and innovation than their customers did initially. I am not sure if benefit corporation law will help businesses make more quality products, and treat their employees and customers better, but I do think we should give businesses the latitude to explore.

January 19, 2018 in Corporate Governance, CSR, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Overnighters - Purpose, Priorities, and Process

The-overnighters

Over the break, I watched the documentary Overnighters on Netflix. 

In short, the documentary chronicles the story of a pastor who opens the church to migrant workers in North Dakota during the energy boom in that state. The pastor faces pushback from his congregation, neighbors, and city officials who do not appreciate having these men - some with criminal records - housed so close. 

In my opinion, the pastor is right, and the congregants are wrong, about the purpose of a church. The church should be in a community to serve, especially its needy neighbors. That said, the logistics of how to serve may be up for debate. Also, it is at least arguable that by serving the migrant workers the church strayed from serving its congregation. It would have been helpful if the church had a clear statement on its purpose and priorities. Many social enterprises have extremely vague purpose statements, which I do not think are very helpful. Benefit corporations are often required by statue to "benefit society and the environment." A purpose statement like that would not have helped the church in Overnighters much at all. A statement that showed that those in need would be prioritized over the comfort of the congregants (or vice-versa) would have been more helpful.  

The more valid complaint from the congregation, is the claim that an appropriate process for initiating the housing program was not followed. Sometimes even if stakeholders agree on the ultimate action taken by the organization, the stakeholders will still be upset if they are not included, or listened to, in the decision making process. I think this complaint is likely also found in businesses. Assuring the proper processes are set forth and followed can be quite important for businesses, especially in closely-held and family run businesses, where the stakeholders are deeply invested. 

The documentary is depressing and does not paint a pretty picture of human nature, but I do think things would have worked out a bit better for most of those involved if purpose, priorities, and process were paid more attention.  Of course, that is much easier written than done. 

January 12, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Real Property, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 8, 2018

AALS 2018 Wrap-Up

AALS2018(SHProposalPanel)

Last week, I had the privilege of attending and participating in the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (#aals2018).  I saw many of you there.  It was a full four days for me.  The conference concluded on Saturday with the program captured in the photo above--four of us BLPB co-bloggers (Stefan, me, Josh, and Ann) jawing about shareholder proposals--as among ourselves and with our engaged audience members (who provided excellent questions and insights).  Thanks to Stefan for organizing the session and inspiring our work with his article, The Inclusive Capitalism Shareholder Proposal.  I learned a lot in preparing for and participating in this part of the program.

Earlier that day, BLPB co-blogger Anne Tucker and I co-moderated (really, Anne did the lion's share of the work) a discussion group entitled "A New Era for Business Regulation?" on current and future regulatory and de-regulatory initiatives.  In some part, this session stemmed from posts that Anne and I wrote for the BLPB here, here, and here.  I earlier posted a call for participation in this session.  The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating.  I took notes for two essays I am writing this year.  A photo is included below.  Regrettably, it does not capture everyone.  But you get the idea . . . .

  AALS2018(Regulation)
In between, I had the honor of introducing Tamar Frankel, this year's recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Section for Women in Legal Education luncheon.  Unfortunately, the Boston storm activity conspired to keep Tamar at home.  But she did deliver remarks by video.  A photo (props to Hari Osofsky for getting this shot--I hope she doesn't mind me using it here) of Tamar's video remarks is included below.

Tamar(Video-HariO)

Tamar has been a great mentor to me and so many others.  She plans to continue writing after her retirement at the end of the semester.  I plan to post more on her at a later time.

On Friday, I was recognized by the Section on Business Associations for my mentoring activities.  On Thursday, I had the opportunity to comment (with Jeff Schwartz) on Summer Kim's draft paper on South Korean private equity fund regulation.  And on Wednesday, I started the conference with a discussion group entitled "What is Fraud Anyway?," co-moderated by John Anderson and David Kwok.  My short paper for that discussion group focused on the importance of remembering the requirement of manipulative or deceptive conduct if/as we continue to regulate securities fraud in major part under Section 10(b) of, and Rule 10b-5 under, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended.

That summary does not, of course, include the sessions at which I was merely in the audience.  Many of the business law sessions were on Friday and Saturday.  They were all quite good.  But I already am likely overstaying my welcome for the day.  Stay tuned here for any BLPB-reated sessions for next year's conference.  And in between, there's Law and Society, National Business Law Scholars, and SEALS, all of which will have robust business law programs.

Good luck in starting the new semester.  Some of you, I know, are already back in the classroom.  I will be Wednesday morning.  I know it will be a busy 14 weeks of teaching!

January 8, 2018 in Ann Lipton, Anne Tucker, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Sex and Succession Planning- A New Agenda Item for Boards?

At a time when many boards may be thinking of tax planning and possible M & A deals, they may have to start focusing more on the unseemly topic of their executives' sex lives because the flood of terminations and resignations due to sexual misconduct shows no signs of slowing down. One of the most shocking but underreported terminations in 2017 related to VISA. The CEO, one year into the role, chose to terminate one of his most valuable executives after an anonymous tip about sexual misconduct.  He wanted his employees to know that the corporate culture and values mattered. Board members should look closely at the VISA example.

We will continue to see the rise of the #MeToo movement spurred on in part by the messaging from a star-studded task force  formed to address Hollywood issues and the establishment of a multimillion-dollar legal defense fund to help blue-collar workers. Even Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts addressed sexual harassment in the court system in his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.  More people than ever may now choose to come forward with claims of harassment or assault. Whether companies choose to terminate wrongdoers or the accused choose to resign "to spend more time with their families," it's a new day. As I've written here, companies will need to re-evaluate policies and training to navigate these landmines.

Board members will need to step up too. Boards of any size institution (including nonprofits) need to take the job of CEO succession planning seriously because the chief executive could leave, retire, or die. Boards must not only consider the possibility of a harassment scandal in the C-Suite but they must also worry about their fellow board members. Unfortunately, a KPMG study revealed that only 14% of board members believe they have a detailed succession plan for themselves. Members of the C-suite will also need to think more clearly about succession planning in the lower ranks. HR may have to redouble efforts to ensure that high-potential employees have no skeletons in the closet that have been swept under the rug. 

In the meantime, I and other former members of the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee have written an op-ed in the Boston Globe. Even if I had not co-authored the piece, as a former defense-side employment lawyer and compliance officer, I would recommend that company leaders take a look at it. Some of our recommendations for strengthening corporate culture are below:

1) have a trustworthy, independent system, with multiple reporting mechanisms, staffed with the proper skills to conduct swift, full, and fair investigations and to carry them to a just resolution, observing principles of confidentiality and discretion, and including ongoing protection of those who report;

2) make sure that there is a clear, credible anti-retaliation policy that protects accusers and witnesses who come forward in good faith;

3) require strong accountability for all levels of management for reporting and responding to complaints;

4) implement specific policies that direct bonuses, raises, and other incentives and opportunities to those who, in addition to meeting business targets, actively prevent and respond appropriately to harassment, retaliation, and other compliance problems. Consider clawbacks if unsupportive behavior later comes to light. Call out injurious behavior (without necessarily naming names) and credit exemplary behaviors;

5) periodically assess the culture and require an independent outside entity to confidentially administer anonymous surveys and interviews. The best of these use benchmarked and validated questions that can provide insight into the effectiveness of the compliance program and whether employees trust the system; and

6) make sure to involve unions and other formal and informal employee groups in developing new policies.

I wish all of our readers a happy and healthy new year. I wish board members and company executives good luck. 

January 3, 2018 in Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Will More Women on Boards Change Corporate Culture and Stem the Tide of Harassment Complaints?

Two weeks ago, I asked whether companies were wasting time on harassment training given the flood of accusations, resignations, and terminations over the past few weeks. Having served as a defense lawyer on these kinds of claims and conducted hundreds of trainings, I know that most men generally know right from wrong before the training (and some still do wrong). I also know that in many cases, people look the other way when they see or hear about the complaints, particularly if the accused is a superstar or highly ranked employee. Although most men do not have the power and connections to develop an alleged Harvey Weinstein-type "complicity machine" to manage payoffs and silence accusers, some members of management play a similar role when they ignore complaints or rumors of inappropriate or illegal behavior. 

The head in the sand attitude that executives and board members have displayed in the Weinstein matter has led to a lawsuit arguing that Disney knew or should have known of Weinstein's behavior. We may see more of these lawsuits now that women have less fear of speaking out and Time honored the "Silence Breakers" as the Person of the Year. As I read the Time  article and watched some of the "silence breakers" on television, it reminded me of 2002, when Time honored "The Whistleblowers." Those whistleblowers caused Congress to enact sweeping new protection under Sarbanes-Oxley.  Because of all of the publicity, companies around the country are now working with lawyers and human resources experts to review and revamp their antiharassment training and complaint mechanisms. As a result, we will likely see a spike in internal and external complaints. But do we need more than lawsuits? Would more women in the boardroom and the C-Suite make a difference in corporate culture in general and thereby lead to more gender equity?

Last week, Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice and Gender Equality put forth some proposals to redress the gender pay gap in Member States’ businesses. She recommends an increase in the number of women on boards for companies whose non-executive Boards are more than 60% male. These companies would be required to “prioritize” women when candidates of “equal merit” are being considered for a position. Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have already previously rejected a similar proposal.

I'm generally not in favor of quotas because I think they produce a backlash. However, I know that many companies here and abroad will start to recruit more female directors and executives in an effort to appear on top of this issue. Will it work? We will soon see. After pressure from institutional investors such as BlackRock and State Street to increase diversity, women and minorities surpassed 50% of  S & P open board seats in 2017. Stay tuned. 

 

December 7, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Call for Papers/Participants: The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Cakeshop

I am putting together a panel or discussion group (depending on how many folks respond positively) for the SEALS conference for next summer, which is scheduled to be held August 5-11, 2018, at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (details here).

Here is the proposed title and a brief draft description (which may have to be shortened for the submission):

The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Cakeshop

The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on Dec. 5, 2017 (SCOTUSblog summary here). The issue presented in that case is: “Whether applying Colorado's public accommodations law to compel the petitioner to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.” A group of corporate law professors have filed an amicus brief in support to the CCRC (available here). One of the two arguments in that brief is: “Because Of The Separate Legal Personality Of Corporations And Shareholders, The Constitutional Interests Of Shareholders Should Not Be Projected Onto The Corporation.” This [panel] [discussion group] features [paper presentations] [a dialogue] on the pros and cons of this argument, together with related analysis and observations. Please note that the Supreme Court will likely have issued its opinion in the case by the time of the panel/discussion.

Please email me at spadfie@uakron.edu if you would like to participate in this program, letting me know if you are interested in presenting a paper, participating in a discussion, or both. Also, let me know if you know of anyone else who may want to participate—or just pass this on to others. I must file the proposal soon in order to ensure its consideration (the “best practices” deadline for submissions has already passed).

November 12, 2017 in Business Associations, Call for Papers, Conferences, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Family Business, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Delaware Corporate Law Resource Center (including oral histories)

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation recently contained a notice about the Delaware Corporate Law Resource Center, which I thought might interest our readers as well. The post is reproduced below the line.

The oral histories of iconic Delaware cases are the most interesting, and useful, part of the website to me, though some of the cases do not appear to have materials yet. In addition to the cases, there is an oral history on 102(b)(7) to which my judge (VC Stephen Lamb) and others contributed. I hope the existing materials will be added to and expanded over time.  

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The University of Pennsylvania Law School Institute for Law and Economics (ILE) is pleased to announce the creation and public availability of a new website devoted to resources relating to the development of the Delaware General Corporation Law and related case law. This website (the Delaware Corporation Law Resource Center) has two principal components. The first is a compilation of resources relating to the Delaware General Corporation Law itself, including a link to the text of the statute, and links to the bills to amend the statute since its general revision in 1967. This portion of the website also includes links to annual commentaries on those amendments, the reports and minutes generated in the 1967 revision process, and memoranda disseminated by the Council of the Delaware State Bar Association Corporation Law Section describing some of the more significant and controversial amendments to the statute.

The second component of the website is a repository for materials constituting oral histories of iconic corporate law decisions of the Delaware courts since 1980, dealing with the director’s fiduciary duty of care, duties in takeovers, and freezeouts by controlling stockholders. This portion of the website is a work in progress, but for some of the cases it already contains the opinions in the case, briefs, selected transcripts of oral arguments, and selected key documents from the record. Most notably, the oral history compilation includes high quality videotaped interviews of lawyers and judges involved in the case, who describe the back story of the case with details not available through review of the courts’ opinions.

The oral history portion of the website also includes the first in a series of composite videos setting forth the background of each case. That premiere video describes the background of Smith v. Van Gorkom and presents, in narrative fashion, selected excerpts from the video interviews of the participants.

ILE hopes and expects that this website, which is freely available to the public, will prove to be a valuable resource for the teaching and development of Delaware corporate law. ILE welcomes suggestions for ways in which the website can be made even more useful to those interested in its subject.

The new website is available here.

October 20, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Law School, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Guest Post: Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s “Principal Costs: A New Theory for Corporate Law and Governance”

The following is a guest post from Bernard S. Sharfman*:

The foundation of my understanding of corporate governance rests on a small but growing number of essays, articles, and books.  These writings include Henry Manne’s Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, Michael Dooley’s Two Models of Corporate Governance, Stephen Bainbridge’s Director Primacy: The Means and Ends of Corporate Governance and The Business Judgment Rule as Abstention Doctrine, Kenneth J. Arrow, The Limits of Organization, Frank H. Easterbrook & Daniel R. Fischel, The Economic Structure of Law, Zohar Goshen & Gideon Parchomovsky’s The Essential Role of Securities Regulation, and Alon Brav, Wei Jiang, Frank Partnoy & Randall Thomas’ Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance, and Firm Performance.  Recently, I have added to this esteemed list Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s Principal Costs: A New Theory for Corporate Law and Governance.

Goshen and Squire put forth a new theory, the “principal-cost theory,” which posits that a firm’s optimal corporate governance arrangements result from a calculus that seeks to minimize total control costs, not just agency costs (“the economic losses resulting from managers’ natural incentive to advance their personal interests even when those interests conflict with the goal of maximizing their firm’s value”):

The theory states that each firm’s optimal governance structure minimizes total control costs, which are the sum of principal costs and agent costs. Principal costs occur when investors exercise control, and agent costs occur when managers exercise control. Both types of cost can be subdivided into competence costs, which arise from honest mistakes attributable to a lack of expertise, information, or talent, and conflict costs, which arise from the skewed incentives produced by the separation of ownership and control.  When investors exercise control, they make mistakes due to a lack of expertise, information, or talent, thereby generating principal competence costs. To avoid such costs, they delegate control to managers whom they expect will run the firm more competently. But delegation separates ownership from control, leading to agent conflict costs, and also to principal conflict costs to the extent that principals retain the power to hold managers accountable. Finally, managers themselves can make honest mistakes, generating agent competence costs. 

Moreover, it is important to understand that the theory is firm specific:

Principal costs and agent costs are substitutes for each other: Any reallocation of control rights between investors and managers decreases one type of cost but increases the other. The rate of substitution is firm specific, based on factors such as the firm’s business strategy, its industry, and the personal characteristics of its investors and managers. Therefore, each firm has a distinct division of control rights that minimizes total control costs. Because the cost-minimizing division varies by firm, the optimal governance structure does as well. The implication is that law’s proper role is to allow firms to select from a wide range of governance structures, rather than to mandate some structures and ban others. 

The bottom line is that “A firm that seeks to maximize total returns will weigh principal costs against agent costs when deciding how to divide control between managers and investors.”

A minimization of total control costs approach to the identification of optimal governance arrangements allows for the fundamental value of authority in large organizations to be respected and acknowledged, something which is missing in many academic works that only focus on agency costs.  According to Michael Dooley, “Where the residual claimants are not expected to run the firm and especially when they are many in number (thus increasing disparities in information and interests), their function becomes specialized to risk-bearing, thereby creating both the opportunity and necessity for managerial specialists.” According to Rose and Sharfman, “Especially where there are a large number of shareholders, it is much more efficient, in terms of maximizing shareholder value, for the Board and executive management—the corporate actors that possess overwhelming advantages in terms of information, including nonpublic information, and whose skills in the management of the company are honed by specialization in the management of this one company—to make corporate decisions rather than shareholders.”

The calculus of the principal-cost theory also allows for the potential for Bainbridge’s director primacy as a positive theory to be proven correct for any particular firm:  “As a positive theory of corporate governance, the director primacy model strongly emphasizes the role of fiat - i.e., the centralized decisionmaking authority possessed by the board of directors.” In the context of Goshen and Squire’s calculus, Bainbridge is arguing that principal costs will greatly outweigh agency costs when total control costs are minimized.  

Finally, Goshen and Squire’s theory allows for an understanding of why dual-class share structures continue to persist and why they have been successfully implemented at companies such as Alphabet (Google) and Facebook.  Their theory is critical to the argument I make in my most recent paper, A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs.  In sum, Goshen and Squire’s theory allows for a more robust understanding of what is meant by optimal corporate governance arrangements, something that an exclusive focus on agency costs does not allow.     

*This post comes to us from Bernard S. Sharfman, who is an associate fellow at the R Street Institute, a member of the Journal of Corporation Law’s editorial advisory board, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Law (Spring 2018), and a former visiting assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law (Spring 2013 and 2014).

October 17, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Nonprofit v. Benefit Corporation v. Traditional For-Profit Hospitals

Earlier this week, my two-year old daughter was in the pediatric ICU with a virus that attacked her lungs. We spent two nights at The Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt (“Vanderbilt Children’s). Thankfully, she was released Wednesday afternoon and is doing well. Unfortunately, many of the children on her floor had been in the hospital for weeks or months and were not afforded such a quick recovery. There cannot be many places more sad than the pediatric ICU.

Since returning home, I confirmed that Vanderbilt Children’s is a nonprofit organization, as I suspected. I do wonder whether the hospital would be operated the same if it were a benefit corporation or as a traditional corporation.

Some of the decisions made at the hospital seems like they would have been indefensible from a shareholder perspective, if the hospital had been for-profit. Vanderbilt Children’s has a captive market, with no serious competitors that I know of in the immediate area. Yet, the hospital doesn’t charge for parking. If they did, I don’t think it would impact anyone’s decision to choose them because, again, there aren’t really other options, and the care is the important part anyway. The food court was pretty reasonably priced, and they probably could have charged double without seriously impacting demand; the people at the hospital valued time with their children more than a few dollars. The hospital was beautifully decorated with art aimed at children – for example, with a big duck on the elevator ceiling, which my daughter absolutely loved. There were stars on the ceiling of the hospital rooms, cartoons on TVs in every room, etc. All of this presumably cost more than a drab room, and perhaps it was all donated, but assuming it actually cost more, I am not sure those things would result in any financial return on investment.

As we have discussed many times on this blog, even in the traditional for-profit setting, the business judgment rule likely protects the decisions of the board of directors, even if the promised ROI seems poor. But at what point – especially when the board knows there will be no return on the investment at all - is it waste? (Note: Question sparked by a discussion that Stefan Padfied, Josh Fershee, and I had in Knoxville after a session at the UTK business law conference this year). And, in any event, the Dodge and eBay cases may lead to some doubt in the way a case may play out. And even if the law is highly unlikely to enforce shareholder wealth maximization, the norm in traditional for-profit corporations may lead to directorial decisions that we find problematic as a society, especially in a hospital setting.

Now, maybe the Hippocratic Oath, community expectations, and various regulations make it so nonprofit and forprofit hospitals operate similarly. As a father of a patient, however, even as a free market inclined professor, I would prefer hospitals to be nonprofit and clearly focused on care first. Also, some forprofit hospitals are supposedly considering going the benefit corporation route, which may be a step in the right direction – at least they have an obligation to consider various stakeholders (even if, currently, the statutory enforcement mechanisms are extremely weak) and at least there are some reporting requirements (even if , currently, reporting compliance is miserable low in the states I have examined and the statutory language is painfully vague).

I am not sure I have ever been in a situation where I would have paid everything I had, and had no other good options for the immediate need, and yet I still did not feel taken advantage of by the organization. There is much more that could be said on these issues, but I do wonder whether organizational form was important here. And, if so, what is the solution? Require hospitals to be nonprofits (or at least benefit corporations, if those statutes were amended to add more teeth)?

October 13, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Ethics, Family, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Do We Need Universal Proxies?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk about universal proxies from Scott Hirst, Research Director of Harvard’s Program on Institutional Investors.

By way of background, last Fall under the Obama Administration, the SEC proposed a requirement for universal proxies noting:

Today’s proposal recognizes that few shareholders can dedicate the time and resources necessary to attend a company’s meeting in person and that, in the modern marketplace, most voting is done by proxy.  This proposal requires a modest change to address this reality.  As proposed, each party in a contest still would bear the costs associated with filing its own proxy statement, and with conducting its own independent solicitation.  The main difference would be in the form of the proxy card attached to the proxy statement.  Subject to certain notice, filing, form, and content requirements, today’s proposal would require each side in a contest for the first time to provide a universal proxy card listing all the candidates up for election.

The Council of Institutional Investors favors their use explaining, “"Universal" proxy cards would let shareowners vote for the nominees they wish to represent them on corporate boards. This is vitally important in proxy contests, when board seats (and in some cases, board control) are at stake. Universal proxy cards would make for a fairer, less cumbersome voting process.” 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has historically spoken out against them, arguing:

Mandating a universal ballot, also known as a universal proxy card, at all public companies would inevitably increase the frequency and ease of proxy fights. Such a development has no clear benefit to public companies, their shareholders, or other stakeholders. The SEC has historically sought to remain neutral with respect to interactions between public companies and their investors, and has always taken great care not to implement any rule that would favor one side over the other. We do not understand why the SEC would now pursue a policy that would increase the regularity of contested elections or cause greater turnover in the boardroom.

I can't speak for the Chamber, but I imagine one big concern would be whether universal proxies would provide proxy advisors such as ISS and Glass Lewis even more power than they already have with institutional investors. When I asked Hirst about this, he did not believe that the level of influence would rise significantly.

Hirst’s paper provides an empirical study that supports his contention that reform would help mitigate some of the distortions from the current system. It’s worth a read, although he acknowledges that in the current political climate, his proposal will not likely gain much traction. The abstract is below:

Contested director elections are a central feature of the corporate landscape, and underlie shareholder activism. Shareholders vote by unilateral proxies, which prevent them from “mixing and matching” among nominees from either side. The solution is universal proxies. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a universal proxy rule, which has been the subject of heated debate and conflicting claims. This paper provides the first empirical analysis of universal proxies, allowing evaluation of these claims.

The paper’s analysis shows that unilateral proxies can lead to distorted proxy contest outcomes, which disenfranchise shareholders. By removing these distortions, universal proxies would improve corporate suffrage. Empirical analysis shows that distorted proxy contests are a significant problem: 11% of proxy contests at large U.S. corporations between 2001 and 2016 can be expected to have had distorted outcomes. Contrary to the claims of most commentators, removing distortions can most often be expected to favor management nominees, by a significant margin (two-thirds of distorted contests, versus one-third for dissident nominees). A universal proxy rule is therefore unlikely to lead to more proxy contests, or to greater success by special interest groups.

Given that the arguments made against a universal proxy rule are not valid, the SEC should implement proxy regulation. A rule permitting corporations to opt-out of universal proxies would be superior to the SEC’s proposed mandatory rule. If the SEC chooses not to implement a universal proxy regulation, investors could implement universal proxies through private ordering to adopt “nominee consent policies.

October 11, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stonyfield's Struggles and Successes as a Social Business

Yesterday, I listened to How I Built This' podcast on Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Yogurt.

I assume most readers are familiar with Stonyfield Yogurt, and perhaps a bit of its story, but I think the podcast goes far beyond what is generally known. 

The main thing that stuck out in the podcast was how many struggles Stonyfield faced. Most of the companies featured on How I Built This struggle for a few months or even a few years, but Stonyfield seemed to face more than its share of challenges for well over a decade. The yogurt seemed pretty popular early on, but production, distribution, and cash flow problems haunted them. Stonyfield also had a tough time sticking with their organic commitment, abandoning organic for a few years when they outsourced production and couldn't convince the farmers to follow their practices. With friends and family members' patient investing (including Gary's mother and mother-in-law), Stonyfield finally found financial success after raising money for its own production facility, readopting organic, and finding broader distribution.

After about 20 years, Stonyfield sold the vast majority of the company to large multinational Group Danone. Gary explained that some investors were looking for liquidity and that he felt it was time to pay them back for their commitment. Gary was able to negotiate some control rights for himself (unspecified in the podcast) and stayed on as chairman. While this sale was a big payday for investors, it is unclear how much of the original commitment to the environment and community remained. Also, the podcast did not mention that Danone announced, a few months ago, that it would sell Stonyfield

Personally, I am a fan of Stonyfield's yogurt and it will be interesting to follow their story under new ownership. I also think students and faculty members could benefit from listening to stories like this to remind us that success is rarely easy and quick. 

October 6, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Haskell Murray, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Should Employees Have Their Day in Court? The Supreme Court and Mandatory Arbitration

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument on three cases[1] that could have a significant impact on an estimated 55% of employers and 25 million employees. The Court will opine on the controversial use of class action waivers and mandatory arbitration in the employment context. Specifically, the Court will decide whether mandatory arbitration violates the National Labor Relations Act or is permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act. Notably, the NLRA applies in the non-union context as well.

Monday’s argument was noteworthy for another reason—the Trump Administration reversed its position and thus supported the employers instead of the employees as the Obama Administration had done when the cases were first filed. The current administration also argued against its own NLRB’s position that these agreements are invalid.

In a decision handed down by the NLRB before the Trump Administration switched sides on the issue, the agency ruled that Dish Network’s mandatory arbitration provision violates §8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it “specifies in broad terms that it applies to ‘any claim, controversy and/or dispute between them, arising out of and/or in any way related to Employee’s application for employment, employment and/or termination of employment, whenever and wherever brought.’” The Board believed that employees would “reasonably construe” that they could not file charges with the NLRB, and this interfered with their §7 rights.

The potential impact of the Supreme Court case goes far beyond employment law, however. As the NLRB explained on Monday:

The Board's rule here is correct for three reasons. First, it relies on long-standing precedent, barring enforcement of contracts that interfere with the right of employees to act together concertedly to improve their lot as employees. Second, finding individual arbitration agreements unenforceable under the Federal Arbitrations Act savings clause because are legal under the National Labor Relations Act gives full effect to both statutes. And, third, the employer's position would require this Court, for the first time, to enforce an arbitration agreement that violates an express prohibition in another coequal federal statute. (emphasis added).

This view contradicted the employers' opening statement that:

Respondents claim that arbitration agreements providing for individual arbitration that would otherwise be enforceable under the FAA are nonetheless invalid by operation of another federal statute. This Court's cases provide a well-trod path for resolving such claims. Because of the clarity with which the FAA speaks to enforcing arbitration agreements as written, the FAA will only yield in the face of a contrary congressional command and the tie goes to arbitration. Applying those principles to Section 7 of the NLRA, the result is clear that the FAA should not yield.

My co-bloggers have written about mandatory arbitration in other contexts (e.g., Josh Fershee on derivative suits here, Ann Lipton on IPOs here, on corporate governance here, and on shareholder disputes here, and Joan Heminway promoting Steve Bradford’s work here). Although Monday’s case addresses the employment arena, many have concerns with the potential unequal playing field in arbitral settings, and I anticipate more litigation or calls for legislation.  

I wrote about arbitration in 2015, after a New York Times series let the world in on corporate America’s secret. Before that expose, most people had no idea that they couldn’t sue their mobile phone provider or a host of other companies because they had consented to arbitration. Most Americans subject to arbitration never pay attention to the provisions in their employee handbook or in the pile of paperwork they sign upon hire. They don’t realize until they want to sue that they have given up their right to litigate over wage and hour disputes or join a class action.

As a defense lawyer, I drafted and rolled out class action waivers and arbitration provisions for businesses that wanted to reduce the likelihood of potentially crippling legal fees and settlements. In most cases, the employees needed to sign as a condition of continued employment. Thus, I’m conflicted about the Court’s deliberations. I see the business rationale for mandatory arbitration of disputes especially for small businesses, but as a consumer or potential plaintiff, I know I would personally feel robbed of my day in court.

The Court waited until Justice Gorsuch was on board to avoid a 4-4 split, but he did not ask any questions during oral argument. Given the questions that were asked and the makeup of the Court, most observers predict a 5-4 decision upholding mandatory arbitrations. The transcript of the argument is here. If that happens, I know that many more employers who were on the fence will implement these provisions. If they’re smart, they will also beef up their compliance programs and internal complaint mechanisms so that employees don’t need to resort to outsiders to enforce their rights.

My colleague Teresa Verges, who runs the Investor Rights Clinic at the University of Miami, has written a thought-provoking article that assumes that arbitration is here to stay. She proposes a more fair arbitral forum for those she labels “forced participants.” The abstract is below:

Decades of Supreme Court decisions elevating the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) have led to an explosion of mandatory arbitration in the United States. A form of dispute resolution once used primarily between merchants and businesses to resolve their disputes, arbitration has expanded to myriad sectors, such as consumer and service disputes, investor disputes, employment and civil rights disputes. This article explores this expansion to such non-traditional contexts and argues that this shift requires the arbitral forum to evolve to increase protections for forced participants and millions of potential claims that involve matters of public policy. By way of example, decades of forced arbitration of securities disputes has led to increased due process and procedural reforms, even as concerns remain about investor access, the lack of transparency and investors’ perception of fairness.

I’ll report back on the Court’s eventual ruling, but in the meantime, perhaps some policymakers should consider some of Professor Verges’ proposals. Practically speaking though, once the NLRB has its full complement of commissioners, we can expect more employer-friendly decisions in general under the Trump Administration.

 

[1] Murphy Oil USA v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017); Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 l. Ed. 2d. 595 (2017); Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 834 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017)

October 5, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Legislation, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Revising How to Handle Derivative Claims (or Not)

Yesterday, Professor Bainbridge posted "Is there a case for abolishing derivative litigation? He makes the case as follows: 

A radical solution would be elimination of derivative litigation. For lawyers, the idea of a wrong without a legal remedy is so counter-intuitive that it scarcely can be contemplated. Yet, derivative litigation appears to have little if any beneficial accountability effects. On the other side of the equation, derivative litigation is a high cost constraint and infringement upon the board’s authority. If making corporate law consists mainly of balancing the competing claims of accountability and authority, the balance arguably tips against derivative litigation. Note, moreover, that eliminating derivative litigation does not eliminate director accountability. Directors would remain subject to various forms of market discipline, including the important markets for corporate control and employment, proxy contests, and shareholder litigation where the challenged misconduct gives rise to a direct cause of action.

If eliminating derivative litigation seems too extreme, why not allow firms to opt out of the derivative suit process by charter amendment? Virtually all states now allow corporations to adopt charter provisions limiting director and officer liability. If corporate law consists of a set of default rules the parties generally should be free to amend, as we claim, there seems little reason not to expand the liability limitation statutes to allow corporations to opt out of derivative litigation.

I think he makes a good point.  And included in the market discipline and other measures that Bainbridge notes would remain in place to maintain director accountability, there would be the shareholder response to the market.  That is, if shareholders value derivative litigation as an option ex ante, the entity can choose to include derivative litigation at the outset or to add it later if the directors determine the lack of a derivative suit option is impacting the entity's value.  

Professor Bainbridge's post also reminded me of another option: arbitrating derivative suits.  A friend of mine made just such a proposal several years ago while we were in law school: 

There are a number of factors that make the arbitration of derivative suits desirable. First, the costs of an arbitration proceeding are usually lower than that of a judicial proceeding, due to the reduced discovery costs. By alleviating some of the concern that any D & O insurance coverage will be eaten-up by litigation costs, a corporation should have incentive to defend “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative claims more aggressively. Second, and directly related to litigation costs, attorneys' fees should be cut significantly via the use of arbitration, thus preserving a larger part of any pecuniary award that the corporation is awarded. Third, the reduced incentive of corporations to settle should discourage the initiation of “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative suits.

Andrew J. Sockol, A Natural Evolution: Compulsory Arbitration of Shareholder Derivative Suits in Publicly Traded Corporations, 77 Tul. L. Rev. 1095, 1114 (2003) (footnote omitted). 

Given the usually modest benefit of derivative suits, early settlement of meritorious suits, and the ever-present risk of strike suits, these alternatives are well worth considering.  

October 4, 2017 in ADR, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Fitbit and Publicness

As some of our BLPB readers know, I am a habitual 12,000-step-a-day walker.  I monitor my progress on steps, stairs, and sometimes sleep using a Fitbit "One" that I have had since Christmas Day 2012.  Fitbit recently announced that it is discontinuing the One.  So, if my existing One dies off, I will have to switch trackers.  And, sadly, I am likely to have to switch suppliers.  While Fitbit has been good to me, the rest of its trackers are not at all interesting or suitable for my desired uses.  They are almost all wrist models, and the one clip-on tracker Fitbit sells is relatively bulky and antiquated.

I am not the only one who is unhappy about the discontinuation of the One tracker.  Fitbit has discussion boards for members of its "community."  The discussion board titled "Is Fitbit One being discontinued?" (which was started over the summer) has lit up over the past week.  As of the time of this post, there were 519 posts in the Fitbit forum.  

I have been impressed by the passion of the folks who have posted comments and responses.  Many posted reviews of other Fitbit products and competitor products that might be adequate substitutes for the One for some users.  But I have been fascinated by the nature of several posts, including a number that focus on corporate governance and finance matters.  Community members were motivated to check into and comment on Fitbit's published financial statements, litigation profile, and trends in the mix of product sales.  Some encouraged calling either Fitbit's customer service line or mutual funds that hold Fitbit shares (and they named the funds) to express concerns.  One member of the community posted that he is worried about Fitbit's employees, customers, and shareholders in the event Fitbit's business goes South.  

The comments made on the Fitbit community discussion board reminded me of Hillary Sale's work on publicness, including her article entitled Public Governance.  In that article, she observes:

Publicness is both a process and an outcome. When corporate actors lose sight of the fact that the companies they run and decisions they make impact society more generally, and not just shareholders, they are subjected to publicness. Outside actors like the media, bloggers, and Congress demand reform and become involved in the debate. Decisions about governance move from Wall Street to Main Street.

Hillary A. Sale, Public Governance, 81 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1012, 1013 (2013).  She later echoes that thought in a slightly different way:
 
Key to an understanding of publicness . . . is that the group demanding governance is larger than the stated partners (i.e., shareholders, directors, and officers) and includes outside actors. Employing a crabbed definition of this group is actually part of the problem. Those “outsiders” scrutinize decisionmaking and incentives. They monitor failures of internal governance, press for more external governance, and then publicness grows.
 
Id. at 1034.  The users of Fitbit's discussion board are digesting and reporting on Fitbit's operations and seeking governance changes in a public forum.  They are seeking ways to be heard by management.  Moderators occasionally post commentary and promise to pass on comments to Fitbit's management.  This is publicness--feedback loops that enhance public scrutiny and sway over the firm.
 
I doubt any of this will save the Fitbit One.  It seems that the firm is moving on with new products, notwithstanding significant customer demand.  So, once my rechargeable battery dies, I will be in the market for a new tracker.   I am accepting recommendations . . . .

October 2, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Joan Heminway, Marketing, Technology | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What keeps general counsels and compliance officers up at night? Here's what boards should be discussing

No one had a National Compliance Officer Day when I was in the job, but now it’s an official thing courtesy of SAI Global, a compliance consulting company. The mission of this one-year old holiday is to:

  • Raise awareness about the importance of ethics and compliance in business and shine a spotlight on the people responsible for making it a reality.
  • Provide resources to promote the wellness and well-being of ethics and compliance professionals so they can learn how to overcome stress and burnout.
  • Grow the existing ethics and compliance community and help identify and guide the next generation of E&C advocates.

Although some may look at this skeptically as a marketing ploy, I’m all for this made-up holiday given what compliance officers have to deal with today.

Last Saturday, I spoke at the Business Law Professor Blog Conference at the University of Tennessee about corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility in the Trump/Pence era. During my presentation, I described the ideal audit committee meeting for a company that takes enterprise risk management seriously. My board agenda included: the impact of climate change and how voluntary and mandatory disclosures could change under the current EPA and SEC leadership; compliance budgetary changes; the rise of the whistleblower; the future of the DOJ’s Yates Memo and corporate cooperation after a recent statement by the Deputy Attorney General; SEC and DOJ enforcement priorities; data protection and cybersecurity; corporate culture and the risk of Google/Uber- type lawsuits; and sustainability initiatives and international governance disclosures. I will have a short essay in the forthcoming Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law but here are a few statistics that drove me to develop my model (and admittedly ambitious) agenda:

  • According to an ACC survey of over 1,000 chief legal officers:
    • 74% say ethics and compliance issues keep them up at night
    • 77% handled at least one internal or external compliance-related investigation in their department
    • 33% made policy changes in their organizations as a result of geopolitical events.
    • 28% were targeted by regulators in the past two years
  • Board members polled in September 2016 were most concerned about the following compliance issues:
    • Regulatory changes and scrutiny may heighten
    • Cyber threats
    • Privacy/identity and information security risks
    • Failure of corporate culture to encourage timely identification/escalation of significant risk issues
  • During the 2017 proxy season, shareholders submitted 827 proposals (down from 916 in 2016):
    • 112 related to proxy access,
    • 87 related to political contributions and lobbying,
    • 35 focused on board diversity (up from 28 in 2016),
    • 34 proposals focused on discrimination or diversity-related issues (up from 16 in 2016),
    • 69 proposals related to climate change (3 of those passed, including at ExxonMobil)
    • 19 proposals focused on the gender pay gap (up from 13 in 2016)

General counsels are increasingly taking on more of a risk officer role in their companies, and compliance officers are in the thick of all of these issues. The government has also recently begun to hold compliance officers liable for complicity with company misdeeds. My advice- if it’s not against your company/school policy, take SCCE’s suggestion and hug your compliance officer. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.

September 20, 2017 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)